Confucius (Latinized Kung Fu Tze)

Chinese Philosopher | Teacher | Politician
551 BC - 479 BC

Biography:

Confucian philosophy has received renewed attention as a model for ethical living in a global community. Many teachings, like "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself," are recorded in dialogs called The Analects. Confucius's praise of civil service led to the creation of a civil service exam during Han dynasty around 200 BC to select government officials through testing. Mao Zedong's regime embraced this practice during the Great Leap Forward, beginning in 1958. Civil service exams continue in China and have been adopted in many countries, including the United States.

Anecdote:

According to most records, Confucius was born under the Chinese zodiac of the dog. Biographer Sima Qian credits this for Confucius having a sad dog face and often appearing rough, like a stray dog.

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John Locke

English Philosopher | Physician | Economist
August 29, 1632 - October 28, 1704

Biography:

While studying medicine, Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury and Lord Proprietor of the Carolina Colony. Locke conducted business for the Earl and wrote the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. This document established representative democracy and religious freedom. In 1679, Lord Ashley created the Whig party to stop James II's ascendance to the throne. When James II was crowned, those opposing him were in trouble. Guilty by association, Locke fled to Holland in 1683, where he wrote his most significant work, Two Treatises of Civil Government. It describes people's natural rights and the idea of a social contract between government and citizens.

Anecdote:

Lord Ashley also hired Locke as his personal physician, and Locke saved his life with a groundbreaking operation to remove a cyst from the Earl's liver.

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Baron de Montesquieu

French Philosopher | Lawyer | Author
January 18, 1689 - February 10, 1755

Biography:

Charles Louis de Secondat inherited the title Baron de Montesquieu upon his uncle's death. Through this title, he served in the court of appeals of the Bourdeaux Parliament. He began writing and became disinterested in laws but fascinated with the spirit behind them. He sold his hereditary position and traveled Europe. Observing England's constitutional monarch inspired his greatest work, The Spirit of the Laws, 1728, which laid out a system of three-branch government. James Madison used this system when creating the US Constitution, and many countries use a parliamentary system with different branches having separate powers.

Anecdote:

In 1721, Montesquieu published the Persian Letters, a satire of French government and society told through observations of two Persians visiting Paris. It made him famous.

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Plato

Greek Philosopher | Mathematician | Teacher
428 or 427 BC - 348 or 347 BC

Biography:

Born to wealth, Plato sought a political career after his mandatory military service. His plans changed when he met Socrates, from whom he adopted the examination of virtue and the noble character. After Socrates’ death, Plato founded the Academy, a school outside Athens. The school allowed Plato to pass his knowledge to students and to write. His most famous work is The Republic, a set of dialogues featuring Socrates as a teacher. The Republic examines different forms of government that have become the foundations for modern political thought.

Anecdote:

Plato’s given name was Aristocles. During his early years, Aristocles was athletic and enjoyed wrestling. He was given the nickname Platon (“broad-shouldered” in Greek). Over time it was shortened to Plato.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Swiss-French Philosopher | Author | Composer
June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778

Biography:

Brought up by an uncle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau held many jobs but longed to be a composer. In 1742, a move to Paris led to contributing to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. In 1749, Rousseau read an ad about an essay contest on the effects of music and science on morals. He had an epiphany: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” This idea was published in The Social Contract (1762), which stated that surrendering individual rights for the good of all would create social equality for everyone, including women. Rousseau’s social contract theory established important ideas about the nature of government in society.

Anecdote:

The Social Contract was not well received in Paris and Geneva. In both cities, Rousseau was ostracized to the point that he fled to England for seven years.

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King John I

Ruler of England 1199 - 1216
Signer of the Magna Carta
December 24, 1166 or 1167 - October 19, 1216

Biography:

In 1200, John married French aristocrat Isabella of Angoulême, reigniting war with France. To fund it, he raised taxes. In 1209, Pope Innocent III excommunicated John over who should become Archbishop of Canterbury. During his reign, John started a war, angered his subjects, and lost favor with the Pope. In 1215, armed nobles marched on London. To maintain peace, John signed the Magna Carta, providing rights to the English people—then he ignored it. The nobles invited Louis, Dauphin (Prince) of France, to declare war. In May 1216, Louis invaded England. A few months later, John died.

Anecdote:

King John I is known for signing the Magna Carta, the first document to limit powers of the English crown and known as predecessor to the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

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Cato the Elder

Military Leader | Politician | Author
234 BC - 149 BC

Biography:

Marcus Porcius Cato was raised in a plebian agricultural family and began military service at 17. In the First Punic War, he served under Scipio Africanus in the legion that killed Hannibal. The Carthaginians kept coming. To inspire Roman troops, Cato ended a rallying speech with “Carthago delenda est!” (“Carthage must be destroyed!”). He used the motto in political speeches as he moved up to the highest post of consul. Ironically, in Cato’s political career, his greatest adversary was Scipio Africanus. Cato championed Roman values and is often called Cato the Censor (responsible for public morality).

Anecdote:

Besides politics, Cato wrote about medicine, history, and farming, plus created Rome’s first encyclopedia. Yet he once said, “After I’m dead, I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.”

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John Caldwell Calhoun

American Politician
March 18, 1782 - March 31, 1850

Biography:

Calhoun was a firebrand in the history of American government. He is credited with coining the phrase “states’ rights” when arguing against federal government interference with slavery in the South. Ironically, in protecting personal property rights—especially slavery—Calhoun expanded the rights of individual states against what he saw as encroaching federal government. Calhoun believed in Manifest Destiny and supported westward expansion but ended up opposing the Mexican-American War.

Anecdote:

As vice president under Andrew Jackson, Calhoun had his eye on the presidency. As early as 1830, talk of secession started. Calhoun became involved in the Nullification Crisis, arguing that states can nullify federal laws they deem unconstitutional. Jackson heard of this and vowed to smash the Nullification movement. Calhoun resigned his position as Vice President in 1832.

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Huey Long

American Politician
August 30, 1893 - September 10, 1935

Biography:

Nicknamed “The Kingfish,” Long was a populist politician who created the Share Our Wealth program in 1934, using the motto, “Every Man a King.” Long’s progressive politics angered Louisiana industrialists and businessmen. However, Long had the support of the state’s people and massive political machine. Elected to the US Senate, Long helped deliver Louisiana to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. Even after being assassinated, Long is still revered by some and reviled by others.

Anecdote:

In 1946, Robert Penn Warren published All the King’s Men about the political rise of fictional Willie Stark. Many believe it is based on the life of Huey Long. The novel explores the underside of politics in the South. It has been made into two films. The depiction enraged powerful individuals in Louisiana. Legends sprang up about Warren receiving death threats.

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James Madison

American Politician
4th President of the United States
March 16, 1751 - June 28, 1836

Biography:

Too sickly to serve in the Continental Army, Madison began his political career on the board of the Virginia militia during the Revolutionary War. He supported religious freedom and a strong federal government. Considered the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Madison also helped establish judicial review and diplomatically secure victory for America in the War of 1812. Madison served as president 1809-1817.

Anecdote:

The diminutive president married Dolley Payne Todd in 1794. Outspoken and social, the popular Dolley Madison helped her husband win elections and win over enemies. Among many accomplishments, she rescued many national treasures from destruction when British troops invaded Washington, DC.

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Carrie Nation

American Revolutionary
November 25, 1846 - June 9, 1911

Biography:

Carrie Amelia Moore Nation became a symbol of Prohibition. Her first marriage was to an alcoholic doctor and Union veteran of the Civil War. His death is believed to have motivated Nation’s strong stance on temperance. An important member in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Nation was infamous for attacking bars. She would enter a bar with other Temperance members singing Christian hymns. They would then pray and sing while Nation hacked apart the bar and its contents with her hatchet. These became known as “hatchetations.”

Anecdote:

Nation was repeatedly arrested for smashing taverns. Once in Kansas City, she was tried and fined $500 (over $13,000 in today’s money). The judge suspended the fine on the condition that Nation leave Kansas City and never return.

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Jane Addams

Humantarian
September 6, 1860 - May 21, 1935

Biography:

Jane Addams was born into an affluent Illinois family. Abraham Lincoln and her father were good friends. After finishing Rockford Female Seminary and briefly attending medical school, in 1888 she visited Toynbee Hall in London. This settlement house was designed to help the poor help themselves. Inspired, she returned to Chicago and with her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in 1889. Over the years, Addams also worked to develop education, reform labor laws for children and adults, improve sanitation, and advocate for minority rights. In 1931, Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Anecdote:

An urban legend emerged in the early 1900s that a devil baby lived in Hull House. The story involved abused women and abandoned children, issues many residents faced. Addams used the story to help residents discuss their problems.

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Horace Mann

American Educator
November 4, 1796 - August 2, 1859

Biography:

Horace Mann educated himself. At 20, he was admitted to Brown University, where he became interested in politics and education. In 1827, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He proceeded to the state Senate in 1833. In 1837, he was appointed Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, the first state board in the country. With limited funding, he provided the structure for revamping the Massachusetts education system. His goal was a state-funded education by professional teachers for all members of society. Mann believed that through education, citizens could fully put into practice the freedoms provided by the Constitution.

Anecdote:

In 1848, Mann served in the US House of Representatives. Despising his time in Congress, he resigned to become president of the newly established Antioch College in Ohio, continuing his service to educate others.

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Voltaire

French Author | Philosopher
November 21, 1694 - May 30, 1778

Biography:

François-Marie d’Arouet, pen name Voltaire, was born into nobility. His wit made him popular with aristocrats. However, his criticism of government and of religious intolerance brought him imprisonment and exile. In 1718, he was imprisoned for 11 months in the Bastille for insulting the Duke of Orleans. There, he wrote his first play, Oedipus, which launched his career. Voltaire’s masterpiece, Candide, derides both government and church for persecuting citizens. An outspoken Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire concludes that people should improve their own existence rather than trusting the church.

Anecdote:

In 1763, Voltaire wrote, “I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?”

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Thurgood Marshall

American Judge | Civil Rights Leader
July 2, 1908 - January 24, 1993

Biography:

Thurgood Marshall became the legal face and voice of African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, and the NAACP. He won 29 cases he argued in front of the US Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954), reversing Plessy v. Ferguson, and Browder v. Gayle (1956), effectively ending the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967. He was friends and worked with such prominent civil rights leaders as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. Marshall became a popular figure in American culture.

