Paine, Thomas (1737–1809) Born in England, Paine was apprenticed to his father, a corset maker, and also tried other occupations—all without success. On the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin (whom he met in London), Paine immigrated to America in 1774, became a writer in Philadelphia, and was prompted by the revolutionary physician Dr. Benjamin Rush to write a pamphlet in support of independence from England during the intense colonial debate on the subject. Paine’s Common Sense was published on January 10, 1776, and became a runaway bestseller, swinging the debate in favor of independence. Paine became an ardent revolutionary and, between 1776 and 1783, wrote the so-called “Crisis” papers, which were invaluable in keeping the Patriot cause alive during the war.
Paley, William S. (1901–1990) Vice president of his father’s cigar business, Paley discovered the power of radio advertising, became a major advertiser, and, in 1927, invested in the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), then a fledgling radio network. The following year, he became president of CBS and, over the next half century, directed its growth into a mass media powerhouse. Paley is regarded as one of the fathers of American radio and television broadcasting.
Palmer, A. Mitchell (1872–1936) As U.S. attorney general, Palmer, on January 2, 1920, sent federal agents to round up suspected Communist sympathizers in massive raids carried out simultaneously in 33 cities. Six thousand persons, including American citizens and recent immigrants, were arrested. Palmer’s raids created the nation’s first “Red Scare,” or anti Communist witch hunt. Although 556 of those arrested were deported, most convictions arising from the raids were overturned and Palmer was ultimately discredited. His young protégé, J. Edgar Hoover, not only escaped censure, but went on to lead the agency that became the FBI.
Parker, Bonnie, and Clyde Barrow (1910–1934; 1909–1934) Barrow was a career criminal when he met Bonnie Parker in January 1930. After serving a 20-month prison term, he teamed up with her and embarked on a nearly two-year bank robbery spree in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Missouri that commanded sensational national attention. Portrayed as a romantic heroine and hero, who robbed the banks that foreclosed on many hard-working people ruined by the Great Depression, “Bonnie and Clyde” were, in fact, murderers, who killed three police officers. They themselves were gunned down at a roadblock in Gibsland, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. Their violent deaths together added to their popular legend, and they became the subject of books and a notable 1967 film by director Arthur Penn.
Parker, Charlie “Bird” (1920–1955) Charles Parker, Jr.—called Charlie Parker or, simply, “Bird”—was a jazz alto saxophonist whose bebop virtuosity and extraordinary improvisatorial imagination made him a legend. As a performer, composer, and bandleader, Parker was the single most important exponent of the bebop style of the 1940s and 1950s. If his career was legendary for its genius, his fate as a doomed heroin addict was also an icon of the world of jazz. He is widely regarded as the greatest jazz instrumentalist of all time.
Parker, Dorothy (1893–1967) Born Dorothy Rothschild, Parker was a writer for Vogue and a drama critic for Vanity Fair, which fired her in 1920 because her reviews were too caustic. Working as a freelance writer, she produced short stories and verse, which were notable for their cynicism, acerbic wit, and quotability. In the 1920s, she was the nucleus of the Algonquin Round Table, an assemblage of the “smartest” literary figures of the day—including Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, and James Thurber, among others—who gathered in the dining room of Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel, generating wit that was often retailed to the public in the pages of the New Yorker. Parker was an icon of 1920s cynical intellectualism and of female liberation.
Parker, Theodore (1810–1860) A Unitarian pastor and theologian, Parker was active in the abolition movement but exerted his most lasting influence on American religion by repudiating a great deal of Christian dogma and emphasizing instead a personal relationship with God derived from an intimate experience of nature and introspection.
Parkman, Francis (1823–1893) A prolific historical writer, Parkman is best remembered for his seven-volume history of France and England in colonial North America, covering the period through the French and Indian War. Parkman portrayed colonial American history with an epic sweep as a contest among competing civilizations: English, French, and Native American. While modern historians reject some of his interpretations, all acknowledge that he brought to the study of history an awareness of its great drama, which he skillfully conveyed to generations of readers.
Parks, Rosa (1913–2005) An African-American seamstress and early civil rights activist, Parks purposely violated a Montgomery, Alabama, city ordinance by refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. Her arrest triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted more than a year and forced the integration of the city’s buses. The boycott became the framework within which the early national civil rights movement was organized in large part under the leadership of the young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Parris, Betty (1682–1760) Elizabeth “Betty” Parris was nine years old when she fell ill with convulsions, grotesque contortions, and outbursts of nonsensical speech in 1692. She was diagnosed as having been “bewitched,” and her case triggered the infamous Salem witchcraft trials that year.
