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7 Fires That Changed History

September 22, 2020 in History

By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

Massive fires have erased vital artifacts, but also led to significant reform and rebuilding.

Throughout history, fires have led to drastic changes in population patterns, infrastructure, and the course of world events. Here are seven fires that changed history.

1. The Burning of the Great Library of Alexandria

The: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.

“The Great Rebuilding” that occurred in the fire’s wake transformed Chicago and made it a new, powerful hub for business. Over $10 million was donated to the community. “This was soon accompanied by a great deal of capital investment,” says Smith, “since Chicago’s crucial position between the natural resources of the American hinterland and the consumer appetites—for grain, meat, and a wide range of other commodities and goods— of the East and Europe made its rebuilding a high priority and a sound investment for investors. The fire became critical to the image of Chicago as the embodiment of the irresistible force of modernity in America.”

WATCH: The Great Chicago Fire on HISTORY Vault

5. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (TV-PG; 3:29)

WATCH: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911 killed 146 employees of the Triangle Waist Company who were trapped in the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Many leapt to their deaths in twos and threes or perished in droves by locked exits. “Everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle,” said eyewitness Frances Perkins. Most of the victims were young women and immigrants, many of whom had come to the United States in hopes of a better life.

The fire united organized labor, and public outcry over the incident pressured the national government to take action to protect workers, leading to new workplace safety laws. Perkins was so outraged that she devoted her life to defending workers’ rights. She went on to help set up the Factory Investigating Commission and eventually became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor during the New Deal, transforming the landscape of work in America.

READ MORE: How the Horrific Tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Led to Workplace Safety Laws

6. The Reichstag Fire

The burned-down plenary sessions hall of the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, February 28, 1933.

Arsonists set the Reichstag, the seat of German parliament, on fire on February 27, 1933. Adolf Hitler, a rising politician who had just been …read more


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What Is the Hatch Act and Why Was Established in 1939?

September 22, 2020 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

The 1939 law was created in the wake of a scandal involving FDR and federal employees of the Works Progress Administration.

The Hatch Act was signed into law in 1939 to keep federal employees from engaging in political activities while they’re on the job. It was also designed to ensure federal employees don’t face political pressures as they perform their work. While numerous federal employees have been cited with violating the act over the years, high-ranking political appointees have rarely faced any repercussions.

The act was initially passed in reaction to a scandal during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sponsored by, and named after, New Mexico Senator Carl A. Hatch, a Democrat nicknamed “Cowboy Carl,” the legislation defines political activity as “any activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group. Violations of the Hatch Act carry serious penalties, which may result in disciplinary action or removal from Federal employment.”

FDR Ally Promised Jobs, Promotions for Campaigning

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, head of the Works Progress Administration, at work in the White House study.

Donald Sherman, deputy director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and former senior counsel on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, says the Hatch Act was created following concern that FDR had pressured federal employees from the Works Progress Administration, a relief agency, into working on campaigns of candidates who were his allies or supporters.

According to Time magazine, Harry Hopkins, the director of the WPA and a Roosevelt crony, “had promised jobs and promotions within the WPA in exchange for votes in the U.S. Senate election in Kentucky. During the Great Depression, such promises would have carried great weight.”

The federal government, Sherman says, is supposed to not only represent, but also serve all Americans regardless of their party affiliation.

“The other function of the Hatch Act is preventing, say a veteran who calls the local VA about services, or someone who calls the CDC for information about COVID-19, from being asked the question, ‘Well, are you a Republican or a Democrat? Do you support, or will you support, this president?’” he says.

President and VP Exempt From Parts of Hatch Act

According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which oversees violation complaints, except for the president and vice …read more


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The Sedition and Espionage Acts Were Designed to Quash Dissent During WWI

September 21, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

As the United States entered World War I, President Wilson and Congress sought to silence vocal and written opposition to U.S. involvement in the war.

When the United States finally decided to enter .

One of the Court’s landmark decisions was Schenck v. United States, in which socialist Charles Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by distributing leaflets urging Americans to disobey the draft. The Court voted unanimously to uphold the conviction, citing necessary limits on free speech during times of war.

“The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent,” wrote Justice Holmes, introducing a new judicial test for whether speech crossed the line from disloyal to dangerous.

To illustrate what kind of speech met the “clear and present danger” test, Holmes gave a now-famous hypothetical example. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic,” he wrote.

A Stunning Reversal and a Repeal

Eugene Debs delivering an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, June 16, 1918.

Holmes and his fellow justices upheld convictions in two more conspiracy cases, including Debs v. United States, in which the outspoken socialist and presidential candidate was imprisoned for simply pledging support for three men who had been jailed for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Shortly after his arrest, Debs wrote a friend, “I am expecting nothing but conviction under a law flagrantly unconstitutional and which was framed especially for the suppression of free speech.”

