May 22nd 1856: Caning of Charles Sumner


The Caning of Charles Sumner – note the inactivity (and sometimes glee) of the bystanders, Sumner’s noble poise, and the facelessness of Brooks (this way he could stand in for the whole South)


On this day in 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten almost to death by Representative Preston Brooks. Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, had recently made a speech in the Senate entitled ‘The Crime Against Kansas’. In this impressive six hour speech, Sumner decried the violence in Kansas between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers (who were fighting over the future of slavery in the territory) and specifically targeted slavery itself and Southerners. One character he singled out was South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, who Sumner openly accused of taking one of his black slaves as a mistress. This was considered an affront against his honour, and his relative Preston Brooks sought revenge. Brooks considered challenging Sumner to an Old-South style duel, but felt that this would be to imply that they were social equals. Brooks instead resolved to try to kill the abolitionist, marching into his office two days after the speech and repeatedly striking the senator with a cane until Sumner was beaten unconscious and Brooks’s cane shattered. Several other Southern Congressmen were present and prevented anyone from helping Sumner.


“Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine”
– Brooks to Sumner before beating him unconscious



Preston Brooks (1819 – 1857)


The attack sharply divided national opinion; Northerners called Brooks barbaric and suggested the incident represented how slaveholders treat everyone like slaves, whereas in the South Brooks became a hero, with pieces of his cane being honoured like relics and people sending him a cane inscribed with the words ‘Hit him again!’. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years, and the Massachusetts legislature decided to leave his seat empty – a poignant symbol of the brutality of slaveholders. Brooks meanwhile, was fined $300 and resigned from the House after a motion to expel him failed, but he was soon re-elected anyway.



Charles Sumner (1811 – 1874)


The caning of Charles Sumner was a pivotal moment on the road to Civil War. The violence in Kansas – known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ – stretched sectional violence all the way from the Western frontier to the nation’s capital. These events were capitalised on by the fledgling Republican Party in the 1856 presidential election. They used the imagery of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and ‘Bleeding Sumner’, even handing out copies of Sumner’s Kansas speech, to rally Northern anti-slavery voters to their cause by invoking the idea of a Southern ‘Slave Power’ conspiracy to spread slavery across the whole country. Whilst the Republican candidate John C. Fremont lost to the Democrat James Buchanan, the election was considered a ‘victorious defeat’ for the young party as it firmly established the Republicans as the main rival to the Democrats – besting its next closest rivals the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. Sectional tension over slavery only continued after 1856, with the infamous Dred Scott decision the next year prompting outrage from Northerners and support from Southerners. Tensions came to a head in the 1860 election, which saw a final sectional split of the political parties and culminated in the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The Southern states were horrified by his election, fearing an attack on slavery, and soon seceded from the Union. Once Confederate forces fired upon the Union Fort Sumter in South Carolina, war broke out. And the rest, they say, is history.


May 21st 1871: Bloody Week begins


A barricade in the Paris Commune


On this day in 1871 French troops marched on the Paris Commune and began fighting the revolutionaries there. The Commune took power in opposition to the conservative royalist National Assembly which was elected in February 1871; republican Parisians feared the Assembly would restore the monarchy. When officials of Adolphe Thiers’s government tried to remove the cannons of the city’s guards on March 18th the Commune seized power and were later elected on March 26th. The Commune enacted socialist policies such as ending support of religion and promoting female suffrage; they adopted a plain red flag as the flag of the Commune.



The Rue de Rivoli after the fall of the Paris Commune


Communard soldiers killed two French troops and refused to stand down, prompting the attack on the Commune by French forces who entered through an undefended area. The Commune was brutally repressed by the national government during the street fighting of ‘Bloody Week’, with around 20,000 insurrectionists being killed before the Commune fell on May 28th. The government treated the surviving Communards and their supporters ruthlessly – arresting around 38,000 and deporting around 7,000.



Corpses of Communards killed in 1871


The Commune retains a strong legacy both in France and abroad as an example of a socialist revolutionary government that was established by the citizenry. It was, in many ways, ahead of its time in the egalitarian policies it enacted. The brutal repression of the Commune brought a swift end to a fascinating political experiment. We will never know what would have happened had the Paris Commune endured, it is unlikely it ever would have, but its memory lives on.