Anecdote:

Marshall wanted to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, but it was racially segregated at that time. Instead, he attended Howard University School of Law. Later, Marshall argued two landmark civil rights cases and helped African Americans gain access to graduate and law schools.

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William Howard Taft

27th President of the United States
Supreme Court Chief Justice
September 15, 1857 - March 8, 1930

Biography:

Taft was born to be a lawyer and politician. His father served as President Grant’s attorney general. After attending Yale, Taft opened a law practice in Cincinnati. But political appointments beckoned. In 1900, President McKinley appointed him administrator to the Philippines. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt named him secretary of war. In 1908, Taft won the presidency. However, Roosevelt was disappointed in Taft’s policies and ran again in 1912. Both Roosevelt and Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson. However, in 1921 President Harding appointed Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Anecdote:

Taft vastly preferred the Supreme Court to the presidency. Near the end of his life, he once remarked that he couldn’t ever recall being president.

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Theodore Roosevelt

American politician | 26th President of the United States
October 27, 1858 − January 6, 1919

Biography:

Teddy Roosevelt started in politics after graduating from Harvard and dropping out of Columbia Law School. When his wife and his mother died on the same day, Roosevelt abandoned politics to become a cowboy. Two years later he returned, remarried, and became US Navy Assistant Secretary. In 1898, he gained fame in the Spanish-American War. He became governor of New York. To stop Roosevelt’s reforms, fellow Republicans convinced President McKinley to make him vice president. Upon McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt became president and was known for his big-stick diplomacy: negotiation backed by military force. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiation in the Russo-Japanese War.

Anecdote:

President Roosevelt boxed as a workout. After one fateful punch, he lost sight in his left eye. He stated: “Fortunately it was my left eye … if it had been the right eye, I should have been entirely unable to shoot.”

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Romualdo Pacheco

American Political Leader
October 31, 1831 - January 23, 1899

Biography:

Born in modern-day Santa Barbara, Pacheco lived in California under Mexican and later American control. As a youth, he was a sailor, rancher, and miner, turning to politics in the 1850s. He was elected to the state senate in 1857 and declared allegiance to the Union party during the Civil War. In 1875, he became the state's first and only Hispanic governor. He was elected to Congress and help investigate President Garfield's assassination. After retiring, Pacheco served as a diplomatic envoy to Central America for two and a half years.

Anecdote:

As a teenager, Pacheco was on a ship when the Mexican-American War erupted. Authorities detained Pacheco in San Francisco, and he was not allowed to leave until he swore his allegiance to America. Pacheco, an excellent horseman, also once lassoed a grizzly bear.

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Barbara Jordan

Attorney | Politician | Civil Rights Trailblazer
February 21, 1936 - January 17, 1996

Biography:

Barbara Jordan, born in Houston, lived an accomplished life. An honor student at Texas Southern and law graduate of Boston University, she found fullfilment in working on the John F. Kennedy campaign in 1960. She was the first black Texas state senator and the first black woman from Texas elected to Congress. The Watergate hearings threw her in the national spotlight as she argued for President Nixon's impeachment. She became influential in Congress but returned to Texas in the 1980s. In the '90s, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and leukemia, later dying of pneumonia.

Anecdote:

During her college years, the University of Texas was segregated. However, near the end of her career, Barbara Jordan taught there. UT later published a book of her speeches and commissioned an on-campus statue in her honor.

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John Marshall

Fourth Chief Justice of the United States
September 24, 1755 - July 6, 1835

Biography:

Marshall had little formal education and mostly taught himself law. As a young man, Marshall became George Washington's legal officer after Valley Forge. He served in Congress, the cabinet, and as a diplomat to France before John Adams nominated him as chief justice in 1801. Marshall served for 34 years. He established the Supreme Court as the ultimate Constitutional authority in Marbury v. Madison (1803). Other landmark rulings included McCulloch v. Maryland (1819, national bank), Gibbons v. Ogden (1824, commerce regulation), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832, Cherokee sovereignty, though the ruling was ignored). Under Marshall, the Supreme Court fully used its checks and balances as the third Branch of government.

Anecdote:

The Liberty Bell rang during Marshall's funeral march. Some legends say this was when the bell cracked. However, many historians believe the rupture actually happened later.

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Andrew Carnegie

American Business Magnate
and Philanthropist
November 25, 1835 - August 11, 1919

Biography:

Born in poverty in Scotland, Carnegie arrived in the United States at 13. In 1853, he became assistant to Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott's business advice helped Carnegie get started in steel manufacturing. In 1872, Carnegie refined the steel-making process and gradually became one of the world's wealthiest men. In 1892, Carnegie built a steel plant in Pittsburgh. His plant manager, Henry Frick, cut worker's wages, touching off a violent labor strike. In 1901, Carnegie sold his company to banker J.P. Morgan for nearly $500 million. Carnegie spent the rest of his life giving away $350 million to fund libraries and universities.

Anecdote:

In 1889, Carnegie published The Gospel of Wealth, which argued that rich men should use their money to help the poor help themselves. This was three years before the steel plant strike.

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Thomas Jefferson

Scientist | Philosopher | Founding Father
3rd President of the United States
March 16, 1751 - June 28, 1836

Biography:

Known for writing the Declaration of Independence and being the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was also a scientist. He created multiple inventions, like the hideaway bed, a pedometer, and the swivel chair. An avid horticulturalist, he gathered many different plant varieties to determine the best for planting. He was also President of the Philosophical Society (science was known as philosophy at the time), where he presented research on paleontology, the study of fossils. As President of the United States, he formed the Discovery Corps to explore and catalogue the Louisiana Territory.

Anecdote:

Jefferson was impartial as a scientist. He promoted work by Benjamin Banneker, the first African American mathematician and scientist in America. He also supported the book Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet.

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John Quincy Adams

American Statesman |
Sixth President of the United States
July 11, 1767 - February 23, 1848

Biography:

John Quincy Adams grew up as America shed ties to Britain and became a new nation. The son of President John Adams, he held various diplomatic positions and served in Congress. He was appointed chief negotiator for the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. In 1817, President Madison made him secretary of State. In the disputed election of 1824, the House of Representatives named him the sixth president. Defeated in 1828 by Andrew Jackson, Adams was elected to the House in 1830. He collapsed while pleading for Congress to honor veterans of the Mexican-American War and died two days later, serving his country to the end.

Anecdote:

Adams spent his life fighting to abolish slavery. In 1841, he defended the African slaves of the Amistad in the Supreme Court. They were retuned home.

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Ken Burns

American Documentary Producer/Director
July 29, 1953

Biography:

Burns was born in New York City but grew up in Michigan with a lifelong love of movies and television. His first documentary, Brooklyn Bridge (1981), was nominated for an academy award. He won national acclaim in 1990 with his PBS series The Civil War. Burns has since made other films, including Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), and The Roosevelts (2014). He became known for his meticulous research and bringing history to life through compelling images and quotes from actual historical figures. Burns' fame as a cinematic storyteller underscores the positive influence of government humanities funding along with private contributions.

Anecdote:

Burns' The Civil War relied extensively on historian Shelby Foote's research and commentary. However, Burns had never heard of him before the project started. The two were intoduced through a mutual acquaintance, author Robert Penn Warren.

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Marco Polo

Italian Explorer and Merchant
1254 – 1324

Biography:

According to his tale, Marco Polo traveled with his family from Italy to China and back. They stayed for 24 years in Kublai Khan’s court. Marco learned to speak four other languages. After returning to Italy, Marco was taken prisoner in the Battle of Curzola (1298). In prison, Marco dictated his adventures in China to another inmate, who wrote them down. Nearly two centuries later, the tales were printed and spread throughout Europe. The Travels of Marco Polo described aspects of the Chinese culture and advertised the bountiful riches in Asia. This helped inspire Christopher Columbus’s journey.

Fun Facts:

Some critics then and now doubt Marco ever went to China. These doubts persist, since he never mentioned the Great Wall and other key facts. Still, Marco swore on his deathbed that he hadn’t told half his story.

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Tecumseh

Shawnee Chief and Warrior
Circa 1768 – October 5, 1813

Biography:

Tecumseh was born in Ohio. In the 1790s, Tecumseh’s tribe fought three battles against American militias. Regrouping, the Shawnee sought resistance through solidarity with other tribes. Tecumseh became a warrior promoting unity, though Shawnee solidarity was lost when Ohio was ceded in the Treaty of Greenville. To promote cooperation, Tecumseh traveled throughout native villages seeking support. His brother also tried to unify native tribes with a religious movement. Defeated at Tippecanoe in 1811, Tecumseh and several other tribes joined the British during the War of 1812. On October 5, 1813, William Henry Harrison and the US Army conquered Tecumseh at the Battle of Thames.

Anecdote:

After his death, Tecumseh became legendary. Tales spread of his political, military, and strategic abilities. Harrison, who had also won the Battle of Tippecanoe, called him a genius of combat.

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Simón Bolívar

South American revolutionary leader
June 24, 1783 – December 17, 1830

Biography:

Born under Spanish imperialism in Venezuela, Simón Bolívar joined an unsuccessful uprising in 1810. In 1813, he began a second revolt that eventually overthrew Spanish rule. Bolívar gained support from various governments in the Caribbean and sympathy from South American native populations. Bolívar encouraged continent-wide revolution to shake off imperialism. He went on to free the territory that became Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. He became president of Venezuela but ruled as more of a dictator. He died in 1830, due to poor health.

Anecdote:

Bolívar was inspired by the American and French Revolutions. When in Paris in 1804, he saw Napoleon’s coronation. Bolívar believed South America could use a similar strong leader. He has been compared to both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but without their results or reputation for advancing human rights.

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Samuel Slater

American Industrialist
June 9, 1768 – April 21, 1835

Biography:

Slater was born in Derbyshire, England. As he grew, his father found him an apprenticeship in a newly established textile mill. After his father died, Slater took his training and ideas to America in 1789. There he met Moses Brown, who was building a textile mill, and offered his help. Soon afterward, Brown’s plant was fully operational and on par with British mills. By 1797, Slater had enough capital for his own water-powered facilities, which were much larger and more profitable than Brown’s mill. Slater built many plants in New England and revolutionized American textile fabrication.

