May 20th 1806: John Stuart Mill

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John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

 

On this day in 1806, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill was born in London. Mill hailed from a prominent family, and received a stellar education in his youth; he was reading Herodotus and Aesop by the time he was eight years old. This strenuous study later contributed to a nervous breakdown he suffered in his early twenties. Mill spent some time working for the East India Company, all the while developing his Utilitarian philosophy which was inspired by the works of Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism is the philosophy that the moral course of action is the one which would bring about the most total pleasure and minimise suffering; it is essentially the doctrine of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. Mill’s Utilitarianism took a more qualitative approach to pleasure in comparison to the quantitative Bentham. Having published his important work ‘On Liberty’ in 1859, Mill became an MP for Westminster in 1865, and was actively involved in liberal politics. In 1869 he published ‘The Subjection of Women’, a statement of feminism which was considered radical at its time, and was the first MP to call for female suffrage. Along with his wife Harriet, who was a huge influence on Mill’s thinking, he was a prominent advocate of social reform and left behind a great corpus of philosophical writings and social commentary. Mill died in 1873, and was buried alongside his wife who had died in 1858.

 

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Mill’s grave in Avignon, France – his wife Harriet is also buried there

“It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”
– John Stuart Mill in ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861)

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May 16th 1801: William Seward born

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William H. Seward (1801 – 1872)

 

On this day in 1801, the prominent 19th-century American politician William Henry Seward was born in the town of Florida, New York. Seward was first elected to political office in 1839, when aged 38 he became Governor of New York. Ten years later Seward gained federal office as a US Senator, and it was here that he first made a prominent name for himself as an anti-slavery advocate. He was one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, but the task of representing the fledgling Northern, anti-slavery party went to Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln. The President-elect chose his former rival as Secretary of State, leading historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin to term the Lincoln cabinet ‘a team of rivals’. Seward served the State Department loyally throughout the American Civil War, where he worked to prevent foreign nations recognising the Confederacy. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 (when Seward himself was also unsuccessfully targeted), Seward continued in his role under the presidency of Andrew Johnson. It was in this period that Seward made his most lasting contribution to the American nation – orchestrating the acquisition of Alaska in 1867. Seward retired from public life with the beleaguered outgoing Johnson administration, and died in 1872 in Auburn, New York.

 

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Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation”
– Seward’s prescient 1858 speech regarding the sectional struggle over slavery

 

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Statue of Seward in Madison Square Garden, New York City – Seward was the first New Yorker to be honoured with a statue in the city.

 

Seward’s famous “irrepressible conflict” speech really highlights the key debate that abounds between historians who study the years preceding the Civil War. Without getting too marred in historiographical detail, the debate generally splits between fundamentalists (who argue that by a certain point, war was inevitable – with some even suggesting the Constitutional Convention, which avoided settling the slavery issue), and the revisionists (who believe that there were numerous points at which war could have been avoided e.g. the Mexican War, or that the war was the result of actions of blundering politicians). Beyond this very historically-driven perspective, Seward was an important figure in his own right. It is often in the careers of the ‘what-if’ candidates for the presidency, figures like Seward and Henry Clay who came close to the presidency, that we can see the inner workings of politics. Seward served his country admirably during a very difficult time, and even remained in office as he became increasingly isolated within the Johnson administration that became unsupportive of Reconstruction policies to help the newly freed African-American population.

April 18th 1857: Clarence Darrow born

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Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938)

 

On this day in 1857 the legendary American lawyer Clarence Darrow was born in Ohio. Darrow was a prominent member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the leading defense attorney of his day, taking many high profile cases. His most famous – or better yet, infamous – cases included defending Leopold and Loeb for the murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks in 1924 and teacher John T. Scopes for teaching evolution in the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ in 1925.

 

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John T. Scopes (1900-1970)

 

His defense of Leopold and Loeb has remained a contentious point in legal and moral discourse, as he managed to reduce their sentences from death to life imprisonment by arguing that the privileged rich teenagers were conditioned by their circumstances. His eloquent defense of Leopold and Loeb has gone down in history as one of the most prominent rejections of the element of free will and a classic deterministic viewpoint. It is in this capacity that I first came across Darrow, as this case was the main example used in my Philosophy and Ethics class of the successful legal implementation of the deterministic viewpoint. Further exploration on Darrow’s views on free will is very enlightening, as he does seem to honestly believe what he said. According to Darrow, Leopold and Loeb should not be executed for their actions because they were not their fault, but punishment must still take place as they are dangerous individuals.

