Abbey, Edward (1927–1989) Novelist, journalist, lecturer, and university professor “Cactus Ed” Abbey wrote about the American West and the environmental problems created by human exploitation of the region. Abbey often called for radical methods to remedy environmental ills. His 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, about a group of environmental vigilantes, inspired the founding of the Earth First! organization.
Abernathy, Ralph David (1926–1990) A close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Abernathy was a key activist in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956, which began when Rosa Parks refused to yield to a city ordinance segregating public transportation. After King’s assassination in 1968, Abernathy became leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and carried on the fight for racial equality.
Acheson, Dean (1893–1971) A brilliant graduate of Yale University and of Harvard Law School and private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Acheson, as undersecretary of state from 1945 to 1947, persuaded the Senate to approve U.S. membership in the newly created United Nations. He was the dominant force in shaping the Cold War policy dubbed in 1947 the “Truman Doctrine,” which pledged economic and military assistance to any nation fighting the expansion of Communism. With Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Acheson formulated and promoted the Marshall Plan, for the post World War II relief and rebuilding of Europe.
Adams, Abigail (1774–1818) Married to John Adams on October 25, 1764, Abigail advised her husband, supported the Revolution of which he was a prime architect, and took on the solo management of the family farm and John’s business affairs, not only preserving but increasing the family fortune. As her husband began work with Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence, Abigail asked him to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”
Adams, Ansel (1902–1984) This photographer’s meticulously crafted large-format photographic landscapes of the American West—especially of the nation’s great National Parks—awakened in many Americans both a love for the photographic art and the wild beauty of the continent’s natural environment.
Adams, Henry (1838–1918) Great grandson of John Adams, Henry Adams was a journalist, historian, novelist, and educator whose 1906 autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, presented himself as the typical man of the dawning 20th century, struggling to move from a world defined by faith and custom into one both shaped and torn by science and technology, a world in which absolute certainty had yielded to relativism and doubt. The book is one of the great spiritual and intellectual testaments of American literature.
Adams, John (1735–1826) The son of a shoemaker and farmer, Adams became a highly successful lawyer in Massachusetts and was among the first great champions of American independence. He was a leading member of the Continental Congress (1774–1777), author of his state’s constitution (1780), signer of the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution (1783), first American ambassador to Britain (1785–88), vice president under George Washington (1789–97), and the nation’s second president (1797–1801). A radical in the Revolution, Adams was a conservative force after it.
Adams, John Quincy (1767–1848) Son of John Adams, J. Q. Adams was a formidable diplomat who, as secretary of state under President James Monroe, formulated the Monroe Doctrine, by which the president served notice on all European powers that any attempt to colonize or interfere with any state in the Western Hemisphere would be treated as an attack on the United States. As a president, Adams was a visionary, who proposed creating a national university and a national astronomical observatory, creating a federal trust for the western territories, and using federal funds to build national roads. Unique among U.S. presidents, Adams went on to serve in the House of Representatives from 1831 until his death, taking a strong stand against slavery.
Adams, Samuel (1722–1803) Bostonian Sam Adams inherited a one-third interest in his father’s prosperous brewery and ran it into the ground. Although incapable of managing money, Adams was highly skilled at politics, founding the Sons of Liberty, the most influential and radical of Boston’s many political clubs. In 1765, Adams organized Massachusetts’ opposition to the oppressive Stamp Act, thereby sowing the seeds of revolution. After 1770, Adams was chief architect of intercolonial “committees of correspondence,” which coordinated the developing revolution, and in 1773, was the prime instigator of the Boston Tea Party. Adams helped mastermind the 1781 Articles of Confederation, precursor of the Constitution.
Addams, Jane (1860–1935) In 1889, Addams and her friend Ellen Starr founded Hull House in the immigrant slums of Chicago. This institution offered hot meals, child care services, tutoring in English, and many classes in vocational and other subjects—all with the goal of tending to the physical and intellectual needs of the community as well as creating a community in which residents themselves worked together to improve their lives. In 1931, Addams became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She also worked vigorously for labor laws to protect children and women and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Adler, Dankmar (1844–1900) Adler immigrated to the United States from Prussia in 1854 and settled in Detroit, where he began his study of architecture in 1857. He then moved to Chicago, worked as a draftsman, and, in 1881, partnered with Louis Sullivan to create Adler & Sullivan, the most famous and influential firm in American architecture, which, among other things, brought the skyscraper to prominence as the great characteristic American building style.
Adonis, Joe (1902–1972) Born Giuseppe Antonio Doto in Naples, this supremely vain Mafioso took the name Joe Adonis when he rose to power in the New York gangs. Finally brought before the Senate’s Kefauver crime committee, he became the poster boy of American organized crime and was deported to Italy on January 3, 1956, where he settled into a lavish Neapolitan villa—until Italian police picked him up for questioning in 1972. He died in their custody of (according to them) a heart attack.
Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe (1807–1873) Swiss-born Agassiz immigrated to the United States in 1846 and became professor of natural history at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. One of the great scientists of the 19th century, Agassiz established a museum of comparative zoology at Harvard and opened the field of ecology to generations of scientists. His teaching method, radical in its day, emphasized personal contact with nature rather than instruction from books and lectures.
Agnew, Spiro T. (1918–1996) The son of Greek immigrants, Agnew became governor of Maryland in 1967, then accepted nomination for the vice presidency in 1968, earning wide public recognition for his alliterative speeches denouncing anti-Vietnam War protesters and other opponents of the Nixon administration as “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” In 1973, he was accused of extortion, bribery, and income-tax evasion while governor of Maryland. He resigned as vice president on October 10, 1973, pleaded no contest to a tax charge, paid a $10,000 fine and “served” three years of unsupervised probation.
Albright, Madeleine (1937– ) With her family, Albright fled her native Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation (she learned late in life that her family was Jewish) and earned degrees from Wellesley College and Columbia University (M.A. and Ph.D). President Bill Clinton appointed her ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, then secretary of state in 1997.
Alcott, Amos Bronson (1799–1888) Innovative educator, vegetarian, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s rights, Alcott developed with Ralph Waldo Emerson the Transcendentalist school of philosophy, which sought to penetrate to higher spiritual truths by the close study of the natural world. This philosophy profoundly influenced American literature and art throughout most of the 19th century.
Alcott, Louisa May (1832–1888) Second daughter of the Transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott realized that her highly spiritual but totally impractical father was bringing the family to financial ruin; she therefore embarked on a career as an author of books for young people, producing a string of hits, including Little Women (1868–1869), about the coming of age of four daughters during the era of the Civil War. Frail and overworked, Alcott died just two days after her father.
Alger, Horatio (1832–1899) The son of a Unitarian minister, Alger graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors from Harvard University in 1852 and enrolled in Harvard Divinity School. He preached until 1866, when he was forced out of his Brewster (Massachusetts) pulpit by charges of sexual misconduct with local boys. Alger fled to New York City and began writing books about desperately poor lads who, by virtue of hard work and courage—“pluck and luck”—rise to great wealth. During three decades, he wrote more than 100 enormously successful rags-to-riches novels purveying the profoundly influential mythology of anything-is-possible in America.
Ali, Muhammad (1942– ) One of the greatest athletes in history, Ali was a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion. He was also a compelling champion of civil rights, a protester against the Vietnam War, and a dedicated member of the Black Muslims (Nation of Islam). Born Cassius Clay, he was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and encouraged by a local white police officer, Joe Martin, to train at a neighborhood gym. Clay went on to win an Olympic gold medal at age 18 (which he later renounced in protest over racism in the United States) and went on to a spectacular professional career. Influenced by Malcolm X, he converted to Islam (as a “Black Muslim”) and stirred controversy by adopting a Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. In 1966, during the Vietnam War, he refused to accept conscription in the U.S. Army and was stripped of his heavyweight title. His many supporters saw this as a bold act of civil disobedience.
Allen, Ethan (1738–1789) This rambunctious Vermonter fought in the French and Indian War, then raised a local militia called the Green Mountain Boys (1770), which he led in the capture of British Fort Ticonderoga, New York (May 10, 1775) during the revolution. A subsequent attempt to take Montreal (September 1775) failed miserably.
Altgeld, John Peter (1847–1902) As Democratic governor of Illinois (1893–1897), Altgeld reformed the state’s penal system and promoted strict child labor laws, but when he courageously pardoned (June 26, 1893) German-American anarchists unjustly condemned to death for involvement in Chicago’s Haymarket Riot of May 4, 1886 (in which seven Chicago policemen were killed), he destroyed his political career. Out of office, he returned to the private practice of law with his partner, Clarence Darrow.
Ames, Oakes (1804–1873) At 16, Ames took over his family’s modest shovel-manufacturing business and transformed it into a multimillion-dollar business triumph, for which he became nationally known as the “Ace of Spades.” Anxious to complete the floundering transcontinental railroad, Abraham Lincoln asked Ames to oversee financing the massive project. The result was the founding of Crédit Mobilier, whose investors essentially paid themselves to build the railroad at inflated prices. The Union Pacific-Central Pacific got built, but the Crédit Mobilier scandal destroyed Ames’ reputation.
Anastasia, Alberto (1902–1957) Emigrating from Italy in 1919, Anastasia became the chief executioner of the Giuseppe Masseria gang, then founded “Murder, Inc.,” an underworld murder-for-hire enterprise. By the late 1940s he was boss of one of New York’s infamous Five Families of organized crime—until he himself was gunned down in a barber’s chair at the city’s Park Sheraton Hotel.
Anderson, “Bloody Bill” (1840–1864) After one of his sisters was killed and another crippled in the collapse of the Kansas City jail in which Union forces held them, Anderson (and 100 men under his command) joined William C. Quantrill’s Confederate raiders in rampaging through Kansas. His most infamous deed was the brutal murder in Centralia, Missouri, of 24 unarmed Union soldiers. When 150 Union cavalrymen gave chase, Anderson and his gang ambushed them, killing and scalping 116, then cutting off noses and ears as souvenirs.
