Great Heroes and Patriots of American History — An Introduction

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The history of the United States of America is filled with heroes and patriots — men and women — who helped shape the course of the nation. From exploration to Colonial America; from the American Revolution to the Civil War; from Reconstruction to the 21st Century, heroes and patriots have come from all walks of life, cultures, and religions — all of which have helped contribute to America’s “Melting Pot.”

Is this a comprehensive list? No, it is not. It is primarily made up of people that we have already written about on American History Central, or plan to write about in the upcoming year.

Is it a list every reader will agree with? No, of course not. Some of the people listed here had critical character flaws, yet, despite those flaws, they did make significant contributions that shaped the course of American history. For those contributions, they are heroes to some, but not all.

What is an American Patriot? For the purposes of this list, a great American Patriot is someone who contributed to the American Revolution, the American Revolutionary War, and the transition from the 13 Original Colonies to the United States of America.

What is an American Hero? The great American Hero is someone who showed incredible bravery or leadership, or who was responsible for a significant event, the passage of an important law, or who stood up for the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.

Let our object be, Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.

Daniel Webster, June 17, 1825

Presidents

George Washington — Washington was the first President and the “Father of Our Country.” His heroic leadership led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary War, and also guided the United States through the early years of the republic. As a Patriot, he supported taking up arms against Great Britain and independence.

George Washington, Portrait, Stuart
George Washington was the First President of the United States. Image Source: Wikipedia.

John Adams — The second President of the United States and one of the leaders of the Patriot Cause in Boston during the American Revolution. Adams helped shape the ideology of the American Revolution and was a leader in the movement for independence. Adams made a bold and heroic effort as the defense lawyer for the British soldiers who killed Americans at the Boston Massacre.

Thomas Jefferson — Jefferson was the third President and one of the more complex figures of the American Revolution. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence — the most important document of the Patriot Cause — and paved the way for westward expansion and Manifest Destiny by authorizing the Louisiana Purchase.

James Madison — The fourth President of the United States and the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison helped draft and write the Constitution, and then contributed to the Federalist Papers to rally support for ratification of the document. Despite poor health, Madison supported taking up arms against Great Britain. He served in the Virginia Militia and helped train men before he moved into politics full-time.

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James Monroe — Monroe was the fifth President of the United States and the last Founding Father to hold office. He helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and established the American foreign policy known as the “Monroe Doctrine.” His time in office is known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Monroe joined the Continental Army and fought in several battles, including Trenton, Monmouth, Brandywine, and Germantown.

John Quincy Adams — He was the sixth President of the United States and the son of John Adams and Abigail Adams. Adams served as Secretary of State under James Monroe and helped define American foreign policy and gain new territory. As a boy, Adams witnessed many important events of the American Revolution and American Revolutionary War. Throughout his career, he worked to continue many of the ideas of his father and others who declared independence, while trying to forge a new path for the nation.

Abraham Lincoln — Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States and helped bring an end to slavery in the United States. His election led to the secession of 11 states, which culminated in the Civil War. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the states that seceded. Later, he became the first American President to be assassinated when John Wilkes Booth shot him at Ford’s Theater on April 14. 1765. Today, Lincoln is viewed as a hero, responsible for preserving the Union, and for emancipating enslaved people.

Abraham Lincoln, Portrait, Gardner
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Ulysses S. Grant — He was the 18th President of the United States, but gained fame by leading the Union armies to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. Grant’s legacy is complicated because of rumors and scandals that plagued his time in office, however, there is no doubt he was seen as a hero to many for his military success. However, he was also a supporter of civil rights and worked to restore goodwill with the former Confederate states.

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Theodore Roosevelt — Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States and the youngest person elected to the office. He implemented the Square Deal, which was a domestic policy that focused on consumer protection, regulation of corporations, and conservation of natural resources. He served in the Spanish American War and led his “Rough Riders” in a heroic charge during the Battle of San Juan Hill. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt — He was the 32nd President of the United States. He led the nation out of the Great Depression and through most of World War II. He implemented the New Deal which was a series of programs and projects that helped return a sense of security to many Americans. He is a hero because of his steady leadership, vision, and ability to connect with Americans from many walks of life.