 

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Leopold and Loeb

 

“Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite; not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for their blood.”

April 16th 1889: Charlie Chaplin born

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Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) pictured as ‘The Tramp’

 

On this day in 1889 the famous silent film star Charlie Chaplin was born in London. Chaplin came from a musical family, but his family fell on hard times and he spent his childhood on the streets of London. This hardship did nothing to abate the young Chaplin’s aspiration to be an actor. He began to secure roles on stage, securing a reputation as a fine comic actor. Chaplin moved to the United States in 1913 to embark on a promising film career. Soon after arriving he established the character that would make him famous: ‘the Tramp’. The character, a bumbling vagrant, featured in over 10 of Chaplin’s films.

 

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Chaplin with ‘the Tramp’ merchandise around 1918

 

This role threw Charlie Chaplin to international prominence, and he soon earned a huge salary of $670,000 a year – a vast amount even now; he had come a long way from his poverty-stricken youth in London. He continued to star in films, notably ‘The Great Dictator’ in 1940 which parodied Adolf Hitler.

 

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Charlie Chaplin as Adolf Hitler in ‘The Great Dictator’

 

Chaplin’s popularity waned as he faced controversy in the United States when he was accused of being a communist. However he enjoyed a renewed appreciation by the 1970s, winning an honorary Oscar in 1972. Chaplin died in 1977 aged 88 in Switzerland, where he had moved in the early 1950s after being banned from the States.

March 30th 1853: Van Gogh born

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) – self-portrait

 

On this day in 1853, the artist Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert in the Netherlands. The young van Gogh had a keen interest in art, and continued to draw and paint into adulthood. As an adult van Gogh traveled extensively throughout Europe, exploring the different art scenes and becoming especially affected by the French Impressionists.

 

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The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1889) – perhaps his most famous work

 

Despite his talent and distinctive art style, van Gogh was unappreciated in his lifetime. The struggling artist also suffered from mental health issues, infamously cutting off his ear and eventually shooting himself aged just 37. In his tragically short life van Gogh left an impressive selection of work, with over 2,000 pieces of art attributed to him.

 

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Sunflowers by van Gogh (1888)

 

When he died, van Gogh was a little known name; today he is a household name. His art was rediscovered after his death, and found an appreciation in a new audience who praised his unique style. I should say right off the bat that I am no art expert, so what I have to say about his work is from the perspective of an amateur! That being said, it seems to me that Van Gogh’s style is marked by the boldness of his brush stokes and choice of colours, but especially the pure emotion he brings to his art. It is a tired cliché that tortured souls make the best artists, but this certainly seems to be true in van Gogh’s case. He was plagued by mental illness issues throughout his lifetime, and translated this poignantly into his art. The images I have selected do not do justice to the full emotionality of his work, as I decided to include his two most famous pieces in a celebration of his life and legacy. However from my limited knowledge there are many other works of his which reflect the broad range of his skill. So let’s take his 161st birthday to remember the art of Vincent van Gogh, and spare a thought for the other hundreds of struggling artists whose work is not appreciate in their time.

March 18th 1893: Wilfred Owen born

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Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)

 

On this day in 1893, the English poet and soldier was born in Shropshire. Owen is famous for his poetry depicting his experiences in the First World War, especially the horrors of trench and gas warfare which he experienced first hand. His grim portrayal of war was contrary to the optimistic public perception of war. Owen was good friends with fellow World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon whom he met whilst they were both in hospital for shell shock. Perhaps Owen’s most famous poem is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. In the last lines of this poem Owen laments the “old lie” of the dictum “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which is Latin for ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’. Owen was killed in battle in 1918 aged 25 exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. He was outlived by his friend Sassoon who died in 1967.

 

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An early draft of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’

 

This year when we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we must remember Owen’s haunting words and understand the horrors these soldiers experienced. This centenary celebration is in danger of succumbing to the increasing trend to mythologise Britain’s role in the so-called ‘Great War’. Documentaries and commemorations have tended to feature the war as something heroic and noble. This could not be further from the truth – the First World War was a pointless war, it did not have the moral fervor and mission of the Second World War against the Nazis. Men like Owen died due to a mishandling of a diplomatic crisis, and his poetry serves as a reminder of the tragic futility of the fighting.

