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What in the World? January History Lessons You Can Teach at Home (Part 2)

by David Engle | Jan 07, 2021 | 16 min read

This is a fascinating world we live in. When you step back and look at it, something historic has happened literally every single day. Sure, some events are bigger and more important than others, but think about it…history is made every day.

In this regular blog series, we’re going to look at world history by month, with two or three blog posts each month that list momentous events in the history of the world–and inspiration for lessons that you can teach your children at home!

We just finished the first part of January, which you can read here. Next up in Part 2, so enjoy some more historic dates in January!

January 8, 1815: General Andrew Jackson leads Americans in the Battle of New Orleans. While history looks back at the Battle of New Orleans as more or less a stalemate between the Americans and the British, at the time it was considered a huge victory for Major General Andrew Jackson and America…so much so, it raised the level of national pride and ultimately created a wave of popularity and adoration that Jackson rode right into the White House. Interestingly enough, the Treaty of Ghent–meant to end the War of 1812–had already been signed by both sides, but word had not yet reached America. In the meantime, the British plotted to attack New Orleans in order to seize control of the Mississippi River in the south, giving the British Empire a stronghold on all trade. Andrew Jackson had other ideas, however.

General Jackson, nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his legendary toughness, had been kept as a prisoner by the British during the Revolutionary War, so he had his sights set on revenge. He had his work cut out for him though; the British forces were a well-oiled machine, and Jackson’s troops were…well…an interesting bunch. At around 4,500 strong, Jackson’s men included militia fighters, frontiersmen, slaves, Native Americans, and even some pirates. The two sides had been battling since December 23, but it was on January 8 that British Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham formulated a plan to seize American guns and then attack the American line at Rodriguez Canal. But the British were met with a barrage from Jackson’s troops, who skillfully took down the redcoats with rifle shots and cannon fire. The British kept advancing to no avail. They eventually retreated, having lost 2,000 men in a matter of 30 minutes–including three generals (Pakenham being one) and seven colonels. By contrast, Jackson’s army lost 100 men. The War of 1812 officially ended just over a month later, on February 16. Learn more about the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, and the history of New Orleans.

January 8, 1935: Elvis Presley is born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis Aaron Presley is known as The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll…or even, simply, The King. He’s one of the few musicians throughout history who helped literally change the music landscape of his time (some others might include Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, and Kurt Cobain in that stratosphere). Rock and roll existed before Elvis came onto the scene, it existed while Elvis was on the scene, and it continued to thrive once he was gone. He wasn’t the most original musician, he wasn’t the greatest guitar or songwriter in history, he didn’t have the best voice. But once you saw Elvis in action, you knew he was “The King.” His magnetism and popularity bestowed that nickname upon Elvis; when he performed, he had the audience in the palm of his hand, right from the start, in early 1956, when he made his first national television appearances and introduced the world to “Heartbreak Hotel.” That song went on to reach the #1 spot on six (yes, six!) different Billboard charts, ranging from pop to rhythm & blues to country categories.

From 1956 through 1959, Elvis placed 38 titles on the Billboard “Top/Hot 100” chart–31 of which reached the Top 40, 19 made it to the Top 10, and eight hit number one. More than 60 years later, you probably recognize most of those titles: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Teddy Bear,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hard Headed Woman,” and “A Big Hunk O’ Love.” His huge music success led to a Hollywood movie contract before he headed off to Germany while serving in the U.S. Army. Upon his return in 1960, Elvis went on to star in more box office hit movies and sell plenty of soundtrack albums. His immense popularity began fading by the end of the 1960s–until he wowed American audiences with his “‘68 Comeback” television special that showcased his musical and showmanship talents. Unfortunately, Elvis’ lifestyle began to catch up with him as he suffered the effects of a dramatic weight gain as well as drug use. He died in August of 1977 at the way-too-young age of 42. Take a look back at the wave of rock and roll that ruled the 1950s as well as Elvis Presley’s gospel music roots that got him started.

January 9, 1913: Richard M. Nixon is born in Yorba Linda, California. Richard Nixon’s presidency was certainly eventful. One could make a legitimate argument that he had been one of America’s finest presidents…until he was forced to resign in disgrace in 1974. Let’s start at the beginning though. Nixon actually served four terms in the White House–two as vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961 and then from 1968 until 1974. In between, Nixon suffered two political defeats–one in the California governor’s race in 1962 and one to John F. Kennedy in the hard-fought 1960 presidential election. After a brief retirement from politics, he finally broke through in 1968 by defeating Hubert Humphrey to become the 37th President of the United States. Among his notable accomplishments as president, Richard Nixon helped expand programs such as food stamps and health insurance for low-income families, created the first “affirmative action” minority employment initiative, increased funding for civil rights agencies, created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and provided federal dollar revenue sharing with state and local governments. Concerning foreign affairs, Nixon’s biggest achievement may have been his role in establishing direct relations with China, something that hadn’t occurred for more than two decades. During late winter of 1972, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit China while still in office. This led to improved relations with the Soviet Union, which included the limitations of nuclear arms.