Parris, Samuel (1653–1720) The Puritan minister of Salem Village (modern Danvers), Massachusetts, Parris was the father of Betty Parris and the uncle of Abigail Williams, two young girls diagnosed as having been bewitched. Parris accused a slave, Tituba, of witchcraft and beat out a confession from her that led to general hysteria in the Salem region with many accusations of witchcraft. The affair culminated in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692.
Pastor, Tony (1837–1908) Pastor debuted at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City when he was six and was a stage entertainer until he opened his own variety theater in New York City in 1865. In 1881, he opened a second venue, the Fourteenth Street Theatre, and advertised a new kind of popular entertainment—vaudeville—which catered to ladies and family audiences, in contrast to the vulgar fare presented in other popular variety houses. Pastor’s version of vaudeville developed into the most important form of American popular entertainment before the proliferation of film and electronic media.
Patton, George Smith, Jr. (1885–1945) Patton graduated from West Point in 1909 and pioneered the use of the tank in the American army during World War I. During World War II, he helped to fashion the U.S. Army into a victorious force in North Africa, became the conqueror of Sicily, then went on to lead his Third Army in a spectacular drive across France and Germany unparalleled in U.S. military history, liberating thousands of towns and villages and capturing more than a million enemy soldiers. Patton was a legendary leader, whose difficult temperament often took him to the verge of being relieved of command—his outstanding combat record notwithstanding. His men memorialized him as “Old Blood-and-Guts.”
Paul, Alice (1885–1977) A radical suffragist, Paul was jailed three times for her activities on behalf of women’s suffrage. In 1923, she drafted and presented to Congress an equal rights amendment to the Constitution intended to ensure legal equality for women. Her campaign for passage and ratification of the amendment failed, as did subsequent attempts long after her death.
Peale, Charles Willson (1741–1827) Peale was born in Maryland, became a much sought-after portrait painter, then studied in England, returning to America at the outbreak of the revolution. Active in the independence movement, he painted portraits of the most important figures of the revolution and in 1782 opened in Philadelphia a public portrait gallery of revolutionary heroes. Four years later, he founded a museum of natural history. Peale’s Museum (later called the Philadelphia Museum) was the first major museum in the United States.
Peckinpah, Sam (1925–1984) Born David Samuel Peckinpah in Fresno, California, Peckinpah directed his first great western, Ride the High Country, in 1962. A literate take on the popular western film genre, the film featured characters in search of fortune or redemption of honor, playing out their violent stories against the backdrop of the majestic American West. These themes were developed with even greater complexity in Peckinpah’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch (1969), which also featured intricately choreographed, beautifully filmed, and masterfully edited sequences of intense yet poetic violence—for which the director was both praised and condemned.
Pei, I. M. (1917– ) Pei immigrated to the United States in 1935 and studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He rose to fame beginning in the 1950s with his magnificent, even exuberant elaboration of the austere “International Style” in such buildings as the National Center for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, Colorado), John F. Kennedy Memorial Library (Harvard University), the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), and the New York City Convention Center.
Peirce, Charles Sanders (1839–1914) Peirce possessed an intellect of tremendous scope but is best known for his work in logic and philosophy. He was a metaphysician, who evolved a theory of basic reality; he was a theoretician of the nature of chance and continuity; he was a mathematician, who contributed to the development of linear algebra; he was a logician, who was among the creators of the algebra of logic and other systems basic to modern logic; he was a psychologist, who speculated on many of the bases of human motivation; and he was a pioneering semiotician, who investigated the nature of language and meaning. Peirce even made early contributions to computer theory. Many students of intellectual history consider Peirce the single most original thinker the nation ever produced.
Penn, William (1644–1718) An English Quaker, Penn secured a charter in 1681 to found a new proprietary colony in America. Called Pennsylvania (in honor of his father), the colony offered religious tolerance (including refuge for the universally persecuted Quakers), a significant degree of democracy, and a commitment to fair and peaceful relations with the local Indians. The “Frame of Government” Penn drew up for the colony is considered a precursor of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Perot, H. Ross (1930– ) Perot made a fortune in the computer and data-processing business and used part of his wealth in 1992 to finance his independent run for the White House. He attracted an extraordinarily large following, which demonstrated the widespread dissatisfaction of the American electorate with both the Republican and Democratic parties. Even though Perot dropped out of the race from July to October, he captured 19 percent of the popular vote in November—the best performance by any independent candidate in U.S. history. Running again in 1996 as the candidate of the Reform Party (which he founded in 1995), Perot captured a diminished but still respectable 8 percent of the popular vote.