Harry S. Truman — Truman was the 33rd President of the United States and led America at the end of World War II and through the early part of the Cold War. He established the Truman Doctrine, which expanded U.S. foreign policy to provide political, military, and economic assistance to democratic nations that were threatened by authoritarian forces. Ultimately, Truman’s heroic leadership set the stage for modern diplomacy.

Dwight Eisenhower — He was the 34th President of the United States and led Allied Forces to victory over the Axis Powers in World War II. While in office, he sponsored and signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1957, which established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department. Eisenhower’s steady leadership during World War II made him a hero, and his bold enforcement of school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, was an important step in the Civil Rights Movement.

Politicians

Henry Clay — Clay was a congressman from Kentucky who served as Vice President to John Quincy Adams. He was known as the “Great Compromiser” and was responsible for the “American System,” an economic plan that was intended to make America self-sufficient and less reliant on Europe. Clay designed the Compromise of 1850, and was given a hero’s funeral when he died in 1852.

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Benjamin Franklin — He was a scientist, inventor, writer, publisher, Founding Father, and much more. Franklin was possibly the most famous American of his time and played a significant role in transforming America from a group of British Colonies to an independent nation. Franklin supported the Patriot Cause and helped convince France to support the United States in the American Revolutionary War.

Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, Duplessis
Benjamin Franklin was the most famous person in America for much of his life. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Alexander Hamilton — Hamilton was a Founding Father and played an important role in helping gain support for ratification of the Constitution. He was the first Secretary of the Treasury and helped establish the economic policies that shaped the early days of the republic. Hamilton fought in the American Revolutionary War and led a heroic charge at the Battle of Yorktown that forced the surrender of the British and secured the American victory.

There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself in acts of bravery and heriosm.

~ Alexander Hamilton, December 15, 1774

Patrick Henry — Henry was a Founding Father from Virginia and played an important role in the early days of the American Revolution. He made a name for himself as a country lawyer and was one of the first to speak out against the Stamp Act.

Caesar Rodney — He was a Founding Father from Delaware and a delegate to the Continental Congress. He made a heroic effort to ride all night through a thunderstorm to Philadelphia so he could cast Delaware’s deciding vote in favor of independence.

Roger Sherman — He was a Founding Father from Connecticut, and signed the four great state documents of the United States: the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he proposed the Connecticut Compromise, which set up the bicameral legislature.

John Winthrop — Winthrop was an early Puritan leader who emigrated to Massachusetts during the Great Puritan Migration. He served as governor of the colony for 12 years and set its direction and defined its purpose with his “City on a Hill” sermon.

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Supreme Court Justices

John Jay — Jay was a Founding Father and the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He supported the United States Constitution and negotiated the Jay Treaty of 1794 with Great Britain. Jay was initially reluctant to support independence but supported the Patriot cause, negotiated the Treaty of Paris, and convinced Spain to provide financial support to the United States.

John Marshall — Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He served for 30 years and is widely considered to be the most influential justice of the court. He helped establish the Supreme Court as a powerful, independent branch of the Federal government. Marshall was a Patriot who took up arms against Great Britain as a member of the Culpeper Minutemen and then the Continental Army. He fought in several battles during the Philadelphia Campaign and survived the Winter at Valley Forge.

Colonial Founders

William Bradford — Bradford was one of the Pilgrim Fathers and the leader of the Separatists who came to America on the Mayflower. He served as the Governor of Plymouth Colony for 30 years and wrote a detailed history of the colony called “Of Plymouth Plantation.”

Ferdinando Gorges — Gorges was an early advocate of colonization of America and is the founder of Maine. He is often referred to as the “Father of English Colonization in North America.”

John Smith — Smith was a soldier and explorer who played an important role in helping the Jamestown Colony survive. He also explored the east coast and gave the northern area the name “New England.”

Myles Standish — Standish was a soldier who sailed to America on the Mayflower, but he was not a Pilgrim. He came with the Pilgrims to serve as their military advisor and played an important role in the administration and defense of the Plymouth Colony, which helped it survive.

