Bacon, Nathaniel (1647–1676) Bacon, a Virginia planter who advocated unlimited territorial expansion of the colony, led what some have labeled the “first American revolution,” an unauthorized military expedition against the Indians in 1676. When Governor William Berkeley opposed him on the grounds that it would trigger a major Indian war, Bacon rose against him and the Virginia House of Burgesses. He attracted a substantial popular following, but succumbed to disease at the very height of the rebellion, causing the movement to collapse.
Baez, Joan (1941– ) The daughter of a physicist, Baez was at the forefront of the “folk revival” of the 1960s, capturing a new, youthful audience for traditional American music. Through this music, she protested racial injustice and the Vietnam War. Baez was in the vanguard of “hippie” culture.
Baker, Josephine (1906–1975) After growing up fatherless and poor in St. Louis, Baker toured with a Philadelphia dance troupe at age 16, then broke into Broadway. She went to Paris in 1925 and created a sensation with her “danse sauvage.” Becoming a French citizen in 1937, she worked with the resistance and Red Cross during World War II and also entertained Allied troops. After the war, Baker adopted babies of various nationalities to create what she called a “rainbow tribe…an experiment in brotherhood.”
Bakker, Jim (1941– ) Bakker was born James Orson in Muskegon, Michigan, and took the last name of his wife and partner Tammy Faye Bakker when he began his rise as a preacher and evangelist. He founded the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, which grew into an internationally popular and influential television ministry, and Bakker became famous as a “televangelist.” In 1989, he was convicted on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy for bilking hundreds of thousands of contributors of millions of dollars. Released from prison in 1994, he started a new television show in 2003.
Baldwin, James (1924–1987) Born into poverty in Harlem, Baldwin became a revivalist preacher at age 14, graduated from high school, and embarked on a period of self-education that led to his first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell it on the Mountain(1953), the first of many eloquently incisive works dealing with race in America. Baldwin emerged not only as a major literary talent, but a stirring voice in the Civil Rights movement.
Ball, Lucille (1911–1989) Ball started her career in film, but truly entered the American consciousness in 1951 as the screwball wife of a nightclub bandleader on I Love Lucy. From 1951 to 1955—the original run of the show—I Love Lucy commanded two-thirds of America’s televiewers.
Baltimore, George Calvert, First Baron (1578/79–1632) Persecuted as a Catholic in England, Baron Baltimore was also spurned in the new American colony of Virginia, so petitioned King Charles I for a grant on Chesapeake Bay, where he could found a refuge for Catholics. He pleaded his case eloquently, but died before the grant was made. It was left to his son actually to found the colony—an important early step in what would become an American tradition of religious freedom.
Bari, Judi (1949–1997) A long-time political and social activist, Bari began working as a carpenter in Northern California. While building luxury homes with old-growth redwood, she became concerned about the future of the redwood forest and joined the radical environmentalist organization Earth First! She enlisted the aid of the loggers themselves to stop reckless and rapacious logging practices and organized a mass non-violent protest called Redwood Summer, which resulted in the preservation of Headwaters Forest, the last unprotected redwood wilderness in California and prompted many logging companies to end the practice of redwood clearcutting.
Barnum, Phineas T. (1810–1891) Just 15 when his father died, Barnum had to support his mother and five siblings. He started publishing a newspaper in Danbury, Connecticut, and was arrested for libel three times. To him, this proved the potential profitability of sensationalism and in 1834, having moved to New York, he earned notoriety—and cash—presenting one Joice Heth, an elderly black woman, as the 161-year-old nurse to George Washington. This exhibition evolved into such attractions as the Barnum Museum, spectacular concerts, and, of course, a three-ring circus in partnership with James A. Bailey. The Barnum and Bailey Circus was billed, characteristically, as the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Barton, Clara (1821–1912) Born in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Barton discovered her life’s work when, beginning at age 11, she nursed her brother through a two-year convalescence from injuries sustained in a bad fall. During the Civil War, she persuaded the military establishment to allow her to work as a battlefield nurse. The soldiers called her the “Angel of the battlefield.” In 1870, while touring Europe, Barton became involved in the International Red Cross movement and, on her return to the United States in 1873, worked toward creating an American Red Cross, which she founded in 1877.
Bartram, William (1699–1777) A self-educated naturalist, Bartram counted Benjamin Franklin among his best friends and earned an appointment as royal botanist for the American colonies. His pioneering work included scientific expeditions into the Alleghenies, Carolinas, and other areas of the continent, and he was the first American to hybridize flowering plants, creating near Philadelphia an internationally renowned botanical garden. Bartram’s son, also named William, often accompanied his father and published in 1791 Travels, a masterpiece of literary scientific writing.