Perry, Matthew C. (1794–1858) President Millard Fillmore commissioned Perry in 1852 to lead a naval expedition to persuade Japan to open diplomatic relations with the United States. Perry concluded that the only way to end Japanese isolationism was to intimidate the government with a display of naval force. Accordingly, he boldly sailed into fortified Uraga harbor on July 8, 1853, and effectively extorted a treaty. This ushered the United States onto an equal footing with Britain, France, and Russia in the economic exploitation of Asia.
Perry, Oliver Hazard (1785–1819) During a critical phase of the War of 1812, Perry quickly constructed an inland U.S. naval fleet and on September 10, 1813, used it to defeat the Royal Navy flotilla in the Battle of Lake Erie. The victory cut off the British army’s waterborne supply route and enabled General William Henry Harrison to win on land, the crucial Battle of the Thames (in Ontario, Canada). Having triumphed on Lake Erie, Perry sent a famous dispatch to Harrison: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
Pershing, John J. (1860–1948) In 1906, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing (his nickname was conferred when he commanded a regiment of black cavalrymen) was personally promoted in one leap from captain to brigadier general by President Theodore Roosevelt. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Pershing was chosen to command the AEF, all of the land forces sent overseas to fight the war. Pershing virtually created the AEF, and he successfully resisted French and British attempts to preempt command of the force. Emerging victorious from the war, he was promoted to the specially created rank of general of the armies (six stars), the highest military rank ever conferred on an American officer.
Phillips, Wendell (1811–1884) A prominent attorney, Phillips became the most popular and persuasive anti-slavery lecturer in the years leading up to the Civil War. His oratory electrified audiences and galvanized the abolition movement, earning him a national reputation as the greatest orator of the era.
Pierce, Franklin (1804–1869) Pierce was elected president in 1852 on the Democratic ticket and served through 1857. He proved a weak chief executive, who evaded the difficult issues surrounding slavery. This contributed to the nation’s inexorable drift toward civil war.
Pike, Zebulon (1779–1813) During 1805–1807 Lieutenant Pike led important explorations into the American West. His report on the military weakness of Spanish-held Santa Fe whetted the appetite of U.S. expansionists and helped pave the way to the U.S.-Mexican War years later. Pike was killed in action during the War of 1812. Pikes Peak (in Colorado) was named in his honor.
Pinchot, Gifford (1865–1946) Pinchot was an American naturalist trained in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria in forestry techniques. His work at Biltmore, the North Carolina estate of George W. Vanderbilt, in the 1890s was the first application of scientific forestry in the United States. In 1898, Pinchot was named the first chief of the federal agency that became the U.S. Forest Service. Under Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, Pinchot instituted scientific forest development and conservation. He was one of the nation’s major environmental scientists.
Pinckney, Charles (1757–1824) A South Carolina delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, Pinckney presented a thorough plan of the federal government, which significantly influenced the Constitution. It is believed that Pinckney played a major role in shaping the style and form as well as the content of the Constitution.
Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth (1746–1825) The cousin of Charles Pinckney, C. C. Pinckney fought in the American Revolution and in 1796 was appointed U.S. minister to France. Refused recognition by the Directory (the French revolutionary government), he was joined in 1797 by John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry in an effort to establish diplomatic relations with the new government. French negotiators (in Pinckney’s correspondence called “X, Y, and Z”) solicited a bribe in return for official recognition. Pinckney indignantly refused, and the resulting “X, Y, Z Affair” triggered an undeclared naval war with France to protect U.S. neutrality rights and rights of navigation on the high seas. Pinckney’s steadfastness was a key to the defense of U.S. sovereignty in the earliest days of the republic.
Plath, Sylvia (1932–1963) Plath enjoyed early academic and literary success, but was plagued by suicidal depression. Her most characteristic mature work—confessional poems focusing on alienation, death, and suicide, with strong feminist undertones—were little appreciated in her lifetime, but were increasingly widely read within years after her suicide and came to be regarded as milestones in modern women’s literature.
Pocahontas (1595–1617) Pocahontas was the pet name (it meant “frolicsome”) of Matoaka, daughter of the important sachem Powhatan (Wahunsonacock), leader of some 30 tribes that lived near the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement of the English. Pocahontas was a young girl in 1607 when she saved the life of the colony’s military leader, Captain John Smith—reportedly laying her head atop the captive Smith’s to prevent him from being brained. Based on this incident, Pocahontas entered into romantic American folklore, literature, visual art, and even opera. She was an informal goodwill ambassador between the Indians and the colonists. She married colonist John Rolfe, with whom she traveled to England, where she was presented at the court of James I. She died in England of smallpox.
