F. Scott Fitzgerald or Thornton Wilder?
Donald Rumsfeld or John Foster Dulles?
Meg Whitman or Jeff Bezos?
James Madison or Woodrow Wilson?

Over the last 261 years, these and approximately 120,000 other men and women have marched out into the world as graduates of the university now known as Princeton. They have become heads of state and congressional leaders; made careers as doctors, lawyers, and business executives; forged the nation and pushed back the veil of science and discovery; won prizes, honors, and awards. 

So it might seem daring, daunting, fascinating, foolish — pick your adjective — to try to single out the 25 who have been the most influential. But where more circumspect souls might have feared to tread, PAW has rushed in. We assembled a panel of eight knowledgeable observers and asked them to pick and rank the 25 most influential Princetonians of all time. The list you see in this issue represents their conclusions.

We tried to make sure that our panelists represented a range of interests and specialties so that all areas in which people might be influential were considered. Members of the panel (find more information about them here) were Elizabeth Bogan, senior lecturer in economics; Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies; Todd Purdum ’82, national editor at Vanity Fair magazine; William Russel, the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Chemical Engineering and dean of the Graduate School; David Spergel ’82, the Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy on the Class of 1897 Foundation and chairman of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences; Emily Thompson *92, professor of history; Sean Wilentz, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era; and Michael Wood, the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

We set only a few ground rules: Virtually everyone who attended Princeton as an undergraduate or graduate student was eligible. Honorary-degree recipients were not. The object was not to select those who had the most influence on Princeton (see here for one writer’s views on that), but to explore alumni influence on the wider world. We asked our panelists to select their choices without regard to balance of any sort — not to seek, for example, a certain number of scientists or writers or minorities or graduate alumni or alumni from a particular century. The fun of the exercise, we thought, was in comparing people across disciplines and generations, then seeing where the chips fell.

To help our group get started, we prepared a list of approximately 250 Princeton graduates who have been recognized for their professional achievements. That list, available here, included the quick and the dead — philosophers and public servants, poets and scientists, anyone who had ever won a Nobel Prize, all past Madison medalists and Wilson award winners, and dozens of others who made their mark on society over the past two-and-a-half centuries. We included people who did not graduate but who attended Princeton long enough to be fairly considered Princetonians. (For example, John F. Kennedy, who left the Class of 1939 after five weeks on campus, did not qualify, but R.W. Apple ’57, the legendary New York Times reporter who was expelled twice for neglecting his studies and got his degree from Columbia, did.)

One evening in September, our panelists met over dinner at Prospect House. There, beneath the solemn gaze of George Washington in an engraving, they hashed out their list of the 25 most influential Princetonians. Each panelist brought his or her own short list of candidates, which ran to a total of almost 60 names, suggesting a diversity of opinion (though there were many overlaps). From that start, the group argued, lobbied, weighed, and cajoled. Debate was heated at times but always respectful, and the fortunes of living and long-dead Princetonians rose and fell over the course of the evening as partisans made their cases. The panelists voted and then tweaked, dismissing names and moving others up or down the list until they reached consensus.

The crux of their debate was not just ranking one person above or below another, but in defining influence. One might be tempted to define influence the way former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart defined obscenity — you know it when you see it — but we soon discovered that it was not obvious. Influential to whom, where, and for how long? What is the difference, if any, between influence and mere fame? Actor David Duchovny ’82, hero of The X-Files, is almost certainly known to more people than is Revolutionary physician and statesman Benjamin Rush 1760 (No. 7), but does that make Duchovny more influential? One can argue that if people from Peoria to Paris know who Duchovny is, then he is more influential than a long-dead figure from the 18th century. (For the record, his name recognition notwithstanding, Duchovny did not receive any votes for inclusion in the top 25.)

Early in the discussion, historian Wilentz suggested that this list really ought to be called “the 25 most significant Princetonians.” As he explained: “An artist has a certain kind of influence, but it’s much more ineffable than, say, a politician or a scientist. And if we’re talking about someone without whom the world would be very different, that’s not necessarily influential. That’s significant.” Writer Purdum ventured that the list could be called the “25 most enduring Princetonians,” which drew objections that such a list would, by definition, exclude any contemporaries. In the end it was decided that “influential” was a sufficiently elastic term. But what is it? Dean Russel — a scientist, after all — offered three criteria by which to measure influence: One who had influence was someone who “set, changed, or guided the direction of history,” who “transformed an institution,” or who “created, inspired, developed, or discovered something of worldwide importance.” Spergel, another scientist, offered his own simple yet elegant test: “The world would be a different place because this person wasn’t there.”