May 20th 1806: John Stuart Mill


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.



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)

May 19th 1848: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo


The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo


On this day in 1848 Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thus ending the Mexican-American War. The war broke out in 1846 after the United States, as a last act of outgoing President John Tyler, annexed Texas from Mexico in 1845. Texas was Mexican territory but had declared itself independent in 1836 and requested to join the United States. The American debate over Texas revolved mostly around the slavery issue, as the admission of Texas (a slaveholding region) to the Union would once again flare sectional tensions over the divisive issue of slavery in the United States. The annexation heightened tensions between Mexico and the United States, and war eventually broke out in 1846 when a Mexican cavalry unit killed some American soldiers. The war lasted for almost two years, ending with a resounding victory for the United States.



The Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War



The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war but also provided for the sale of a huge portion of Mexican land to America – the ‘Mexican Cession’ – for $15 million. This new area of land encompassed modern California, Nevada, Utah, much of Arizona and New Mexico and small parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Many Americans, especially the Democratic administration of James K. Polk, celebrated the expansion of America to the Pacific coast. However the acquisition raised further problems over the slavery issue which were eventually settled by the controversial Compromise of 1850, often considered a mere armistice which eventually led the nation into civil war. In fact, one historian (Gary Kornblith) has argued that no Mexican War, no Civil War. He pinpoints the ‘point of no return’ as the expansionist Polk’s election in 1844 over the more moderate Whig Henry Clay. Without this popular endorsement of Manifest Destiny – the idea that America’s destiny is to expand across the continent – Tyler would have been unable to push annexation through Congress. There would thus have been no war, no Mexican Cession to debate slavery over, no Compromise of 1850 which enflared sectional tensions, and thus no secession and no war. It is an interesting argument and while many may disagree, shows just how important the Mexican War, and the treaty that ended it, is to American history.



Map showing the Mexican Cession


“The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prescient warning over war with Mexico as it would incite the slavery debate

May 18th 1896: Khodynka Tragedy


Crowds surround a victim of the tragedy


On this day in 1896 during the festivities celebrating the coronation of new Russian Tsar Nicholas II, a mass panic on Khodynka Field in Moscow led to 1,389 deaths. A banquet was planned for the people which was highly anticipated due to rumours of free beer, pretzels and gingerbread. Thousands gathered early in the morning, but a rumour spread that there was not enough food for everyone and in the ensuing panic and crush, 1,389 were trampled to death and a further 1,300 injured.



Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II


The new Tsar visited the injured in hospital but still attended a ball at the French embassy in the evening which many thought showed a lack of care for his subjects (Nicholas had not wanted to go but his advisors considered it an insult to France). The incident marked the beginning of a series of events which undermined faith in Tsar Nicholas II and led to his removal from power in 1917, making him the last Tsar of Russia.

May 17th 1954: Brown v. Board of Education


A woman and her daughter on the steps of the Supreme Court


On this day in 1954, 60 years ago,the US Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The decision declared racial  segregation in schools unconstitutional, striking down the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ segregation which had been in place since the 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson. The Brown case had been bought by African-American parents, including Oliver L. Brown, against Topeka’s educational segregation. It was argued before the Court by the chief legal counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967.



Thurgood Marshall (1908 – 1993)


The Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared that segregation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Warren Court went on to make a name for itself as a Court that issued some of the most significant rulings in modern American history. Its critics slammed it as a liberal/activist Court, whereas its supporters hailed these decisions. They included Gideon v. Wainright (1963) – the right to a state-provided attorney if you could not afford one; Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) – the right to privacy and to use contraception; Miranda v. Arizona (1966) – the right to be informed of your constitutional rights upon arrest; Loving v. Virginia (1967) – the right to interracial marriage; and the enduringly controversial Engel v. Vitale (1962) which banned school prayer.


“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”
– Warren’s opinion for the Court


The Warren Court (1953)


The landmark decision is often considered the start of the Civil Rights Movement, which fought for racial integration and full equality for African-Americans. The Brown decision, and escalation of the nonviolent equality movement, provoked considerable opposition in both the Northern and Southern states, which Southern schools in particular refusing to integrate, and nation-wide violence against protestors. Despite these barriers, the Movement transformed American society, leading to the end of legal segregation and landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).



