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.

May 4th 1979: Thatcher becomes Prime Minister

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Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013)

 

On this day in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She is known for her conservative policies which are now commonly referred to as ‘Thatcherism’.  Her Conservative party’s victory in the 1979 general election came twenty years after she was first elected to Parliament to represent Finchley. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Thatcher had to deal with high employment and financial problems that crippled the country, to which her government responded with deregulation, privatisation and reducing the power of trade unions.

 

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Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan, a close friend and ally during the Cold War

 

She also led Britain during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982, which propelled her to re-election in 1983. Thatcher’s popularity waned and she was eventually challenged for the Conservative leadership by others in her party and thus resigned as Prime Minister in 1990. Known as ‘the Iron Lady’, Thatcher was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th Century. She died from a stroke in 2013 and remains a very controversial and divisive figure in British history.

 

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Thatcher’s 2013 funeral procession in London

 

I am going to say right off the bat that I am no Thatcher fan. I believe she ultimately harmed our country with the excessive deregulation and attacks on trade unions which crippled our working class. However, I still have a great deal of respect for Mrs. Thatcher for her strong leadership and shattering the glass ceiling of politics. The vitriol that is often spewed about her, especially by my peers at university ( which is always going to be left-wing) in Sheffield (a city whose mining industry was hurt by Thatcherite policies), irritates me. The incredibly personal and insensitive attacks which call her – what I consider an incredibly misogynistic choice of words – a ‘witch’, are uncalled for. She was a politician who was popularly elected by the majority of the country whose policies you disagree with, not an inherently evil woman hell-bent on destroying the nation and the working class especially. But this debate will continue to be had, in the pages of the history books, on the floor of the House of Commons, in university seminars and in Sheffield pubs, and it is certainly a debate worth having about a crucial figure in our history.

 

April 10th 1998: Good Friday Agreement signed

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From left: Irish leader Bertie Ahern, US Senator George Mitchell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair

 

On this day in 1998 in a major development of the Northern Ireland peace process, British and Irish representatives signed the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast. It was signed by Irish leader Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the talks were led by former US Senator George Mitchell (D-ME). The agreement followed years of historic conflict and negotiation. The agreement included plans for a Northern Ireland Assembly and a pledge by both sides to use peaceful means of conflict resolution. It set out the present constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom but with a devolved government. The agreement was approved by Irish voters in a referendum and came into force in December 1999.

 

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Poster for the ‘Yes’ campaign for the referendum on the Agreement

 

“Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders”
– Tony Blair

April 7th 1922: Teapot Dome lease signed

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April 7th 1922: Teapot Dome lease signed

 

On this day in 1922, the US Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome to private oil companies at low rates in return for bribes. Other similar deals were made, but the subsequent scandal is generally called the ‘Teapot Dome’ scandal. When the story broke, the Senate launched an investigation and in 1927 the Supreme Court invalidated the leases. The parties involved were prosecuted, with Fall being found guilty of bribery and sentenced to prison, making him the first former cabinet official sentenced to prison. The scandal weakened Harding’s public standing and the stress contributed to his premature death in 1923. The Teapot Dome scandal was regarded as America’s worst political scandal until Watergate in the 1970s.

 

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Albert Fall (1861 – 1944)

March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia

 

On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea.

 

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Lithograph by William Simpson showing the conditions of sick and wounded during Crimean War. Florence Nightingale became famous for her nursing work during this war (source: Wikipedia)

 

The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

 

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Map of the Black Sea area during the Crimean War (source: http://www.emersonkent.com/map_archive/crimean_war_1853.htm; credit: University of Texas at Austin. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912)

 

 

On the 160th anniversary of this event, the Crimean War has never seen so significant. Once considered an oddity, a blip, the war no-one remembers from history class, now it is all anyone can talk about. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which until recently was an autonomous region of Ukraine, has sparked international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era. The United Nations has recently declared illegal the vote Crimea took in favour of joining Russia, fuelling claims that the election results are suspicious, especially as Russia had troops stationed in the area. Russia has received international condemnation for the action, with many states claiming they have violated international law by invading a sovereign state. The G8 leaders have become the G7, suspending the summit which was planned to take place in Russia and shunning their once peer. The whole situation carries disturbing memories of the Cold War, with the Western and Eastern blocs watching each other warily as each expands their sphere of influence. The Crimea crisis is still developing, and it is a prime example of when understanding of the history is key to understanding the present.

March 21st 1925: Butler Act passed

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The trial sparked a nationwide debate over evolution and creationism

On this day in 1925, the Butler Act was signed into law by Tennessee Governor Austin Peay. The bill was introduced by farmer John Butler of the Tennessee State House of Representatives on January 21st and was immediately controversial. It banned school teachers from teaching evolution, and instead provided for the teaching of the Christian theory of creationism. Teachers who violated the law were to be fined a maximum of $500. Many protested that the law violated the 1st Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion and its provision of free speech. The Butler Act has become infamous in history due to its challenge in the so-called ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’. The trial was prompted by the arrest of science teacher John Scopes, and drew the attention of the nation as it essentially put the theory of evolution on trial. The lawyers for the case were famed in their fields – Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution but his conviction was reversed on a technicality. The Butler Act was not repealed until 1967.

 

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925

Darrow (left) and Bryan (right)

The Butler Act and subsequent Scopes trial have become emblematic of a backward society’s rejection of scientific progress. There is always a period where it takes a while for people to accept the latest scientific discovery. Whilst Darwin’s theory of evolution was first advanced long before the Butler Act, it took a long time for people to reconcile this theory with their faith. Many saw the theory as explicitly contrary to the Biblical story of creationism – how God created the world in seven days. The Scopes trial was a rather extreme expression of this, and has since become infamous as an example of scientific ignorance. Now, people of faith tend to accept evolution and take the Creation story less literally – these seven ‘days’ could refer to seven eons, not the 24 period we think of today. This helps some reconcile science and faith. However, in some ways the Scopes trial is still being fought in the United States. There have been many attempts by conservative Republicans to introduce the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools, which is the idea that the world must have been created by an intelligent creature – this creature is, to all intents and purposes, the Christian God. Bills such as these do not hold up well under the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment. However the struggle between religion and science persists.

