Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was the most prolific and important inventor of the modern era. He was born in the small American town of Milan, Ohio, and had only three months of formal schooling. However, as a youngster, Edison became a voracious reader and developed enormous powers of concentration. His personality was such that he had to prove everything for himself, causing him to question many prevailing scientific theories. Over the years, these qualities forced Edison to cultivate the skills of experimentation and observation and, when he was working on a problem, it was second nature for him to create, test and, if necessary, discard a variety of hypotheses.
Edison was not only adaptable, he had extraordinary mental and physical stamina, and a strong sense of perseverance. Throughout his life, Edison worked many hours a day, taking only short naps, and deriving most of his pleasure from his thinking and inventing. (You may have heard Edison's most famous quotation, that "genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration".)
Edison was the quintessential inventor, his genius lying in his extraordinary ability to create practical applications to scientific principles. He was the holder of well over a thousand U.S. patents, and the creator of such machines as the phonograph, the light bulb, the dictaphone, the mimeograph, the storage battery, and the first silent film (which he created in 1904). He also developed the technology upon which talking films were later based.
Edison's greatest achievement, however, was the development of the first practical, commercially viable electric power system. He not only standardized the methods used to generate, store and distribute electric power, he invented much of the actual technology such as generators, motors, light sockets, fuses, junction boxes, and so on.
Edison's achievements extend well beyond his inventions. To carry out his work, Edison created a number of sophisticated workshops, notably in West Orange (in 1887) and in Menlo Park, both in New Jersey. (In fact, Edison was often referred to as "the wizard of Menlo Park".) These workshops were the prototypes of modern research labs, in which teams of workers collaborate to solve problems systematically. Up until then, technological development was generally done by lone inventors, not by groups. Within a year of its founding, the West Orange facility was the largest scientific testing laboratory in the world.
This creates an interesting paradox. Although Thomas Alva Edison was a visionary whose work led to our modern, team-oriented system of research, he is also, moreso than any other individual in history, responsible for the technology and conveniences of the modern world in which we live.
If you ask the man on the street who the greatest scientist of all time was, you would probably get the answer Albert Einstein. Einstein (1879-1955) was born in Germany, although he went to a university in Switzerland and, later, became an American. (Like many other great men, Einstein had the distinction of ending his life in New Jersey.) It would be difficult to exaggerate Einstein's contribution to twentieth-century physics (but let me try anyway). His work on relativity completely changed the way mankind thought about space and time, while his work on quantum physics helped create our modern understanding of how energy and matter are constituted and laid the basis for the exploitation of atomic energy. Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics (for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, not for his relativity theory). Like many other great scientists, Einstein did not seem to have as great an acumen about people and society as he did about science. His scientific insight -- at least when he was young -- was astonishing. His social insights were well-intentioned but somewhat naive. I guess the best way to put it is that, when it came to understanding the universe Einstein had no peer, but when it came to understanding people he was no Einstein.
Elizabeth I, Queen
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the greatest monarch in the history of England, was the daughter of Henry VIII (the famous king who married six different women) and Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife. In 1558, upon the death of her half-sister Mary, Elizabeth, at the age of 25, became Queen.
When Elizabeth inherited the throne, England was in deep trouble: The economy was in shambles, relations with other European countries were hostile, the monarchy had suffered from years of intrigue and infighting and, there was a violent domestic chasm between Protestants and Catholics.
Elizabeth's reign lasted 44 years. During that time, she was able to transform England into a wealthy, powerful country, as well as establishing Protestantism as the official English religion. At the same time, she presided over the English Renaissance, encouraging overseas exploration, scholarship, and the arts. It was during the Elizabethan period, for example, that Shakespeare flourished.
Although Elizabeth was a diplomat and a peacemaker, her greatest triumph came during war. At the time, Spain was the most powerful country in Europe, and the Spanish king, Philip II (who happened to be Elizabeth's brother-in-law and one of her ex-suitors), assembled a huge fleet of ships, the Spanish Armada, in an attempt to invade England. Under Elizabeth's leadership, the English navy (with a lot of help from bad weather) was able to defeat the Armada, changing the course of history.
How was Elizabeth able to accomplish so much, especially during a time when virtually all power was held by men? There are several answers. First, she was an enormously talented, well-educated, determined woman. For example, she was not only fluent in English, French, Italian, Greek and Latin, and very knowledgeable in history, she was an astute politician, a skillful diplomat, and a popular religious leader. Second, Elizabeth was an excellent judge of people, who carefully chose wise and talented men as her administrators and advisors. Finally, throughout her reign, Elizabeth showed her concern for all of her subjects, rich and poor, making her one of the most popular monarchs in history.
Although she entertained many suitors in her lifetime, Elizabeth never married. For this reason, she was referred to as the "Virgin Queen" and, in fact, the U.S. state of Virginia is named after her.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was the most important Indian political and spiritual leader of the 20th century. Gandhi's influence was so great that his methods were later adopted by many political activists around the world, including American civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Gandhi was born into a middle-class Hindu family, in the city of Porbander, a small town on the western coast of India. At the age of 13, Gandhi entered into an arranged marriage with a 10-year-old girl named Kasturba. (They were to remain married their entire lives.)
In 1888, at the age of 19, Gandhi traveled to England to study law. After three years, he became a lawyer and returned to India, and after a year of practicing law unsuccessfully, he was offered a job by an Indian businessman with interests in South Africa. In 1892, at the age of 23, Gandhi traveled to South Africa, where he was to remain for over 20 years. At the time, the Indians in South Africa, mostly Hindus, had no legal rights. The European colonialists did not consider Hindus to be full human beings and referred to them as "coolies". Gandhi became a leader of the Indian community and, over the years, developed a political movement based on the methods of non-violent civil disobedience, which he called "satyagraha".
Around 1905, Gandhi gave up Western ways and, for the rest of his life, followed the traditional Hindu precepts of austerity and self-denial. He dressed simply, in a loin cloth and shawl, and had no other material possessions.