Anecdote:

During Slater’s apprenticeship, England outlawed exporting machinery and banned skilled mill laborers from leaving the country. When he left for America, Slater had to dress as a farmer and inform no one of his plans, not even his family.

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John Jacob Astor

German American Fur and Real Estate Tycoon
July 17, 1763 – March 29, 1848

Biography:

Astor left Germany for London in 1779. Earning enough for passage to America, Astor set out just as the Revolution was ending. In New York, he established the American Fur Company and mastered the fur trade. When Jay’s Treaty stopped British trappers from trading in America in 1794, Astor cornered the market. The Louisiana Purchase increased Astor’s wealth, despite a setback in the War of 1812. Astor built his wealth in several ways, including investments in New York City property. He died as the richest person in America then with $20 – $30 million, comparable to more than $100 billion today.

Anecdote:

Astor and his wife Sarah also built and sold musical instruments. He paid her $500 an hour for running the business. After he died, their children continued to build the family fortune and mystique.

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Sam Houston

Texas American Statesman
March 2, 1793 – July 26, 1863

Biography:

Sam’s father was an American Revolution veteran, and Sam fought in the War of 1812. General Andrew Jackson became a mentor, which later aided his political career. Houston was elected to the House and also served as governor of Tennessee. However, he left Washington with his life in turmoil in 1832 after fighting with a congressman. Houston fled to Texas, where he joined the fight for independence. After Texas separated from Mexico, Houston became the republic's first president. He later backed its American annexation in 1845. During the Civil War, when Texas seceded, Governor Houston was removed when he refused to swear loyalty to the Confederacy.

Anecdote:

Houston lived several years with a Cherokee tribe in Tennessee. The tribe eventually adopted him. In 1830, he sought aid for Native Americans being forcibly moved by Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.

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John C. Frémont

American Explorer and Political Leader
January 21, 1813 – March 1, 1890

Biography:

John C. Frémont became a mapmaker for the US Army. “The Great Pathfinder” led five geographical expeditions westward from 1842 to 1853. These included mapping the Oregon Trail. On one trek during the Mexican-American War, he helped fight to free California. He also signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, which ended the conflict there. Although a brief appointment as military governor led to a court-martial, Frémont found political success in 1850 as he was elected one of California’s first two senators. A strong abolitionist, Frémont ran for president in 1856. Later, Frémont served as governor of the Arizona Territory from 1878 to 1887.

Anecdote:

In 1861, Frémont was a general in conflict-ridden Missouri. He promised freedom to any slave who would fight for the Union. President Lincoln, then fearful of undermining the Union, withdrew this pledge.

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George McClellan

Union Civil War General
December 3, 1826 – October 29, 1885

Biography:

McClellan, who graduated from the US Military Academy in 1846, served under Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American War. He also studied military systems in Europe. When the Civil War broke out, McClellan became the Union’s commanding general. However, as acting commander, McClellan was often seen as too cautious and tentative. Finally, despite McClellan’s victory at Antietam, Lincoln dismissed him when he chose not to pursue the fleeing Confederate troops. In 1864, he ran against Lincoln for president. McClellan left the military but was later New Jersey governor (1878-81).

Anecdote:

McClellan fervently defended his Civil War decisions until the day he died. He also explained his reasoning in the autobiography McClellan’s Own Story, published two years after his death. The book ends on November 10, 1862, when he said goodbye to his troops.

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Clara Barton

American Red Cross Founder
December 25, 1821 – April 12, 1912

Biography:

Barton started public life as a New Jersey schoolteacher, founding a free school for poor children. Her school grew to 100 students in a year. She was ousted for a male leader, but joined the US Patent Office. During the Civil War, she gained permission to help wounded soldiers. Serving at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and others, Barton avoided bullets and artillery shells. She often spoke about the need to aid those wounded in battle and suffering from disaster. In 1881, she founded the American Red Cross.

Anecdote:

At Antietam, a bullet punched a hole in Barton’s sleeve and killed the soldier she was attending. Rather than bandage the wounded with corn husks, she provided her own medical supplies. When the sun went down, she furnished lamps. She became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

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Thaddeus Stevens

American Statesman and Abolitionist
April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868

Biography:

Stevens’s mother, abandoned by her husband, wanted her children educated. Passing the bar exam, Stevens practiced law in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but moved to affluent Lancaster. His success there led to the state legislature in 1838. At this time, he became an abolitionist. He employed an African American housekeeper, Lydia Smith, whom he treated as a friend and confidant. In 1848, he was elected to the House. He became known for his sharp wit, once backhandedly remarking that a colleague would never steal a red-hot stove. During Reconstruction, Stevens was a proponent for punishing the South. He died before Reconstruction ended.

Anecdote:

Stevens’s rural college was near a farm and cows kept leaving droppings. One day he borrowed an axe and killed a cow. When he learned the axe’s owner faced punishment, Stevens confessed and made restitution.

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William Lloyd Garrison

American Abolitionist Advocate
December 10, 1805 – May 24, 1879

Biography:

Despite limited formal education, Garrison worked for several New England newspapers. Though he began denouncing slavery in the mid-1820s, his career took root in 1828 when he wrote for abolitionist Benjamin Lundy. In 1831, Garrison started The Liberator, a stridently abolitionist newspaper. He spent the next three decades crusading for abolition in public speeches, editorials, and social circles. Garrison appealed to women as well as freed slaves, and published many articles by both. Garrison only closed The Liberator in 1865, once the Thirteenth Amendment had ended slavery. Garrison then retired—to support the Radical Republican Reconstruction program.

Anecdote:

The fiery Garrison shunned moderation. He once burned copies of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and the Constitution. He was also sued for libel, burned in effigy, and nearly lynched. Friends asked him to calm down. He refused.

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Lorenzo de Zavala

Texas Mexican Leader and Political Thinker
October 3, 1788 – November 15, 1836

Biography:

As a youth, Lorenzo de Zavala founded several newspapers espousing democratic ideals. Imprisoned for his beliefs, he studied medical journals and qualified to practice medicine. After prison, he participated in Mexico’s revolt to overthrow the Spanish government and was active in Mexico’s government from 1822 to 1829. When leadership shifted, Zavala went into exile, travelling America and Europe. In 1835, after learning Santa Anna was now Mexico’s dictator, Zavala moved to Texas and supported independence. He became vice president of the Republic of Texas in 1836 and played a leading role in writing the country’s constitution.

Anecdote:

Because Zavala supported Texas independence, Santa Anna branded him a traitor to Mexico. Yet some Texas leaders were also suspicious of Zavala. Zavala and his friend Stephen F. Austin fell ill and died within a month of each other.

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Daniel Shays

American Revolutionary War Veteran and Farmer
1747 – September 29, 1825

Biography:

Born to Irish immigrants, Daniel Shays had a penchant for militia formations at an early age. As a sergeant, he fought at Lexington and Concord, and earned captain rank. After the war, Massachusetts raised taxes to pay debts. This required Shays to sell half his land. Shays was part of the Regulators, a militant group that fought the Massachusetts government over taxation. Seen as a Regulator leader, Shays tried to negotiate peace with Massachusetts in 1786. When battle erupted, the Regulators collapsed and Shays fled to New Hampshire. Pardoned in 1788 and granted his military pension, Shays lived the rest of his life in poverty. He never returned from exile.

Anecdote:

The Marquis de Lafayette gave Shays a ceremonial sword for his service in the Revolution. Shays sold it when the army failed to pay him.

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Andrew Jackson

American War Veteran |
7th President of the United States
March 15, 1767 – June 8, 1845

Biography:

As a teenager, Andrew Jackson was a British captive during the Revolution. He later studied law in Tennessee. In 1796, Jackson was elected to the House and then served in the Senate. In 1804, Jackson left Washington for a Tennessee plantation and a post as militia commander. “Old Hickory” fought the British in the War of 1812 and became a hero at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson was elected president in 1828, serving until 1837. As a man of the people, he was known as an enemy of privilege, Kentucky politician Henry Clay, and the National Bank.

Anecdote:

Known for his temper and honor, Jackson fought several duels. In one, he was shot but rode 200 miles before having his wound treated. As president at age 67, Jackson also tried to cane a would-be assassin.

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Charles Cornwallis

British Military Leader and Statesman
December 31, 1738 – October 5, 1805

Biography:

Born to a noble family, Charles Cornwallis joined Parliament in 1760. He vacated the House of Lords in 1775 to contain the colonial rebellion. He was appointed as a general due to previous military education and service. In 1779, Cornwallis gained command of the British Army’s southern campaign. In 1781, he surrendered to Washington at Yorktown in the decisive battle of the American Revolution. After the war, Cornwallis served as governor-general of India and restored his reputation. As lord lieutenant of Ireland, he thwarted the Irish Rebellion of 1798. He resumed governorship of India in 1805, where he died of fever.

Anecdote:

As a member of Parliament, Cornwallis voted against the Stamp Act in 1765 and warned his colleagues against taxing the American settlements. He often advocated for the colonies—until they declared independence.

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Benjamin Franklin

American Printer, Statesman, and Scientist
January 17, 1706 - April 17, 1790

Biography:

Benjamin Franklin learned the print trade from his brother but was mostly self-educated. Starting in 1728, Franklin ran the successful Pennsylvania Gazette. He was a witty writer, starting with the Silence Dogood letters, and earned modest wealth with his popular Poor Richard’s Almanac. With his money, he became more educated about science and government. Before the French and Indian War, Franklin proposed colonial unification in the Albany Plan. He was a major contributor to the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. He died the year after George Washington was elected president.

Fun Fact:

Franklin also enjoyed inventing. At 11, he created hand swim fins. He also made a rocking chair that could churn butter. His most popular invention was a highly efficient stove. He gave away all his patents for free.

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John Hancock

American Political Leader and Merchant
January 12, 1737 – October 8, 1793

Biography:

When John Hancock was 8, his father died. Young John went to his uncle, a wealthy Boston merchant, and inherited his uncle’s business at 27. Hancock became the wealthiest man in New England. He entered politics when British taxation affected his business. Parliament saw Hancock as an agitator. Hancock drilled the Boston militia in preparation for war, and became president of the Continental Congress after the British attacked. Hancock was the first to vote for and sign the Declaration of Independence. After the war, Hancock served as Massachusetts’s governor. Some encouraged him to run for president, but this ended when George Washington entered the race.