But Nixon’s accomplishments would soon be overshadowed by quite a few problems. For one, the domestic economy was struggling with inflation, increased unemployment, and a problematic trade deficit. His 1971 “New Economic Policy” provided some relief, but by the end of 1972, inflation was out of control. Globally, Nixon’s decision to attack North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia in 1970 sparked outrage at home, which led to several protests–one of which resulted in the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. Though the Vietnam War effectively ended during his presidency, the protests and actions which spurred them left a stain on Nixon’s legacy. Nixon’s plan for Middle East peace was also widely rejected by both the Israelis and the Soviets. Despite these setbacks, however, Nixon defeated George McGovern in the biggest landslide in election history in 1972. Unfortunately, Nixon’s time in the White House would not reach the end of his second term. The Watergate scandal, where Nixon and his aides engaged in illegal activities related to the burglary of the Democratic party headquarters in the Washington, DC Watergate office complex, would go down as the biggest political scandal in American history. Five men hired by the Republican Party’s Committee to Re-elect the President were arrested and charged for their crimes; immediately after their arrests, President Nixon secretly directed White House counsel John Dean to cover up his administration’s involvement. Nixon himself obstructed the FBI’s investigation into the matter and also offered secret cash payments to the burglars to prevent them from revealing the administration’s involvement.

This was all uncovered thanks to some award-winning investigative reporting, specifically by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The special prosecutor for the case was made aware of secret tapes from the Oval Office–upon demanding them from the president, Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire him. Rather than comply, the AG resigned, leading Nixon to fire the assistant attorney general. All of this was dubbed the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Amid another investigation by a new special prosecutor, Nixon held his famous “I am not a crook” press conference; shortly thereafter, Nixon released seven of the nine Oval Office tapes–and finally, after the Supreme Court ordered him to do so, Nixon turned over the remaining tapes–on which there was evidence of his crimes. By this point, the House Judiciary Committee had already voted to recommend three articles of impeachment. Facing almost-certain removal from office, President Richard Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, with his duties to be assumed the following day by Vice President Gerald Ford, who then pardoned Nixon exactly one month later. He retired from politics and went on to write a series of books on international affairs and American foreign policy, topics on which he was considered to be an expert. Richard Nixon died in April of 1994. Take a deeper look at the highlights (there were many) and low points (also quite a few) of the Nixon presidency, as well as the specifics of the Watergate scandal.

January 10, 1863: The world’s first underground railway opens in London. Long before New York City, Tokyo, or any other city even entertained the idea of an underground railroad system, London opened its Metropolitan line between Paddington and Farringdon in 1863. During its first day of operation, “The Tube” carried more than 30,000 passengers to their destinations. Currently, the London Underground is the world’s third-largest metro system, with 270 stations spanning nearly 250 miles and carrying more than 1.3 billion passengers each year. It also brings the city of London more than 2.5 billion pounds (more than $3.4 billion US) per year. The Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) recognized the importance of the Underground a few years ago, when it named the system one of the most important engineering projects of the past 200 years. Indeed, The Tube served as a model of underground transportation that paved the way for subway systems around the world and continues to be one of the most successful today. Use this lesson to dig deeper into the history of transportation systems, and why they’re so vital to the infrastructure of so many cities.

January 11, 1755: Alexander Hamilton is born in the British West Indies. You probably know him now from the Broadway sensation that bears his name…but there’s a reason Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the famous play about Alexander Hamilton’s life. For one, Hamilton was one of America’s founding fathers. Before that, however, Alexander Hamilton was a college student who left school to join the Continental Army in 1775. During his time serving in the army, Hamilton made quite an impression on General George Washington, who proceeded to make Hamilton his assistant and trusted advisor. Among Hamilton’s notable achievements was helping lead the attack in the Battle of Yorktown, which resulted in the British surrendering and the colonies winning the war–and its independence. Once the war ended, Hamilton returned to law school and created his own law practice in New York City before receiving a request to be a delegate at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. It was there that Hamilton advocated for a strong central government and for ways to pay off America’s debts. As a strong advocate for the new constitution, Hamilton joined John Jay and James Madison in writing The Federalist Papers, which promoted the values of the constitution in newspapers across America.