Then something interesting happened. Holmes and another justice, Louis Brandeis, appear to have had a change of heart.

In Abrams v. United States, argued before the Supreme Court a year after the end of World War I, the justices were split. At issue was the conviction of two Russian immigrants who threw leaflets from an apartment window in 1918 denouncing U.S. interference in the Bolshevik Revolution. Seven justices claimed that the action met the “clear and present danger” test, but not Holmes and Brandeis.

Writing for the minority, Holmes presented a new judicial philosophy for regulating speech, in which ideas—good or bad, benign or dangerous—are free to compete in a marketplace of ideas.

“The ultimate good desired is better reached …read more


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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice Since 1993, Dies at 87

September 19, 2020 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Known for her judicial restraint and sharp legal mind, Ginsburg delivered some of the Supreme Court’s most influential majority opinions.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a groundbreaking attorney, a lifelong advocate for gender equality, and a civil servant who served as a justice on the Supreme Court for 27 years, died September 18, 2020 due to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was 87 years old.

Her death marked the end of an era for a court indelibly shaped both by her liberal views and her commitment to judicial restraint. Known for both her unwavering beliefs and taste for compromise, Ginsburg’s self-effacing ways and pop culture prowess expanded how the public thought not just of women in power, but the role of a Supreme Court judge.

READ MORE: , a case that involved a man who was appointed his son’s executor because of a law that discriminated against women, before the United States Supreme Court. But she wrote the brief, and the ACLU won the case.

Soon, Ginsburg had taken on a role at the newly founded ACLU Women’s Rights Project. In 1972, the same year she helped cofound the project, she became the first woman to be granted tenure at Columbia Law School.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in New York in 1972, when she was named a professor at Columbia Law School.

Ginsburg chose her battles wisely, often using male plaintiffs to chip away at laws that discriminated against women. She had a strong ally in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided for equal protection by all U.S. laws for all U.S. citizens. Slowly but surely, she used the Equal Protection Clause to attack gender discrimination.

Among her victories were lawsuits that affirmed equality in governmental benefits for people who had served in the military (Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973), surviving spouse benefits (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975), and jury service (Duren v. Missouri, 1979). Ultimately, Ginsburg argued over 300 gender discrimination cases and appeared before the Supreme Court in six.

In 1980, President Carter nominated Ginsburg to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 after being nominated by President Clinton. During her confirmation hearings, she notably declined to answer several questions that might at some point come before the Supreme Court, a move now dubbed “the Ginsburg precedent.”

As an Associate Justice, …read more


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How the Chicano Movement Championed Mexican-American Identity and Fought for Change

September 18, 2020 in History

By Karen Juanita Carrillo

Chicano activists took on a name that had long been a racial slur—and wore it with pride.

In the 1960s, a radicalized Mexican-American movement began pushing for a new identification. The Chicano Movement, aka El Movimiento, advocated social and political empowerment through a chicanismo or cultural nationalism.

As the activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales declared in a 1967 poem, “La raza! / Méjicano! / Español! / Latino! / Chicano! / Or whatever I call myself, / I look the same.”

Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales speaking outside a police building to members of his organization, the Crusade for Justice, 1969.

Leading up to the 1960s, Mexican-Americans had endured decades of discrimination in the U.S. West and Southwest. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo put an end to the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexicans who chose to remain on territory ceded to the United States were promised citizenship and “the right to their property, language and culture.”

But in most cases, Mexicans in America––those who later immigrated and those who lived in regions where the U.S. border shifted over––found themselves living as second-class citizens. Land grants promised after the Mexican-American War were denied by the U.S. government, impoverishing many land-grant descendants in the area.

READ MORE: Hispanic Heritage: Full Coverage

Not White, But ‘Chicano’

Throughout the early 20th century, many Mexican-Americans attempted to assimilate and even filed legal cases to push for their community to be recognized as a class of white Americans, so they could gain civil rights. But by the late 1960s, those in the Chicano Movement abandoned efforts to blend in and actively embraced their full heritage.

By adopting “Chicano” or “Xicano,” activists took on a name that had long been a racial slur—and wore it with pride. And instead of only recognizing their Spanish or European background, Chicanos now also celebrated their Indigenous and African roots.

Leaders in the movement pushed for change in multiple parts of American society, from labor rights to education reform to land reclamation. As University of Minnesota Chicano & Latino Studies professor Jimmy C. Patino Jr. says, the Chicano Movement became known as “a movement of movements.” “There were lots of different issues,” he says, “and the farmworker issue probably was the beginning.”

Chávez Leads Fight for Farmworkers’ Rights

UFW co-founders Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, 1968.