Fun Fact:

Hancock is most famous for signing the Declaration in large letters and deriding King George. However, while the signature is real, some historians suspect Hancock’s taunt is only a legend.

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Sir Edward Coke

English Jurist
February 1, 1552 – September 3, 1634

Biography:

Born in Norfolk, Edward Coke became a great legal mind. He tried conspirators like Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gunpowder Plot traitors. He became legal advisor to King James I, but was dismissed when Coke insisted that common law was superior to the king’s concerns. Coke’s career continued in high-ranking offices outside the royal court. His four-volume publication, Laws of England, analyzed the rights given in the Magna Carta. This work helped inspire colonists like James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, who incorporated many of Coke’s ideas in the Constitution.

Fun Fact:

Coke’s text was standard in the American colonies. Most colonial lawyers did not go to law school, but used the text as their legal guide. Ironically, despite his later contributions to liberty, in life Coke was seen as a harsh and controlling man.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

American Women’s Rights Activist
November 12, 1815 – October 26, 1902

Biography:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the voice of women’s suffrage from its incarnation. Her fiery attitude was born of uniting women to fight for abolition. At an 1840 London abolitionist convention, Stanton met Lucretia Mott. In 1848, they collaborated on the Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded rights for women. During the Civil War, Stanton fought for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Ending slavery led to a rebirth of the suffrage movement. Stanton continued to fight for suffrage at the state level. She died before the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the vote.

Anecdote:

Stanton’s fight for equality stemmed from her rejections. She could not attend college, but settled for the Troy Female Seminary. Stanton studied law with her father, but was unable to practice because of her gender. She used her legal training to fight for equal rights.

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Dorothea Dix

American Educator, Nurse, and Reformer
April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887

Biography:

Dorothea Dix’s difficult early life taught her the values of hard work and sympathy. A quick learner, she became a schoolteacher and author. She founded her own school, but couldn’t continue teaching due to poor health. In 1836, she travelled to Europe to recover. Returning to Boston, she began teaching at a women’s penitentiary. One day she observed the facility’s filthy living conditions for the mentally ill and handicapped. Horrified, she spent the rest of her life advocating for better environments for them. She eventually established more humane facilities in the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, and throughout Europe.

Anecdote:

Dix saw mentally ill and handicapped people confined in chains, dressed in rags or naked, and forced to live in unheated cells without proper care or nourishment. Her efforts helped free them from cruel living conditions.

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Hiram Revels

American Pastor and Senator
September 27, 1827 – January 19, 1901

Biography:

Born free, Hiram Revels was taught illegally in North Carolina. He completed his education by graduating from Knox College. As a pastor he ministered to African American congregations, and was imprisoned in Missouri for preaching to slaves. During the Civil War, he organized two African American regiments in Maryland. He was their chaplain. After the war, he continued his ministry in the South, leading to a Mississippi state senate seat. In 1870, he became the first African American to serve in the US Senate. After his term, he became president of Alcorn University. When he retired, he remained part of the Mississippi religious community.

Anecdote:

Revels faced opposition when he joined the Senate. Southern Democrats argued the Fourteenth Amendment hadn’t allowed him to be a citizen long enough. With widespread Republican support, Revels was finally seated.

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Ulysses S. Grant

Union Civil War General | 18th President of the United States
April 27, 1822 – July 23, 1885

Biography:

Grant, shy and quiet as a youth, entered West Point reluctantly. He served in the Mexican-American War. Reassigned to the West Coast after the war, Grant resigned. He was working in his father’s tannery when the Civil War started. He first led the Ohio volunteers, but became the commanding Union general and a war hero. Grant won the presidency in 1868. His two terms were mired in scandal, but his personal reputation remained untarnished. Destitute several years after his presidency, Grant wrote a two-volume memoir to make money for his family. It was published after his death.

Anecdote:

Young Grant had a gift for working with horses. Area farmers came to him for horse training when he was only 9. Grant’s true first name was Hiram. He stopped using it after a mix-up at West Point.

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Stand Watie

Cherokee Confederate General
December 12, 1806 – September 9, 1871

Biography:

Born Cherokee in Georgia, Stand Watie signed the treaty relinquishing the tribe’s land. He and several others were blamed for thousands who died on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Watie narrowly escaped assassination. A slave and plantation owner, he was sympathetic to the Confederacy. Also fearing further white expansion onto western Indian lands, Watie joined the Confederacy to fight the federal government. He also recruited other Cherokees and encouraged guerilla warfare. Serving with distinction, Watie rose to the rank of Confederate brigadier general. He was also the last Civil War general to surrender. After the war, Watie lived in exile with the Choctaw Nation.

Anecdote:

Watie’s Cherokee name, Degadoga, means “He Stands.” Watie was a party in the 1871 Cherokee Tobacco Supreme Court case, in which the court ruled that federal law applied to tribes.

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John Smith

Colonial American Adventurer and Leader
1580 – June 21, 1631

Biography:

John Smith lived an adventurous life. He left home at age 16 and fought as a soldier. He was briefly enslaved by the Turks but escaped; Smith said his infatuated mistress had let him go. Back in England, Smith volunteered to help colonize the New World. During the Virginia Company’s voyage, Smith was thrown in the brig for mutiny. He escaped execution when it became known he’d secretly been appointed as a colony leader. Smith led the Jamestown Colony in Virginia and helped the colonists negotiate threats by the native Algonquian tribe. He also later helped colonize New England.

Fun Fact:

Smith is best known for escaping Chief Powhatan’s wrath when Pocahontas intervened. Some experts believe Powhatan actually intended to recognize Smith as a chief after scaring him. But Smith always said Pocahontas had saved his life.

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Marquis de Lafayette

French Nobleman | General of the American Revolution
September 6, 1757 – May 20, 1834

Biography:

Born to nobility and a millionaire at 17, Lafayette decided to leave France to join the American Revolution. Lafayette served as Washington’s aide-de-camp at Valley Forge and was commissioned as a general. Lafayette cornered Cornwallis’s troops at Yorktown, helping to end the war. He was praised by France and America for his service. After returning to France, Lafayette played a role in sparking the French Revolution, which backfired against him. Exiled and later imprisoned, Lafayette was released when Napoleon came to power but dealt cautiously with the emperor. He supported Louis-Phillippe in 1830 as a compromise between monarchy and freedom.

Anecdote:

In 1824, Lafayette visited America. He became the first foreign dignitary to address Congress. Lafayette often called himself a “citizen of two worlds,” France and America. The United States granted him honorary citizenship in 2002.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower

American General and Politician | President 1953–1961
October 14, 1890–March 28, 1969

Biography:

Although “Ike” seemed pleasant and grandfatherly, Dwight David Eisenhower had strong leadership skills. Eisenhower was a five-star general and supreme commander of the Allied forces in World War II. As president, he stood firm against the Soviets when the Cold War and space race began. During the 1957 civil rights crisis, Eisenhower deployed National Guard troops to Little Rock’s Central High School to protect African American students enrolling there. In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower warned Americans to beware the buildup of the “military-industrial complex.” However, Eisenhower’s foreign policy enabled the CIA to build foundations leading to future war in Vietnam.

Anecdote:

Eisenhower pioneered presidential television. Actor Robert Montgomery became Ike’s media consultant, teaching him effective on-camera techniques like delivering straight talk while sitting on the edge of his desk. Eisenhower’s plain-folks image connected with American viewers.

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Harry S. Truman

American Politician | President 1945–1953
May 8, 1884–December 26, 1972

Biography:

Harry S. Truman became president just weeks after becoming vice president. Untried as a world leader, Truman came to office at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. He stood by his approval of using the atomic bomb against Japan and took a tough stance in dealing with Russia and China. The Korean War began in 1950, becoming an ongoing quagmire that he could not end. This precipitated a military buildup and a worldwide atmosphere of increasing paranoia. Meanwhile, worsening domestic situations like McCarthyism continued unchecked. Truman refused to run for reelection in 1952.

Anecdote:

Truman’s middle name was simply S. His grandfathers’ names were Shipp and Solomon, and Truman’s mother wanted his middle name to stand for both. So using an S with or without a period is acceptable.

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Adolf Hitler

German Politician |
Chancellor of Germany 1933–1945
April 20, 1889–April 30, 1945

Biography:

Adolf Hitler’s legacy was a shocking heritage of evil. From the ashes of World War I, he rose to power as der Führer (leader) of the Nazi Party and then dictator of Germany. A proponent of the Aryan master race theory, Hitler’s brutal policies led to the Holocaust and the devastation of much of the world. Hitler’s reign of terror resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. Increasingly paranoid and delusional as his Third Reich collapsed, he withdrew to his bunker, where he ordered his associates to commit suicide with cyanide. Adolf Hitler then killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

Anecdote:

Hitler was a notorious hypochondriac. His doctor prescribed such dangerous drugs as amphetamines and opiates, plus anti-flatulence pills containing high levels of strychnine. These drugs contributed to his visibly deteriorating health as World War II wore on.

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Billy Sunday

American Evangelist
November 19, 1862–November 6, 1935

Biography:

At the turn of the previous century, Iowa-born William Ashley “Billy” Sunday was a famous evangelist who preached messages of hard work and temperance. He traveled tirelessly throughout the United States, delivering sermons at tent revivals. Sunday became extremely popular, but some critics denounced him as a sensationalist who was making a circus of religion. His followers didn’t care. The tents became bigger and bigger as word spread about his fiery manner and captivating speaking style. It is estimated that in his 40-year career, Billy Sunday delivered almost 20,000 sermons, and some 100 million people heard his impassioned sermons.

Anecdote:

Billy Sunday actually started out as a renowned baseball player. He played for the Chicago White Stockings in 1883 and set records in his seven years with the team. In 1890, he turned to evangelism.