In 1915, at the age of 46, Gandhi returned to India, where he spent a year traveling widely and then the next few years, helping to settle many local disputes. His success lead to him being admired throughout the country, so much so that India's most well-known writer, Rabindranath Tagore, gave Gandhi the title Mahatma ("Great Soul"). Gandhi himself, however, repudiated the honor, even though, within the Hindu culture, being called "Mahatma" is a symbol of enormous respect.
At the time Gandhi was born, India was a heterogeneous region, a British colony consisting of more than 500 different "native states", that is, kingdoms and principalities. (Gandhi himself was born in the state of Kathiawar.) The native states were allowed a certain degree of local autonomy, but the country as a whole was controlled by strict British authority. Soon after his return to India, Gandhi dedicated himself to the goal of Indian independence. From 1920-1922, he led a "non-cooperation movement", in which he called upon Indians to stop cooperating with the British, to become self-reliant, and to withdraw from British organizations.
In 1922, the British authorities imprisoned Gandhi on charges of sedition (that is, inciting rebellion). In 1925, Gandhi was released due to ill health but, over his lifetime, he was to be imprisoned many times. Gandhi became a social reformer, working tirelessly to enhance Hindu-Muslim relations, as he slowly led his country into independence. Over the years, he founded many newspapers, which he used to further his ideals. (A little known fact is that Gandhi is one of the principal figures in the history of Indian journalism.)
Gandhi developed satyagraha into a national movement, stressing passive resistance, nonviolent disobedience, boycotts and, on occasion, hunger strikes. He became so well-known and respected, that he gained influence with both the general public and the British rulers. For example, in 1939, by a combination of fasting and satyagraha, Gandhi was able to compel several states, that were ruled by princes, to grant democratic reforms. Not only could he unify the many diverse elements of the Indian National Congress, he was able to force political concessions from the British by threatening to fast until death.
After World War II, Gandhi was involved in the deliberations that led to India's independence. The same deliberations, however, also led to partition of India into two states: modern-day India (for Hindus) and Pakistan (for Muslims). Gandhi strongly opposed this partition, which ultimately resulted in the death of about 1 million people and the dislocation of over 11 million people.
On January 30, 1948, just after India attained its independence from Britain, Gandhi was assassinated at the age of 78. The killer was a Hindu fanatic working as part of a conspiracy that blamed Gandhi for the partition of the country.
Although Gandhi was a man of faith, he did not found a church, nor did he create any specific dogma for his followers. Gandhi believed in the unity of all mankind under one god, and preached Hindu, Muslim and Christian ethics. As a youth, he was neither a genius nor a child prodigy. Indeed, he suffered from extreme shyness. However, he approached life as a very long series of small steps towards his goals, which he pursued relentlessly. By the time he died, India had become an independent country, free of British rule, in fact, the largest democracy in the world. Today, Gandhi is remembered not only as a political leader, but as a moralist who appealed to the universal conscience of mankind. As such, he changed the world.
If there is one person in history whose activities changed the world the most, that person is Adolf Hitler. Hitler (1889-1945) was the German dictator who founded the National Socialism (Nazi) movement in 1920. Within twonty years, Hitler had led Germany and its allies into World War II (1939-1945), by any measure, the most devastating war in history, with over 60 million people killed.
As a young man, Hitler served in the Bavarian army during World War I. (Bavaria is a part of Germany.) Although he was recognized for bravery, the experience embittered him, and he blamed Germany's defeat on Jews and Marxists.
In 1921, Hitler became the leader of the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party. In 1923, he unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Bavarian government — the so-called Beer Hall Putsch — and was imprisoned for nine months. During that time, Hitler wrote the book Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), in which he laid bare his theories of hate and anti-Semitism, and his plans for world domination, a vision in which the German master race would create the so-called Third Reich. ("Germany will either become a World Power or will not continue to exist at all." — Vol. 2, Ch. XIV)
In time, Mein Kampf would become the bible of the Nazi party. The grew slowly, however, until the Great Depression, during which Hitler's skills as a speaker and organizer allowed him to capitalize on the growing social and economic unrest. As a master of the "big lie", he was able to build substantial grass-roots support, based on a platform of anti-Semitism and anti-communism.
Although he had some false starts, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and, within a year, was given full dictatorial powers by the government. In concert with other Nazi leaders — principally Goering, Himmler and Goebbels — Hitler crushed all opposition and took control of most facets of German life. In 1934, laws were passed to establish official anti-Semitism and to create the first concentration camps.
On August 2, 1934, the elderly president of Germany died. Within hours, Hitler declared himself Fuhrer (supreme ruler) of Germany. Technically, the declaration was illegal. However, less than three weeks later, a special election was held in which 90 percent of the German people voted to confirm Hitler as Fuhrer. Hitler was now the absolute ruler of Germany, a law unto himself.
Over the next few years, Hitler prepared Germany for war, carrying out many political maneuvers that allowed him to extend his power into smaller, less powerful countries. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand (the Allies) declared war on Germany, formally starting World War II.
At first, Germany had a great deal of military success, invading and conquering much of Europe, North Africa and Russia. On December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States, upon which the U.S. entered the war on the side of the Allies. Still, it was some time before the Germans would be stopped. Indeed, on April 26, 1942, Hitler declared, "This war no longer bears the characteristics of former inter-European conflicts. It is one of those elemental conflicts which usher in a new millennium and which shake the world once in a thousand years."
In the fullness of time, Hitler was proved to be wrong. On February 2, 1943, he received his first major setback when the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad in southwest Russia. Over the next two years, the Allies began to defeat Germany, one battle at a time and, by the spring of 1945, virtually all of Europe and North Africa had been liberated.
