I am willing to entertain arguments that George Washington is the greatest American -- military leader of the American Revolution, President of the Constitutional Convention, first President of the U.S. Washington's act of stepping down from the Presidency after two terms may be the single greatest and most seminal act in the history of the country, because it proved that we were a country of laws, not of men, and that we were never to devolve into dictatorship or monarchy. Dwight David Eisenhower might be the favorite of some -- certainly the leadership of Allied armies in the European Theater during World War II is the largest undertaking in human history; and he was an underrated President during a period of prosperity at home and Cold War abroad.
But I think if there were a poll taken, the overwhelming choice for greatest American would be Abraham Lincoln, born today in 1809. Through his wisdom, perseverance, and moral courage -- Lincoln bore the weight of sacrificing hundreds of thousands of young men on the altar of liberty, and he gave his own life to an assassin (something he must have known could and likely would happen) -- he saved his country at its moment of greatest peril. No one else can make that claim.
Every school child should be made to memorize the peroration of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, if they learn nothing else, because it captures best who we are as a country, even better than his Gettysburg Address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.***
Amazingly, on the same day Lincoln was born in 1809, another world historical man was born, Charles Darwin, the discoverer of the theory of evolution. Just as there are few, like Lincoln, who can lay claim to saving their country, there are few, like Darwin, who can lay claim to fundamentally changing the way we think about our world. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein. It's a small pantheon.
Finally, it's also another great American's birthday, General Omar Bradley, born in 1893. Bradley was the last surviving five-star general before his death. Commander of II Corps in Tunisia (after Patton) and Sicily, commander of 1st Army on D-Day and the 12th Army Group for the breakout from Normandy and thereafter, Bradley was known as the "G.I.'s General" for his unfailing courtesy and concern for his men; it is legendary that he never issued an order without saying "Please."