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Hideki Tōjō

Japanese Military Commander and Politician
Prime Minister of Japan 1941–1944
December 30, 1884–December 23, 1948

Biography:

Hideki Tōjō, prime minister under Emperor Hirohito, was a strong-willed Nationalist and aggressive militarist who shaped Japan’s foreign policy to fit his imperialist ambitions. Tōjō directed Japan’s 1937 military invasion of China, which led to shocking brutality and horrific atrocities. After successfully planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, he became a forceful military dictator. Tōjō, Hitler, and Mussolini made up the Axis Powers. Tōjō’s power began eroding as Allied victories increased in the Pacific. He resigned in 1944. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, he attempted suicide. Tōjō was saved from death, only to be hanged for war crimes in 1948.

Anecdote:

"Tōjō, who was disciplined in bushido, the samurai honor tradition, sent letters to Japanese schools in America. He instructed every student who was Nisei [first-generation American] that “…as an American, you must be loyal to your country.”

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Carl von Clausewitz

Prussian Soldier | Military Strategist
July 1, 1780–November 16, 1831

Biography:

Major General Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian military officer who gained a great deal of battlefield experience during the Napoleonic Era. More than a soldier, Clausewitz was an incisive thinker who developed a unique philosophy of war on which he expounded in his 1832 book titled Vom Kriege (On War). Clausewitz focused strictly on the art of war itself, avoiding any mention of politics. The ideas he formulated in his book were so enduring and universal that Vom Kriege has been used by military commanders throughout the world as an instructional text for waging war and devising combat strategy.

Anecdote:

Clausewitz often explained heavy topics using humor. He once wrote, “A short jump is certainly easier than a long one, but no one wanting to get across a wide ditch would begin by jumping halfway.”

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Euclid

Greek Mathematician | Author | Teacher
Born: circa 325 BC; Died: circa 265 BC

Biography:

Little information is known about Euclid of Alexandria, other than his influential writings that led him to become widely known as “the father of geometry.” Using the works of others, Euclid compiled his 13-book version of Elements, which focused on basic plane geometry in its first four books. Euclid provided more than 460 propositions, or theorems, building a new set of logical and coherent knowledge. Historians often refer to Euclid’s Elements as the most important mathematical work ever published. In fact, it has more than 100 versions. The rigorous proofing system provided by Euclid can be considered the foundation for present-day analytical geometry, and also could be tied to the conceptual development and study of calculus.

Anecdote:

Many have written that, when Ptolemy I, King of Egypt, asked Euclid whether there was a shorter path to learning geometry than through Elements, Euclid responded, “There is no royal road to geometry.”

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Nancy Pelosi

American Politician | Speaker of the House 2007–2011
House Minority Leader 2011–Present
Born March 26, 1940

Biography:

Housewife Nancy Pelosi became a Democratic organizer in the 1980s. In 1987, she earned a congressional seat as representative of California, and has worked to bring moderates and conservatives together on major issues. Pelosi rose through the political ranks to become the first female Speaker of the House in 2007. She frequently locked horns with President George W. Bush, and was criticized by Republicans as a “left coast” liberal. Pelosi has worked to create jobs, educational opportunities, and tax cuts while raising the minimum wage. She promoted health care legislation and protected the rights of people with HIV/AIDS. In 2011, she became the House Minority Leader.

Anecdote:

Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra is an Emmy-winning documentarian whose films examine aspects of American life and politics. Alexandra accompanied George W. Bush’s press corps in his 2000 campaign. This resulted in her first documentary, Journeys with George.

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Saddam Hussein

Iraqi Politician | President of Iraq 1979–2003
April 28, 1937–December 30, 2006

Biography:

Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, frequently invaded his neighbors. The 1980 Iran invasion dragged on until 1988. He invaded Kuwait in 1991, igniting the Persian Gulf War. Then he launched a genocidal war against the Kurds, killing thousands with chemical weapons. He gained nuclear capabilities but refused to admit UN inspectors. President George W. Bush suspected Saddam of complicity in the 9/11 attacks and ordered the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saddam escaped but was caught hiding by US troops. After a nine-month trial before the Iraqi High tribunal, Saddam was convicted of crimes against humanity and hanged.

Anecdote:

Saddam Hussein delighted in monuments featuring his likeness. His narcissistic personality cult inspired thousands of murals and statues. A victory arch of his hands holding swords is so massive an army can march through it.

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Gerald Ford

American Politician | President 1974–1977
July 14, 1913–December 26, 2006

Biography:

Gerald R. Ford was a longtime US congressman and skilled politician. President Nixon appointed Ford to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew when Agnew resigned in 1973. Then the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign in 1974. Gerald Ford became president—the only man in American history to do so without having been elected by the people of the United States. Amid lingering public distrust of the government, Ford contended with a troubled economy, inflation, and tensions with the Soviet Union. In 1999, President Clinton awarded Ford the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his service during a difficult time in our nation’s history.

Anecdote:

Gerald Ford was a high school football star whose impressive athletic skills got him into the University of Michigan. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions offered him contracts, but he chose law school instead.

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Lyndon B. Johnson

American Politician | President 1963–1969
August 27, 1908–January 22, 1973

Biography:

Chosen by JFK for his southern connections, Lyndon Baines Johnson became president after Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson’s Great Society program aimed to end poverty and improve opportunities for the American poor. He promoted the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Johnson won reelection in 1964, but rising discontent over Vietnam overshadowed his progressive accomplishments. In 1968, he refused to run. Soon after, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed, riots erupted, and the Democratic National Convention dissolved into anarchy. Johnson returned to Texas. He died the day before the Vietnam War officially ended.

Anecdote:

Johnson’s trademark persuasion technique was giving congressmen “the Johnson treatment.” Johnson, a large man, would get in their faces, bullying and arguing and looming over them until they bent backwards under the onslaught of words.

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Cesar Chavez

Union Organizer | Latino Political Activist
March 31, 1927–April 23, 1993

Biography:

Cesar Chavez understood poverty. His family lost its farm during the Depression and had to become migrant farmworkers to make a minimal living. Because of this, Chavez personally witnessed the backbreaking hardships and cruel abuses growers forced farmworkers to endure. Inflamed by the injustice, he became active in organizing strikes and labor unions. He led socially conscious consumers to boycott grapes in order to make an impact on growers. Chavez established the United Farmworkers’ Union to protect the civil rights of farmworkers. He was widely respected for his courage and emerged as a strong Latino voice on the political scene.

Anecdote:

As migrant farmworkers, the Chavez family had to follow the harvest. They moved so frequently that by the time young Cesar was in the 8th grade, he had attended a total of 38 different schools.

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Iosif Dzhugashvili, aka Joseph Stalin

Soviet Bolshevik Dictator
December 18, 1878–March 5, 1953

Biography:

Born Iosif Dzhugashvili, Stalin was a power-mad political monster. Stalin used the Communist Party to seize power in 1924. His goal of “collectivizing the farm system” resulted in famine that starved millions of Ukrainians. To suppress any opposition, Stalin purged intellectuals by instituting the forced-labor camps of the Gulag, where untold millions died horribly in the frozen Siberian wastelands. Other enemies were exiled or executed. For 30 years, Stalin used fear to make the Soviet Union a superpower while his secret police, the NKVD, tortured, murdered, and terrorized citizens. In 1956, his successor Nikita Khrushchev officially denounced Stalin’s brutal regime.

Anecdote:

Dzhugashvili’s assumed name, Stalin, means “man of steel.” While Stalin’s operatives murdered millions of citizens, the biggest casualty of Stalinism was the truth. Stalin remolded his nation’s history to accommodate his warped version of reality.

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Erwin Rommel

German Field Marshal | “The Desert Fox”
November 15, 1891–October 14, 1944

Biography:

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel commanded Adolf Hitler’s German Afrika Korps. A tactical genius and ethical military commander, he was respected by both Axis and Allied forces alike. Rommel bridled at Hitler’s increasingly erratic behavior and believed the Führer must be somehow taken out of power. But he demurred when other generals asked him to be part of the July 1944 Operation Valkyrie bomb plot. The assassination attempt failed, and Rommel was implicated in the conspiracy. Hitler directed his field marshal to commit suicide by taking cyanide, and Erwin Rommel, ever the good soldier, complied with his commander’s final order.

Anecdote:

Although Hitler ordered Rommel’s death for opposing him, this was suppressed because of Rommel’s popularity with the people. Rommel received a lavish state funeral, and his cause of death was officially cited as war wounds.

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Benito Mussolini

Italian Dictator
July 29, 1883–April 28, 1945

Biography:

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was an Italian socialist who created the Fascist Party in March of 1919. Mussolini gathered a cadre of violent thugs he called his Black Shirts and used intimidation to build a fearsome power base. In 1925, Italian King Victor Emmanuel declared him prime minister, but Mussolini seized power as dictator, calling himself Il Duce. Aiming to create an Italian empire, he allied himself with Hitler and Tōjō in 1939, but the military failings of his forces brought him down. In the waning days of World War II, partisans overthrew Mussolini and executed him, ending his rampage of violence.

Anecdote:

The term fascism comes from a symbol of authority dating from Roman times. The fasces is a bundle of wooden rods with a protruding axe head, derived from Aesop’s fable about unity leading to strength.

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Ho Chi Minh

Vietnamese Communist Revolutionary
President of North Vietnam
May 19, 1890–September 2, 1969

Biography:

Nguyen Sinh Cung was born in French-ruled Vietnam. He took the name Ho Chi Minh, meaning “he who enlightens,” after being radicalized by Communist philosophy. In 1941, Ho founded the Vietnamese Communist League Vietminh to liberate his homeland, and war ensued. After the French were defeated in 1954, Vietnam was divided: Ho became president of Communist North Vietnam, and US-supported Ngo Dinh Diem, a corrupt and brutal dictator, controlled South Vietnam. Communist Vietcong insurgents fought the Diem regime. Disgusted with Diem, South Vietnamese military commanders assassinated him in a coup, laying the foundations for American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Anecdote:

Vietnamese respect Ho Chi Minh as a hero who reunified Vietnam. After US forces withdrew in 1973, North Vietnam seized the south. The southern capital Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.

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Langston Hughes

American Poet and Writer
February 1, 1902–May 22, 1967

Biography:

A pivotal influence of the Harlem Renaissance, James Mercer Langston Hughes’s groundbreaking jazz poetry gave voice to the vibrant African American culture that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Langston Hughes’s poems began to appear in 1921 in the pages of W. E. B. Du Bois’ magazine The Crisis, the official publication of the newly formed NAACP. Hughes won awards and prizes for his poetry, as well as a scholarship to finish college. Hughes carried the banner for racial equality through hard and frightening times, but he lived long enough to see the civil rights movement gain real momentum in the mid-1960s.