With the Third Reich collapsing around him and the Russians approaching, Hitler hid in an underground bunker in Berlin. On April 29, 1945, as the Russians approached the city, Hitler married his longtime mistress Eva Braun. The next day, both Hitler and Braun committed suicide.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a writer, architect, diplomat, inventor, politician, philosopher, lawyer and musician. Jefferson was one of the founding fathers of the United States, and stands remembered as one of the outstanding figures in American history, a champion of political and religious freedom. Among Jefferson's many accomplishments are drafting the Declaration of Independence (1776), serving as the third president of the United States (1801-1809), arranging for the Louisiana Purchase (1803), and founding the University of Virginia (1819).
Jesus (c.6 B.C.-c.36 A.D.) was a spiritual leader who flourished, about two thousand years ago, in an area that is now part of modern-day Israel. Jesus was a Jew, born into a society that was administered by Jewish authorities under the rule of the early Roman empire.
The principal historical writings relating to Jesus are the four Gospels that comprise the New Testament. Aside from this, there is very little other contemporaneous information about his life. Most historians generally accept the accounts of Jesus as described in the Gospels, although the stories do contain significant inconsistencies.
There is no firm evidence when Jesus began to preach and how long he did so. In his lifetime, however, his influence was limited to a small cult-like following. Throughout his years of preaching, Jesus attracted followers, of whom he trained twelve as disciples to spread his teachings and to perform faith healing.
Jesus was a social reformer and, as such, was a threat to the Jewish authorities. To make matters worse, some of his followers proclaimed him the Messiah, which was seen as heresy by those in power. (In the Jewish tradition, the Messiah, a descendent of King David, is the person who will rebuild the nation of Israel and bring world peace.) This belief is reflected in the name "Christ", which is derived from the Greek word for "anointed". (In those days, kings were anointed upon their taking office.)
As you know, people who incite public unrest are generally looked upon as troublemakers by those in authority. This was certainly the case with Jesus, who was crucified by the Romans, upon the orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area. According to the Gospels, Pilate acted at the behest of the Jewish religious leaders. However, Pilate was a particularly harsh ruler who put many people to death for lesser offenses, and it is equally plausible that he simply considered Jesus a threat to his rule.
Today, Jesus is more of mythical figure than a historical personality, and how one thinks about him depends very much on one's beliefs. Christians, for example, consider Jesus to be the actual son of God, the authentic Messiah whose death and resurrection brought the possibility of salvation to all mankind. Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet, although not the most important one. Jews, on the other hand, see Jesus as a false Messiah, not divine at all.
Still, there is no doubt that Jesus, whoever he was, was one of the most important people in history. For example, although the exact years that Jesus lived are not known, we commonly use the designations B.C. and A.D. to stand for "before and after Christ". Similarly, although the dates of his birth and death are unknown, people around the world routinely celebrate his birth (on December 25) and his death (on Good Friday).
Mongolia is an oval-shaped country, about twice the size of Alaska, situated in Central Asia between Russia and China. Most of Mongolia consists of large, dry, grass-covered plains, situated on high plateaus. To the west and southwest are mountains and, to the south, along the Chinese border, lies the formidable Gobi Desert. Overall, less than 1 percent of the country is suitable for farming.
If you were to visit Mongolia today, you would find most of the area unoccupied, with only small bands of nomadic herdsman tending their flocks -- somehow managing to survive the dust storms, drought, forest fires, and harsh winters. In fact, they would be leading virtually the same life as their ancestors did a century ago. And yet, there was a time when this isolated, desolate country was the center of the greatest land empire the world has ever known. That this was the case is due entirely to Genghis Khan (1167?-1227), the most extraordinary military leader in history.
Genghis Khan was born in the mid-12th century, a time when Mongolia was populated by tribal nomads. The most powerful tribe, the Borjigin, was led by a warrior named Kabul Khan (the designation "Khan" meaning leader). Kabul's son Yesugei was also a leader, chief of a Borjigin subclan called the Kiyat. Somewhere between 1162-1167, Yesugei had a son named Temujin ("blacksmith"). In 1175, when Temujin was still a boy, his father was killed by neighboring Tartars (another tribe) who had had a grudge against him. Because Temujin was so young, the Kiyat chose another relative to be their leader, abandoning Temujin and his immediate family to die in the wilderness.
Temujin, however, was a survivor: he struggled and, by the age of 20, he managed to take over the leadership of the Kiyat. In 1196, he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather by taking over the entire Borjigin tribe. Ten years later, in 1206, Temujin attended a meeting of khans (leaders), where he was able to take control of all the tribes. As a symbol of his authority, Temujin adopted the name Genghis Kahn ("Supreme Exalted Ruler").
Genghis Khan proved to be an extraordinary warrior, leader and organizer. He set to work consolidating the various tribes into a single people. He imposed uniform laws, established a written language and, most important, built a large, efficient army. The army was organized into units called tumen, each of which had 10,000 men (similar to a modern division). Each tumen consisted of 10 groups of 1,000 men, each group being divided into smaller units of 100 and 10. As a tumen traveled, it took along not only logistical support, including 3-4 horses per soldier, but wives and children.
By today's standards, the army was primitive: the soldiers moved on horseback, and the weapons of choice were bows and arrows and spears. And yet, Genghis Khan was able to fight and conquer many other tribes. In addition, he developed methods for successfully laying siege to fortified cities. If a tribe or city resisted Genghis Khan's army, he could be particularly vindictive, slaughtering entire populations.
In 1227, at the age of 60, Genghis Khan died, leaving a vast empire that stretched (in modern terms) from Korea and China all the way to Russia and Iraq, boasting a large capital city, Karakorum, near the center of the region. Genghis Khan was a careful planner, even to the point of specifying what should happen after his death. His burial was carried out in complete secrecy, and his empire was divided, according to his wishes, among several sons and grandsons.
