This Day in History (31-Jan-1865) – The United States Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery

When the North American continent was first colonized by Europeans, the land was vast, the work was harsh, and there was a severe shortage of labor. White bond servants, paying their passage across the ocean from Europe through indentured labor, eased but did not solve the problem. Early in the seventeenth century, a Dutch ship loaded with African slaves introduced a solution. Slaves were most economical on large farms where labor-intensive cash crops, such as tobacco, could be grown. By the end of the American Revolution, slavery had proven unprofitable in the North and was dying out. Even in the South the institution was becoming less useful to farmers as tobacco prices fluctuated and began to drop. However, in 1793 Northerner Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin; this device made it possible for textile mills to use the type of cotton most easily grown in the South. Slavery became profitable again.

Torn between the economic benefits of slavery and the moral and constitutional issues it raised, white Southerners grew more and more defensive of the institution. Educated blacks such as escaped-slave Frederick Douglass wrote eloquent and heartfelt attacks on the institution. The outbreak of the Civil War forever changed the future of the American nation.  The war began as a struggle to preserve the Union, not a struggle to free the slaves, but many in the North and South felt that the conflict would ultimately decide both issues.  Congress passed laws permitting the seizure of slaves from the property of rebellious Southerners.  In 1962 President Abraham Lincoln presented the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This document decreed that, all slaves in states would be “thenceforward and forever free.”  Furthermore, Lincoln established an institution through which blacks could join the U.S. Army, an unprecedented level of integration at that time.  The United States Colored Troops (USCT) served on many battlefields, won numerous Medals of Honor, and ensured eventual Union victory in the war.  The thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery except as punishment for a crime, was passed by the Senate in April 1864, and by the House of Representatives in January 1865.


This Day in History (2-Jun-1858) – Donati Comet 1st seen named after it’s discoverer

Comet Donati, or Donati’s Comet, formally designated C/1858 L1 and 1858 VI, is a long-period comet named after the Italian  astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati who first observed it on June 2, 1858. It was the fifth comet to be discovered in 1858, and the fourth discovered by Donati (he would discover two more in 1864). After the Great Comet of 1811, it was the most brilliant comet that appeared in the 19th century. It became visible to the naked eye in the both hemispheres between September 1858 and March 1859. It was nearest the Earth on October 10, 1858. The comet has an orbital inclination of 116.9°.

Its gracefully curved tail, which extended almost 40 degrees in the southwestern sky, made a great visual impact and inspired several pictorial (paintings, watercolours, sketches) and poetic (lyrical and satirical) representations, especially in Great Britain and France. Donati’s comet, a true media event of its time, was very much in the public news in September-October of 1858. It was also the first comet to be photographed. The comet was photographed on September 28, 1858, at Harvard College Observatory by George P. Bond, son of William C. Bond, director of the observatory. He made several attempts with increasing exposure times, finally achieving a discernible image.

Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate, sat up on the porch of his hotel in Jonesboro, Illinois to see “Donti’s Comet” on September 14, 1858, the night before the third of his historic debates with Stephen Douglas over the future of slavery in America, in which Lincoln famously declared “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Donati’s Comet appears as a streak and star in the early evening sky of a painting by William Dyce, A Recollection of October 5th, 1858.

Due to its astoundingly long elliptical orbit, it is estimated that Donati’s Comet will not be seen passing by Earth again until the 4th millennium.