Anecdote:

Langston Hughes’s themes were often heavy with harsh truths, but his playful sense of humor and limber wordplay made his poetry accessible to his audiences. Combining his writing with jazz made it even more memorable.

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Kim Il-Sung

North Korean “Supreme Leader” 1948–1994
April 15, 1912–July 8, 1994

Biography:

Kim Il-Sung was the Communist leader of North Korea. Upon achieving power as absolute ruler, Kim eliminated his opposition, dictated austere policies, and forbade individuality and free speech. He was hostile toward neighboring South Korea and considered the entire Korean Peninsula to be part of his domain. In an unsuccessful bid to reunify north and south, Kim directed a military invasion of South Korea in 1950, bringing on the Korean War. Kim kept his country deliberately shrouded in mystery and cultivated a cult of personality with himself as its figurehead. His isolationist policies resulted in widespread famine throughout North Korea.

Anecdote:

In 1994, state-sponsored video of Kim’s funeral procession was released. Over a million citizens lined the route, with those closest to the cameras sobbing, howling wildly, and flinging themselves about in an overly theatrical manner.

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Mikhail Gorbachev

Soviet Leader
General Secretary of the Communist Party
Born March 2, 1931

Biography:

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. In the Cold War atmosphere between the United States and the USSR, President Reagan called Russia “the evil empire,” and the threat of mutually assured destruction loomed between the antagonists. Gorbachev reformed Soviet foreign policy by initiating the measures perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) and established a rapport with Reagan. The former enemies negotiated an arms-control agreement and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Russia’s first democratic election, Gorbachev became its first president. But his economic reforms hastened the collapse of the Communist system. The USSR dissolved in 1991.

Anecdote:

Gorbachev’s daring reforms earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. But in Russia, Communist hard-liners hated him. They kidnapped him in a brief coup in 1991. It was put down by his successor, President Boris Yeltsin.

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Woody Guthrie

American Songwriter, Singer, Guitarist, and Activist
July 14, 1912–October 3, 1967

Biography:

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie’s parents gave him his musical background, but a hardscrabble youth full of tragic heartache gave him a deep insight into the human condition. The Great Depression added even more life lessons that he included in his songs. Guthrie’s love of America and its people was intense. He used music to deliver messages of hope to the downtrodden and encourage social change. “I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good,” he said. Later in life, he turned to radical politics. Guthrie’s music gave inspiration to his listeners and exerted a major influence on American music.

Anecdote:

Woody Guthrie showed his support of America’s war effort against Hitler in World War II by applying a label to his guitar that read: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Guthrie’s heritage of musical activism lives on in his son, musician Arlo Guthrie.

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Calvin Coolidge

American Politician | President 1923–1929
July 4, 1872–January 5, 1933

Biography:

After the turbulence of World War I and the corruption-plagued Harding administration, Calvin Coolidge’s presidency made the Roaring Twenties seem peaceful in comparison. President Coolidge embraced the new medium of radio, creating a rapport with listeners as he addressed the country. He believed that “the chief business of the American people is business,” underscoring his unwillingness to regulate big corporations. Coolidge’s approach in ensuring big business remained unfettered by government was later revered by Ronald Reagan and other Republicans. But critics of Coolidge cite his laissez-faire approach as contributing to the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression.

Anecdote:

“Silent Cal” was quite a wit. At a dinner party, a young woman said, "I made a bet I could get more than two words out of you."
Without looking up, Coolidge replied, “You lose.”

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Genghis Khan

Founder and Leader of Mongol Empire
1162–1227

Biography:

Born Temujin, he became known as Genghis Khan, or “Great Ruler,” after creating the largest contiguous empire in human history. He is considered to be the founder of modern-day Mongolia. Genghis Khan enforced religious tolerance and the political practice of meritocracy within the empire. He brought the Silk Road under a single, unified rule. Empire and trade under the Khans brought together Arab Southwest Asia, Christian Europe, and the eastern portion of Asia.

Anecdote:

Due to Genghis Khan’s fearsome reputation, his final resting place is still a secret. Treasure hunters and archaeologists continue to look for it today. The Mongolian people continue to consider Genghis Khan as their father. Biologically, scientists estimate the one out of every 200 men around the world is biologically related to Genghis Khan.

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Leonardo da Vinci

Italian Renaissance Artist / Inventor
April 15, 1452– May 2, 1519

Biography:

Leonardo is best known for his painting, the Mona Lisa. He drafted some of the earliest plans for tanks, machine guns, parachutes, and other military devices while working for different Italian nobles. He sketched and painted some of the masterpieces of the Renaissance. These include his painting the Last Supper, which continues to intrigue scholars today. His genius is held up as the ideal of a “Renaissance Man.” Leonardo also was one of the first Renaissance artists to study human anatomy to accurately portray his subjects. Some of his anatomical sketches were used for centuries in medical schools for training.

Anecdote:

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a public notary in Florence. He did not have a family, or name, that would help him achieve notice in society during this historical era. He was literally a self-made man.

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Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

Italian Renaissance Artist / Architect
March or April, 1483–April 6, 1520

Biography:

Raphael was one of the three great Florentine artists of the Italian Renaissance. He was a painter and an architect. One of his best known works, The School of Athens, is located in the Vatican in Rome. Like the other Renaissance artists, Raphael depicted the human form in a realistic yet idealized state. The majority of his commissioned paintings were of a religious nature. Raphael also became the chief architect at the Vatican for a time. Unlike Leonardo or Michelangelo, he had a large following of pupils and apprentices, and he headed an art school in his later years.

Anecdote:

Some art historians and scholars consider Raphael the best draftsman of the Renaissance. Unlike many artists of the time, Raphael sketched and planned his works in meticulous detail. Many of his sketches are considered works of art in their own right.

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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonorotti Simoni

Italian Renaissance Artist / Engineer
May 6, 1475– February 18, 1564

Biography:

Michelangelo worked during what most scholars consider the High Renaissance. Some of his best known works are the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome, as well as the statues David and the Pietà. Like Leonardo da Vince, Michelangelo was concerned with representing the human form in its true state. Renaissance artists held the human form as the epitome of creation. This was a direct influence of humanist philosophy. Michelangelo was famous for his perfectionism, which caused tension between him and Pope Julius II while the artist worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Anecdote:

Michelangelo is considered by scholars to be one of the three giants of the Florentine School of the High Renaissance. He is counted with Leonardo and Raphael as a master artist and example of Renaissance accomplishments.

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Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov

Russian Revolutionary / Politician
April 22, 1870–January 21, 1924

Biography:

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, alias Lenin, was the first Communist leader of Soviet Russia. A revolutionary early on, Lenin began protesting against the czar while a student at university. The execution of his brother for political reasons firmly established Lenin as an anti-czarist. Trained as a lawyer, Lenin took the ideas of Karl Marx and adapted them to his ideal of a Russia devoid of social classes. This became known as Leninism. Lenin had a history of fighting the czar’s government and even was a political prisoner for a time. Lenin is considered by many scholars and politicians as the father of Soviet Russia.

Anecdote:

Lenin’s stay in prison was much easier than most. He was allowed visitors and luxuries that were unheard of for other prisoners. During his imprisonment, he plotted with others about what came to be known as the October Revolution of 1917, which established Russia’s Communist government.

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Karl Marx

German Philosopher / Economist / Author
May 5, 1818–March 14, 1883

Biography:

Karl Marx was a German political and economic philosopher, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. Yet his only professional employment was as a reporter for a London newspaper. Marx and Frederick Engels poured their revolutionary ideas about government and society into a slim but influential volume. The Communist Manifesto, still recognized by Communist parties and governments around the world, was published in 1848. Marx later published Das Kapital in 1881. These two texts opposed capitalism and democracy. Marx’s ideas led to a violent revolution in Russia and similar events around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Anecdote:

Marx espoused equality and liberty for all yet did not treat his wife or children well. Although raised in religion, Marx came to see it as the “opiate of the masses.” He also filed many false invoices for payment to his paper in London for stories he never wrote.

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Mao Zedong

Chinese Politician / Soldier / Leader
December 26, 1893–September 29, 1976

Biography:

Mao was a Chinese revolutionary and political leader. Most scholars consider him the father of Communist China. Mao learned of the political ideas of Marx and Lenin while at Peking University. He was a fervent anti-imperialist and Chinese nationalist in his youth. His form of Communism is known as Maoism. He led the Communist partisans fighting Japanese occupation during World War II. After WWII, they fought Chiang Kai-schek’s Nationalists for control of mainland China. Mao instituted numerous reforms, such as the Great Leap Forward in 1958, known as Mao’s Second Five Year Plan. During Mao’s tenure as leader of China, the nation advanced technologically and economically, but many freedoms and much culture was lost.

Anecdote:

Mao wanted to ensure US assistance for his partisans during World War II, so he learned English to directly communicate with President Roosevelt. However, this opportunity never came.

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John Maynard Keynes

English Economist | Author
June 5, 1883 – April 21, 1946

Biography:

While studying at Cambridge, John Maynard Keynes was encouraged by economist Alfred Marshall to shift his academic pursuits from mathematics and the classics to economics and politics. Keynes also joined an important group of writers and artists called “the Society,” with members like Leonard and Virginia Woolf, painter Duncan Grant, and biographer Lytton Strachey. Keynes entered public service but resigned after the Versailles Peace Conference (1919), distraught over the doom he foresaw due to the economic sanctions forced on Germany, defeated in WWI. Keynes’s groundbreaking work in the 1930s resulted in a new macroeconomics discipline: what is now known as “Keynesian economics,” which advocated government intervention to end the Great Depression.

Fun Fact:

Late in his life, Keynes wrote influential articles on war finance. His last major public service was in 1945: negotiating a multibillion-dollar loan by the United States to Britain.