Over the years, his descendents were able to enlarge the sphere of Mongolian influence, to the west as far as the Volga River and the Black Sea. To the south and east, they were able to conquer and unify all of China. For a long time, the spoils of war -- taxes and other forms of tribute -- flowed from the empire into Karakorum, which became a city of palaces, feasts and celebrations. Within a century and a half, however, the Mongolian empire had crumbled and the city of Karakorum was (in 1388) reduced to a pile of rubble by the Chinese army.
Today, Genghis Khan is still remembered by the Mongolian people: his face appears on their bank notes (as well as the labels of Mongolian vodka). Genghis Khan was, arguably, the greatest military leader of all time. With his genius for organization and his capacity for merciless cruelty, if he were alive today -- in a world with modern computers and modern weapons -- we would all be in big trouble.
King Jr., Martin Luther
Although the American Civil War (1861-1865) legally ended black slavery in America, the prejudices and economic forces left the country with an enduring legacy of discrimination against blacks. As late as the 1950s, the situation of African-Americans was still brutally oppressive, particularly in the 11 southern states that had formed the Confederacy: Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. In the 1950s, a massive national effort, the Civil Rights Movement, arose to secure full civil rights for all blacks: specifically, the right to vote, and the elimination of segregation in public facilities, public schools, housing, and public accommodations. Throughout this struggle, one man, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), emerged as the foremost religious and civil rights leader in the history of the United States.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son and grandson of clergymen. King grew up in the church, so it was natural that he would study for the ministry as well. He graduated from Morehouse College (Atlanta) with a B.A., from Crozer Theological Seminary (Pennsylvania) with a B.D. and, later (in 1965), from Boston University with a Ph.D.
In 1955, while King was pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, he achieved national prominence by leading a 13-month boycott against the segregated Montgomery bus system (Dec 1955-Dec 1956). In 1957, King, along with other black activists, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to build on the success of the boycott. In the years to follow, King became a well-known civil rights leader and developed into one of the greatest orators of the 20th century.
Throughout his years of speaking, King never budged from the idea that the Civil Rights Movement should be based on nonviolent protest. In time, King's tactics of civil disobedience would become a dominant social force. For example, he might lead a sit-in at a public place, such as a segregated restaurant, in order to provoke arrest peacefully and draw attention to his cause.
On April 16, 1963, King was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, after a nonviolent protest. Eight other clergymen published a statement in which they criticized King's tactics, calling them "unwise and untimely". While he was in jail, King came across the statement in a newspaper and decided to answer their charges in writing. He composed an essay, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", in which he argued that human rights must take precedence over unjust laws. He defended the impatience of civil rights protestors, as well as their use of nonviolent civil disobedience in order to force an intransigent community to acknowledge and to respond to serious problems. "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension, that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."
King's forte, however, was not so much as a philosopher but as an orator, a man of the people who had a remarkable ability to inspire change. His most stirring speech was given on August 28, 1963, at a rally in Washington D.C. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King addressed a crowd of over a quarter of a million people and spoke of his vision for America. He began by mentioning the Emancipation Proclamation (signed by Lincoln himself) and then declared that "one hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land." However, he warned that, no matter how oppressed people might feel, "we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence."
He then uttered the most famous words he was to ever speak: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'" A few months later, Time Magazine declared King to be "Man of the Year" and, a year later, at the age of 35, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to receive this honor.
In his Nobel speech, King expressed his optimism that human beings would, one step at a time, work to improve their lot: "Every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom."
King threw himself into his work with a fearless dedication, visiting and speaking wherever his help was needed and lobbying tirelessly for change. Over the next few years, King's work began to bear fruit as the U.S. Congress passed landmark legislation addressing long-standing civil inequalities: the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Fair Housing Act (1968).
On April 4, 1968, however, King's life was cut short. He went to Memphis, Tennessee, in order to mediate a garbage workers' strike. As King was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel (next to Jesse Jackson, actually), he was shot and killed by a small-time criminal, James Earl Ray. The death of King was a major event, and people around the world mourned the loss.
His memory was cherished and, in 1985, the Martin Luther King Papers Project was established at Stanford University, in order to publish a definitive edition of King's written material and speeches. Unexpectedly, in the course of their work, the Project's researchers found a great deal of plagiarism in King's writing, including his Ph.D. dissertation. As they put it, "King's plagiarism was a general pattern evident in nearly all of his academic writings... The pattern is also noticeable in his speeches and sermons throughout his career... Many of King's published works were heavily edited by others and sometimes ghostwritten."
This cast a shadow of doubt on King that has yet to be fully reconciled. Certainly, we know that he wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" by himself (as he was incarcerated at the time). However, because he plagiarized so freely, the question arose, would we ever know what ideas and beliefs were truly his?
Still, Martin Luther King was -- without doubt -- a great man. Although he may not have been a great philosopher, he was, perhaps, someone more important: a preacher and master strategist who was an inspiration to millions of oppressed people. As such, King was able to catalyze powerful social forces and change the world permanently. In doing so, he cemented a link between the American civil rights movement and organized religion that has yet to be broken.
In honor of King and his lasting legacy, the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Day every year on the third Monday in January, the month of King's birth.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th president of the United States, was the most beloved and respected leader in American history. Now, whenever I read such a statement, I ask myself "Does the man truly measure up to the myth?" After all, history is abundantly supplied with "beloved and respected" figures whose reputations rest upon exaggerated exploits and undeserved admiration.
Abraham Lincoln, however, was the real thing. Indeed, he may be the most beloved American in history and, if so, it is an honor well-deserved. Examine Lincoln's life and you will see that he was honest, wise, intelligent, compassionate and hard-working. Moreover, he had a rare combination of integrity, persistence and political skill that would be difficult to overpraise.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky. His parents had no schooling, but they were hardworking and religious. They were both members of a Baptist church that, because of its opposition to slavery, had separated from another church. When Abe was 7 years old, his family moved to southern Indiana. Two years later, his mother died, which devastated the young child. However, his father soon remarried and Abe came to adore his new stepmother.