Poe, Edgar Allan (1809–1849) Long regarded as one of the nation’s most important writers, Poe struggled with poverty lifelong. His dark-hued, melodic lyrics earned him little money or recognition—although his best-known poem, “The Raven” (1845) did win a literary prize—and his short fiction, ranging from tales of terror to the first detective story (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841)—did not receive wide recognition until after his death. In addition to his poetry and fiction, Poe was a major literary critic—although his criticism was frequently colored by personal prejudice.
Polk, James K. (1795–1849) Polk was elected on the Democratic ticket in 1844 and served as president from 1845 to 1849. With the party torn among Martin Van Buren, Lewis Cass, and James Buchanan, Polk emerged as a compromise candidate. Because he was relatively obscure, he was referred to as a “dark horse.” During the Polk administration, Texas was annexed, and the United States fought the U.S.-Mexican War—referred to by those who opposed it as “Mr. Polk’s War.” As a result of victory in the war, the United States acquired the Southwest, including California.
Pollock, Jackson (1912–1956) Paul Jackson Pollock—known as Jackson Pollock—made a radical break with accepted conventions of painting by developing “action” techniques, creating painting through free-associative gestures, typically using his brushes as sticks, from which the paint was dripped onto the canvas rather than applied with the bristles. Pollock’s action paintings impress the viewer as transcriptions of pure energy, and his work is considered some of the most important in 20th century art.
Ponce de León, Juan (1460–1521) This Spanish conquistador and explorer founded Caparra, the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico, and in 1513 discovered and explored Florida. His explorations were propelled in large part by a quest for a miraculous rejuvenating natural spring, known as the fountain of youth.
Pontiac (circa 1720–1769) An Ottawa chief, Pontiac became a major intertribal leader when he organized Indians in the region of the Great Lakes to resist the encroachment of white settlers at the end of the French and Indian War. Pontiac’s Rebellion began on May 7, 1763, when he led a raid on Fort Detroit. It continued until 1766, when the intertribal alliances fell apart.
Popé (died 1692) On August 10, 1680, this medicine man from the Tewa pueblo led a meticulously planned and coordinated revolt by Native American pueblos against the Spanish overlords. The rebellion culminated in the invasion of Santa Fe (New Mexico) on August 15. The Spanish did not regain control of Santa Fe until 1692 and of all the pueblos until 1696.
Porter, Cole (1891–1964) Porter composed for the musical stage, creating tunes and lyrics of consummate wit and worldly sophistication. Many of his songs became standards, including “Night and Day,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Begin the Beguine,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Let’s Do It,” and “I Love Paris.”
Porter, Edwin S. (1869/70–1941) Born in Scotland, Porter immigrated to the United States and worked in Thomas Edison’s workshop-laboratory from 1895 to 1911. Edison, who invented all of the basic technical elements of filmmaking, chose Porter to exploit his inventions by creating films. With considerable artistic instinct and skill, Porter brought narrative drama to film and was especially adept at exploiting point of view and dramatic editing. Porter’s two major pioneering productions were the first U.S. documentary, the 1903 Life of an American Fireman, and the first true narrative film, The Great Train Robbery, also produced in 1903.
Porter, Katherine Anne (1890–1980) Texas-born Porter specialized in creating beautifully wrought, richly textured, emotionally insightful longer short stories that are, in effect, miniature novels. From the 1930s on, she enjoyed great critical acclaim, but did not command a large popular audience until the publication of her long-anticipated full-length novel, Ship of Fools, in 1962. A bestseller, it was made into a major film in 1965.
Post, Emily (1872–1960) Post was a regular contributor to magazines in the early 20th century and also wrote light fiction. In 1922, her publisher asked her to write a guide to etiquette. She produced that year Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, which was an immediate bestseller and was frequently updated. Post became an etiquette columnist and radio commentator, and she was unchallenged through much of the 20th century as the arbiter of good manners in America.
Pound, Ezra (1885–1972) Pound was a challenging modern poet who promoted the work of other modernists, including William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot. His influence on modern literature—including modern American literature—was therefore profound. During World War II, this Idaho-born poet lived in Italy and made pro-fascist broadcasts. He was arrested after the war on charges of treason and confined to a Washington, D.C. area asylum until 1958.
Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. (1908–1972) The son of a pastor and a pastor himself, Powell became the first black man to serve on the New York City Council in 1941. He went on in 1945 to become the U.S. representative from Harlem and served 11 terms in Congress as a champion of civil rights legislation. Powell was sued in the early 1960s by a woman who claimed he had wrongly accused her of collecting police graft. He was cited for contempt of court in 1966 for refusing to pay damages, and the following year the House voted to deprive him of his seat. Reelected nevertheless in 1968, he lost his House seniority and, after defeat in the 1970 Democratic primary, retired.