Baruch, Bernard (1870–1965) Starting out as a Wall Street office boy, Baruch became wealthy as a stock market speculator and was appointed chairman of the War Industries Board by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. After the victory, he served as Wilson’s top adviser in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Baruch later served President Franklin Roosevelt as an adviser during World War II and was instrumental after that war in formulating United Nations policy regarding the control of atomic energy.
Beamer, Todd (1968–2001) A New Jersey resident who worked for the Oracle software company, Beamer was one of 37 passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 out of Newark and bound for San Francisco. When Islamic terrorists hijacked the airliner as part of a cluster of suicide attacks in which hijacked planes were crashed into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Beamer and other passengers fought back, attempting to wrest control of the airplane from the terrorists. Over an open cell phone connection, Beamer was heard to say “Let’s roll,” apparently as a signal to the other passengers. The phrase became a verbal icon of heroic resistance on this day. Beamer, the other passengers and crew, as well as the hijackers were killed when Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
Beard, Charles A. and Mary R. (1874–1948 and 1876–1958) The Beards met and married as college students and, both together and separately, wrote groundbreaking works of American history and social history, including the coauthored Rise of American Civilization (1927), perhaps the most influential work of American history published in the 20th century. Both of the Beards were lifelong activists for liberal social causes, and Mary Beard was a pioneering scholar of women’s history.
Beecher, Catharine (1800–1878) Eldest daughter of revivalist preacher Lyman Beecher, Catharine Beecher worked to advance the cause of public education in America and to define and establish the role of women in American society. Although she was a fierce advocate of equal rights for women, her most influential book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), was an effort to define and standardize homemaking practices and to exalt domestic values, founded on the proposition that a woman’s place is in the home—the arena from which she could most profoundly influence American society.
Beecher, Henry Ward (1813–1887) The eighth of the thirteen children of revivalist preacher Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher earned national renown for his oratorical eloquence and his enlightened, even scientific approach to religion and society, which included advocacy of woman suffrage, the theory of evolution, and scientifically based analysis and criticism of the Bible.
Belasco, David (1853–1931) Either as playwright or producer, Belasco was associated with no fewer than 347 plays. The vast majority were undistinguished as literature, but were great commercial successes. The association of his name with an actor or a play guaranteed a full house. He innovated production techniques, emphasizing sensational realism, lavish production values, and special effects (mostly with lighting). Routinely transforming unknown actors into stars, Belasco pioneered American show business as truly Big Business.
Bell, Alexander Graham (1847–1922) Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Bell immigrated to Canada and then to the United States, where he worked on developing and popularizing his father’s innovations in teaching the deaf and mute to speak. Bell was well established as a pioneering audiologist when he began working on a means of transmitting sound by electricity. The result in 1876 was the telephone, patented on March 7, 1876. Bell prevailed through a blizzard of patent suits, became wealthy (as principal stockholder of the Bell Telephone Company), then continued upon a life of invention, creating the photophone (which transmitted sound via light), conducting medical research, continuing to innovate techniques for teaching speech to the deaf, improving Edison’s phonograph, experimenting with flight, developing the principles of sonar detection, and creating a hydrofoil craft that set a 70-mile-per-hour speed record in 1919.
Bellamy, Edward (1850–1898) Son of a Baptist minister, Bellamy was strongly moved by social inequality and the plight of the poor. In 1888, he published Looking Backward, a novel set in Boston in the year 2000 that depicted America under a utopian socialism built on cooperation, brotherhood, and industry suited to human need. The book was a million-selling bestseller and catapulted Bellamy to international celebrity. Visionary and often naïve, his utopianism had a powerful effect on late 19th-century reform and Progressive politics.
Bellow, Saul (1915–2005) Born in Quebec of Russian-Jewish émigré parents, Bellow was raised in the poor neighborhoods of Montreal and Chicago and began to write realistic, darkly comic novels in which characters struggle to find purpose and ethical stability in a world alternately indifferent and entangling. Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 and was a distinguished university professor.
Benjamin, Judah (1811–1884) Born in St. Croix, Judah was taken to Charleston, South Carolina, in his early youth and became an American citizen. He practiced law and became the first professing Jew elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852 (he was reelected 1858). An advocate of slavery, he left the Senate when South Carolina seceded from the Union and was named attorney general in the Confederate government, then secretary of war, and, finally, secretary of state (February 7, 1862). He fled to England after the Civil War, set up a law practice there, and in 1872 rose to become a queen’s counsel.
Bennett, James Gordon (1795–1872) Born in Scotland, Bennett immigrated to American in 1819, taught school, then worked as a journalist. On May 6, 1835, he founded The New York Herald, printing it in a cellar. He was aggressive in gathering news, which ranged from the first Wall Street financial article ever printed (June 13, 1835) to sensational reports of fires, murders, and war. He developed many of the techniques of modern reporting, and he was the first newspaper publisher to make extensive use of the telegraph. He illustrated his paper extensively and even included a society page.
