May 30th 1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act passed


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (source:


On this day in 1854, the US President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. This controversial law was designed to settle the question of whether the remaining unorganised land gained from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 would enter the Union as slave or free states. Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois – who would gain later fame for his Senate race against Abraham Lincoln in 1858 which gave rise to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates – was the architect of the law. It provided that the slavery question would be settled by the principle of popular sovereignty – the settlers themselves would determine slavery’s fate. The act therefore repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which many Americans considered a ‘sacred pledge’, by allowing slavery above the line established by the compromise. Douglas pushed the law as he wanted to secure a Transcontinental Railroad which would have its Eastern terminus in Chicago, and did not think slavery would be able to take root in the less fertile land of the West. He failed to foresee the problems over popular sovereignty that would arise, such as how and when to determine the slavery question.



Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1813 – 1861)


The bill passed Congress after a sharply sectional vote, with most Northerners voting against it and most Southerners for it, before it was approved by Pierce. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was immediately controversial, contributing to the collapse of the Whig party, the birth of the Republican party, the entrance of Abraham Lincoln into politics, the rise of fear of the ‘Slave Power’ conspiracy in the North and the rush of settlers to Kansas which resulted in the bloody warfare of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. Due to these sectional animosities stirred by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it is considered a pivotal moment on the road to the Civil War.



Republican cartoon from the 1856 election depicting the violence during Bleeding Kansas as Missourians crossed the border into Kansas to cast fraudulent pro-slavery ballots. Note the way Douglas on the far left is scalping a freesoil settler – evoking imagery of the supposed savagery of Native Americans (source:


“This will raise one hell of a storm”
– Douglas’s prescient comment after deciding his Kansas-Nebraska Act would repeal the Missouri Compromise


May 28th 1892: Sierra Club founded


Sierra Club logo


On this day in 1892, John Muir founded the famous environmental organisation the Sierra Club in San Francisco, California. Muir was a notable conservationist and preservationist and became the Club’s first president. The Sierra Club worked to establish and protect federal national parks, most famously Yosemite National Park. Their cause received a boost during Progressive Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency (1901-1909), who was a naturalist like Muir.



Roosevelt (left) & Muir in Yosemite


Some of the Club’s most notable successes since 1892 came during Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programme, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Sierra Club continues to be an influential group in the United States as one of the largest pressure groups in the nation. It has a significant influence over environmental issues and dedicates itself to tackling climate change and damage to the environment, most recently protesting against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.



Painting of Yosemite National Park


May 26th 1868: President Johnson acquitted


Senate trial of Johnson – Theodore Davis


On this day in 1868 President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial ended, finding him not guilty by one vote. Johnson became President in 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and was thus in power during the crucial stage of Reconstruction after the Civil War. However, Johnson did little to support the newly emancipated slaves, and opposed measures like the Fourteenth Amendment which granted them citizenship. A Tennesseean, chosen as Lincoln’s running-mate to give the impression of national unity, Johnson was more sympathetic to the former Confederate states than a Northern counterpart may have been.



Andrew Johnson (1808-1875)


The unpopular President was impeached in February by the House of Representatives, with the main charge being that he violated the Tenure of Office Act by attempting to remove Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. Johnson was then put on trial in the Senate, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase presiding. He was tried by two articles of impeachment, and both fell short – by just one vote – of the required two thirds majority needed to find him guilty and remove him from office. Whilst Congress gave specific reasons for the impeachment, many still consider the affair a mostly political retaliation by Radical Republicans against the President’s Reconstruction policies. Johnson and Bill Clinton in 1998 remain the only two Presidents to have been impeached.



The affair became a national scandal – tickets were sold for the trial

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 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 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 10th 1849: Astor Place Riot


On this day in 1849 a riot broke out at the Astor Opera House in New York City. The incident was initially sparked by a long-running dispute between two leading actors of the day – William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest – over who was a better Shakespearean performer. However, tensions heightened as the two actors became proxies for the opposing classes in New York – the British Macready represented the upper class and the American Forrest the lower classes.



William Charles Macready as Macbeth (1793 – 1873) source:


The brewing animosity came to a head on the night of May 10th when Macready’s performance of Macbeth, which had been cancelled due to protests at the first attempt, was rescheduled for. A militia company, expecting there to be violence at the rescheduled play, was stationed nearby. As predicted, violence broke out which prompted the troops to fire into the crowd, with around 25 being killed and hundreds injured.



Edwin Forrest as Macbeth (1806 – 1872) source:


The riot is mainly remembered today for the way it pitted immigrants against nativists, a divide which was arguably a key factor in the lead up to Civil War. Whilst slavery was indeed a key division in American society that enflared the sectional tensions that led to war, the importance of nativism should not be overlooked. Prior to the rise of the Republican party in 1856, the other main party that opposed the conservative Southern Democrats were the Know-Nothings, a primarily anti-Catholic party. The virulence of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the antebellum years almost rivaled that of slavery. This is not to say that the Civil War was fought over immigration, far from it, but nativism and events like the Astor riot play an important part in the narrative of the road to disunion.

March 8th 1970: Hard Hat Riot


A scene from the Hard Hat Riot


On this day in 1970 construction workers in New York City attacked a group of protestors. The latter group, made up of around 1,000 students and others, were anti-war protestors moved to action by the shootings at Kent State University four days before which resulted in the deaths of four protestors. Around two hundred of the so-called ‘hard hats’, who supported President Nixon’s policy in Vietnam, took to the streets in a counter-protest. They were particularly incensed by the mayor’s decision to keep the City Hall flags at half mast in honour of the Kent State victims, a move they considered unpatriotic. Around seventy people were injured in the riot, but only six were arrested in the aftermath. President Nixon didn’t directly endorse the actions of the hard-hats, but later was presented with a hard hat by a delegation of union leaders at the White House.



Hard hats on a table after Nixon’s meeting with union groups


The often-forgotten event is frequently buried in the narrative of this period of American history as a time of liberal protests. However the Hard Hat Riot reminds us that there was considerable conservative opposition to these developments from people like these blue-collar New York workers. The 1960s and 1970s were not purely a story of liberal students finding a voice and successfully protesting for change. The the so-called ‘forgotten American’ – the blue collar, white, working class man – also played his part in the popular politics of the day. If we see this full picture of American public opinion, the rise of Reagan and the New Right becomes less surprising and instead we can see the long-term roots of the conservative tide, dissatisfied with the changes of the Great Society era.