Roger Williams — Williams was a Separatist minister who founded the first permanent settlement in Rhode Island. He was an advocate of Religious Freedom and the Separation of Church and State.

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Leaders of Colonial Uprisings

Samuel Adams — Adams was the most prominent leader of the American Revolution in Boston. He led public opposition to British policies, encouraged the Sons of Liberty, and opened communication with other colonies through Committees of Correspondence. Great Britain viewed him as one of the most important leaders of the Patriot cause. He was an early and unwavering advocate for independence, had a strong influence on John Hancock, and gained the support of his cousin, John Adams.

Crispus Attucks — Attucks was a man of African descent who was the first person shot and killed during the Boston Massacre. He is often considered to be the first casualty of the American Revolution and is seen as a hero because he died defending his rights at the hands of British Redcoats.

Nathaniel Bacon — Bacon was a planter from Virginia who heroically led the first uprising against British officials in the colonies. As the key figure in Bacon’s Rebellion, he united both black and white indentured servants and former slaves in an effort to oppose the governor.  

Nathaniel Bacon, Portrait
Nathaniel Bacon led the first uprising in Colonial America.

John Hancock — Hancock was a Founding Father and a leading Patriot in Boston during the American Revolution and the war. He refused to allow British customs officials to inspect one of his ships, which is considered to be the first instance of open defiance of British policies. He was President of the Continental Congress when the Declaration of Independence was approved and was the first to sign it.

Joseph Warren — Warren was one of the most important members of the Sons of Liberty and Patriot leaders in Boston. He was a protege of Samuel Adams, involved in various committees, and President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Warren coordinated the midnight rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes on the night of April 18, 1775, and joined the fighting that took place the next day. He wrote the Suffolk Resolves in opposition to the Intolerable Acts and died as a hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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Frontier Explorers and Rangers

William Clark — Clark was a frontiersman who heroically helped lead the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806 across the Lousiana Purchase to the Pacific Ocean. Clark led militia forces during the War of 1812 and was later appointed Governor of the Missouri Territory by President James Monroe.

Daniel Boone — Boone was a legendary folk hero, frontiersman, and explorer who led expeditions through the Cumberland Gap. He served in the militia during the American Revolutionary War, and primarily fought against Native American Indians who were allied with the British.

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James Bowie — Bowie was a hero of the Texas Revolution, pioneer, and frontiersman.

Davy Crockett — Crockett was known as the “King of the Wild Frontier” and was a folk hero. He was a frontiersman, soldier, and politician. He was well-known for his storytelling ability, and “larger than life” tales. He was a hero of the Texas Revolution and died at the Battle of the Alamo.

Simon Kenton — Kenton was a frontiersman and soldier who fought in the American Revolutionary War. He fought with George Rogers Clark on the western frontier against the Native American Indians who were allied with the British. In 1777, he saved the life of Daniel Boone during an attack that left Boone severely wounded.

Meriwether Lewis — Lewis was an explorer who heroically helped lead the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806 across the Lousiana Purchase to the Pacific Ocean. Afterward, he helped develop the Missouri Territory and was Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis.

Robert Rogers — Rogers was a colonial frontiersman. He served in the British army during both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. During the French and Indian War, Rogers raised and commanded a group of rangers, known as Rogers’ Rangers. He created the 28 Rules of Ranging that are still used by the U.S. Rangers today. He is often referred to as the “Father of the American Rangers.”

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Philosophers

Abigail Adams — Adams was the wife of Founding Father John Adams and the mother of President John Quincy Adams. She played an important role in helping shape her husband’s political views regarding the American Revolution, independence, and civil rights. She is considered to be a Founding Mother, on par with the Founding Fathers.

Abigail Adams, Young, Portrait
Abigail Adams stood with her husband, John Adams, in support of American Independence. Image Source: Wikipedia.

James Otis, Jr. — Otis was a lawyer from Massachusetts who is one of the forgotten Founding Fathers. He paved the way for the American Revolution with his fiery speeches, including his argument against the Writs of Assistance. Unfortunately for Otis, he suffered from some sort of mental condition, which was made worse when he was badly beaten in a fight. Although he faded from the scene, his leadership in the fight against the Sugar Act and Stamp Act helped set the foundation for the idealogy of the American Revolution.