Benton, Thomas Hart (1889–1975) Missouri-born Benton was the son of a famous Congressman. He worked as a newspaper cartoonist as a young man, then studied serious art in Europe and at the Art Institute of Chicago. Turning his back on the prevailing Modernist styles, he traveled through the rural South and Midwest, capturing people and landscapes and emerging as the foremost of the Regionalists, who transformed the humble American scene into memorable art.
Berle, Milton (1908–2002) Born Milton Berlinger in New York, Berle earned his living as a vaudevillian, movie actor (in silent films and talkies), nightclub comic, and marginally successful radio comedian until he was tapped in 1948 to host the Texaco Star Theatre on the fledgling medium of television. Berle proved to be a comic sensation, perfectly suited to “the tube” and so popular that his presence drove sales of television sets and was instrumental in establishing the medium. He was justly dubbed “Mr. Television.”
Berlin, Irving (1888–1989) Born Israel Baline in a part of Russia that is now Belarus, Berlin was the son of a Jewish cantor, who immigrated with his family to New York in 1893. Berlin worked as a street singer after his father died in 1896 and wrote his first song in 1907. Despite a lack of formal musical education, Berlin emerged as a leader in the creation of the American popular song and the Broadway musical. He is widely considered the greatest of American popular songwriters.
Bernays, Edward L. (1891–1995) Born in Vienna—a nephew of Sigmund Freud—Bernays came to the United States when he was a year old, earned a degree in agriculture, became the editor of a medical journal, tried his hand at producing plays, then went on to create the great American public relations industry by harnessing psychology and other social sciences to shape public opinion at the behest of various clients.
Bernstein, Carl (1944– ) With Bob Woodward, Bernstein made journalism history—and changed American history—with investigative reporting in the Washington Post of the Watergate break-in, which led directly to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. With Woodward, he also coauthored a book on Watergate, All the President’s Men (1974), and an inside account of the collapse of the Nixon presidency, The Final Days (1976).
Bernstein, Leonard (1918–1990) Handsome and charismatic, Bernstein earned international fame as a conductor (especially of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969) and a composer, who achieved great success in musical theater (On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story, and others) and in classical composition. Bernstein was also an accomplished pianist and an influential musical educator, host of a distinguished televised series of “Young People’s Concerts,” and the author of two important texts, The Infinite Variety of Music (1966) and The Unanswered Question (1976), taken from his 1973 Harvard lecture series.
Berrigan, Daniel (1921– ) Inspired in part by his activist brother Philip (also a Catholic priest), Daniel Berrigan wrote poems and essays as a means of social protest against injustice and war (his was one of the most eloquent voices in protest of the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s). He defined the role of the clergy in the struggle for social justice.
Berryman, John (1914–1972) Berryman had a distinguished career as a professor of English at Wayne State University, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Minnesota while also developing a unique style of surreal confessional poetry into which he wove a profound understanding of American history and mythology. Some have called Berryman a 20th-century Walt Whitman.
Bethune, Mary McLeod (1875–1955) Born in Maysville, South Carolina, one of 17 children of former slaves, Bethune sought an education at the Maysville Presbyterian Mission School, the Scotia Seminary, and the Moody Bible Institute, then founded in 1904 the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, which later became Bethune Cookman College. Bethune founded the National Association of Colored Women and during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt served as director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration. Later, she was a consultant on interracial affairs and understanding at the conference that created the charter of the United Nations.
Beverley, Robert (circa 1673–1722) A Virginia plantation owner, Beverley wrote The History and Present State of Virginia in 1705 to promote the further settlement of his colony. The book is a minor literary masterpiece and was one of the first internationally popular works by an American author.
Bierstadt, Albert (1830–1902) Bierstadt was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, but made his career in America, earning international renown for his epic canvases depicting the wonders of the American West, including (most famously) The Rocky Mountains(1863). Based on sketches he made in the field, the works were painted in his New York studio, became icons of a romantic vision of western magnificence, and earned the artist a fortune.
Big Foot, Chief (circa 1825–1890) Called by the Miniconjous Si Tanka (Spotted Elk) and known to whites as Big Foot, this chief was a diplomat who sought peace among the tribes and peace with whites. He was killed by Seventh Cavalry troopers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, while on a mission to avert a final war between the whites and the Sioux.
Billings, William (1746–1800) A tanner by vocation, Billings was a self-taught musician and composer who wrote hymns, anthems, and psalms of great vitality. His tunes have become part of the American folk tradition, and he is generally considered America’s first important composer.