 

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John Butler (1875 – 1952)

“I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee
– John Butler during the Scopes trial

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 6th 1981: Cronkite signs off

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Cronkite in his office before his last broadcast

On this day in 1981 the legendary anchor of CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite, signed off for the last time. Cronkite had been presenting the news for nineteen years and became known as ‘the most trusted man in America’. He is known for his departing catchphrase “And that’s the way it is”, followed by that day’s date. Cronkite reported on some pivotal moments in history including the Nuremberg trials, the moon landing and the Watergate scandal. He also got involved in the politics of the day, and is known for his denunciation of the Vietnam War which led President Johnson to bitterly remark “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”. Cronkite is also remembered as the anchor who broke the story of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963. After his retirement, Cronkite continued to be an active figure in the American media and as a political activist. He died in 2009 in New York City, aged 92.

 

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Cronkite announces the assassination of JFK on November 22nd 1963

“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of The CBS Evening News; for me, it’s a moment for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we’ve been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that…And that’s the way it is: Friday, March 6, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night”

 

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Newspapers report his resignation

Modern Americans may reflect wistfully on the days when the news media was dominated by figures like Walter Cronkite. Now it is full of partisan pundits like Sean Hannity, Steve Doocy, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough. Cronkite was the most trusted newsreader of his day, but who is it now? Certainly not any of these pundits. Viable candidates in the so-called ‘mainstream media’ could be NBC Nightly News’s Brian Williams or CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. However the name often tossed around to take over Cronkite’s mantle is The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. Despite being a comedian and The Daily Show a resolutely satiric show, many young Americans get most of their news from Stewart and/or his fellow ‘fake news’ host Stephen Colbert. Stewart himself despairs at this fact, as it perfectly proves the point he hammers home every night that the American news media is fundamentally and systemically flawed and does not provide adequate news coverage. However, if there is anyone who is as trusted to provide unbiased news as Cronkite was in his day, it is most likely Jon Stewart. This article highlights some of the similarities between Stewart and Cronkite and discusses how Obama may have ‘lost’ Stewart like Johnson lost Cronkite. We can therefore see how Cronkite’s legacy lives on; we may never see another media figure like him, but he remains an iconic ‘ideal-type’ journalist.

March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

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Churchill making the speech in Missouri

 

On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.

 

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Cartoon showing the Soviet iron curtain

 

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”

 

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Churchill and Harry Truman

 

This speech can reasonably be argued to be the beginning of the Cold War which defined the European political landscape for the remainder of the century. There had been mounting criticisms of the communists prior to this, but Churchill’s speech was one of the first truly adversarial public speeches given by a major world leader targetting the Soviet Union. Churchill’s fiery rhetoric shaped the fear of communists which abounded in the Western bloc. People were convinced that there were communists in their midst, trying to create another iron curtain across their country. This fuelled the virulent anticommunism of America in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R – WI.). McCarthy and his peers sought to drive all communist influence out of the United States, often sacrificing the pluralist principles that had traditionally been a bedrock of American ideology. The House Un-American Activities Committee conducted a series of high-profile hearings where they questioned people with supposed links to communism. The discovery of Soviet spies such as Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs only served to intensify fears. The ‘Cold War’ that Churchill helped set into motion had its ‘hot’ moments too. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were certainly ideologically driven and whilst not fought between the United States and Soviet Union directly, were still ‘proxy-wars’. The battle of the ideologies was also played out in other countries, where each side would try to prop up a leader who was friendly to their cause, often at the expense of democracy and civil liberties for the local people. This tense battle between two nuclear powers, who knew direct war meant unprecedented destruction, continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There are even those who claim that the Cold War continues today, especially with the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Some see Russia’s military action there as Russia trying to reassert its communist-era domination of Eastern Europe. Therefore, Churchill’s iron curtain speech was a momentous symbolic event and paved the way for the Cold War, the influence of which is still felt today.

February 25th 1870: Hiram Rhodes Revels inaugurated

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Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827 – 1901)

On this day in 1870 Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American to sit in Congress, was inaugurated into the Senate as a Republican representing Mississippi. Before he was elected to the Senate, Revels was a Methodist minister and led black Union regiments during the Civil War. The passage of the fourteenth amendment in 1868 provided legal equality for African-Americans recently freed from slavery, paving the way for them to be elected to public office. Revels gained his post after the Mississippi state legislature voted for Revels to fill one of the state’s Senate seats which had been vacant since Mississippi seceded.

 

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1870 letter from the Mississippi Governor certifying Revels’s election as United States Senator

His appointment was initially resisted by the Senate, and his legitimacy was debated for several days. On February 25th, the Senate voted to allow Revels to take up his seat, with only Republicans voting for him and Democrats against. His inauguration that day received a standing ovation as the Senate witnessed the first African-American member of Congress joining their ranks. Revels served one term in the Senate, consistently pushing for racial equality, until he resigned in 1871 to become a college president. Revels is an important and under-acknowledged figure in American history. Revels paved the way for other African-Americans to shatter the glass ceiling and reach the upper rungs of government. He defied those who questioned the ability of freed blacks to integrate into society and was the embodiment of political integrity and eloquence. Without Revels there may not have been a Robert Weaver (first African-American cabinet member), a Thurgood Marshall (first African-American Supreme Court justice), or even a Barack Obama (first African-American President).