I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine…Call it then the Age of Paine.

~ John Adams, letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1805

Thomas Paine — Paine was a philosopher and writer who is regarded as a Founding Father for his influential pamphlets, including “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis.”

Mercy Otis Warren — She was the sister of James Otis, Jr., the wife of John Warren, and a friend of Abigail Adams. Warren was involved in many meetings of Patriot leaders that took place in her home. She was an advocate of independence but opposed the United States Constitution. She was an accomplished playwright and also wrote the first history of the American Revolution, “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution.”

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Phillis Wheatley — Wheatly was an African-American who wrote the first book of poetry that was published in America. When her book was published, she became the first enslaved person, the first person of African descent, and only the third woman in Colonial America to have her work published.

Medical Pioneers

Clara Barton — Barton was a nurse who founded the American Red Cross. During the Civil War, she was a hospital nurse and often risked her life to help soldiers in the field of battle.

Mary Bickerdyke — Bickerdyke was a prominent hospital administrator for the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, she helped provide legal assistance to veterans who needed to secure pensions from the government. She also worked on behalf of hundreds of women nurses to secure pensions.

Women’s Rights

Susan B. Anthony — Anthony was a pioneer in the effort to gain women the right to vote in America. She was President of the National Woman Suffrage Association and she made significant contributions to the effort to pass the 19th Amendment.

Lucretia Mott — Mott was a powerful public speaker, abolitionist, and advocate for women’s rights. She dedicated her life to speaking out against racial injustice and injustice against women. She was an opponent of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, she and her husband opened up their home to slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton — Stanton was an abolitionist, human rights activist, and early leader of the women’s rights movement. In 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention, she drafted the first organized demand for women’s suffrage in the United States. In 1863, she worked with Susan B. Anthony to create the Women’s Loyal National League, which gathered around 400,000 signatures on a petition to help pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and end slavery in the United States.

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Abolitionists

William Lloyd Garrison — Garrison was a journalist from Massachusetts. He was a firm abolitionist and founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society. He also published an anti-slavery newspaper called “The Liberator.”

Frederick Douglass — He was a formerly enslaved man who became a prominent activist, author, and public speaker. Douglass was a leader in the abolitionist movement. He embraced the women’s rights movement, helped the Underground Railroad, and supported anti-slavery politicians.

Abolition of slavery had been the deepest desire and the great labor of my life.

~ Frederick Douglas, from “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass”

Thaddeus Stevens — Stevens was a member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and a prominent leader of the Radical Republican faction of the Republican Party during the 1860s. He was an abolitionist who worked for the rights of African-Americans for decades. He supported the 13th Amendment and also helped guide the process that helped pass the 14th Amendment.

Harriet Beecher Stowe — Stowe popularized the anti-slavery movement with her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although slavery was prominent in the South, many Americans were not familiar with its appalling nature. Her novel exposed the practice and played an important role in accelerating the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.

Sojourner Truth — She was an escaped enslaved woman who became an outspoken advocate for abolition, temperance, civil rights, and women’s rights during. Truth encouraged African Americans to stand up for their rights and helped many former slaves to relocate to new settlements in the north and west. She helped recruit Black soldiers during the Civil War and worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association.

Harriet Tubman — Tubman was an escaped slave who committed herself to help free other African Americans. She was the most well-known “Conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Over a decade, she made 19 trips and helped more than 300 people to freedom.

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Harriet Tubman, Portrait, Ernsberger
Harriet Tubman was the most heroic Conductor on the Underground Railroad. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Native American Indians

Pocahontas — She was the daughter of Chief Powhatan of the Powhatan people. After the English established Jamestown in 1607 she helped the struggling settlers survive. In 1614, she married John Rolfe, which helped restore peaceful relations between the Powhatan and the English.

Sacagawea — Sacagawea was from the Shoshone tribe. She joined Lewis and Clark on their expedition as an interpreter. She traveled with them from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest.