During Washington’s presidency, he named Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. In this role, Hamilton instituted a federal tax system and the national bank to help pay off the mounting debt caused by the Revolutionary War. It was also during this time that Hamilton began to make political enemies. When Great Britain and France broke out in war in 1793, there was one side who favored American neutrality (Hamilton) and another who thought the United States should side with France (Thomas Jefferson). These idealistic disagreements were the basis of the country’s first political parties–the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

While Jefferson would remain a fierce rival of Hamilton’s, it was Aaron Burr who drew the brunt of Hamilton’s ire. Enemies since the Constitutional debate in 1789, their feud was elevated to another level when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law to secure a Senate seat in 1791. Alexander Hamilton would have his revenge, however, in 1800. Jefferson and Burr ran against each other in that year’s presidential election–the result was a tie. Hamilton, putting aside his political feud with Jefferson, helped sway fellow Federalists in Congress to vote for Jefferson, resulting in Burr losing the election. Burr went on to become vice president, but accomplished little in that role. In 1804, he decided to run for governor in New York but was defeated partly because, in Burr’s eyes, a negative newspaper article suggested that Hamilton had insulted Burr. Because this article was published during Burr’s gubernatorial campaign, he believed Hamilton had undermined his candidacy and wrote to Hamilton about the article. Hamilton, naturally, refused to back down, and the two men agreed to a duel. On July 11, 1804, the two rivals met at a dueling ground in New Jersey–Hamilton fired and missed (some say intentionally), but Burr did not. Alexander Hamilton died from his wounds the next day. Learn more about Hamilton by reading his award-winning biography by Ron Chernow, or catch the filmed musical Hamilton on Disney+. You’ll see just how important Alexander Hamilton was to the founding of our country.

January 12, 1879: The Zulu War begins in South Africa. The seeds of the Anglo-Zulu War were actually planted in 1877, when Sir Henry Bartle Frere, a British colonial administrator was dispatched to Cape Town in order to unite South Africa under a single British confederation. However, Frere realized that uniting the Boers, independent Black states, and British colonies was not possible until the powerful Zulu kingdom along its borders were defeated. In late 1878, Zulu King Cetshwayo was issued an ultimatum requiring him to disband his army. Fully aware the Zulu king would not accept these terms, Frere arranged for an army to prepare for invasion. On January 11, the ultimatum expired, and three British columns crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand–by the next day, the central column had destroyed Zulu Chief Sihayo’s camp. On January 22, a massive Zulu force of 25,000 surprised the central column, which had set up camp at Isandlwana, forcing the column’s retreat from Zulu territory. By the end of January, only one of the three British columns was still standing, so the British contacted London to ask for reinforcements, which began arriving in early March. The impact of these reinforcements would be felt a few weeks later when, on March 29, a British force of 2,000 men repelled an attack of 20,000 Zulu warriors. Known as the Battle of Kambula, this would prove to be a turning point in the war.

By early June, sensing imminent defeat, King Cetshwayo sent envoys to discuss peace with British army leader Lord Chelmsford, who was on the verge of being replaced by Sir Garnet Wolseley, who would be arriving by the end of June. Eager to redeem himself for earlier battle losses to the Zulus, and concerned about being replaced by Wolseley, Chelmsford turned down one final peace request on the last day of June. On July 4, a large Zulu force of 15,000 attacked Chelmsford’s army at the Battle of Ulundi; however, Chelmsford’s troops fought valiantly and soundly defeated the Zulus, effectively marking the end of the Anglo-Zulu War. By the end of August, King Cetshwayo was captured and exiled to London. In 1887, faced with continuing Zulu rebellions, the British formally annexed Zululand; it became a part of Natal in 1897, and then part of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Learn more about the causes of the Anglo-Zulu War, the Zulu people, and some of the bloody battles and types of warfare that were used.

January 12, 1990: The Communist Party is outlawed in Romania after dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown. By the end of the 1980s, communism was falling throughout Europe. The Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Bulgaria had all seen the light and banished communist and totalitarian rule. Romania would be a part of this group just as the calendar turned to 1990. Its megalomaniacal dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, had roots in communism starting in the 1930s as a member of youth communist groups. Seeking a path toward making Romania a communist country, he worked his way through the system and eventually became president by 1967. Somewhat surprisingly, Ceausescu leaned liberal in his early years as president–but by 1971, he had completely reversed course. He implemented economic policies that literally ruined millions of citizens’ lives (but not his). Food shortages, political oppression, the demolition of villages–but that was merely the surface. Between 1966 and 1989, between 15,000 and 20,000 children–many disabled, and who were taken from their parents and institutionalized–died needlessly in Romania’s notorious children’s homes, where they were subjected to savage beatings, frostbite, rat bites, no treatment for illnesses like pneumonia, and filthy living conditions.