As a young boy, Lincoln had only a few months of formal schooling. However, he had a voracious appetite for learning and, over the years, he was able to use books to teach himself anything he wanted. For example, later in his life, Lincoln taught himself law and qualified as a practicing lawyer, solely through studying a number of reference books.
In his early 20s, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked at a variety of jobs. His character was such that he impressed the local residents who took to calling him "Honest Abe". While in New Salem, Lincoln developed an interest in government. He joined the Whig Party and ran for the Illinois legislature. The first time (1832) he lost but, after that, he won four elections in a row (1834, 1836, 1838 and 1840). It was while he was a state legislator that Lincoln studied law in his spare time and, in 1836, at the age of 27, became a lawyer.
In 1839, Lincoln met Mary Todd, the highly educated daughter of a prominent Kentucky family. After an on-and-off courtship that lasted the better part of three years, Abraham and Mary were married and set up housekeeping in Springfield, Illinois.
The newlywed couple had very little money, so to support his wife (and soon, children), Lincoln began to practice as a lawyer. The work was grueling because Lincoln practiced on The Eighth Circuit, which covered about 12,000 square miles. This required him to travel long miles on horseback through sparsely settled territory, with nothing more than his horse, some food and water, a few law books, and a change of clothes.
Lincoln's peripatetic lifestyle had an unexpected result: throughout the circuit, he established an excellent reputation for himself and, in 1846, he was able to win the election to the U.S. House of Representatives (still as a member of the Whig Party). After his 2-year term of office (1847-1849), Lincoln was offered a post as governor of the new Oregon Territory. However, he declined, returning to Illinois to retire from government and devote himself to his law practice. In the spring of 1854, however, at the age of 45, Lincoln returned to politics because he was incensed at the repeal of the so-called "Missouri Compromise", which had to do with slavery.
You will remember that Lincoln's parents belonged to a church that opposed slavery, and Lincoln himself had strong humanitarian views on the subject his entire life. (He once said, "Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.") During his tenure in Congress, Lincoln denounced slavery as "founded on both injustice and bad policy".
The Missouri Compromise (of 1820) was an agreement between the pro- and anti-slavery factions regarding the regulation of slavery in the territories. The agreement stated that, slavery would be allowed in the new state of Missouri, but not in any other territories north of the line that formed the southern boundary of Missouri. However, in 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the possibility of slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which were north of the line.
This new development disturbed Lincoln and, once again, he resolved to run for political office. In 1855, he ran for the Senate and lost. The next year, however, he left the Whigs and joined the Republican party, a brand new organization that was founded by a number of anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs. In 1856, at the first national Republican convention, the Illinois delegation proposed Lincoln as a candidate for vice-president, but he did not receive the nomination.
In February 1860, the year of the next presidential convention, Lincoln traveled to New York City, where he gave a meticulously researched speech -- the so-called "Cooper Union Speech" -- which showcased his homespun Western charm and considerable political skill. (The Cooper Union was a meeting hall in lower Manhattan.) In the speech, Lincoln called for ending slavery within the territories, but did not support outright abolition throughout the country. Because he considered preserving the federal Union to be of prime importance, he urged friendship towards the southern slave-owning states and issued a warning to would-be secessionists in the South.
The Cooper Union speech was so well-received that it was reprinted in newspapers and widely circulated. Republicans from the New England states invited Lincoln to speak to them, and he went on a quick tour, speaking in 11 cities in 12 days. The result was that Lincoln was considered as a serious presidential candidate. At the Republican convention, which was held in Chicago in May of the same year, Lincoln received the nomination.
Four months later, in November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Republican president of the United States, swept into office with enormous support from the North, but with little support from the South. By March 4, 1861, when Lincoln was inaugurated, six southern states had already left the Union and set up a rival government, the Confederacy. A month later, on April 12, 1861, at 4:30 am, Confederate soldiers fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, beginning what would be the five-year American Civil War (1861-1865).
For Abraham Lincoln, the next five years were the most difficult of his life. However, they were also the most important. He managed the country and the Union army through a great many ups and downs, ultimately leading the North to victory and permanently restoring federal unity to the United States. During the Civil War years, Lincoln performed many acts of wisdom and compassion under difficult conditions. Among his most remembered deeds are the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an order that Lincoln issued during his second year of office. He declared that all slaves who lived in states that were not under federal control were to be considered freed (emancipated). The Emancipation Proclamation was a symbolic act, in that it freed only those slaves who lived in states that had seceded from the Union. The actual freeing of all the slaves had to wait until the U.S. Constitution was changed by the adoption of the 13th Amendment which, sadly, did not occur until seven months after Lincoln's death.
The Emancipation Proclamation did, however, have an important provision that took effect immediately. For the first time, freed slaves were allowed to enlist in the U.S. army, an opportunity that was embraced by almost 200,000 black men.
On November 19, 1863, Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the site of what had been a battlefield. The primary speaker at the ceremony was Edward Everett, the country's foremost orator, who gave a 2-hour speech which is now long forgotten. After Everett spoke, Lincoln stood up and made a short speech, only 10 sentences long.
As unlikely as it seems, what Lincoln said that day became the most famous speech in American history. He began, "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." He then expressed his grief for the soldiers who had died in the war and proclaimed his support of the principles for which the soldiers had given their lives. He ended the speech by promising that "...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."
Lincoln's fondest wish was to see an end to the bitter war and the restoration of the country which he loved so dearly. On April 9, 1865, Lincoln was to see part of his wish come true, when the Confederate General Lee surrendered to the Union General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, ending the Civil War. Two days later, an excited crowd gathered outside the White House, calling for President Lincoln. Lincoln addressed the crowd and made a short speech, in which he discussed the problems of reconstruction. For the first time, he talked, not only about freeing the slaves, but allowing them to attend public schools and allowing black men to vote. (In those days, women -- white or black -- were not allowed to vote.)