Squanto — Squanto was among a group of young men from the Pawtuxet Tribe who were kidnapped by Thomas Hunt in 1614 to be sold into slavery in Spain. He was rescued and went to England, where he learned to speak English. He returned to America and when the Pilgrims arrived, he was a friend to them and showed them how to bury dead fish in the soil as fertilizer for crops.

Soldiers and Spies

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain — Chamberlain was a college professor who volunteered to join the Union Army during the Civil War. He became a highly respected and decorated Union officer, reaching the rank of brigadier general. He is most famous for his heroic leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg where he led the defense of the Union flank on Little Round Top.

George Rogers Clark — Clark was a hero of the American Revolutionary War and became the highest-ranking American officer on the northwestern frontier. He served as leader of the militia in Kentucky throughout much of the war and commanded an expedition that captured Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes in 1778–1779.

Nathanael Greene — Greene was a Major General of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. He emerged from the war as a hero, with a reputation as George Washington’s most talented and dependable officer. Greene led the Southern Continental Army against the British, which ended in the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown.

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General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
Nathanael Green was one of the best American Generals that fought in the American Revolutionary War. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Nathan Hale — Hale was a soldier and spy for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He volunteered for a mission to spy on British forces in New York City but was captured and executed. Legend has it that his last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Henry Knox — Knox was a Founding Father and a General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He was appointed the first Secretary of War under the U.S. Constitution by president George Washington. Knox planned and led the Knox Expedition, which traveled to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve artillery and ammunition that were used to drive the British out of Massachusetts and end the Siege of Boston.

John Paul Jones — Jones is known as the “Father of the U.S. Navy” and became a hero during the American Revolutionary War. He was responsible for leading the destruction of as many as 16 British ships during the war. While commanding his ship, the Bon Homme Richard, he was asked to surrender, and famously replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!”

James Armistead Lafayette — Armistead was an enslaved African American who served the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War under the Marquis de Lafayette. He infiltrated the British camp, pretending to be an escaped slave, where he gathered intelligence and sent it to Lafayette. Later, the British asked him to spy on the Americans, and he tricked them into thinking he did but actually gave them false information. His efforts helped the Continental Army win the Battle of Yorktown. He was eventually given his freedom and took Lafayette as his last name.

Salem Poor — Salem Poor was an enslaved African-American who purchased his freedom in 1769. In 1775, he joined the Massachusetts Minutemen, participated in the Siege of Boston, and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was commended for the bravery he showed at Bunker Hill and went on to fight in the Saratoga Campaign and Battle of Monmouth. He also survived the Winter at Valley Forge.

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Israel Putnam — Putnam was a legend in Colonial America and known as “Old Put.” He served with Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War. Legend has it that when he learned about the Battle of Lexington he was in a field plowing. He dropped everything, grabbed his gun, mounted his horse, and rode to Boston. He served as a General in the Continental Army in the early part of the war.

Paul Revere — Revere was a silversmith and a key member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston. He worked for the Patriot Cause as an express rider. He is most well-known for his midnight ride to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775. He also rode from Boston to Philadelphia to deliver the Suffolk Resolves to the Massachusetts delegation at the First Continental Congress.

Peter Salem — Salem was an African-American from Massachusetts who fought in the American Revolutionary War. He was freed by his master, Major Lawson Buckminster, to serve in the local militia. He fought in the Battle of Lexington and subsequent skirmishes on April 19, 1775. He went on to participate in the Siege of Boston and is said to be the man who shot and killed British Major John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Robert Gould Shaw — Shaw was an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was from a prominent Boston family that supported abolition. He bravely accepted command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first all-black regiment to fight for the Union during the Civil War — and the most famous regiment of African-American troops that served. Shaw volunteered to lead his men in the assault on Fort Wagner. The heroic effort failed when he was killed, along with nearly 275 of his men.

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Artemas Ward — General Artemas Ward played a key role in the early days of the American Revolutionary War. When the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army, he was named as one of the first four Major Generals. He commanded the American militia forces from mid-April 1775 to early July, during the Siege of Boston and Battle of Bunker Hill.