In the period from 1600 to 1877, it could be argued that the United States was only basically establishing itself as an independent nation in its own right -- the period in question builds up to the climax of the Civil War, in which the contradictions inherent in the national identity would finally reach armed conflict. Who, then, could be nominated as the best of the American enterprise in that time period? For different reasons, I would nominate Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass.
Franklin is an easy choice: he established America's credibility in the eyes of Europe. Regardless of the military issues involved in the American Revolution, it was Franklin alone who showed Europe that there was a viable independent nation across the Atlantic. This is in recognition of his various accomplishments, which were scientific, technical, literary, and philanthropical (in his endowment of universities and libraries). If there had been no Benjamin Franklin, America would have been understood as merely a vast colonial territory full of raw materials to be exploited. Franklin demonstrated that there was something distinctive about the American character. It also must be noted that the role he played in the Revolution itself was probably crucial in terms of its success, as it was Franklin's diplomatic missions to Paris which ensured French support for the colonies. The fact that Franklin's own view of the Revolution was somewhat ambiguous -- he supported Royalist causes before the Revolution, and was employed by the British government -- but his ultimate attendance at the Continental Congress lent it an intellectual eminence that did much to establish America as a viable nation.
To include Walt Whitman on the list of best possible influences on America before 1877 may seem an odd choice: poetry and literature do not make things happen. But Whitman served much the same function as Franklin, and Leaves of Grass demonstrated that there was a viable national philosophy. Whitman's poetic tributes to Abraham Lincoln, in "O Captain My Captain" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," managed to give voice to the public response to Lincoln's assassination and to the Civil War generally: the fact that Whitman's quasi-religious faith in the American democratic experiment managed to persist throughout the Civil War (in which he served honorably as a nurse for the wounded) was vital to defining the nation afterward. Like Franklin, Whitman was recognized in Europe as a sign of America's maturation as an actual culture.
The most recognizable choice on this list is perhaps Frederick Douglass. The escaped Maryland slave turned abolitionist orator is perhaps the best indication of the health of American moral life even before the Civil War. Douglass managed to indict the evils of slavery simply by maintaining his own dignity and insisting on his own humanity, and his Autobiography still stands as a profound analysis of this shameful episode in the historical past. Douglass stands above other abolitionists because there was no element of hysterical posturing to what he did: unlike William Lloyd Garrison, who simply lost interest in the fates of African-Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, with her self-aggrandizing claims that God had written Uncle Tom's Cabin through her, Douglass stuck to his principles.
It is difficult to select any three persons who exemplify what is best about America in this time period. However these candidates are noteworthy for representing America at its best in the eyes of the world. Franklin made America seem credible as a home for science, and Whitman made America seem credible as a home for the arts. Meanwhile Frederick Douglass maintained an honest and patient devotion to the actual egalitarian ideals upon which the country was founded. These three deserve consideration not only for their accomplishments but for the way in which they made America credible in the eyes of the world.
In assessing the period of American history between 1600 and 1877, we must take account that the single most important event in the period is the one that summarized all of the internal conflicts of the nation as a whole -- the U.S. Civil War. As a result, trying to select those persons who represented the worst influence on the course of American events must take the Civil War into account. I would like to discuss three figures who might not be the most obvious choices, but who I would nominate as the worst influences upon American history in this…