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RTD The Greatest Virginians

Who are they? The Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Library of Virginia decided to find out.


This past spring two important events took place: First, America observed the 400th anniversary of its founding at the Jamestown settlement in Tidewater Virginia. Around the same time civil-rights legend and noted Richmonder Oliver Hill celebrated his 100th birthday -- having lived through a full quarter of the history of this nation and of this commonwealth.

The convergence of these two happenings gave life to the series of commentary columns we will publish through the month of December. In 1607, English settlers landed in the New World and began an experiment that we still call Virginia. And while place has been an important part of the story, it is the people who were born here, who lived here, or who shaped the commonwealth's development -- the Virginians -- who have helped to change the course of history.

With that in mind, an interesting question arose during conversations among the members of

The Times-Dispatch's editorial staff and our friends at the Library of Virginia: Of all the towering figures who have called this state home, who are the greatest Virginians?

We decided to find an answer.

How? We sought out the men and women who know. This summer we sent a questionnaire across the nation to the scholars who study Virginia and its people, and augmented our list with prominent citizens of the commonwealth -- some established, some up and coming -- who have an understanding of those who have worn the designation "Virginian" into the history books. (A full list of the experts appears on page 5 of today's Commentary section.)

We asked this jury to nominate (1) a greatest Virginian and (2) a most influential Virginian (who had to be a different person) for each of the commonwealth's four centuries. The difference between the two? For someone to be termed "greatest," we told the panel a person's legacy must be almost exclusively of positive benefit. Calling him or her merely "influential" would not capture just how important this person was to society. These folks are a step above. It's hard to quantify "greatestness," but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, we all know it when we see it.

The choice of a most influential Virginian was to include figures of note who might not quite be utterly great, but who left an imprint that lingers -- for good or for ill. We weren't looking solely for Boy Scouts in this category.

An interesting question did present itself during the process: What was our definition of "Virginian"? Here's what we told our jury: "For purposes of this project, a Virginian is someone who is identified with the commonwealth because of birth, residency, or circumstance. For instance, William Styron did not spend the majority of his life in Virginia, but through his books he is clearly identified with the commonwealth, and would be eligible. Shirley MacLaine was born in Virginia, but is not identified as a Virginian and would not be eligible. Colin Powell can now be considered a longtime resident of the commonwealth, but since he is not identified with his adopted home state in the popular consciousness he would also not be eligible for this honor."

Once the results flowed in, Brent Tarter from the library was joined by The Times Dispatch's Todd Culbertson, Cynthia Paris, and me to reach a final determination. (We owe a large debt of gratitude to the scores of our colleagues who chipped in to help bring this successfully to your doorstep. Their contributions were invaluable and necessary.) Tarter, himself a Virginia historian of the highest order, compiled the findings into the pieces you'll read this month, with some minor help from me. We know not everyone will agree with the people we put forward. Along those lines, we paraphrase a Robert Nozick quote Deputy Editor of the Editorial Pages A. Barton Hinkle is fond of: Our thoughts do not aim for your assent -- just place them alongside your own reflections for a while.

Read, react, write -- let us know how we did. We expect it, we invite it.

We start this week with the 16th and 17th centuries. We hadn't initially aimed to include the 16th century, but such an interesting and powerful nomination came in we decided to go with it. You all can let us know what you think about that one, too.

One word of advice for our readers as we head into this month-long endeavor: Please assume nothing. You'll be surprised by some inclusions and some exclusions; I was.

Cordel Faulk is The Times-Dispatch's commentary editor.

Deal of the Day


Who is the Greatest Virginian?

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Note: This poll is not scientific and reflects the opinions of only those Internet users who have chosen to participate. The results cannot be assumed to represent public opinion.

Who is the Most Influential Virginian?

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Note: This poll is not scientific and reflects the opinions of only those Internet users who have chosen to participate. The results cannot be assumed to represent public opinion.


The Greatest Virginians Publication

This book is a must-read for students, history buffs and all proud Virginians.

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