This Week In History: March 20-26

“An Emblem of the Effects of the STAMP,” a warning against the Stamp Act published in the Pennsylvania Journal, October 1765; in the New York Public Library. Photo courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica

Though it usually takes a tremendous force or even several forces to mobilize a group of people around an idea, sometimes you can pinpoint specific moments in history that ignite a revolution. This week in history, we’re going revolutionary and looking at key moments in major movements from U.S. history that saw Americans rallying around a cause like never before. So, let’s dive in! 

On March 22, 1765, 257 years ago, the British government imposed the Stamp Act on the English colonies of North America, taxing the purchase of all paper goods. 

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), known as the French and Indian War in American history books, was a long and expensive feud between the British and French Empires, taking place in both Europe and their overseas colonies in the Americas. Though the British emerged victorious, the government rang up a tremendous debt that needed to be paid. The British parliament looked to the 13 colonies and imposed a series of taxes to pay off the war. 

The Stamp Act followed three already unpopular taxes: the Sugar Act (1764), which taxed textiles, wines, coffee and sugar imports; the Currency Act (1764), which significantly devalued the paper money used by the colonists; and the Quartering Act (1765), which forced colonists to house British troops when they were deployed in North America. 

These taxes were widely unpopular primarily because colonists had no representation in British government. While the colonists saw themselves as British citizens like their brethren in the British Isles, they could not elect any members of Parliament to act on their behalf. Therefore, every act passed in government came without the consent of the people it was affecting. Colonists began questioning why a tiny island across the sea had so much control over their lives and took to the streets to showcase their outrage. 

Over the course of the next few years, the British government would repeal virtually all of the hated taxes imposed on the colonies. Despite this, the damage had already been done and organizations like the Sons of Liberty had already organized, proposing wild ideas like the creation of a free and independent American nation. A decade later, this wild idea would be put to the test as 13 colonies would press their luck in a fight against a global superpower. 

Poster for a theatrical production of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1870). It depicts runaway slave Eliza Harris’s dramatic escape (with her son, Harry) from slave catchers across the thawing Ohio River. Photo courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica

On March 20, 1852, 170 years ago, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published, galvanizing the Northern abolitionist cause. 

Daughter of the legendary Connecticut Congregationalist family, Stowe received far more of an education  than the majority of her female counterparts of the 19th century. After marrying and moving to Cincinnati, Stowe became actively involved in the Underground Railroad, making the implementation of the nation’s harsh fugitive slave laws all the more infuriating. Stowe wielded the power of the pen to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” declaring slavery as an immoral and evil institution that deserved to be destroyed. 

Selling 10,000 copies in the first week and 300,000 in the first three months, Stowe’s novel catapulted her name into the national spotlight and the morality of slavery into the national conversation. Tens of thousands of indifferent Northerners were converted into fierce abolitionists ready to take up arms against the rebellious South. When Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln, he famously remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” 

On March 25, 1911, 111 years ago, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 employees in downtown New York City. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was evolving into a thoroughly modern nation with urbanization and industrialization running rampant. Cities like New York beckoned to those who sought a better life, and people like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts proved that anyone could get lucky in America. 

Not everyone shared in the wealth of these great industrialists however, in fact, such profits were made on the backs of the millions of workers employed at the factories and sweatshops nationwide. While the Vanderbilts were able to build summer mansions in Newport, employees back in the city were working 12 hours a day, six days a week, in exchange for meager wages and poor working conditions. 

With industrialization rapidly spreading through the U.S., cities like New York were attractions to those who wanted a better life for themselves. Oftentimes, people who moved there weren’t promised the life they sought out for and ended up at factories and sweatshops for work. Unfortunately, on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 of their employees. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of March 25, 400 employees entered the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most of whom were teenage girls from poor Italian and Jewish immigrant families of the Lower East Side. A small waste bin fire ignited the unclean and cramped sewing stations of the eighth floor. The workers, who spoke almost no English, clamored to the exits, finding the stairwells locked and elevators out of order. Some employees resolved to jump out the windows, only to fall to their deaths, as the firefighting nets were not strong enough to save them. In the span of a half-hour, more than one-third of the workers were dead, with the youngest victim being barely 14 years old. 

Days later, a march of 80,000 New Yorkers was organized to honor the lives lost and protest the atrocities committed by the factory owners. Grieving immigrant families marched uptown to make it known that they were part of America too and thus deserved the rights guaranteed to them. Though the company owners were charged for manslaughter, they were acquitted and carried on with business as usual. 

While this event was a horrible tragedy, it exposed the injustices committed against the working class, igniting the American labor reform movement. The years and decades to follow would see the implementation of fire and safety standards, a minimum working age, maximum working hours and the minimum wage, all of which aimed to aid the plight of the working family and ensure a disaster like the Triangle fire would never happen again. 

On March 21, 1965, 57 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. led 3,200 civil rights demonstrators on the historic march from Selma to Mongomery, Alabama. 

Alabama was a hot bed in the fight of civil rights, dominated by a pro-segregation governor who infamously said, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference sought to peacefully march 54 miles on foot from the small town of Selma to the state’s capital city in the name of equal voting rights. In Dallas County, Alabama in particular, African Americans made up half of the population, yet only made up two percent of the county’s registered voters. 

Arm in arm, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King, leading the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 1965. Photo courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica

The state police, however, was ordered to stop the march at all costs, and they. viciously attacked the marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after the former Confederate general and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965 saw teargas, clubs and dogs unleashed on 600 marchers as white supremacists waving Confederate flags cheered on the violence. 

While such tactics were unfortunately commonplace in the Jim Crow South, on “Bloody Sunday” television cameras caught every second, broadcasting the incident and bringing the bruatlity into every home in America. Millions of bystanders could no longer ignore the injustice occurring in their own nation. 

After a second march two days later was also stopped, the federal government stepped in and ordered FBI agents and the federalized Alabama National Guardsmen to safely escort the marchers over the course of four days, beginning on March 21. When the Alabama Freedom March arrived on March 25, King spoke on the steps of the State Capitol in front of thousands of protesters in person and thousands more over television at home. 

Public opinion shifted and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August of the same year. 

Wow, that was a lot! Have a great week and stay tuned for another exciting deep dive into the vast world of history next Tuesday. 

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