However, before the country could begin its reconstruction, Lincoln's life came to an untimely end. Two days later, Lincoln was shot, as part of a plot to avenge the South by assassinating the President and other officials. Lincoln and his wife were watching a play when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor with Southern sympathies. Lincoln never recovered consciousness and died the next day, April 15, 1865, at the age of 66. Twelve days later, Booth was captured and shot, and, eventually, eight other conspirators were captured and convicted; four of them were hung, the rest were imprisoned.
Although Lincoln's tenure as president was cut short, the steps he took to preserve the Union and emancipate the slaves had a lasting legacy. We remember Lincoln, not only because he did great things, but because he was a great man.
Although he had many failures in life, he had persistence and faith, in himself and in God. Throughout his life, the jobs Lincoln undertook required him to accept great responsibility and to work long hours in pursuit of imperfect solutions to extremely important problems. In general, he was not a happy man. He suffered from extended bouts of melancholia, although not to the point of clinical depression or manic-depression, as is sometimes reported. (Nor did he have Marfan's Syndrome.)
What Abraham Lincoln did have was powerful inner strength and an indomitable will, which endowed him with a remarkable ability to overcome hardship, disappointment and sadness. Although Lincoln had four children and three grandchildren, he had (after his death) only two great- grandchildren, neither of whom had children of their own. Thus, Lincoln, ultimately, had no direct descendents. However, his legacy is as large as any American who ever lived, and the honor and respect he is accorded are a lasting tribute to the man whose humility once led him to declare, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
When an historical figure has religious importance, it is difficult to separate fact from myth: to true believers, historical accuracy is less important than dogma. This is certainly the case with Muhammad (c.570-632), the prime mover in the establishment of Islam. For this reason, verifiable details about the life of Muhammad are sketchy.
We know that he was born around 570 in Mecca, a city near the coast of the Red Sea in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhammad's father died several weeks before Muhammad was born, and his mother died when the young boy was only 6 years old. Muhammad went to live with his paternal grandfather, but when the old man died two years later, Muhammad was raised by his paternal uncle, Abu Talib. For the next 40 years, Abu Talib acted as a surrogate father, taking care of Muhammad and lending him support.
As a young man, Muhammad was a businessman, managing a caravan that transported goods to Syria. Over time, Muhammad earned a reputation for honesty and kindness and, eventually, he caught the eye of the owner of the caravan, a wealthy, twice-widowed woman named Khadijah. Although Muhammad was only 25 years old and Khadijah was 40, she had intermediaries propose marriage. Muhammad accepted, and the marriage was long-lasting and successful. Indeed, in Khadijah's lifetime, Muhammad did not take any other brides, which was unusual in a culture where men routinely practiced polygamy.
In time, Khadijah bore Muhammad five, six or seven children (depending on which version of Muhammad's life you believe). Unfortunately, all of Muhammad's children but one, a daughter named Fatima, died in his lifetime. The boys, in fact, all died at an early age, an especially devastating tragedy in a patriarchal society. Moreover, of the daughters, only Fatima had children who lived past infancy. Hence, it is only through Fatima that Muhammad had descendents.
By the time Muhammad was 40 years old, in the year 610, he was making regular retreats to Mount Hira in order to be alone and to meditate. According to Islamic tradition, on one such trip, Muhammad heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, who spoke to Muhammad with the word of God. The first message God gave Muhammad was the same message he had given to Abraham in the Old Testament: that there is only one true God, that all other gods are false, and that he (Abraham/Muhammad) must spread the word. From time to time, during the rest of his life, Muhammad received many messages from God, all via Gabriel. These messages revealed many details regarding God's wishes and advice and, eventually, they were written down in the Moslem holy book, the Qur'an. As such, God's revelations to Muhammad form the basis of Islam.
Notice the difference between what Moslems believe about Muhammad and what Christians believe about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus was divine, the actual son of God. Moslems believe that Muhammad was a mortal man, not at all divine. Rather, they see Muhammad as a prophet, in fact, the last and most important of the great prophets (such as Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus). Thus, it came to be that, in 610, at the age of 40, Muhammad began to preach monotheism.
One of the most important verses of the Qur'an (Surah 17:1) leads to an interesting story about Muhammad. The actual verse (loosely translated) is: "Praise be to Him who took His servant by night from the sacred mosque in Mecca to the most distant mosque, whose environs we did bless, so that we might show him some of our signs, for He is the All-Hearing and All-Seeing One." Islamic tradition embellishes this verse into the miraculous "Night Journey":
One night, Muhammad, accompanied by the angel Gabriel, flew on the back of a winged, horse-like creature to Jerusalem to visit the temple that was built by King Solomon (who, by the way, is also considered to be one of the prophets). At the Temple, Muhammad prayed with Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad was then carried up to heaven by Gabriel, where Muhammad met God. Because of this trip, Moslems consider Jerusalem to be the third most holy city, after Mecca and Medina (see below). Within Jerusalem lies one of Islam's most holy sites, the Dome of the Rock, which covers the place where Muhammad is said to have stepped as he began his ascent to heaven. During the Night Journey, Muhammad was told several tenets that he incorporated into the basis of Islam, for example, that all Moslems should pray five times a day.
In 619, Muhammad once again suffered terrible losses. Both his beloved wife, Khadija, and his uncle, Abu Talib, died. In 620, at the age of 50, Muhammad took a new wife, A'isha and, later, he was to take even more wives.
During his years of preaching, Muhammad taught that there was only one true God. However, the prevailing religion was polytheistic (many gods), and it took a long time for Muhammad to attract followers. Indeed, for the next several years, Muhammad gained only a few converts but made many enemies.
In 622, after discovering a plan to assassinate him, Muhammad fled to the north, from Mecca to the city of Yathrib, now called Medina. Medina, like Mecca, is also in modern day Saudi Arabia. Ever since that time, Mecca and Medina were the two holiest cites of Islam.
