Ethnic origins of The Nation's "Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century"

Fifty "progressives" influential in twentieth century America, as selected by Peter Dreier. While Dreier is (in this venue) perhaps overly modest about the Jewish contribution to twentieth century American leftism, my interest here is mainly in dissecting the origins of northwestern European portion of the list (which should provide a sample that's reasonably unbiased with respect to regional and sub-NW European ancestry).

Even on this list, weighted towards a time when people of colonial American stock, and particularly those with early New England ancestry, made up a much larger fraction of the US population than they do today, Yankees are a distinct minority. Only 5 out of 50 (10% of the total list, and 17% of the NW European portion of the list) are of over 1/4 New England ancestry, and 4 of those 5 were born in the 19th century.

As a point of reference, people of Puritan stock made up a much larger fraction of distinguished American scientists:
Cattell in his 1904 questionnaire to the scientists starred in 1903 (and to some additional persons who were almost starred, included to increase the number of returns to about 1000) found that "more than half of the scientists were at least of half Puritan stock." Since 1904, the Puritan stock in America has formed a declining percentage of the total population, partly because it was the first major American group to practice rigorous birth control. Also the millions of immigrants who have arrived in America since 1800 have contributed an increasing share of our population. These changes increase the desirability of obtaining information on the subject by the 1946 questionnaire. A total of 873 of the 905 scientists who replied reported on their "racial stock or blood." Tables 10-20 and 10-21 show the percentages which had various fractions of the chief "bloods." The Puritan stock led in each of the categories, full or nearly full bloods, 3/4 or more, half or more, quarter or more. However instead of the "more than half" found by Cattell, their contribution has declined to 31 percent which are half or more Puritan. Other English stock is second, German third and Scots and Scotch-Irish
Note also that even on this somewhat whitewashed list, the total amount of New England ancestry (adding up to the equivalent of 6 1/8 individuals) falls below the amount of Jewish ancestry (6 Jews and one 1/2 Jew), despite the fact that the proportion of New England genes in the US was vastly higher than the proportion of Jewish genes for the period in which most of these people were born.

Related: "The 25 Most Influential Liberals In The U.S. Media" (2009) by ancestry


NW European (30/50)

Eugene Debs (1855–1926) (1 of 51) [Alsatian: "Eugene Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Jean Daniel and Marguerite Mari Bettrich Debs, who both immigrated to the United States from Colmar, Alsace, France."]

Jane Addams (1860–1935) (2 of 51) [Something like 7/8 Pennsylvania German, 1/8 Pennslyvania English ancestry.]

Florence Kelley (1859–1932) (4 of 51) [Mid-Atlantic (including Irish) ancestry.]

John Dewey (1859–1952) (5 of 51) [New England ancestry. "Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, to a family of modest means.[5]"]

Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936) (6 of 51) [1/2 Canadian, 1/2 English.]

Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) (8 of 51) [Southern (including Scottish) ancestry.]

Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) (9 of 51) [Irish Catholic ancestry.]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) (10 of 51) [New England ancestry.]

Roger Baldwin (1884–1981) (11 of 51) [New England ancestry.]

Frances Perkins (1880–1965) (12 of 51) [New England ancestry.]

John L. Lewis (1880–1969) (13 of 51) [Welsh: "Lewis was born in or near Cleveland, Lucas County, Iowa (distinct from the present township of Cleveland in Davis County) to Thomas H. Lewis and Ann Watkins Lewis, both of whom had immigrated from Llangurig Wales."]

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) (14 of 51) [3/4 mid-Atlantic, 1/4 Southern (including Scottish) ancestry.]

Norman Thomas (1884–1968) (15 of 51) [1/2 Welsh, 1/8 Scottish, something like 1/8 to 1/4 New England, and 1/8 to 1/4 mid-Atlantic.]

A.J. Muste (1885–1967) (16 of 51) [Dutch: "A.J. Muste was born January 8, 1885, in the small port city of Zierikzee, located in the Southwestern province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. Muste's father, Martin Muste, was a coachman who drove for a family that was part of Zeeland's hereditary nobility.[1]"]

Henry Wallace (1888–1965) (18 of 51) [Something like 3/4 mid-Atlantic, 1/4 New England ancestry. "The Wallace family was of Scots-Irish Presbyterian stock, and had originally emigrated from Ulster, Ireland, to Pennsylvania."]

Walter Reuther (1907–70) (20 of 51) [German: "Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia on September 1, 1907, the son of a socialist brewery worker who had emigrated from Germany." / "In the same year that he became president of the Labor Federation, Val Reuther married Anna Stocker, a recent immigrant from rural Swabia in southern Germany."]