Billy the Kid (1859/60–1881) Born Henry McCarty (or possibly William H. Bonney, Jr.) in the slums of New York City, Billy the Kid became an outlaw during the range wars of New Mexico and earned, even during his brief life, a legendary reputation as a gunfighter, credited by many sources with having killed 27 men before Sheriff Pat Garrett killed him in his 21st year.
Birdseye, Clarence (1886–1956) Trained as a naturalist, Birdseye became a fur trader in Labrador, working there in 1912 and 1916. He observed that many Labradoreans froze food during the winter as a way of preserving it. This inspired him to experiment with quick-freezing method, and in 1924, he became a founder of General Seafoods Company, marketing his first quick-frozen foods in 1929. Almost single-handedly, Birdseye created the frozen food industry.
Bishop, Hazel (1906–1998) Bishop graduated from Barnard College in 1929, did graduate work at Columbia University, and became a chemist in a dermatologic laboratory and then for two oil companies. Experimenting at home, she created in 1949 a novel long-lasting lipstick, which she advertised as “kiss-proof.” This became the basis of Hazel Bishop, Inc., one of the best-known names in American cosmetics.
Black Hawk (1767–1838) Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak—Black Hawk—was chief of the so-called “British Band” of the Sauk and Fox tribe of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. His resistance to white settlement of Indian land ceded to the government by a fraudulent 1804 treaty triggered the Black Hawk War of 1832, which resulted in the massacre of many of his followers.
Black, Hugo (1886–1971) As associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1937 to 1971, Black championed the Bill of Rights as an absolute guarantee of civil liberties. Equally important was his argument that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the authority of the Bill of Rights to state governments as well as the federal government, neither of which was to be allowed to impinge upon individual freedom.
Blackmun, Harry A. (1908–1999) Associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1970 to 1994, Blackmun earned his greatest fame as a jurist when he wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), declaring that a woman’s right to abortion is guaranteed by the constitutional right to privacy. The decision unleashed decades of national controversy.
Blaine, James G. (1830–1893) Republican congressman and senator, Blaine was secretary of state under President James A. Garfield and, again, under Benjamin Harrison. In this post, he called for an inter-American conference to prevent wars in the Western Hemisphere. This became the Pan-American Conference, which Blaine chaired and which launched the Pan-American Movement—a set of alliances and reciprocity treaties between the United States and the countries of Latin-America.
Blake, Eubie (1883–1983) James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was born in Baltimore and earned fame as an African American ragtime composer and performer. His longtime partnership with lyricist-singer Noble Sissle began in 1915 and produced a series of musicals, including the 1921 Shuffle Along, generally regarded as the first American musical written, produced, and directed by blacks. His most famous song is “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
Blackstone, Harry (1885–1965) Born Harry Bouton in Chicago, “The Great Blackstone” began his stage career as a teenage magician and became the most famous magician of his day, mentor to a generation of magicians.
Bloomer, Amelia (1818–1894) Bloomer was born Amelia Jenks in Homer, New York. In 1849, she began publishing The Lily: A Ladies Journal Devoted to Temperance and Literature, a newspaper for women believed the first to be edited entirely by a woman. By the early 1850s, Bloomer was among the best-known advocates of women’s rights, but also championed reform of women’s dress in the form of full-cut pantaloons under a short skirt. This article of clothing allowed greater freedom of movement. Originally called “Turkish trousers,” the pantaloons became famous as “bloomers.”
Boas, Franz (1858–1942) Boas was born and educated in Germany, but earned his greatest fame as professor of anthropology at Columbia University (New York City) from 1899 to 1942. During this period he developed the relativistic approach to anthropology, which focused non-judgmentally on the variety of human cultures, and which became the preeminent definition of the field. Boas taught a generation of great American anthropologists, including Margaret Mead.
Boesky, Ivan (1937– ) Boesky rose to fame and wealth as an arbitrageur—essentially a stock trader who bet on the outcome of corporate takeovers. Boesky’s tactics were characterized as brazen, and, as it turned out, were based on tips he received from corporate insiders, a form of “insider trading” in violation of federal law. His plea bargain in the mid 1980s became iconic of the era’s corporate greed—and he himself earned additional notoriety for a 1986 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in which he proclaimed “I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
Bogart, Humphrey (1899–1957) Son of a prominent New York physician, Bogart became a journeyman stage actor in the 1920s then found greatness as ruthless killer in the 1935 Sherwood Anderson play The Petrified Forest. This brought him film roles—typically playing gangsters—followed by two iconic starring turns, in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941). For many fans, his portrayal of Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942) remains his masterpiece: the sensitive “tough guy” as altruistic hero.