Powell, Colin (1937– ) Powell was the son of Jamaican immigrants and grew up in Harlem and the Bronx. He joined the army after graduating from the City College of New York in 1958, served two tours in Vietnam, then had a series of political positions in the White House and Pentagon. President Ronald Reagan appointed Powell deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1987, and in 1989 President George H. W. Bush nominated him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He came to public attention for his leading role in the Persian Gulf War (1990–1991). George W. Bush appointed him secretary of state in 2001. In 2003, Powell presented to the United Nations the American case for going to war with Iraq. He resigned at the conclusion of Bush’s first term.
Powell, John Wesley (1834–1902) Despite having lost an arm in the Civil War, Powell was an intrepid explorer of the American Southwest, especially the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. From 1871 to 1879, he led a federal geologic and geographic survey of western lands, in the process establishing many of the fundamental practices of geology. As an ethnologist, Powell published the first classification of American Indian languages. Appointed the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology (1879) and director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881–1892), Powell was also author of Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878), a major landmark in the study of ecology.
Powers, Francis Gary (1929–1977) Employed by the CIA as a pilot, Powers was captured on May 1, 1960, when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. The resulting “U-2 Affair” exacerbated the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR, prompting the cancellation of a major summit meeting between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Tried and convicted of espionage, Powers was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was exchanged in 1962 for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.
Powhatan (died 1618) Wahunsonacock, called Powhatan by the English, was the sachem of more than 30 tribes, representing 128 villages with some 9,000 inhabitants living in territory from the Potomac River to the Great Dismal Swamp. Although this powerful chief initially opposed the settlement of the English colony at Jamestown in 1607, he soon established a friendly trading relationship with it. Possibly credible legend has it that his change of heart was due to the intercession of his daughter Pocahontas. Whatever his motives, his cordial treatment of the English was critical to the survival of the struggling settlement.
Prescott, William Hickling (1796–1859) Prescott is best remembered for his monumental History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and History of the Conquest of Peru (1847). He based his work on careful reading of original documents and strict analysis of evidence. His great gift as a historian was to combine this “scientific” approach with a major literary talent to produce histories that have endured both as history and literature for more than 150 years.
Presley, Elvis (1935–1977) Presley was born to a poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi, and moved with them to Memphis when he was in his teens. He auditioned for local record producer Sam Phillips, who, in 1954, issued Presley’s version of the blues classic “That’s All Right Mama.” It was the birth of “rockabilly”—a fusion of rock and roll and country and western with the African-American blues tradition—and soon took the country by storm. On September 9, 1956, Presley sang on the Ed Sullivan Show, the most influential variety TV program of the 1950s. From that point until his death (except for an interval of military service), Presley was the most popular of rock and roll performers, achieving status as a pop culture icon—feared by parents and adored by young fans.
Pulitzer, Joseph (1847–1911) Born in Hungary, Pulitzer immigrated to the United States in 1864 to fight in the Civil War. He became a German-language reporter after the war, bought into the St. Louis paper for which he worked, sold his share at a profit, and repeated the process with another paper. By 1878, he was publishing the city’s most important (English-language) daily, and in 1883 he moved to New York, where he purchased the World and transformed it into the city’s leading paper. Pulitzer engaged in a fierce circulation war with rival William Randolph Hearst in the late 1890s, giving rise to the era of “yellow journalism.” Pulitzer established many of the practices of modern journalism. He posthumously endowed the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize for excellence in journalism and other creative fields.
Pullman George Mortimer (1831–1897) Pullman’s “Pioneer” sleeping car appeared in 1865 and transformed long-distance rail travel, creating great profit for the railroads and making Pullman a vast fortune. He became a major industrialist, who attempted to control every aspect of his employees’ lives, building the quasi-utopian town of Pullman (now a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side), in which his employees were obliged to live. Pullman’s extreme paternalism became a subject of great controversy and conflict between the forces of capital and labor.
Pynchon, Thomas (1937– ) Pynchon created novels with a strong element of science fiction and fantasy that explore the alienated human condition in modern post-industrial society. His favorite metaphors are drawn from modern physics and often center on the concept of entropy, the inevitable approach of universal chaos. His masterpiece, the 1973 Gravity’s Rainbow, set in Germany after World War II, is a strange, darkly humorous vision of a modern apocalypse. Widely acclaimed, Pynchon has remained personally aloof, as enigmatic as his novels.