Segregationists in the South protest against integration following the Supreme Court’s decision


However the mission of the movement, so eloquently expressed by Dr. King, to achieve full equality, is far from over. 60 years on from Brown, it is a time for reflection on how far America has come since this landmark ruling. Great progress has undoubtedly been made, the very fact that America’s current President is an African-American is testament to this, as it would have been inconceivable 60 years ago. But this does not mean that America is a free and equal society, far from it. African-Americans remain disadvantaged, with a disproportionate number incarcerated or living below the poverty line, and cases like the murder of Trayvon Martin demonstrate that racial violence is by no means a thing of the past. The Civil Rights Movement, I would argue, has also evolved to encompass more than African-American rights. The Movement lives on today in the fight for marriage equality in the United States, in the struggle for more humane immigration policies, and in the post-9/11 world where Muslims are often wrongly branded as terrorist extremists. We must also beware of letting the achievements of the movement be endangered. The Supreme Court recently struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, and Voter ID laws in some states disadvantage minorities when it comes to voting. America and the wider world has thus come a long way since Brown and is a better world thanks to the Warren Court’s decision, but we are far from becoming a perfect world.


Obama inauguration

The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States in 2009



May 16th 1801: William Seward born


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.



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



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 15th 1928: Mickey Mouse debuts


The first Mickey Mouse cartoon


On this day in 1928, the iconic Disney character Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in the cartoon ‘Plane Crazy’. The character was developed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks and was inspired by Disney’s childhood pet mouse. Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie were first seen in a test screening on this day in 1928. However, the character was not popular, and it was not until November 1928 that a Mickey Mouse cartoon was released and widely distributed with ‘Steamboat Willie’, which is considered Mickey’s official debut. The character’s popularity steadily increased and became the mascot of the hugely successful Walt Disney Company.



‘Steamboat Willie’ – Mickey’s first big success


“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse”
– Walt Disney, 1954


Walt Disney and his iconic character

May 14th 1881: Mary Seacole dies


Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)


On this day in 1881 the nurse Mary Seacole died in London aged 76. Originally from Jamaica, the young Mary was taught her nursing skills by her mother. When war broke out in the Crimea, she applied to give medical assistance to wounded servicemen but was refused, and so gave treatment independently. Her patients admired ‘Mother Seacole’ and helped raised money for her after the war when she was left destitute. Despite her exemplary national service and popularity in Britain, Seacole faced discrimination at home due to her race and was unable to vote or hold public office.



Blue plaque outside Seacole’s London home


She has often been forgotten and placed in the shadow of famous Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, a phenomenon which some critics consider a ‘whitewashing’ of British history. Seacole should be the household name that Nightingale is – they each were heroines of the Crimean War who put themselves in danger to help their country. However it should be noted that in 2004 Seacole was voted the greatest Black Briton, so she certainly is beginning to receive the attention a woman like her deserves.

May 13th 1888: Brazil abolishes slavery


‘Slavery in Brazil’ by Jean-Baptiste Debret


On this day in 1888, Brazil passed the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) which abolished slavery in the country, making it the last nation in the Western world to abolish the practice. Prompted in part by the initiative of local abolitionists, the urging of the British and the defeat of the slave-holding Confederacy in the American Civil War, Brazil emancipated its slaves. Prior to the 1888 law the Rio Branco Law of 1871 freed slave children and an 1885 law freed slaves over 60. However it was not until 1888 that complete emancipation of the Brazilian slave population was secured. Brazil had one of the largest slave populations in the world, and the slaves there were predominately Africans who had been torn from their homes by the brutal Atlantic slave trade. The Golden Law, composed by Minister of Agriculture Rodrigo Augusto da Silva and signed into law by Princess Isabel, was very brief and provided no assistance for the newly freed slaves, leaving them on their own at the bottom of the economic ladder. Whilst hailed by many foreign observers and local abolitionists, the law fuelled discontent among the Brazilian upper class, who preceded to oust the monarchy and establish a republic the year after the Golden Law.



The Lei Áurea which abolished slavery


Article 1: From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil.
Article 2: All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.