Bok, Edward (1863–1930) Born in the Netherlands, Bok grew up poor in Brooklyn and rose to edit the Ladies’ Home Journal from 1889 to 1919. In this position he wielded great moral and social influence, using the pages of the magazine to champion everything from women’s suffrage to wildlife conservation. He refused advertising from the makers of ineffectual or harmful patent medicines, an action that spurred passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Boone, Daniel (1734–1820) Boone was born in Pennsylvania but moved to the North Carolina frontier and made his living as a far-ranging hunter and trapper. Contrary to popular belief, he did not “discover” Kentucky, but he did explore and settle a part of it, blazing a trail through Cumberland Gap, thereby opening Kentucky and the rest of the trans-Appalachian West to widespread settlement. Always courageous, always resourceful, Boone fought in the French and Indian War as well as the Revolution, laid claim to vast tracts of wilderness, and earned legendary fame even during his lifetime—yet he failed financially and died in relative obscurity on the Missouri frontier.
Booth, Edwin (1833–1893) A member of America’s most celebrated theatrical family, Booth rose to become the most acclaimed American actor of his day and was judged a tragedian equal to the finest English actors. His phenomenal success was dogged by drink and by the crime of his brother, John Wilkes Booth, who murdered Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.
Booth, John Wilkes (1838–1865) No name is more infamous in American history than that of John Wilkes Booth, a matinee idol, whose sympathies with the Confederate cause in the Civil War prompted him to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. After shooting the president as he watched a performance at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre, Booth made his escape and remained at large for eleven days until, cornered in a Virginia tobacco barn, he was fatally shot.
Borden, Lizzie (1860–1927) The daughter of a successful Fall River (Massachusetts) businessman, Borden lived with her father and stepmother. On August 4, 1892, the couple was found brutally murdered—bludgeoned and hacked, possibly by an axe. Lizzie (who had tried to purchase poison the day before the slayings) was indicted for both murders but acquitted (because of inadequate circumstantial evidence) after a trial that created an international sensation. Despite the verdict, most Americans believed her guilty, and she lived out her life as a pariah. Histories, novels, plays, and an opera have been written about Lizzie Borden, but the most famous “literary” product was a children’s rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks; / And when she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one.”
Bork, Robert H. (1927– ) A strict constructionist (believer that law should be guided by the framers’ original understanding of the U.S. Constitution), Bork served as solicitor general in Richard M. Nixon’s Department of Justice from 1972 to 1977. President Nixon elevated him to acting attorney general in 1973 after Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus both resigned rather than obey Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox after Cox demanded the president’s tapes of Oval Office conversations. Bork obeyed the order and fired Cox in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” which hastened the president’s downfall. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the Supreme Court. After an intensely heated debate, the Senate rejected his nomination.
Bourke-White, Margaret (1906–1971) White (she later added her mother’s maiden name to make Bourke-White) turned her photographic hobby into a profession as an industrial photographer and then as a photojournalist working for Fortune and then for Life.She photographed extensively in Depression-era America and in Germany and the Soviet Union before World War II, then covered the bloody Italian campaign during the war. She accompanied General George Patton’s Third Army into Germany and documented the horrors of the concentration camps. After World War II, she photographed Gandhi in India and served as a correspondent in the Korean War.
Bowie, Jim (1796?–1836) Born in Kentucky, Bowie became a Louisiana sugar planter and a New Orleans man-about-town. Reportedly, he decided to move to Texas (then a Mexican possession) after killing a man in a duel. He became a Mexican citizen, obtained land grants from the Mexican government, then joined other American colonists in resisting Mexican attempts to curb the influx of American settlers. He joined the Texas independence movement and was co-commander (with Colonel William B. Travis) in the defense of the improvised fortress at the Alamo (in San Antonio) when it was overrun by forces under Mexican dictator Santa Anna on March 6, 1836. Bowie was slain with the other Alamo defenders and was immortalized in ballad, song, and (later) film and television portrayals. His name is also memorialized in the fearsome broad-bladed knife he (or his brother, Rezin) invented: the Bowie knife.
Bradbury, Ray (1920– ) Beginning with his first published story in 1940, Bradbury used highly inventive science fiction as an instrument of social criticism. The Martian Chronicles (1950) is a science fiction classic that evokes an idyllic Martian civilization corrupted by greed-driven explorers and exploiters from Earth, while Fahrenheit 451 (1953) depicts a society in which technology has displaced imagination, love, liberty, and free thought, and in which reading has become a capital crime and books fit solely for burning.
Braddock, James J. (1905–1974) After rising rapidly in a prizefighting career that began in 1926, Braddock lost a title bout in 1929, then, during the Great Depression, descended into poverty and obscurity, only to reemerge by defeating heavyweight champ Max Baer on June 13, 1935, capping a comeback so fast and so startling that sports writer Damon Runyon dubbed him the “Cinderella Man.” Braddock was a hero to millions of hard-pressed men and women in Depression-era America, who learned that you can be down without being out.
