William H. Seward (1801-1872) WHO S/HE WAS: William H. Seward was a statesman and politician who served as Secretary of State under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. His tenure saw the acquisition of Alaska from Russia and diplomatic efforts to prevent European intervention during the American Civil War. WHAT S/HE SAID: Arguing that California be admitted to the Union as a free state, Seward stated: “There is a higher law than the Constitution.” WHY S/HE MATTERED: William H. Seward’s diplomatic achievements and commitment to justice echoed during pivotal moments in American history. His legacy raises questions about the balance between national interests, international relations, and ethical considerations.
Dwight Sigsbee (1845-1923) WHO S/HE WAS: Captain Charles Sigsbee was a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy and served in the Civil War and Spanish-American War. He was also a pioneering oceanographer and hydrographer. Between 1875 and 1925, his innovation, the Sigsbee sounding machine, was a standard item of deep-water oceanographc equipment. WHAT S/HE SAID: An officer in an emergency should pour ice water over his personal feelings, in order to defer his nervous prostration to a proper moment. WHY S/HE MATTERED: Sigsbee was the ill-fated naval commander of the USS Maine, which exploded in Havana harbor on January 25, 1898. The explosion set off the events that led up to the start of the Spanish–American War.
John L. Stevens (1820-1895) WHO S/HE WAS: Ambassador John Leavitt Stevens was a United States ambassador to Paraguay, Uruguay, Sweden, Norway and Hawaii during the second half of the nineteenth century. WHAT S/HE SAID: The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it. WHY S/HE MATTERED: During his time as State Minister to the Kingdom of Hawai’i, Stevens was accused of conspiring to overthrow Queen Lili’uokalani in association with the Committee of Safety, led by Lorrin A. Thurston and Sanford B. Dole. The attributed quote was from a letter, penned in March 1892, to U.S. Secretary of State, James Blaine. In it, Stevens urged action to prevent the intrusion of foreign interests into Hawai’i. Said he, “So long as the islands retain their own independent government there remains the possibility that England or the Canadian Dominion might secure one
William Howard Taft (1860-1835) WHO S/HE WAS: William Howard Taft was the twenty-seventh President of the United States, a Republican and later the 10th Chief Justice of the United States. In his first and only term, President Taft’s domestic agenda emphasized trust-busting, civil service reform, strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission, improving the performance of the postal service, and passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. Abroad, Taft sought to further the economic development of undeveloped nations in Latin America and Asia through the method he termed “Dollar Diplomacy.” However, Taft often alienated his own key constituencies, and was overwhelmingly defeated in his bid for a second term in the presidential election of 1912. President Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held until just before his death in 1930. To Taft, the appointment was his greatest honor; reflecting: WHAT S/HE SAID: I don’t remember that I ever
Ida Tarbell (1857-1944) WHO SHE WAS: Ida Tarbell was a pioneering investigative journalist, known for her groundbreaking exposés in McClure’s Magazine during the Progressive Era. Her most notable work, “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” unveiled the unscrupulous practices of the oil giant and became a cornerstone of muckraking journalism. WHAT S/HE SAID: Reflecting on the power of investigative journalism, Tarbell stated: “The truth is always an antagonizer of wrong. It looks wrong, sounds wrong, feels wrong, and the closer you get to it the stronger that feeling.” WHY S/HE MATTERED: Ida Tarbell’s fearless pursuit of truth and dedication to exposing corruption had a profound impact on American journalism. Her work shed light on the need for regulation and corporate accountability, influencing public opinion and inspiring subsequent investigative reporters.
Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) (1775-1836) WHO HE WAS: Tenskwatawa, known as “The Prophet,” was a Shawnee religious leader and the brother of the renowned warrior and diplomat Tecumseh. His teachings and visions played a pivotal role in the cultural and political awakening of Native American tribes in the early 19th century. WHAT HE SAID: Reflecting his spiritual and political influence, Tenskwatawa preached: “The Great Spirit has made us all. He is for us, and we will not fight against Him.” WHY HE MATTERED: Tenskwatawa’s spiritual revival movement and call for Native American unity laid the foundation for his brother Tecumseh’s efforts to resist European-American encroachment. His legacy underscores the importance of cultural preservation and the resilience of indigenous beliefs.
T’Zu Hsi (1835-1908) WHO S/HE WAS: Tsu Hsi was popularly known in China as the West Dowager Empress. She was a powerful and charismatic figure who became the de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, ruling over the Manchu Empire for 48 years from her husband’s death in 1861 to her own death in 1908. WHAT S/HE SAID: The foreigners are like fish in the stew pan. For 40 years I have eaten bitterness because of them. WHY S/HE MATTERED: The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was a key turning point of Tz’u Hsi’s reign. The Boxers were a secret society called the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”—poor Chinese who blamed Westerners and their imperialism for their poor standing of living. First organized in 1898, they may have been tacitly supported by Tzu-Hsi’s government. Rising in rebellion in early 1900, the empress and her government both helped and hindered the revolt.
Mark Twain (1835-1910) WHO S/HE WAS: Mark Twain was a famous author, satirist, essayist, newspaper contributor, and lecturer. He wrote about a myriad of topics, ranging from life along the Mississippi River, detailed in famous works such as _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_ (1872) and _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ (1884), to a collection of essays written while abroad, to political essays. Twain was an influential writer of his time and remains so today. WHAT S/HE SAID: There must be two Americas, one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away. WHY S/HE MATTERED: During the Spanish-American War, Twain became a fervent anti-imperialist, even joining the Anti-Imperialist League. His sentiments about that war and the war in the Phillippines were published nationwide.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878-1923) WHO S/HE WAS: Francisco “Pancho” Villa was a Mexican rebel and one of the most prominent figures of the Mexican Revolution. WHAT S/HE SAID: My sole ambition is to rid Mexico of the class that has oppressed her and given the people a chance to know what real liberty means. And if I could bring that about today by giving up my life, I would do it gladly. WHY S/HE MATTERED: In response to raids on United States interests, President Woodrow Wilson sent 5,000 men of the U.S. Army under the command of General Frederick Funston who oversaw John Pershing as he pursued Villa through Mexico. Employing aircraft and trucks for the first time in U.S. Army history, Pershing’s force chased Villa until February 1917 without success.
Valeriano Weyler (1838-1930) WHO S/HE WAS: General Valeriano Weyler was a Spanish soldier and commander of Spanish forces in Cuba in the 1890s. WHAT S/HE SAID: The good die young. WHY S/HE MATTERED: Valeriano “The Butcher” Weyler was notorious for his “reconcentration” policies in Cuba which sought to strip Cuban rebels of their abilities to live off the land and camouflage themselves in groups of civilians. The strategy had disastrous consequences. Unlike many concentration camps in the twentieth century, the idea was to keep the Cuban civilians alive and protected until the Spanish were victorious. Unfortunately at least 30% perished from lack of proper food, sanitary conditions, and medicines. The policy generated severe anti-Spanish feeling in the United States which helped propel it into war in 1898.
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) WHO S/HE WAS: Woodrow Wilson was the twenty-eighth President of the United States, in office 1913-1921. Like Roosevelt before him, Wilson regarded himself as the personal representative of the people. He developed a program of progressive reforms and asserted international leadership in building a new world order. In 1917 he proclaimed American entrance into World War I a crusade to make the world “safe for democracy.” WHAT S/HE SAID: No one but the President seems to be expected … to look out for the general interests of the country. WHY S/HE MATTERED: Woodrow Wilson and his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, came into office with little experience in foreign relations but with a determination to base their policy on moral principles rather than the selfish materialism that they believed had animated their predecessors’ programs. Convinced that democracy was gaining strength throughout the world, they were eager