Influence, then, the panel concluded, means that a person changed something — or at least contributed significantly to some important change. Thus, although Bogan, the panel’s economist, nominated former U.S. Supreme Court justice Smith Thompson 1788 because of his dissent in the 1831 decision that permitted the removal of Cherokee Indians from Georgia, Thompson did not make the final list. Thompson may have been ahead of his time in his defense of Native American rights, but he was too far ahead of it for his opinion to be considered influential. Admirable, yes; influential, no.

For the panelists, agreeing on the names at the very top of the list turned out to be easy. Constitutional government is one of America’s great gifts to the world, and so it is not surprising that James Madison 1771, the primary author of the Constitution and America’s fourth president, topped the list. (Read an essay about Madison on page 37.) Alan Turing *38 (No. 2) conceived the algorithms that made computers possible, and is considered by many to be the father of computer science. (Read an essay about Turing on page 38.) Woodrow Wilson 1879, at No. 3, is perhaps best known for his advocacy of the League of Nations and the principle of national self-determination — ideas that remain very important in the world today — in addition to leading the United States through a world war. (Of course, he’s also known to the home crowd as Princeton’s 13th president, but that’s not what won him his place on the list.)

Madison’s place at the top of the all-time list was not questioned. Our panel took exception to a ranking of the “100 Most Influential Americans of All Time” in the December 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which placed Wilson at No. 10 and Madison at No. 13. PAW’s panel believed that the Atlantic’s 10 historians got it wrong, and that Madison ought to rank above Wilson. As Wilentz put it, stretching out his arms to form an imaginary scale on which to weigh the two men’s greatest accomplishments: “The Constitution of the United States. The League of Nations. Now, I ask you.”

Some of those on the list are known for their influence on practical matters; others advanced ideas. John Bardeen *36 (No. 5) got the panel’s nod for co-inventing the transistor, transforming the field of electronics. On the other hand, Richard Feynman *42 (No. 14) was a leading theoretical physicist whose work in quantum electrodynamics changed the way scientists perceive the universe. (He also participated in the development of the atomic bomb.) Political philosopher John Rawls ’43 *50 (No. 4) has been called the most articulate defender of liberalism since John Stuart Mill. Gary Becker ’51 (No. 11) won the Nobel Prize for his work in employing the tools of economics to analyze human behavior. None of these men will have his image on Mount Rushmore, yet they have changed minds around the world — and that is a fair definition of influence, the panel agreed. What seems striking is that some of those at the very top of the list — such as Madison, who not only advanced a political theory but wrote a working constitution, and Wilson, who envisioned a new world political order and presided over the country during war — combined theory and practice.

What about the influence of a writer or artist? F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 provided a case for debate. As the discussion began, Bogan admitted that she had dropped the author of This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby from her personal list on the grounds that, “When I think of influential, you have to be more than a chronicler. ... I think [Fitzgerald] described things rather than did things.”

This brought an instant retort. “I think describing is doing,” responded Wilentz. “That’s what writers do; they describe.” Moreover, he continued, “Who did more to establish an image of the United States to the world of what an era was like?” Michael Wood, an authority on 20th-century literature, joined in. “If he is a writer who matters, then he is influential,” Wood insisted. “People will always read Gatsby. There won’t be a time when they don’t.” F. Scott survived, ranking eighth.

But if Fitzgerald is in, why not Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thornton Wilder *26? Practically every high school theater group in America has done Our Town, Wilder’s play about the ordinary lives of the citizens of a New Hampshire town. “His [Wilder’s] plays are still staged, people have fun with them, there are productions still going on,” Wood said. But there were only a limited number of spaces on this list, and Wood ranked Wilder below Fitzgerald and outside the top 25. The other panelists concurred.

As a category, the creative arts did not fare well in the selection process, which suggests something about how much influence artists are perceived to exercise, at least relative to those in government and the sciences. There was some sentiment among the panelists in support of postmodern artist Frank Stella ’57 and pioneering modern composer and Princeton emeritus professor Milton Babbitt *42 *92, both of whom, like Wilder, probably would have been included in the top 50, though not the top 25. But our panel did recognize Jeffrey Moss ’63 (No. 12), the founding head writer for Sesame Street, who created the identities and anthems of some of modern childhood’s most important characters, such as Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster. (Read an essay about Moss here) That choice did face some questioning. “In the top 25? Oscar the Grouch?” Glaude asked, but Moss’ defenders argued that the show and characters he did so much to create changed American childhood.

None of Princeton’s actors made it, much to the regret of several panelists who argued in support of Jimmy Stewart ’32 on the grounds that he, too, presented an enduring image of America to the world. Bogan argued on Stewart’s behalf “because the kind of roles he played informed many Americans. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — now, he didn’t write it, but he was the actor who played the part, and that influenced a lot of people about corruption in politics and what they wanted to do about it. He continually took roles of that kind.” All true, but the panelists reluctantly concluded that Stewart’s influence fell short.