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Arthur Wellesley

British Army Commander-in-Chief
British Prime Minister
May 1, 1769 – September 14, 1852

Biography:

Born to an Irish aristocratic family, Arthur Wellesley’s lackluster childhood did not reflect the success he would achieve as an adult. He received his first military commission at 18 and rose to military prominence with his service in India and during the Spanish Peninsular War. His defeat of Napoleon’s troops in Spain in 1812 earned him the title of the Duke of Wellington, and he became Britain’s ambassador to France. Wellington cemented his mark on history when, in June 1815, he defeated Napoleon once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo. He later turned to politics, becoming British prime minister in April 1827.

Fun Fact:

An uncompromising and rigid politician, Wellesley was nicknamed the Iron Duke. A popular myth also attributes this nickname to his unpopularity in Britain. Protesters smashed the windows of his home, resulting in the installation of iron shutters.

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Otto von Bismarck

Prussian Politician
Founder and 1st Chancellor of the German Empire
April 1, 1815 – July 30, 1898

Biography:

Otto von Bismarck had served as ambassador to Russia and France when King Wilhelm I named him prime minister of Prussia. Bismarck became determined to unite the German states into a single empire. He orchestrated a series of wars against Austria, Denmark, and France, using manipulation to achieve his goal. After defeating France in 1862, Wilhelm was crowned emperor and Bismarck became chancellor of a unified Germany. As chancellor, Bismarck created Europe’s first modern welfare state with the establishment of national healthcare, accident insurance, and pensions for old age. After Wilhelm died, the new king forced Bismarck out of his position.

Fun Fact:

For much of his later life, Otto von Bismarck wore a general’s uniform in public. While his troops were successful in three wars, his own military experience was limited: He briefly served in a reserve unit.

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Adam Smith

Scottish Philosopher | Economist | Author
June ?, 1723 – July 17, 1790

Biography:

After graduating from the University of Glasgow and then Oxford, Adam Smith taught philosophy at Glasgow. While lecturing in Edinburgh in 1750, he became lifelong friends with Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume. Smith, a philosopher and pioneer of political economy, was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. When he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Smith became the world’s leading economic expert by explaining a comprehensive system of economics that proposed defining a nation’s wealth by gross domestic product (GDP) and not stored gold and silver. Now considered the “bible of capitalism,” the book influenced Karl Marx and David Ricardo in the 19th century, and Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes in the 20th.

Fun Fact:

In 1759, Smith began tutoring the future Duke of Buccleuch. Smith traveled with him to France and met other great thinkers of the day, including Benjamin Franklin and French economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot.

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Milton Friedman

American Economist | Author
July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006

Biography:

Milton Friedman quickly earned several degrees, including a PhD from Columbia University. In his career, he devised the price theory (about pricing in individual markets) and the money-supply rule (a solution to inflation and employment/GNP fluctuations). He is perhaps best known for monetarism: going against J. M. Keynes and the establishment, Friedman offered evidence that price levels depend on money supply. He served as an adviser to President Richard Nixon, professor at the University of Chicago, and a senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In 1976, he received the Nobel Prize in economics for “his achievements in the field of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.”

Fun Fact:

In the 1960s, Friedman wrote Capitalism and Freedom for a general audience, arguing for things like a negative income tax, education vouchers, and especially a volunteer army—an issue about which Friedman was very passionate.

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David Ricardo

English Political Economist
April 18 or 19, 1772 – September 11, 1823

Biography:

One of 17 children of a successful Jewish stockbroker, David Ricardo started working for his father at age 14. However, at 21, he married a Quaker and broke family ties. He remained a successful stockbroker on his own. At 29, Ricardo read and was excited by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. It sparked the start of a short but well-respected career in political economics. Ricardo published pamphlets about many controversial British policies of banking, trade, and taxation, some of which led to changes in laws. When he died, Ricardo left an estate that would be worth well over $100 million in today’s dollars.

Fun Fact:

Britain’s protectionist Corn Laws of 1815 imposed high tariffs on imported grain. But as England’s population grew, farmland became scarce and prices went up, including farmer’s rents. Ricardo, himself a landowner who profited from high rents, still argued vehemently against the Corn Laws until the day he died. The Corn Laws were repealed some 20 years later.

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John Kenneth Galbraith

American Economist | Author | Journalist
October 15, 1908 – April 29, 2006

Biography:

Born in Canada, John Galbraith moved to the United States in the 1930s and earned a PhD in agricultural economics at the University of California—Berkeley. During World War II, he served as chief price controller, but he left government work in 1943 for the editorial board of Fortune. He served again after the war, directing the US Strategic Bombing Survey, which found that saturation bombing of Germany had not truly slowed down German war production. In 1958, he published The Affluent Society, contrasting private sector wealth with public sector poverty. Galbraith was an economics professor at Harvard, adviser to President John F. Kennedy, and Kennedy’s ambassador to India.

Fun Fact:

In the 1950s through 1970s, Galbraith was widely read because he wrote so well. Though some of his theories have proved to be false, he could argue them so eloquently that he often made opponents look foolish.

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Franklin Roosevelt

American Politician | 32nd US President
January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945

Biography:

Like his distant cousin Teddy, Franklin Roosevelt attended Harvard and Columbia Law School. He started in politics as a New York State senator and became assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. In 1920, he ran as vice president on James Cox’s unsuccessful Democratic ticket. In 1921, he became seriously ill while vacationing and was paralyzed. Despite his disability, he returned to politics, becoming governor of New York in 1928. He won the Democratic presidential nomination for the first time in 1932 and led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. He was elected three more times, becoming the only US president to serve more than two terms.

Anecdote:

Franklin Roosevelt is the first president to serve with a disability. He concealed his paralysis as much as possible. However, not wanting to appear helpless, he devised a way of “walking” that required the use of leg braces, a cane, and the arm of his son or an aide to provide balance.

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Winston Churchill

British Prime Minister | First Lord of the
Admiralty | Author
November 30, 1874 – January 24, 1965

Biography:

After graduating from military school, Winston Churchill became a soldier and journalist, covering the Boer War in 1899. He was captured by enemy soldiers, but his daring escape earned him renown in Britain, and he began his political career. He was named prime minister in May 1940 and led Great Britain during World War II. When the United States entered the war in 1941, Churchill worked closely with US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to defeat the Axis powers. In 1946, he made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, which warned of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Anecdote:

Winston Churchill was a lackluster student who was often punished for having a rebellious streak. His father, noticing Churchill’s passion for toy soldiers, decided to send him to military school. However, he didn’t pass the entrance exam until his third attempt.

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John Donne

English poet | politician |
Founder of the Metaphysical Poets
January 22, 1572 – March 31, 1631

Biography

John Donne was born into a Catholic family at a time when England outlawed the Catholic religion. Later in life, he renounced his faith, winning the king’s patronage and becoming the king’s chaplain and ultimately dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne was also a diplomat and member of Parliament. He is known for his satires, songs, love poems, sonnets, and sermons, and for his wit and eloquence. He is considered the founder of the “metaphysical” school of poets, whose work was characterized by the use of unusual, extended metaphors and the exploration of profound cosmic and spiritual themes.

Did You Know?

In 1601, Donne secretly married his wealthy employer’s 16-year-old niece, Ann More. Donne was fired from his job and even briefly imprisoned. He and Ann went on to have 12 children and a long and happy marriage. She died in childbirth at age 33.

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Mary Shelley

English author
August 30, 1797 – February 1, 1851

Biography

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of progressive political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died days after giving birth to the younger Mary. Godwin provided his daughter with an extensive education for a woman of her time. She spent time with many well-known intellectuals, including poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, the latter of whom she married. Mary Shelley conceived her famous novel Frankenstein when she was only 19, after a discussion with friends about German ghost stories and the nature of life. Frankenstein has since become a major influence on science fiction and pop culture.

Did You Know?

Mary Shelley and her husband were vegetarians and passionate supporters of animal rights, views that were often reflected in her writing. The creature in Frankenstein is a vegetarian.

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Lord Byron

English poet
January 22, 1788 – April 19, 1824

Biography

Wealthy, intellectual aristocrat George Gordon Byron, known as Lord Byron, is considered one of the greatest English poets and a key figure in the British Romantic movement. Byron lived a short life of great scandal, debt, excess, and fame. His exploits were a source of constant fascination for the public. His 1812 poem “Childe Harold” featured the first “Byronic hero” in literature—passionate, rebellious, arrogant, and self-destructive—similar to Byron himself. In 1816, he exiled himself permanently from England, and died at age 36 while in Greece aiding in the Greek War of Independence.

Did You Know?

Lord Byron was the father of mathematician and “poetical scientist” Ada Lovelace, born in 1815 and widely considered to be the first computer programmer.

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William Shakespeare

English playwright | poet | actor
April 23, 1564 – April 23, 1616

Biography

William Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers of all time. He began writing while he was a member of an Elizabethan acting company. Over 20 years, he wrote 38 plays—histories, comedies, and tragedies—and more than 150 poems. His work is known for its shrewd wit and wisdom, diverse political and cultural settings, and universal themes. His plays have been performed and adapted countless times. Shakespeare’s writing has greatly influenced both literature and the English language.

Did You Know?

Many phrases and idioms still used today are drawn from Shakespeare’s works, including “break the ice,” “mind’s eye,” “wild-goose chase,” and “love is blind.”

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Percy Bysshe Shelley

English Romantic poet
August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822

Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a lyric and epic poet of the early 19th century, one of the most widely studied English Romanticists. He was an unconventional political radical and a passionate advocate for social justice, animal rights, and nonviolent protest. Shelley drowned just before his 30th birthday while sailing in a storm off the coast of Italy. Shelley’s writings and his practice of nonviolent protest greatly influenced many writers and philosophers, including Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi.

Did You Know?

Shelley was already a married father of two when he met and fell in love with young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. He abandoned his wife Harriet for Mary; Harriet later drowned herself. Percy was then free to wed Mary, who later wrote Frankenstein as Mary Shelley. Together they had one son, Percy Florence Shelley.

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Sir Thomas More

English Renaissance author | lawyer |
philosopher
February 7, 1478 – July 6, 1535

Biography

Lawyer, philosopher, and writer Sir Thomas More was, for a time, a close political adviser and friend to England’s King Henry VIII. More was a devout Catholic who opposed the king’s break with the Catholic Church as well as his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and refused to attend her coronation ceremony. He also declined to sign an oath rejecting the pope as head of the church. More was imprisoned in the Tower of London and ultimately executed by beheading under orders from Henry VIII in 1535. He was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church 400 years later.