March 17th 1777: Roger Taney born

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Roger B. Taney (1777 – 1864)

On this day in 1777, Roger B. Taney was born in Maryland. Taney went on to become the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1836. The Taney Court has gone down in infamy as the Court which issued the controversial ruling Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). This ruling declared that African-Americans did not count as United States citizens and thus could not sue in federal courts. The case originated when Dred Scott, a slave, claimed that because his master took him to a free state, he was thus a free man. The Court’s complete rejection of African-American rights evoked outrage from Northern anti-slavery forces, and support from Southern slaveowners. The decision, which Taney wrote, is thus often considered one of the causes of the American Civil War as it flared sectional tensions.

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Dred Scott (1795 – 1858)

Taney’s tenure ended with his death towards the end of the Civil War in 1864, but due to his role in the Dred Scott decision, he has gone down in history as one of the worst Chief Justices in history. His critics have maintained that the decision in Dred Scott was cowardly, and Taney could have helped ease sectional tensions and further the cause of civil rights but instead chose to forbid all future petitions from African-Americans.

March 7th 1875: Ravel born

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Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)

 

On this day in 1875 the French composer Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, not far from the Spanish border. He was born into a Catholic household to a Swiss father and Basque mother. Ravel’s father imparted onto his son his love of music, which shaped the young Maurice’s future. His musical talents led him to the Paris Conservatoire, and whilst he was not academically successful there he was acknowledged as a gifted musician.

 

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Ravel’s grave in Paris

 

Ravel went on to enjoy an illustrious career as a composer, especially known for his piano pieces like ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ and ‘Jeux d’eau’. However Ravel’s most famous work is probably the orchestral piece ‘Boléro’ which premiered in 1928. In the spirit of the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, here is a link to Torvill and Dean’s gold medal winning ice dancing performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. This performance is how I first heard of Ravel, and I think it may be the same for many others. ‘Boléro’ is often considered synonymous with Torvill and Dean, but we must remember the man behind the music: Maurice Ravel. 

March 4th 1678: Vivaldi born

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Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

On this day in 1678, the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice. He was baptised immediately after birth, a very rare event, most likely because he seemed to be in poor health and his mother wanted him baptised in case he died. Vivaldi is often considered one of the greatest Baroque musicians. Perhaps his most famous work is the series of violin concertos ‘The Four Seasons’.

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Monument to Vivaldi in Vienna

His red hair and position as a Catholic priest earned him the nickname ‘il Prete Rosso’ or ‘The Red Priest’. During his lifetime Vivaldi was active in his community, helping in a local orphanage where he supported their music programmes for the children. Antonio Vivaldi died in Vienna in 1741 aged 63, after moving there hoping for employment by Emperor Charles VI. Whilst he died impoverished, his music is now widely considered some of the greatest from his era. ‘Spring’ from his Four Seasons has especially enjoyed popularity, and is arguably his most well known piece beyond usual classical music fans.

February 22nd 1857: Robert Baden-Powell born

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Robert Baden-Powell (1857 – 1941)

On this day in 1857, the founder of the Scout movement Robert Baden-Powell was born in Paddington, London. Baden-Powell began his career as a lieutenant-general in the British Army; he fought in the Boer War and served in the colonial force in India and Africa. In 1907 he held the first Scout camp on Brownsea Island. After the success of this he published ‘Scouting for Boys’ a year later, which was billed as a ‘Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship’.

 

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Cover for the first part of ‘Scouting for Boys’ from 1908

 

 

The Scout Movement grew from there, establishing an equivalent for girls in 1910 and is now a worldwide phenomenon. The movement has reached countless countries, and in this age of modern technology, encourages an interest in the outside and nature. However it also promotes general good citizenship, as envisioned in Baden-Powell’s 1908 work. There have been some controversies surrounding the Scouts, with some finding many of its stances backward. The continued mention of God in the Scout oath and the discriminatory polices towards homosexuals of some of the associations in the movement have proved especially worrying. However, as long as they are able to update their positions to suit the modern era, Scouts and Guides are still great organisations for young people to get involved in. It’s a real back-to-basics approach to youth recreation, which some will find very rewarding.