Muhammad's flight to Medina is called the "Hegira", and it is considered to be the beginning of the Moslem calendar. For example, the year 2005 A.D. in the secular calendar corresponds to the year 1426 A.H. (after Hegira) in the Moslem calendar. (Note: The Moslem year is based on 12 lunar cycles, a bit over 354 days. For this reason, the Moslem months shift every year with respect to the secular calendar.)
In Medina, Muhammad was more successful in converting people to the new religion. Islam flourished, and Muhammad was able to build a theocratic state by combining his religious leadership with political power, a model that would be adopted with great success by later Islamic empires. Indeed, even to this day, devout Moslems believe that there should be no separation between Islam and the political state.
Over the next few years, Muhammad enlarged his army and engaged in conflict with Mecca. In 630, Mecca fell to the Muslims. Strategically, Muhammad ordered a general amnesty for all Meccans, which won their loyalty and, within a short time, Mecca became an Islamic city. In 631, Muhammad made a deal with the local Christians and Jews to bring them under Muslim protection. However, they were required to pay a special tax, called the jizya, that was demanded of all non- Muslims.
In 632, Muhammad led the very first pilgrimage to Mecca. However, three months after the pilgrimage, Muhammad unexpectedly became sick and, at the age of 62, he died. At the time of his death, Muhammad was survived by 10 wives and several children. However, as I mentioned earlier, only one child, Fatima, would have children of her own.
Since his death, Muhammad has been revered by Moslems as the last of the great prophets. Everything about him -- his writing, the myths, and every detail of his life -- is also revered. It is common, for example, for Muslims to say or write the words "Peace be unto him" or "(pbuh)" every time Muhammad's name is mentioned. For example. you might read, "Muhammad (pbuh) grew up in Mecca. Later, Muhammad (pbuh) moved to Medina." An interesting measure of Muhammad's influence is that, today, there are more male children in the world given the name Muhammad than any other name.
The British mathematician Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was the greatest and most influential scientist of all time, the equal of Archemedes and Einstein. However, Newton was also a study in contrasts, a great man whose work was affected by a conflicted personality.
The main conflict lay in a dual allegiance: Newton was not only a rational man of science, but an irrational man of religion (a situation that was all too common in those days). As a result, he spent significant time in theological studies which -- from the point of view of science -- led him nowhere.
Newton also suffered from a second problem: even though he was a master mathematician and an accomplished scientist, he had a great deal of trouble accepting the type of spirited argument that scientists employ to reconcile opposing viewpoints. This caused him to avoid conflict, even to the point of withholding many of his discoveries.
For example, in the mid-1660s, Newton developed the methods that were to become the basis of calculus. However, because he delayed publishing his work for over 20 years, he was forced to share the credit with the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz who, independently, had developed similar methods of his own, in the mid-1670s. This created an enduring rift between British and European mathematicians. For example, the British mathematicians refused to use Leibniz's notation -- which was superior to Newton's -- a decision that held back their progress. Indeed, after Newton's death, the work of the British mathematicians declined, while the German and other European mathematicians prospered.
The root of Newton's conflicts, as well as his accomplishments, lay in his early life. He grew up without a father on a farm near the town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, England. As a young student in Grantham, Newton was undistinguished and, at one point, his mother took him out of school with an eye toward training him to run the family business. However, an uncle who recognized Newton's talents, and who had gone to Trinity College in Cambridge, intervened. Newton was sent back to school to prepare for university and, in 1661, at the age of 18, he entered Trinity College.
In 1662, Newton underwent a spiritual and religious crisis, which caused him great grief. In his quest for self- improvement, he created a list of 58 "sins", all that he could remember having committed. (Sin #16 was "Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese."; Sin #28 was "Peevishness with my mother.")
By 1664, Newton was ignoring the official courses which, at the time, were classics, Euclidean geometry and Aristotelian philosophy. Instead, he chose to study mathematics and optics by himself. In the summer of 1665, while Newton was home for vacation, the Great Plague, which had been scourging England, spread to Cambridge. Newton was forced to remain in his family estate for most of the next two years.
During this time, Newton was extremely productive, in spite of the fact that he was working alone and mostly self taught. He developed the basis of calculus, using what he called "the methods of series and fluxions". (A fluixion is a rate of change.) He also made important discoveries in optics. For example, by using a glass to bend light, he was able to show that white light was composed of colors. Newton also spent a lot of time creating his own equipment -- he developed a method for grinding his own non-spherical lenses -- and running his own experiments. (In fact, Newton almost blinded himself by conducting optical experiments using his own eyes.)
His greatest achievement was in the area of gravitation. Newton, like a number of other scientists, believed in the principle of universal gravitation: every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle. But how did it work? Newton postulated that the gravitational attraction between two bodies varied directly as the products of their masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them (the so-called Law of Universal Gravitation). Years later, Newton would tell the story of how, upon seeing an apple in the family orchard, he realized that the force that caused it to fall was the same force that kept the moon in orbit around the Earth.
In 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge and took up permanent residence. For the next several decades, he devoted himself to optics and mathematics (with great accomplishment), and to chemistry and theology (mostly a waste of time). His life during this period was filled with writing, experimenting, teaching, inventing and achieving great honors. In 1669, for instance, he was appointed the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (which is a very big deal; since 1664, there have been only 17 such appointments).
Newton contributed greatly to the areas of astrodynamics (planetary motion), optics (colors, telescopes, microscopes), mathematics (algebra, analytic geometry, theory of equations), and physics (mechanics, gravitation). A measure of how far-reaching his work is can be seen in Newton's three Laws of Motion. For almost 250 years (until Einstein's Theory of Relativity in 1905) Newton's laws -- along with the Laws of Thermodynamics and Maxwell's Equations -- were thought to explain the entire physical universe.
Overall, Newton contributed to the development of science more than anyone else in history. He explicitly defined and systematized the activity of experimentation and the logic of theorizing. In doing so, he created the first elegant, consistent and correct view of the universe, one that would last for a very long time, and form the basis for all of modern physics.