Woody Guthrie (1912–67) (23 of 51) [3/4 Southern, 1/8 Irish, 1/8 New England. "Guthrie was born in Okemah, a small town in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, the son of Nora Belle (née Sherman) and Charles Edward Guthrie.[4] His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate soon to be elected President of the United States."]

Earl Warren (1891–1974) (24 of 51) [1/2 Norwegian, 1/2 Swedish.]

Rachel Carson (1907–64) (28 of 51) [At the level of her grandparents, appears to be 1/2 Scotch-Irish from Ireland and 1/2 Scottish or Scotch-Irish from America. "Carson was born on May 27, 1907, on a small family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania, just up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. She was the daughter of Maria Frazier (McLean) and Robert Warden Carson, an insurance salesman.[4]"]

Harry Hay (1912–2002) (30 of 51) [Something like 1/2 Scottish (at the level of his grandparents), 1/4 Southern, and 1/4 mid-Atlantic (some ancestors in this last 1/4 were born in New England, but they don't appear to have colonial New England ancestry, their ancestry instead being New York Dutch, recent English, Scotch-Irish, etc.]

C. Wright Mills (1916–62) (33 of 51) [3/4 Southern, 1/4 Irish Catholic. Born in Texas.]

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006) (34 of 51) [Scottish Canadian: "Galbraith was born to Canadians of Scottish descent, Sarah Catherine Kendall and Archibald "Archie" Galbraith, in Iona Station, Ontario, Canada"]

David Brower (1912–2000) (35 of 51) [Appears to be around 3/4 mid-Atlantic and 1/4 likely New England.]

Pete Seeger (1919–) (36 of 51) [Roughly 3/4 New England, 1/8 mid-Atlantic, 1/8 French]

Michael Harrington (1928–89) (39 of 51) [Irish Catholic: "Michael Harrington was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 24, 1928, to an Irish-American family. He attended St. Roch Catholic School and Saint Louis University High School"]

Tom Hayden (1939–) (44 of 51) [Irish Catholic.]

Billie Jean King (1943–) (47 of 51) [Something like 2.75/8 mid-Atlantic, 1.25/8 Southern, 1/8 New England, 1/8 Scottish, 1/8 Canadian, and 1/8 unknown.]

Bill Moyers (1934–) (48 of 51) [Born in Oklahoma. Southern ancestry.]

Barbara Ehrenreich (1941–) (49 of 51) [It appears that through her father she is 1/4 Southern and 1/4 a mix of Scottish and Irish, while through her mother she is 1/4 English and 1/4 Scottish (by way of Canada). 'Ehrenreich was born Barbara Alexander to Isabelle Oxley and Ben Howes Alexander in Butte, Montana, which she describes as then being "a bustling, brawling, blue collar mining town".[6] In an interview on C-SPAN, she characterized her parents as "strong union people" with two family rules: "never cross a picket line and never vote Republican".[2] In a talk she gave in 1999, Ehrenreich called herself a "fourth-generation atheist".[7]']

Michael Moore (1954–) (50 of 51) [Moore's father's mother was born in Ireland; his father's father was roughly 1/2 mid-Atlantic and 1/2 Southern, likely with more English than (Scotch-)Irish ancestry, but evidently this side also came to be identified as "Irish" within Michael Moore's family: "Both sides of the family originally came from Ireland -- the last to arrive being his grandfather, William Connors and grandmother Mary (Hogan) Connors, both of whom hailed from County Cork. The entire family was not only proud of being Irish, they were also grateful for its gifts of humor, Catholicism and music (though not necessarily in that order)." His mother's father was born in Canada, parents having been born in Ireland (I think they were likely Northern Irish Protestants, but presumably have been imagined as Irish Catholics within the obese director's Catholic family). His mother's mother's ancestry is 1/2 New England and 1/2 Northern Irish Canadian. In summary, it looks like Moore's ancestry is 5/8 Irish (part of this probably Northern Irish Protestant), 1/8 mid-Atlantic, 1/8 Southern, and 1/8 New England. "MICHAEL MOORE: Yeah, that's true ['had a very strict Catholic upbringing']. My parents are good Irish Catholics." '“My Irish American background has a lot to do with my work, both in terms of the values that I was raised with -- that we’ll be judged by how we treat the least among us -- and that the rich man is basically up to no good,” he says.']