Did You Know?

More’s novel Utopia, written in Latin and later translated into English, is a fictional depiction of an ideal society. The book has had an enormous influence on moral and political philosophy as well as the development of both the utopian and dystopian genres of literature.

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Sir Walter Scott

Scottish Romantic author | lawyer
August 15, 1771 – September 21, 1832

Biography

Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1771. Following family tradition, he became a lawyer, but was interested in more creative pursuits, studying German Romanticism, Gothic novels, chivalric romances, and Scottish history. Scott was a popular literary critic, playwright, poet, and novelist, and inventor of the modern historical novel. He produced a number of historical narrative poems and bestselling historical novels, and is perhaps best known for his 1819 novel Ivanhoe, set in medieval England. His work is generally characterized by vivid depictions of local Scottish settings and themes of social progress.

Did You Know?

The central railway station in Edinburgh is named Waverley Station after Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley, an adventure set during the Scottish rebellion of 1745.

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John Keats

English Romantic poet
October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821

Biography

John Keats lived only a short time, but his poems have lived on to become among the most beloved in the English language. Keats was born in London to a stable keeper and his wife, both of whom died while Keats was still a child. He attended school and studied medicine briefly, even becoming a licensed apothecary, but quit the practice to follow his dream of becoming a poet. His poems are characterized by vivid and sensual imagery and allusions to classical myths and legends. His letters describing his study of the structure of poetry and poetic philosophy remain highly regarded even today. Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome at the age of 25.

Did You Know?

Keats’ love for a young woman named Fanny Brawne inspired many of his poems. They were engaged to marry, but he fell ill and died before they were able to wed.

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Geoffrey Chaucer

English Medieval author | philosopher |
scientist
circa 1343 – October 25, 1400

Biography

Geoffrey Chaucer is often called the “father of English literature.” In a time when most literature was written in Latin or French, Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in vernacular English—the everyday dialect of people living in England. The Canterbury Tales also depicts a wide variety of individuals with different social classes and occupations. Chaucer himself served in a number of different occupations closely related to the royal court, including forester, diplomat, and esquire to King Edward III. He was a translator, as well as a prolific writer of narratives, poetry, and satire.

Did You Know?

Chaucer is the first writer whose remains were interred in London’s Westminster Abbey, in a spot called “Poets’ Corner.” Other British writers, such as Robert Browning and Charles Dickens, also were interred there.

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William Blake

English Romantic poet | artist
November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827

Biography

William Blake attended drawing school and made his living as an engraver and book and magazine illustrator. He used these skills to create illuminated editions of his books of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. They were printed from copper plates and then hand-painted in watercolors, a method he said came to him in a dream. Blake claimed to experience mystical visions all his life, and some thought him insane. These visions influenced Blake’s writings, art, and philosophy.

Did You Know?

Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Author Aldous Huxley used these lines of poetry as inspiration for the title of a 1954 essay called “The Doors of Perception,” which a decade later influenced a young musician named Jim Morrison to call his band the Doors.

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Lewis Carroll

English Victorian author |
mathematician | teacher
January 27, 1832 – January 14, 1898

Biography

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in Cheshire, England, in 1832. As a child, he loved to play magic tricks and games of words and logic. Dodgson was an Anglican church deacon, photographer, writer, poet, and mathematician; he remained a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford until 1881. He took the pen name Lewis Carroll when he began to publish his non-academic writing. His writing features witty puns and wordplay and other forms of “literary nonsense.” Carroll died of pneumonia in 1898.

Did You Know?

The character of Alice in Carroll’s best-known works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, was inspired by his friendship with Alice Liddell. Alice was the young daughter of the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford University, where Carroll worked.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Scottish author | physician
May 22, 1859 – July 7, 1930

Biography

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. After completing medical school, he worked as a ship surgeon on voyages to the Arctic Circle and Africa, adventures that would influence and inform his later writing. He ultimately gave up medicine to devote his life to writing. Doyle is best known for creating the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes and for his innovations and contributions to the crime fiction genre. In all, Doyle wrote 60 Sherlock Holmes stories, beginning with the 1890 novel A Study in Scarlet, as well as a number of historical novels, science fiction stories, poems, and plays.

Did You Know?

Doyle was a proponent of spiritualism, a belief that spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, and wrote 10 books on the subject. He clashed publicly with many debunkers of spiritualism, including magician Harry Houdini.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

English Victorian poet
March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861

Biography

Elizabeth Barrett was the oldest of 12 children. Her family, who was part Creole, had lived in Jamaica as the owners of sugar plantations before moving to England. As a teenager, Barrett developed a lung ailment—possibly tuberculosis—and suffered a spinal injury, both of which affected her health for the rest of her life. She studied classical literature and taught herself Hebrew and Greek. She is perhaps best known for her book of love poems, Sonnets from the Portuguese. She also campaigned tirelessly against slavery and child labor.

Did You Know?

Elizabeth Barrett’s popular 1844 collection, Poems, brought her to the attention of writer Robert Browning. They fell in love and secretly married, which angered her father so much he never spoke to her again. Robert and Elizabeth moved to Florence, Italy, where they lived until Elizabeth’s death in 1861.

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Christina Rossetti

English Victorian poet
December 5, 1830 – December 29, 1894

Biography

Christina Rossetti was born in London to Italian parents, one of four children. She is known for her romantic ballads and devotional poetry, as well as her poems for children. Her 1862 collection Goblin Market and Other Poems is perhaps her most critically successful work. She refused three offers of marriage, choosing instead to live with her family. Rossetti died of cancer in London in 1894.

Did You Know?

Rossetti’s mother, Frances Polidori, was the sister of Lord Byron’s doctor and traveling companion, Dr. John William Polidori. He was the author of the first published modern vampire story, and was also present at the summer house in Switzerland when Mary Shelley came up with the idea for her novel Frankenstein. Rossetti’s brother Dante was also a well-regarded artist and poet; Christina was the subject of several of his paintings.

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Robert Browning

English Victorian poet | playwright
May 7, 1812 – December 12, 1889

Biography

Robert Browning was born in London and died in Venice. As a child, Browning avidly read books from his father’s enormous personal library; apparently he could read and write proficiently by age 5. The poetry of Percy Shelley inspired Browning to become an atheist, a vegetarian, and a poet. His plays were not widely regarded as successful, but his skill at writing dramatic monologues enhanced his own poetry and influenced the work of later poets, including Ezra Pound. His marriage to Elizabeth Barrett in 1846 made him part of one of history’s most celebrated literary couples. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.

Did You Know?

An Edison wax cylinder from 1889 recorded Browning reading aloud from his poem “How They Brought the Good News.” He is believed to be the first major literary figure to make a phonograph recording.

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Oscar Wilde

Irish Victorian playwright | novelist | poet
October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900

Biography

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, to wealthy and educated parents; his father William was an important surgeon in Ireland who was knighted for his service. Wilde excelled at school and graduated from both Trinity and Oxford universities with honors. He worked as a journalist and magazine editor, and went on to write poetry, short stories, essays, novels, and plays, the latter of which he also produced. His writing is known for its wit, humor, and imagination. In 1895, he was tried and found guilty of homosexuality—then an imprisonable offense—and was jailed for two years. He died three years after his release from prison, at age 46.

Did You Know?

Wilde’s witticisms are still quoted today, including “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go,” and “I can resist everything except temptation.”

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Thomas Hardy

English Victorian novelist | poet
June 2, 1840 – January 11, 1928

Biography

Thomas Hardy was born and grew up in rural southern England. He trained as an architectural apprentice for more than four years before becoming interested in literature. His writing is characterized by rural settings, realism, and criticism of social conventions. His perspective is frequently bleak and pessimistic. Hardy’s novels—including Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895)—examined controversial topics that had been mostly taboo in Victorian society. In all, Hardy wrote 14 novels, over 40 short stories, more than 900 poems, and two dramas. At his instruction, almost all of his letters and diaries were burned after his death.

Did You Know?

When Hardy died, his body was cremated and interred in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London, but his heart was buried with his first wife, Emma, near the town where he grew up.

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H. G. Wells

English author | teacher | scientist
September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946

Biography

Herbert George Wells is widely regarded as the “father” of science fiction. Author of such notable works as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, Wells also wrote in a number of other genres, including history, politics, satire, and comic novels. He trained as a biologist and held radical political and social views; his writing often contained political themes. Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature four times, but never won.

Did You Know?

Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, a supposedly “factual” account of a Martian invasion, influenced science fiction as well as actual science: it inspired scientist Robert Goddard to invent liquid-fueled and multistage rockets, which were used in America’s first manned moon landing in 1969.

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Ann Radcliffe

English Romantic novelist | poet
July 9, 1764 – February 7, 1823

Biography

English novelist and poet Ann Radcliffe is considered one of the pioneers of the Gothic literary genre. Radcliffe’s writing entwined classic Romantic themes and scenes with suspenseful, supernatural plot elements that ultimately turn out to have natural, rational explanations. Her work is particularly skillful at inspiring awe and horror with vivid, detailed descriptions of nature. Her first two novels were published anonymously, but by the time her wildly popular fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, was published in 1794, her name was well known and her career well established.

Did You Know?

Many contemporary and later writers, such as Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edgar Allan Poe, admired Radcliffe’s Gothic style and were inspired by it.

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Blaise Pascal

French Mathematician | Physicist | Philosopher
Born: 1623; Died: 1662

Biography

Although he lived only 39 years, Pascal is well-known for his expertise in various disciplines. In physics, Pascal’s Law states that fluids in a vessel transmit equal pressure in all directions. As a mathematician, Pascal wrote his first original treatise, on conic sections, when he was 16. Later, he laid the first foundation for the discipline of probability by studying the outcomes of games of chance, including dice throwing. In doing so, he derived such a large number of applications from the already-known arithmetical triangle (including those in his treatise on binomial coefficients), it was later named Pascal’s triangle. Using gears and wheel arrangements, he revealed his “arithmetic machine,” the world’s first calculator, in 1645. Pascal was also an esteemed philosopher and polemic, often focusing on religion.

Did You Know?

Blaise’s father, Etienne, a bookkeeper, homeschooled him and initially omitted mathematics from his studies because he feared Blaise would become distracted from the classical studies!

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