César Chávez and Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers …read more


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Native Americans Used Fire to Protect and Cultivate Land

September 18, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

Indigenous people routinely burned land to drive, prey, clear underbrush and provide pastures.

When naturalists like John Muir first entered the Yosemite Valley of California in the 19th century, they marveled at the beauty of what they believed to be a pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. The truth is that the rich diversity and stunning landscapes of places like Yosemite and other natural environments in the United States were intentionally cultivated by Native Americans for thousands of years. And their greatest tool was fire.

“Fire was a constant companion, a kind of universal catalyst and technology,” says Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University, author and fire historian.

Yosemite itself was routinely burned to clear underbrush, open pasture lands, provide nutrient-rich forage for deer, and to support the growth of woodland food crops to feed and sustain what was once a large and thriving indigenous population.

“If you look at the early photographs of Yosemite and you see the great big majestic stands of oaks, you would be led to believe that those are natural,” says Frank Kanawha Lake, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, wildland firefighter and Karuk descendent.

“But those trees are a legacy of indigenous acorn management. Those are tribal orchards that were managed for thousands of years for acorn production and for the geophytes or ‘Indian potatoes’ that grow beneath them.”

WATCH: Mega Disasters on HISTORY Vault

Seasonal Wildfires vs. Cultural Burning

Thick smoke from multiple forest fires shrouds iconic El Capitan, right, and the granite walls of Yosemite Valley on September 12, 2020 in Yosemite National Park, California.

The hugely destructive seasonal wildfires that consume millions of acres of forest across the Western United States every year are mostly triggered when lightning strikes a stand of trees that’s dangerously dry from late-summer heat or drought.

While those types of natural fires have always existed, indigenous people have also practiced what’s known as “cultural burning,” the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more.

“[Cultural burning] links back to the tribal philosophy of fire as medicine,” says Lake. “When you prescribe it, you’re getting the right dose to maintain the abundance of productivity of all ecosystem services to support the ecology in your culture.”

Examples of Native American cultural …read more


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How John Adams Established the Peaceful Transfer of Power

September 17, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

The election of 1800 marked the first time the leader of one political party handed the reins of government to his opponent.

In the early morning hours of March 4, 1801, John Adams, the second president of the United States, quietly left Washington, D.C. under cover of darkness. He would not attend the inauguration ceremony held later that day for his former friend—now political rival—Thomas Jefferson, who would soon replace Adams in the still-unfinished presidential mansion.

On the heels of his humiliating defeat in the previous year’s election, Adams was setting an important precedent. His departure from office marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political opponents in the United States, now viewed as a hallmark of the nation’s democracy. Since then, the loser of every presidential election in U.S. history has willingly and peacefully surrendered power to the winner, despite whatever personal animosity or political divisions might exist.

WATCH: ‘The Founding Fathers‘ on HISTORY Vault

The First Political Parties

The U.S. Constitution left out the mention of political parties, as many founders viewed “factions” as a danger to democracy. “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it,” George Washington famously declared in 1796, after making the momentous decision to step aside after two terms as the nation’s first president.

But the spirit of party already existed in the United States—even within Washington’s own cabinet. As the nation’s first secretary of state, Jefferson clashed repeatedly with Alexander Hamilton, the treasury secretary, over the growing power of the federal government, which Jefferson distrusted. In 1791, Jefferson and James Madison formed the Democratic-Republican Party in opposition to Hamilton’s ambitious Federalist programs, including the new national banking system.

In the election of 1796, Jefferson and Adams, Washington’s vice president, competed to succeed him, with Adams pulling off a narrow victory. Because the Constitution hadn’t provided for political parties, the system of electing the president didn’t take them into account: The candidate who got the most votes (Adams) became president, and the runner-up (Jefferson) became vice president.

During Adams’s presidency, Democratic-Republicans and Federalists clashed over everything from taxes to religion, but especially over the main policy dilemma facing the nation: how to deal with the ongoing French Revolution. Jefferson and his supporters favored …read more


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How the U.S. Constitution Has Changed and Expanded Since 1787

September 16, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Through amendments and legal rulings, the Constitution has transformed in some critical ways.

The (1857).

The 15th Amendment ensured voting rights to Black men (although Southern states would soon find ways to restrict those rights). In 1920, after ratification of the 19th Amendment gave voting rights to all American women for the first time, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt memorably declared that “To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign.”

The women’s suffrage movement was a decades-long fight to win the right to vote for women in the United States. It took activists and reformers nearly 100 years to win that right, and the campaign was not easy. Here, suffragettes march in Greenwich Village, New York City, ca. 1912.