Jewish (7/50)

Louis Brandeis (1856–1941) (3 of 51)

Sidney Hillman (1887–1946) (17 of 51)

Saul Alinsky (1909–72) (22 of 51)

I.F. Stone (1907–89) (26 of 51)

Betty Friedan (1921–2006) (38 of 51)

Harvey Milk (1930–78) (41 of 51)

Gloria Steinem (1934–) (43 of 51) [1/2 Jewish: "Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio, on March 25, 1934.[2] Her mother, Ruth (née Nuneviller), was a Presbyterian of Scottish and German descent, and her father, Leo Steinem, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Poland.[14][15]"]


Black (11/50)

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) (7 of 51)

A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) (19 of 51)

Paul Robeson (1898–1976) (21 of 51)

Ella Baker (1903–86) (25 of 51)

Jackie Robinson (1919–72) (27 of 51)

Thurgood Marshall (1908–93) (29 of 51)

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68) (31 of 51)

Bayard Rustin (1912–87) (32 of 51)

Malcolm X (1925–65) (37 of 51)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson (1941–) (45 of 51)

Muhammad Ali (1942–) (46 of 51)


Hispanic (1/50)

Cesar Chavez (1927–93) (40 of 51)


Arab (1/50)

Ralph Nader (1934–) (42 of 51)




When readers of The Nation were asked to make their own nominations, the resulting list came out much more heavily Jewish than Dreier's original list:

NW European (4/11)

Robert La Follette Sr. (1855–1925) (3 of 11) As a US congressman (1885–1890), governor of Wisconsin (1901-1906), US senator (1907-1925), candidate for President (1924) and editor of La Follette's Weekly Magazine (founded in 1909 and later called The Progressive, still based in Wisconsin), "Fighting Bob" La Follette consistently and effectively challenged corporate power and militarism and inspired generations of reformers and radicals. [3/4 Southern (including Scottish or Scotch-Irish), 1/8 French, 1/16 New England, and 1/16 mid-Atlantic ancestry.]

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) (4 of 11) Day founded the Catholic Worker movement, combining militant pacifism, radical economic redistribution and direct service to the poor, including the homeless. [Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. She was born into a family described by one biographer as "solid, patriotic, and middle class".[1] Her father, John Day, was a Tennessee native of Scots-Irish heritage, while her mother, Grace Satterlee, a native of upstate New York, was of English ancestry.]

John Muir (1838–1914) (5 of 11) Muir was the "patron saint" of the environmental movement, the founder of the Sierra Club and a major force in the creation of America's National Parks system. [Scottish: "John Muir's birthplace was a four-story stone house in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland. His parents were Daniel Muir and Ann Gilrye."]

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) (8 of 11) As president during the Great Depression, FDR instigated economic and social reforms that saved and humanized capitalism, despite the barbs of many critics, including most newspapers and business leaders, that his New Deal agenda was leading America to socialism. [Something like 3/4 New England, 1/4 Mid-Atlantic ancestry.]


Jewish (6/11)

Howard Zinn (1922–2010) (1 of 11) Zinn, an activist and scholar, changed the way Americans view their history.

Noam Chomsky (1928–) (2 of 11) Chomsky first made his mark as a brilliant linguist, but since the 1960s has been better known as a left-wing critic of the political and economic establishment, particularly on issues of war and human rights.

Amy Goodman (1957–) (6 of 11) Goodman is a progressive journalist, best known as host of the daily show Democracy Now!: The War and Peace Report, broadcast on over 800 radio and television stations as well as the Internet.

Emma Goldman (1869–1940) (7 of 11) Goldman was one of the most prominent radicals in twentieth-century America, an eloquent and inspiring speaker and writer who advocated anarchism, free speech, women's suffrage, birth control, free universal education without regard to race, gender or class and workers' rights.

Paul Wellstone (1944–2002) (10 of 11) Elected to the US Senate from Minnesota in 1990 by beating a much better-financed and better-known Republican incumbent, Wellstone became the most progressive senator, serving as the voice for labor, antipoverty, family farmers and antiwar movements.

Studs Terkel (1912–2008) (11 of 11) Terkel was a remarkable radio personality and oral historian whose interviews on his Chicago radio show and in his many prize-winning books celebrated the achievements of both ordinary and famous people.


Black (1/11)

Angela Davis (1944–) (9 of 11) Davis became a public figure almost by accident. In 1969, Davis was an acting assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA, a member of the Communist Party and an ally of the Black Panther Party. At the urging of California Gov. Ronald Reagan, the University of California's Board of Regents fired her because of her membership in the Communist Party. The controversy catapulted Davis into the public eye.