To be truly influential in the arts, apparently, it helped to have built something. Robert Venturi ’47 *50 (No. 19; read an essay about him and see examples of his work on page 43), who is generally acknowledged to have turned mainstream architecture away from Modernism, designed landmark buildings on the Princeton campus and around the world. Alfred Barr ’22 *23 (No. 21) did not construct the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but as its first director he did build its collection, which some critics say formed the canon of modern art. Madison’s classmate and friend Philip Freneau 1771 (No. 22) made the list not only for his informal title as “Poet of the Revolution,” but for publishing and editing an opposition newspaper (with the support of Madison and Thomas Jefferson) to counter the Federalists. (Read about the impressive Class of 1771 on page 46.)

A few of the names in the top 25 might be considered, at least in part, as representatives of broader cultural or social movements. Charles Scribner 1840 (No. 17) founded the Scribner publishing house, but in a sense, he shares the award with the descendants who followed him into his firm, notably Charles Scribner 1875, who nurtured the company, extended its empire, and founded Scribner’s Magazine. The magazine published important political and social commentary, including the groundbreaking photo essay by Jacob Riis that would become How the Other Half Lives, and gave new writers like Edith Wharton an important outlet for their work. This slot on the list, which recognizes contributions to American letters over several generations, goes to the family as much as an individual, the panelists said.

As Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general (and as the man who confronted Gov. George Wallace at the door of the University of Alabama), Nicholas Katzenbach ’43 (No. 16; read an interview with Katzenbach on page 54) exerted important and praiseworthy influence during a difficult time in the nation’s history. “If you’re talking about the history of the civil rights movement in the federal government,” summarized Wilentz, “Nick Katzenbach is a giant.” Katzenbach’s role in shaping government policy earned him the nod over his Justice Department colleague, John Doar ’44, who the panelists felt demonstrated immense personal courage in escorting James Meredith when Meredith tried to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi, and who calmed a mob after the assassination of Medgar Evers. While Doar’s courage may have been extraordinarily admirable, the panelists said, Katzenbach’s role was more influential.

One contentious aspect of influence was perspective. When will we know whose influence will endure and whose will fade? The story is told that when former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked to assess the impact of the French Revolution, he replied: “Too soon to tell.” That is a more cautious standard than our panelists thought necessary to adopt, however. The panelists’ list leans toward people who are influential to us now, most notably the two youngest alumni included, Wendy Kopp ’89 (No. 13), founder of Teach for America, and Jeff Bezos ’86 (No. 20), the father of Amazon.com and online retailing (who got the nod after a brief debate over the relative influence of Amazon.com versus eBay, headed by Meg Whitman ’77). The inclusion of such relatively recent graduates carries obvious risk, particularly when one considers the famous names that were left off. Teach for America is one of the largest employers of new college graduates in the country, but it was established less than 20 years ago; who knows how influential it ultimately will prove to be in changing American education? Bezos was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 1999, but given the pace at which the Internet changes, will Amazon.com still be important even a decade hence?

If this exercise demonstrated anything, it is that fame is ephemeral. In his time, there was no more famous literary critic than Edmund Wilson ’16, who started the Library of America series and was responsible for bringing writers such as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Vladimir Nabokov to the attention of American readers. But our panel concluded that Wilson’s star has dimmed, and that he no longer ranked in the top 25. Sic transit gloria mundi.

It may be a surprise that many well-known names are missing from the list. For example, longtime government official James Baker ’52, former defense secretary James Forrestal ’15, and two former CIA directors — Allen Dulles *16 and William Colby ’40 — received little support for inclusion. None of Princeton’s nine U.S. Supreme Court justices made the list. And, considering the University’s origins as a training ground for Pres-byterian clergy, it is interesting that no religious leaders made it, either. But if the spiritual life is not represented here, the pursuit of wealth is — in the persons of former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker ’49 (No. 15), billionaire venture capitalist and philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller ’32 (No. 18), and John Bogle ’51 (No. 23), founder of the Vanguard Group, one of the largest mutual funds in the world. (Bogan, the panel’s economist, argued forcefully that either Bogle or his mentor, Walter Morgan ’20, founder of the Wellington Fund, should be included because of their tremendous impact on American investing.)

History, of course, is written by the winners, and so political winners Madison and Wilson made the list while most of those who unsuccessfully sought the presidency — notably Adlai Stevenson ’22, Bill Bradley ’65, and Steve Forbes ’70 — did not. But Princeton’s most tenacious losing presidential contender — six-time Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas 1905 — was chosen as No. 24. (See page 45 for an essay about Thomas.) Though Thomas never won the White House, he did found the precursor of the American Civil Liberties Union and campaigned for liberal causes that ultimately gained public support. Thomas may have been ahead of his time, but he was a little less so than, say, Smith Thompson.