Anderson, Marion (1897–1993) Born in Philadelphia, Anderson earned fame in the black community as a church singer. She went on to study classical voice, and performed in opera houses and concert halls throughout Europe, only to be turned down in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when she sought to perform at Washington, D.C.’s DAR-owned Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt promptly resigned from the DAR, and persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange a free outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson performed on Easter Sunday to an audience of 75,000.
Anthony, Susan B. (1820–1906) Born into a politically and socially progressive Quaker family, Anthony became deeply committed to the abolition movement before the Civil War. She was also active in the temperance movement and then in the cause of women’s suffrage after meeting Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Rebuffed in 1852 when she attempted to speak at a male-dominated temperance meeting in Albany, she immediately organized a rival Woman’s New York State Temperance Society and used the organization to campaign for women’s rights.
Armour, Philip (1832–1901) A Chicago meat packer, Armour innovated mass slaughtering and butchering techniques, recycled waste products, perfected the canning of meat, and pioneered the use of refrigerated transportation—even exporting meat to Europe. He used his enormous profits for philanthropy, founding in Chicago the Armour Mission and the Armour Institute of Technology, later called the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Armstrong, Louis (1901–1971) Born poor in New Orleans, trumpeter and vocalist Armstrong was one of the jazz pioneers who brought the music up North—and to the world at large. He transformed jazz from band music to a popular art form suited to intense and exuberant solo expression.
Armstrong, Neil (1930– ) Ohio-born Armstrong got his pilot’s license at age 16 and went on to become a naval aviator with an academic background in aeronautical engineering. He flew in the Korean War (earning three Air Medals) and in 1962 joined the U.S. space program. On July 16, 1969, Armstrong (with Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins) ascended in Apollo 11 and, four days later, at 4:18 p.m. (EDT), Armstrong piloted the lunar landing module Eagle to the moon’s surface. At 10:56 p.m. (EDT), July 20, 1969, he descended Eagle’s ladder, planted his foot in the lunar dust, and broadcasted: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Arnold, Benedict (1741–1801) Born in Norwich, Connecticut, Arnold served as a teenager in the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and, during the American Revolution (1775–1783), compiled a brilliant combat record, but became embittered when he was passed over for promotion. In 1779, he married Margaret Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia Loyalist. Accustomed to affluence, his bride encouraged Arnold to spend freely, and he was soon buried in debt. Arnold saw the British as a means of gaining both military promotion and ready cash. He offered them the plans of Patriot fortifications at West Point, New York. After his treachery was discovered, Arnold was commissioned a brigadier general in the British army and caused havoc in Virginia and his native Connecticut.
Astaire, Fred (1899–1987) Born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, Astaire started dancing in vaudeville at age four, then teamed with his sister, Adele. He made a screen test for MGM in 1932, eliciting from studio head Louis B. Meyer the comment, “Can’t act, can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Despite this, he was cast in Dancing Lady (1933) then was teamed with Ginger Rogers in RKO’s Flying Down to Rio. The picture launched his cinematic dancing career, which extended into the late 1950s and featured a uniquely elegant tap style in which Astaire seemingly danced on air.
Astor, John Jacob (1763–1848) Born in Waldorf, Germany, Astor opened a fur shop in New York City in 1786, having “learned” the fur trade at sea, on the ship that brought him to America. A boldly energetic entrepreneur, he sent fur traders to the far corners of the North American continent, creating the American Fur Company—the nation’s first business monopoly—in the process amassing a great fortune (which financed the building of much of early 19th-century New York City) and motivating the exploration and initial settlement of the Far West.
Attucks, Crispus (1723?–1770) Almost nothing is known about the life of Attucks, except that he was a black man (perhaps partly Natick Indian) and very likely had been a fugitive from slavery since 1750. In 1770, he became the first of five Americans killed (three died instantly, two died later of their wounds) in the confrontation between British soldiers and Bostonians known as the “Boston Massacre” of March 5, 1770. This fugitive slave is generally counted as the first to fall in the cause of liberty.
Audubon, John James (1785–1851) Audubon was born in Santo Domingo (modern Haiti) and lived for a time in France before he immigrated to the United States in 1803. He pursued various business ventures in the States, but his true passion was studying, drawing, and painting birds. His masterwork, The Birds of America, based on firsthand exploration and observation, was published between 1827 and 1838 with an extraordinary five-volume text titled Ornithological Biography accompanying it. His work is treasured by scientists as well as lovers of art and birds, and he was one of the first Americans to receive international acclaim for cultural and scientific achievements.
Austin, Stephen F. (1793–1836) In 1821, Moses Austin (1767–1821) secured a land grant from Mexico to establish a colony in the Mexican state of Texas. He died before the project began, and it was his son, Stephen, who founded in 1822 a colony of several hundred families on the Brazos River. This became the core of the American settlement of Texas, which resulted ultimately in the colony’s war for independence (1836) and the United States-Mexico War (1846–1848).