Bradford, William (1590–1657) As governor of the Massachusetts Plymouth colony for three decades, Bradford played a critical role in the colony’s survival and early growth. His History of Plymouth Plantation, which covers the colony from its founding in 1620 to 1647, is a remarkable window into early American settlement and Puritan religious passion.
Bradley, Omar N. (1893–1981) Bradley commanded 12th Army Group in the European Theater during World War II, earning promotion to five-star rank and, because of his straightforward approach, disdaining ceremony and the trappings of lofty rank, earned from journalist Ernie Pyle the sobriquet of “The G.I. General.” After the war, Bradley was named the first chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (1949–1953).
Bradstreet, Anne (c. 1612–1672) Born Anne Dudley in England, she was 16 when she married Simon Bradstreet and, at 18, sailed with him (and other Puritans) to a new life on Massachusetts Bay. While bearing and raising eight children, Anne Bradstreet wrote some of the first English-language poems in North America. A number of these were first published (in England) in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, but the very best—a series entitled Contemplations—remained unpublished until the 20th century.
Brady, Mathew (1823–1896) Brady opened a daguerreotype studio in New York City in 1844 and another in Washington, D.C., in 1848. In 1852, he opened a famous and successful gallery in New York, in 1852. The wealthy, powerful, and prominent came to Brady for portraits—which endure as valuable historical documents—but it is on the work of his staff of some twenty photographers during the Civil War that Brady’s greatest fame rests.
Brandeis, Louis (1856–1941) As a young man, Brandeis earned a reputation as “the people’s attorney,” often fighting the interests of big finance and big business, especially trusts and monopolies. The reform-minded Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1916—he was the first Jew to sit on the high court—and he embarked on a 23-year career in which he steered a brilliant middle course between government authority and individual liberty.
Brando, Marlon (1924–2004) Born in Omaha, Brando moved to New York City in 1943 to study acting at the famed Dramatic Workshop of Stella Adler. Here he imbibed his first lessons in “the method,” an approach to acting first developed by the Russian Konstantin Stanislavski, by which an actor learns actually to feel the emotions he wishes to portray. The following year he made a successful Broadway debut in I Remember Mama, then in 1947 gained national attention with his electrifying portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and repeated his role on screen in 1951. From this point on, he was generally considered the most influential actor of his generation.
Brant, Joseph (1742–1807) Called Thayendanegea by the Mohawks, Brant was educated at Moor’s Charity School for Indians in Lebanon, Connecticut, and converted to the Anglican church. Well versed in the English language and in history, he became an interpreter for an Anglican missionary and coauthored a Mohawk translation of The Book of Common Prayer and the Gospel of Mark. Believing that American independence would result in the usurpation of all Indian land, Brant fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution, visiting terror upon the New York frontier. After the war, however, he become an advocate for peace between whites and Indians and settled on a land grant in Canada.
Braun, Wernher von (1912–1977) In youth, Wernher von Braun became fascinated with rocketry and in the 1930s studied the subject under a grant from the German military. By the mid 1930s, Braun was directing rocket research for the German government and during World War II developed the V-2 long-range ballistic missile, which was used against London and other targets. After the war, Braun surrendered to U.S. troops, and despite his Nazi affiliations, was allowed to immigrate to the United States, where he became chief of the U.S. Army ballistic missile program. Later, he was named director of the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Braun directed much of the early U.S. space program, specializing in the development of booster systems, including the one that sent American astronauts to the moon.
Brice, Fanny (1891–1951) Brice was a lovably homely stage comedienne, who shot to fame as a result of her 1921 star turn in the Ziegfeld Follies, when she debuted the torch song “My Man.” Her vaudeville, Broadway, and film career made her one of the most successful comediennes in American entertainment history, and her life was the subject of a hit 1964 musical, Funny Girl, which catapulted Barbra Streisand to stardom in the role of Brice.
Bridger, Jim (1804–1881) Bridger spent two decades, from 1822 through the early 1840s, tramping through the vast wilderness bounded by Canada, the Missouri River, the Colorado-New Mexico border, Idaho, and Utah, in search of new peltries (fur-trapping grounds). He was the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake (1824), and in 1843, he established Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming, which served as rendezvous for trappers and as a way station Oregon Trail “emigrants” bound for the far West.
Brooks, Gwendolyn (1917–2000) Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks grew up in Chicago’s black ghetto and began publishing poetry in the 1930s in The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper. Her first book appeared in 1945. Brooks wrote about daily life in Chicago’s black community and in 1949 became the first African-American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was named poet laureate of Illinois in 1968.