Our panel spent more time on this question than on almost any other: In order to be influential, must a person also be admirable? Aaron Burr Jr. 1772, for example, was vice president of the United States and one of the architects of what became the Democratic Party. He also killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Could he make the list? As it turns out, he did not, but his character had nothing to do with the choice. After a discussion about Burr, our panel concluded that admirability should not play a role.

Which brings us to the tie at No. 25, the last slot on the list, which was awarded jointly to two of the least likely bedfellows, Donald Rumsfeld ’54 and Ralph Nader ’55. Both are tremendously controversial and deeply unpopular in some quarters, Rumsfeld for his role in directing the Iraq war and Nader for his third-party run for the presidency in 2000, which many people believe cost Al Gore the White House.

It is unfair to define Nader’s influence solely in terms of his impact on the 2000 presidential election. He is, after all, the father of the consumer-protection movement in the United States, the goad who helped to spur creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and the Environmental Protec-tion Agency. Every car sold in America today contains seat belts and air bags, largely due to Nader’s hectoring.

Along very different lines, Rumsfeld, the only two-time defense secretary in American history, has exerted broad influence on the direction of national life in recent years, panel members noted. He is one of the principal architects of the Iraq war, the outcome of which remains in doubt but which seems certain to cast a shadow across American politics for years to come. Rumsfeld, of course, has a long record in public life, having served as a congressman, ambassador to NATO, and White House chief of staff; though it is little remembered now, he also administered President Nixon’s ill-fated wage and price controls. Having one’s fingerprints on both the economy of the 1970s and America’s military adventures after Sept. 11 — now, that’s a résumé.

Our panel felt that the two belonged in the top 25, and also deserved to share their slot. But it was not an easy step for all to take. “I find it beautiful in a certain sense,” mused Glaude, “but at the same time, at the substantive level, I’m wondering what we’re doing.”

“Nader did a great thing once,” Wilentz said. “He had tremendous impact. But that was one thing. Everyone else [on the list] had a more pervasive and long-standing influence. I’m sensitive to the fact that the outside world might see it [the joint selection of Nader and Rumsfeld] as a goof, and I don’t want to come off as a goofy committee.” Wood said that “it would look crazily interesting that a committee could sit there and put these two guys together, because it would show that we did not have an agenda.” Whatever their personal opinions of the two, in the end, our panelists could not deny Rumsfeld’s and Nader’s influence. Do they deserve to be ranked together? Does each deserve to be ranked higher or lower? Perhaps more than anywhere else on the list, this ranking shows how hard it is to gauge influence without the perspective of time.

Such a list reveals things about the institution from which it is drawn. This list is heavily weighted toward those who graduated between 1900 and 1950 — 13 of the total 26. Three graduated in the 18th century, one in the first half of the 19th century, two in the second half, and seven in the second half of the 20th century. “That reflects something about Princeton, actually,” said Wilentz. “Princeton was not at its high point in the 19th century. And Wilson did change things [as University president], and things got better in the 20th century. [These rankings] actually reflect the pace of the institution.”

The list also is weighted heavily toward, let’s face it, dead white males. All of the 26 people selected are white, 25 are male, and 15 are dead. Only in recent decades has Princeton included women or minorities in significant numbers; the panelists noted that they have not had the time to fully exert their influence on the world. Their absence from the list is the nation’s loss, as well as Princeton’s. Near the end of the discussion, Purdum brought up Paul Robeson, who as a black man in the early 20th century had no chance to attend Princeton; he attended Rutgers University and became one of the best-known artists and activists of his time. If Princeton had admitted Robeson, “instead of forcing a guy who was born in this town to go up the road to New Brunswick and become a Rhodes Scholar, [this list] would already look a lot different,” said Purdum.

“What’s so striking about the list as I look at it: It’s such the Old Princeton,” Glaude observed. “It just screams Princeton’s history. As we generate the list, we’re offering a way of understanding this place and its journey.” (Read an essay by Glaude on page 56.) Certainly the list will look different if it is done again half a century from now. As historian Emily Thompson contemplated the rankings, she said, “It’s on the cusp of change.”

Purdum also pointed out the seeming incongruity of Princeton’s ability to provide a place where utterly incompatible people could thrive simultaneously. “One of the things that has always amazed me,” he observed, “is that Princeton, even a hundred years ago, was a place that in 1905 could produce Norman Thomas; in 1908, John Foster Dulles; in 1954, Donald Rumsfeld; in 1955, Ralph Nader.”

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW's senior writer.