View the 14 images of this gallery on the original article

PHOTOS: Women’s Suffrage

The Executive Branch’s Power Expanded

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, Congress was the dominant branch of government, as the framers of the Constitution intended. Though some earlier presidents—including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—claimed more powers for themselves, especially in wartime, the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt marked a turning point in the expansion of executive power. Despite passage of the 22nd Amendment, which limited future presidents to only two terms in office, the growing power of the presidency was a trend that showed no signs of slowing down.

Corporations Have Begun to Be Treated as Individuals

The Constitution doesn’t mention corporations or their rights, nor does the 14th Amendment. But beginning in the late 19th century, with its verdict in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886), the Supreme Court began recognizing a corporation as a “person” with all the rights that entailed. Later Court rulings—including a 5-4 decision in the notable First Amendment case Citizens United vs. FEC (2010)—expanded this controversial application of the 14th Amendment to protecting corporations from certain types of government regulation. In his Citizens United dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens turned again to the nation’s founding document, arguing that “Corporations…are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

…read more


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Anti-immigrant Proposition 187 is approved in California

September 16, 2020 in History

By Editors

On November 8, 1994, 59 percent of California voters approve Proposition 187, banning undocumented immigrants from using the state’s major public services. Despite its wide margin of victory, the ballot measure never takes effect.

In 1994, California, the home of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, was not yet the Democratic stronghold many now consider it to be. A popular destination for immigrants from both Latin America and Asia, its demographics changed dramatically in the second half of the century, but neither Republicans nor Democrats won a decisive share of these newcomers’ votes. That would change after a group of Republican activists and state-level legislators, responding to the state’s economic slump and the presence of over a million undocumented immigrants, decided to launch the campaign for what became Prop 187. In the name of saving taxpayer money, the proposition prohibited the undocumented from accessing basic public services such as non-emergency health care and both primary and secondary education. It also required public servants like medical professionals and teachers to monitor and report on the immigration status of those under their charge.

Although public support was high from the start, the threat of barring over a million California residents from basic public services stirred up vocal opposition. As Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s campaign used the threat of immigration in an attempt to scare voters, 70,000 people marched against 187 in downtown Los Angeles, and 10,000 public school students walked out of class on November 2, just days before the vote. The measure’s passage on November 8 was an entirely symbolic and short-lived victory for conservatives.

Within a week, a legal challenge had prevented the new law from taking effect—it was held up in the appeals process until 1999, when a Democratic governor dropped the state’s appeal. Studies have since shown that Proposition 187 played a key role in galvanizing immigrants’ rights activists and pushing Latinx and Asian voters away from the California Republican Party. Over the next decade, 66 percent of newly-registered California voters were Latinx and another 23 percent were Asian. In the same period, Republicans went from holding roughly half of elected offices in the state to less than a quarter. California has since formally repealed Prop 187 and enacted some of the United States’ most sweeping protections for the undocumented.

READ MORE: US Immigration Timeline

…read more


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5 Latino-Led Labor Strikes That Championed Rights for American Workers

September 16, 2020 in History

By Lakshmi Gandhi

They had a profound effect on the massive world of American food production.

When it comes to the fight for workers’ rights in the United States, Latino Americans have been critical players since the early 1900s. Their organizing and agitating have led to improved working conditions and wages in industries across the U.S.

“Latinos have been part of the long history of the construction of this country and this labor force,” especially in the American West, says Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “They were part of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. They were part of the early Los Angeles building boom.” And of course they have had a profound impact on the massive world of American food production, where they have been heavily represented both in the fields and in processing plants.

Latino workers’ fight for protections and living wages has been an uphill one, weighted with layers of discrimination. “The great expansion of labor rights in the 1930s during the [Franklin D. Roosevelt] administration, which led to the creation of the National Labor Board, specifically excluded farmworkers and domestic workers from the right to create unions,” says Rivera-Salgado. It’s an outcome he attributes to a legacy of racial subjugation against African Americans who had long labored in America’s fields.

The result: Even after the agricultural labor force shifted to largely Latino workers, they still lacked basic protections well into the 1970s. “The conditions were horrendous,” says Rivera-Salgado. “That’s why they wanted a union—to secure basic wages and also basic conditions in the fields,” like injury protections on the job and access to restrooms.

Here are five strikes either led or co-led by Hispanic and Latino Americans that helped make U.S. workplaces safer.

PHOTOS: These Appalling Images Exposed Child Labor in America

The Oxnard Strike (1903)

Workers unloading beets from wagons at the American Beet Sugar Company in Oxnard, California, circa 1910.

One of the first agriculture strikes in the United States also represented an unprecedented moment in multi-racial coalition building, when Japanese and Mexican farm laborers banded together to defeat bosses who had long exploited their workers’ racial and cultural divisions.

The American sugar industry ground to a halt on February 11, 1903, when workers in the sugar boomtown of Oxnard, California joined to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) and organize a work stoppage at the height of sugar beet season. Their grievances? …read more