William the Conqueror
If William the Conqueror (c.1027-1087) had not been born, the language we speak, read, and write would be totally different. In all of history, there is no one else about whom one could make such a statement. Indeed, William has had more effect on England and its culture than anyone who ever lived.
Like all great men, William's influence was a combination of being the right person in the right place at the right time, but much of what he became and did can be traced back to his childhood. William was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert I of Normandy, a large province in northeast France. As a child, he was known as "William the Bastard" which, no doubt, served to make him a very tough little guy.
When William was 8 years old, his father died. At the time, illegitimacy was a bar to succession. However, William's family broke with tradition and recognized him as the lawful heir, appointing a steward to look after William's duties until he became old enough to take on the job for himself.
From the age of 20, and for the rest of his life, William spent much of his time engaged in one battle or another. As the young Duke of Normandy, he was forced to deal with a series of local rebellions as well as attacks by other French nobles. By the time he was 40, the tough little "bastard" had grown into a master military strategist, a ruthless leader who inspired enormous respect and fear. However, William was more than a warrior. He was a capable administrator who learned how to unify the management of his domains, a skill that would become crucial as he expanded his reach across the channel to England.
In the 11th century, England was controlled by Anglo-Saxon nobles and bishops. (The Anglo-Saxons were descendents of the Angles and the Saxons, who had come to England from Germany in the 5th century. Hence the name England or "Angle-land".) Although the Anglo-Saxons had a monarchy, it was not hereditary. The king was chosen by a council called a "witan".
During William's time, the Anglo-Saxon king was Edward the Confessor, who had been reigning since 1042. In 1051, Edward found himself in the middle of a fight with his father-in- law, the Earl of Godwin. To gain Norman support, Edward promised William to choose him as the successor to the English crown. (Of course, this was a specious promise as the witan, not the king, chose a monarch's successor.)
Edward, however, was nothing if not a double-crosser. Eventually, he made peace with Godwin. He then promised Godwin that his son, Harold, would be the heir to the throne. When Edward finally died, in 1066, the witan backed Godwin's son, who became King Harold II. William was not the type of person to overlook such a slight, and the crowning of Harold stirred him up like a whisk. It was the work of a moment for him to decide to invade England. He prepared for battle and, as soon as the winds were favorable, he and his army -- 600 ships and over 10,000 men -- sailed across the channel.
On October 15, 1066, the Normans met the Anglo-Saxons in battle near Hastings on the southeast coast of England. Within a short time, William won a decisive victory. He then began to pressure the witan to approve his rule and, on Christmas Day 1066, William Duke of Normandy became William I, the first Norman king of England.
At first, William's rule was punctuated by a series of Anglo- Saxon uprisings. However, the new king and his army brutally crushed every rebellion and, by 1072, William had conquered and united all of England. As he took over an area, William would combine the existing Anglo-Saxon law with Norman customs, which preserved enough of the status quo to maintain local stability. At the same time, however, he would replace the Anglo-Saxon landowners with Norman nobles who were beholden to him. He then gave the nobles -- as well as the villagers -- a large degree of autonomy. In return, he demanded loyalty and tribute in the form of money and knights (soldiers) for his army.
Because of his skillful handling of the spoils of war, William was able to demand many more knights than could the French dukes. In this way, he raised a force that was as powerful as the French army, even though England was not nearly as populous as France. This enabled him to defend his territory successfully from foreign invasion.
Aside from warfare, the effects of William's rule were numerous and enduring. His centralized government, based on independent lords who ruled their own fiefs, proved to be both stable and flexible. However, William was always careful to distribute the land in such a way as to keep the fiefs scattered, which served to dilute the power of the nobles. In addition, he kept a full one-fifth of the land for himself (more than any French king). In this way, William was able to accomplish in England what he could not do in Normandy: create a strong monarchy that could rule an entire country and, at the same time, defend its borders. (Do you see the similarities to how the United States is organized?)
William's rule also had profound effects on English culture. For example, until 1066, the native language of England was Old English, a form of Anglo-Saxon with German roots. (Remember, the Angles and the Saxons originally came from Germany.) William introduced Norman French as the language of culture, government and nobility. By the 15th century, the two languages had evolved to merge into Middle English, the ancestor of the modern language we speak today.
Long before this, however, the Norman-inspired culture had become a social barrier between the nobles and their subjects. French was the language of the upper-class nobles; Anglo-Saxon was the language of the lower-class peasants. (For example, in the Robin Hood legends, the bad guys are Normans, and the good guys are Anglo-Saxons.) Even today, almost 1,000 years later, you can still notice the difference in tone between the plain-spoken words with Anglo-Saxon roots and the more genteel words with French roots. Compare, for example, "chicken, sheep, deer and pig" (Anglo-Saxon), with "poultry, mutton, venison and pork" (French).
Aside from law, language and culture, William's influence extended into the realm of religion. In Anglo-Saxon times, English religious life was mostly within isolated monasteries. William brought with him the Norman religion, which was centered around elaborate churches and cathedrals, creating a system in which village life was firmly integrated with a local church. In addition, William appointed only those bishops who would be loyal to him. Ultimately, the bishops ended up controlling not only the Church, but a quarter of the land in England (in a decentralized manner, of course, that posed no threat to the monarchy).
One of William's most important legacies came from his need to raise taxes. Because his military adventures were so expensive, William needed as much money as he could get, which meant collecting as much tax as possible. To do this efficiently, he initiated a project that, in 1085-1086, enumerated all the property and resources in the country outside the largest towns. The result was a detailed census and land survey of 13,418 towns and villages. A summary of the data was recorded in a large work called the Domesday Book that, today, provides historians with a detailed snapshot of 11th century English life.
By examining the Domesday Book, historians have been able to appreciate the scope and importance of William's influence on English history. Although he was a ruthless, often brutal military leader, William was also a far-sighted administrator, one whose skills, character, and authority were unsurpassed in the history of England.
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