May 30th 1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act passed

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The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (source: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=28)

 

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 The act therefore repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which many Americans considered a ‘sacred pledge’, by allowing slavery above the line established by the compromise.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.

 

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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.

 

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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: http://loc.harpweek.com/LCPoliticalCartoons/IndexDisplayCartoonLarge.asp?SourceIndex=Topics&IndexText=Kansas&UniqueID=14&Year=1856)

 

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

May 17th 1954: Brown v. Board of Education

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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.

 

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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

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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).

 

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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.

 

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

 

 

May 15th 1928: Mickey Mouse debuts

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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.

 

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‘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

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Walt Disney and his iconic character

May 13th 1888: Brazil abolishes slavery

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‘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.

 

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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.

May 11th 1812: Spencer Perceval assassinated

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Depiction of the assassination of Spencer Perceval

On this day in 1812 Spencer Perceval became the first and only British Prime Minister to be assassinated when he was shot by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval became Tory Prime Minister in 1809 (replacing the Duke of Portland) and his administration had to deal with economic depression, Luddism and the ‘madness’ of King George III. He had initially been considered a weak Prime Minister, but things had been looking up for his administration until he was shot. Bellingham was a merchant with a grievance against the government for supposedly not freeing him when he was imprisoned in Russia. The assassin was hanged on 18th May.

 

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John Bellingham (1769 – 1812)

 

“I am murdered…I am murdered”
– Perceval’s last words

April 29th 1945: Hitler marries Eva Braun

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Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun

 

On this day in 1945, as Germany’s defeat in the Second World War became imminent, Adolf Hitler married his lover Eva Braun; the two committed suicide the next day. Hitler’s National Socialist Party, more commonly referred to as Nazis, came to power in 1933 with Hitler as Chancellor. He immediately set about consolidating his power and establishing a dictatorship in Germany, making himself Führer. An ardent nationalist, Hitler targeted groups he considered a threat to Germany, including Jews, communists, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. His regime committed atrocities on an unprecedented scale; the Holocaust saw the deaths of six million Jews and World War Two, which Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy precipitated, was the most destructive war in history. Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun predated his rise to power, but they never married as Hitler feared it would damage his image. Their relationship was thus kept quiet, but was nonetheless apparently affectionate. Hitler was one of the greatest monsters history has ever seen but he was still a human, and Eva Braun has therefore been an object of fascination since the extent of their relationship was realised after the war.

 

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Exterior of the Führerbunker in Berlin, where the wedding and following suicide took place (source: http://www.ww2incolor.com/german_leadership/FB2.html)

 

At the end of the war, as the Allied forces moved on Berlin and defeat seemed all but certain, Hitler (along with some of his advisers and Braun herself) relocated to the Führerbunker. In the early hours of the morning on April 29th 1945 the pair got married in a small civil ceremony in the bunker, the culmination of a relationship that had lasted over ten years. The newlyweds hosted a modest wedding breakfast, attended by the bunker’s fellow residents such as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and promptly made their wills. The next day, April 30th 1945, the couple committed suicide together, with Braun ingesting a cyanide capsule and Hitler shooting himself. In one fell swoop their love affair was over, as was Hitler’s brutal dictatorship and the war that had plagued Europe since 1939.

 

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Newspapers herald the news of the Führer’s death

 

“From our first meeting I swore to follow you anywhere even unto death. I live only for your love”
– Eva Braun in a letter to Hitler, after the July 1944 attempt on his life

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

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 16th 1912: Lawrence Oates dies

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Scott’s expedition party – from left to right: Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson and Evans

 

On this day in 1912 Lawrence Oates, a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s British team to the South Pole, left their tent never to be seen again. Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition was his second attempt and aimed to become the first group to reach the South Pole. The group succeeded in reaching the Pole on 17th January 1912, only to discover that they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. Sadly, Scott’s entire party of five men died on the return journey.

 

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Lawrence Oates (1880 – 1912)

 

Oates was one of those who died first. He was suffering from severe frostbite and, in an apparent act of self-sacrifice, simply walked out of his tent into a blizzard. He had asked them to leave him behind as his condition worsened, and it is likely he felt that he was holding his group back and limiting their chances for survival. Thus on March 16th he walked out of the tent saying: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” The others died soon after and their bodies were found by a search party in November, along with some of their equipment and personal effects.

 

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Scott’s party at the South Pole finding that Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition got there first (Oates took this picture)

Whilst Oates’s body was never found, he and his companions are remembered as brave men and national heroes. Oates’s sacrifice especially, and those haunting words he spoke to his companions before going out into the blizzard to die, have remained in the national consciousness as an example of self-sacrifice. Scott’s group may not have been the first to the Pole, but that in no way dimishes what they achieved by reaching it. Recently Scott’s leadership abilities have been questioned, and more have wondered whether the tragedy was due to a fault of his own. However most still maintain that the death of the Scott expedition could not have been prevented.

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Robert Falcon Scott (1868 – 1912)

“We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”
– Entry in Scott’s diary about Oates

March 13th 1781: Uranus discovered

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William Herschel (1738 – 1822)

 

On this day in 1781, the planet Uranus was discovered by British astronomer William Herschel. He was in his garden in Bath, England when he observed the planet with his telescope. He initially thought thought the body was a comet but after he reported the sighting other astronomers weighed in and concluded it was indeed a new planet. At first Herschel wanted to name the planet after King George III, but foreign scientists were not too keen on that Anglocentric name. Eventually German astronomer Johann Bode suggested the name Uranus, which is the Latin name for the Greek god of the sky Ouranos. Thus Uranus joined other planets in the solar system whose names derived from the genealogy of Greek gods: Uranus was Saturn’s father, Saturn was Jupiter’s father and Jupiter was Mars’s father. The element uranium, which was discovered in 1789 by Martin Klaproth, was named in honour of Uranus.

 

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Uranus as observed by the Hubble telescope

 

“By the observation of the most eminent Astronomers in Europe it appears that the new star, which I had the honour of pointing out to them in March 1781, is a Primary Planet of our Solar System
Herschel in 1783 to President of the Royal Society Joesph Banks