Brooks, Van Wyck (1886–1963) Brooks was a prolific historian of American literature and culture, who created a sensation in 1908 with his first book, The Wine of the Puritans, which, instead of praising the Puritan forefathers, blamed them for stunting American culture. Taken together, his writings outline the history of American literature from its beginnings to his own day.
Brown, Charles Brockden (1771–1810) In his short life, Philadelphia-born Brown wrote six important early American novels—including two classics of “Gothic” fiction, Wieland and Edgar Huntley—and published and edited important early periodicals. His fiction shows profound psychological insight, which prefigured the great work of later American novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, but he was perhaps even more important to the nation’s literature and culture as the first American writer to earn a living solely from literary pursuits.
Brown, John (1800–1859) Brown was active in the vicious guerrilla war between antislavery and proslavery settlers in Kansas. On May 24, 1856, he led a raid against a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, in which five men were hacked to death with sabers. After this, he came east, and on October 16, 1859, raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), intending to arm local slaves for an uprising he hoped would trigger a universal slave rebellion. A small force of U.S. Marines (led by army officer Robert E. Lee) attacked the raiders on the 17th, wounding Brown and killing two of his sons as well as eight other followers. Brown was tried for murder, inciting a slave insurrection, and treason. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. Abolitionists regarded him as a martyr, and the raid, trial, and punishment hastened the coming of the Civil War.
Brubeck, Dave (1920– ) Brubeck started playing jazz in 1933, then studied with modern classical giants Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg. He combined his jazz background with his modernist training to produce “third-stream” jazz, combining elements of traditional jazz and African-rooted music with avant-garde classical techniques. Since the late 1940s, Brubeck has been one of the most influential and admired of American pianists and composers and is universally regarded as a jazz great.
Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) Nebraska’s Bryan was thrice defeated for the presidency (1896, 1900, 1908), but was renowned as an electrifying orator who championed such Populist causes as the popular election of senators, the introduction of a graduated income tax, the creation of a Department of Labor, the institution of Prohibition, and the passage of woman suffrage. A great campaigner, he was perceived as a man of the people, especially in rural America, but was also feared by some as a demagogue. A religious man, he volunteered to assist the prosecution in the 1925 trial of schoolteacher John T. Scopes for having violated Tennessee law by teaching the theory of evolution. Although Scopes was convicted, Bryan was intellectually shredded by defense counsel Clarence Darrow, fell ill shortly after the trial, and died.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1928– ) Born in Poland, Brzezinski was the son of a diplomat, who, posted to Canada on the eve of World War II, was unable to return to Poland. Brzezinski left Canada to study at Harvard and became a U.S. citizen in 1958. He taught political science at Harvard and Columbia, served as an adviser to presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and was named National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. A strong anti-Communist, Brzezinski played key roles in the ongoing normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China, the conclusion of the SALT II arms control treaty, the brokering of the Camp David Accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt, the encouragement of democratic reform in Eastern Europe, and the elevation of human rights to prominence in U.S. foreign policy.
Buchanan, James (1791–1868) As U.S. president from 1857 to 1861, Buchanan drifted badly in a weak effort to find a compromise in the conflict between the North and the South. His failure of leadership helped make the Civil War inevitable. Most historians rate him as one of the worst American presidents, if not the worst. He also has the distinction of being the only bachelor to serve in the White House.
Buffett, Warren (1930– ) An extraordinary investor—founder of the Berkshire Hathaway investment firm—the Nebraska-based Buffett was long known as the “Oracle of Omaha” and amassed a personal fortune that made him the second wealthiest man in the world. In June 2006, Buffett became America’s foremost philanthropist by announcing his intention to contribute some 10 million Berkshire Hathaway shares (worth about $30.7 billion) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This, the largest single charitable gift in history, makes the Gates Foundation history’s largest charitable organization.
Bunche, Ralph (1904–1971) After earning graduate degrees from Harvard University in 1928 and 1934, Bunche created the Howard University (Washington, D.C.) Department of Political Science. He served in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and Department of State during World War II, then was instrumental after the war in planning the United Nations, of which he eventually served as undersecretary general. In 1949, he mediated a truce in the first Arab-Israeli War, for which he was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.
Burke, James (1925– ) As CEO of Johnson & Johnson from 1976 to 1989, Harvard-educated Burke presided over a major period in his company’s growth, but he entered into national prominence by his response to the Tylenol poisoning crisis of 1982. During September of that year, seven people in the Chicago area died after swallowing cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Instead of waiting for government authorities to take action, Burke ordered the removal of all Tylenol products from store shelves nationwide and even initiated a recall program to buy back Tylenol directly from consumers. Some 31 million bottles of medicine were thus recalled, representing about 100 million retail dollars. Burke’s bold and selfless action saved lives and enabled Johnson & Johnson to restore public confidence in the product after introducing the tamper-resistant packaging that is now industry standard.
Burnham, Daniel (1846–1912) Working in Chicago after the great fire of 1871, Burnham not only designed much of the city’s new commercial architecture, but pioneered the science of urban planning, providing for the city a comprehensive vision of development that had a profound impact on the American urban landscape well into the 20th century.
Burr, Aaron (1756–1836) Burr served on George Washington’s staff during the American Revolution, but he was transferred after irritating the commander in chief. He became a prominent New York attorney, then entered politics, tying in 1800 with Thomas Jefferson in electoral votes for president. Thanks to Alexander Hamilton’s determined opposition to Burr, Jefferson won and Burr (under the then-prevailing election laws) became vice president. In 1804, Hamilton again worked against Burr—this time depriving him of the governorship of New York—and Burr (still sitting as vice president) killed Hamilton in a duel. After warrants were issued for Burr’s arrest, he fled to Philadelphia. He conspired with U.S Army general James Wilkinson to invade Mexico, establish an independent government there, and (possibly) foment the secession of the American West to join the empire they would found. Burr was arrested, tried for treason in 1807, acquitted, but publicly ruined. He fled to Europe, returned to New York four years later, practiced law, and wasted his fortune.
Burroughs, John (1837–1921) Burroughs combined science with the sensibility of a poet to produce 27 books on the flora and fauna of the Hudson River Valley. He was an important influence on the first great conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt. A close friend of Walt Whitman, he wrote the first biography of the poet in 1867.
Bush, George H. W. (1924–) A naval aviator during World War II, successful businessman, Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations (appointed by Richard Nixon), director of the CIA, then vice president under Ronald Reagan, Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 to become president. Bush led a coalition of nations against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1990–1991. Despite a jump in his popularity after the quick victory in that war, Bush was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton largely because of Bush’s failure to reverse a slide in the American economy.
Bush, George W. (1946– ) Son of President George H. W. Bush, George W. served as governor of Texas then eked out an electoral college victory (the contested outcome was decided by the Supreme Court) over Democrat Al Gore for the presidency in 2000. Bush’s presidency was defined by the “War on Terror,” which began with the horrific September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. Bush quickly went to war against the Afghanistan-based terrorist organization called al-Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government that supported it there. Far more controversially, he went to war in 2003) against Iraq for the purpose of toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Iraq War, together with the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, led many Americans, including some members of his own party, to question Bush’s leadership and effectiveness.
Bush, Vannevar (1890–1974) An electrical engineer, Bush invented in 1931 the Differential Analyzer, an advanced electromechanical computer. When World War II began in Europe in 1939, Bush persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the National Defense Research Committee (with Bush as chair) to organize defense-related scientific research. Bush next chaired the even more powerful Office of Scientific Research and Development, which oversaw development of radar and the atomic bomb, among many other war-related technologies. Vannevar Bush was arguably the most powerful scientist of his time.
Bushnell, David (1742–1824) A student at Yale College during 1771–1775, Bushnell demonstrated that gunpowder could be detonated underwater. This gave him the idea of building what he called a “water machine”: the world’s first combat submarine. A pear-shaped vessel made of oak and reinforced with iron bands, the Turtle (as witnesses dubbed it) was 7.5 feet long by 6 feet wide and was operated by a crew of one, who could submerge the vessel at will by pulling a hand-spring valve that flooded a compartment in the hull and then could surface again by operating a foot pump. The Turtle could place an explosive mine below the waterline on the hull of an enemy ship. The mine was timed to explode after the Turtle had retreated to safety. The Patriots used Bushnell’s Turtle a few times in the American Revolution, but without success.
Byrd, William (1674–1744) Byrd of Westover would be remembered (if at all) as just another colonial Virginia planter were it not for his diaries, which—with often bawdy wit—provide an intimate look at life on the southern British plantations. In addition to his principal diary, he kept an encrypted shorthand version, which reveals much about the nefarious romantic life of a southern planter. In 1728, he produced History of the Dividing Line, a remarkably biting satire recording his experience as a surveyor of the North Carolina–Virginia boundary.
Byrne, Jane (1934– ) Byrne was was appointed Chicago’s head of consumer affairs by mayor Richard J. Daley in 1968. Fired in 1977 by Mayor Michael Bilandic (who had succeeded Daley upon his death), Byrne campaigned to unseat him and won election. She served from 1979–1983, when she was defeated in the Democratic primaries by Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor.
Byrnes, James F. (1879–1972) A self-taught South Carolina lawyer, Byrnes was a congressman from 1911 to 1925 and a senator from 1931 to 1941. During World War II, he served President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a dynamic adviser and administrator and was dubbed “assistant president for domestic affairs” during his tenure as director of war mobilization (1943–1945)—a most powerful office. From 1945 to 1947, he was secretary of state.