As formerly communist countries were embracing a democratic form of government, Ceausescu scoffed at the notion. In fact, in mid-December of 1989, în Timișoara, protests against the regime broke out to Ceausescu’s shock and horror. So he ordered security forces to fire on demonstrators, killing and wounding hundreds. In his misguided attempt to reassert control, Ceausescu called a large rally in Bucharest on December 21 to spread his version of truth to what appeared to be a calm crowd. However, the crowd soon turned on Ceausescu and shouted him down as protests grew more intense. He eventually fled to the Communist Party Central Committee headquarters, but that did little to settle the protestors. Marches in Bucharest continued through the night as they batted security; by the next day, protests had spread across Romania. Ceausescu tried to restore order, but he was greeted with barrages of rocks and other objects thrown at him. He and his wife, Elena (a notorious and similarly despised accomplice), left the capital by helicopter only to be chased down later that day.

By the time the battles and protests subsided, approximately 1,000 people were dead and more than 2,000 were injured. But they did not fight in vain–Ceausescu’s reign of terror was over. On Christmas Day, Nicolae and Elene Ceausescu were court martialed, tried, and found guilty (in less than an hour) of crimes that included genocide, subversion of state power, destruction of public property, undermining of the national economy, and attempt to flee the country with public funds. Minutes after the trial, the Ceausescus were executed by a firing squad. More than 24 years of horror were over for Romanian citizens. Just a couple of weeks later, new President Ion Iliescu declared the end of communism in Romania. Use this lesson to look at other dictatorships and the effects they had on their countries, as well as the fall of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

January 12, 1737: American patriot John Hancock is born. He’s known for his famous signature on the Declaration of Independence, but John Hancock contributed quite a bit to the formation of America. Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, Hancock grew up in a wealthy family and was a quite intelligent child–in fact, he graduated from Harvard College at the age of 17. While his wealth and upbringing seemed a natural fit for the Loyalists who did not seek independence from Great Britain, he saw himself as a patriot, similar to John Adams and Samuel Adams. Though he didn’t participate in the Boston Tea Party protests himself, he was in attendance at the meetings during which the group of patriots vented their outrage against the British. Hancock may have even prodded the group into action by passionately saying, “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!” Behind the scenes, John Hancock also played a pivotal role in the American Revolution by helping to raise money, gather troops, and organizing naval forces. In 1774, he was chosen as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and the following year he was elected president of the Second Continental Congress. In 1780, he returned to his home state and was elected governor of Massachusetts, a position he popularly held for the rest of his remaining years.

About the signature…contrary to rumors, the reason John Hancock’s signature is so large on the Declaration of Independence is because he was the first to sign the historic document and did so in a manner befitting a president of Congress. Unlike the famous painting depicting a room full of patriots witnessing Hancock’s signature, there was actually only one other person in the room when he signed. Dig further into John Hancock’s role during the American Revolution and take a closer look at the document that bears his famous “John Hancock”–the Declaration of Independence.

January 14, 1741: Famous traitor Benedict Arnold is born. Up until 1779, Benedict Arnold was considered an American patriot. There was no reason to believe otherwise. The Norwich, Connecticut-born dutifully volunteered for military service at the dawn of the American Revolution in 1775. In fact, he was part of an important colonial attack on the British-held Fort Ticonderoga in New York. Later that year, General George Washington appointed Arnold to lead an expedition to capture Quebec. However, during an attack on New Year’s Eve of 1775, Arnold was seriously wounded. He had recovered enough by autumn of 1776 to serve as brigadier general and defeat an enemy fleet near Valcour Island, New York. He returned from New York a hero, but his rash and impatient tactics did not sit well with officers; it was for that reason Benedict Arnold was passed over for five generalships the following February, an action that infuriated him. He soldiered on, however, and won more battles in 1777, including the Battle of Saratoga. Arnold suffered more serious wounds during these battles, and he was placed in command of Philadelphia in 1778, where he socialized with Loyalists while living a posh lifestyle.

In April of 1779, Benedict Arnold married Margaret Shippen, a young Loyalist sympathizer, which may have contributed to him making secret overtures to British headquarters and then informing the British of a planned American invasion of Canada. Upon being named commander of West Point, Arnold requested money from the British in exchange for his betrayal of America. Shortly after, his British contact was captured by Americans–Benedict Arnold fled on a British ship and left his contact to be hanged as a spy. He fully revealed his true colors when he led an attack on New London, Connecticut in 1781. At the end of that year, he left for London, ultimately settling there permanently after several years of privateering in the West Indies. Benedict Arnold died in 1801, known to this day as perhaps the most reviled traitor in American history. Take a look at other known traitors and how their switching loyalties impacted history.

January 15, 1929: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is born in Atlanta. It’s difficult to put into words just how important Martin Luther King, Jr. was during the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. An eloquent and captivating speaker who urged African Americans to use nonviolent methods to achieve equality, Dr. King was an exceptionally bright young man who graduated high school at the age of 15, earned a degree from Morehouse College at 19, and received a doctorate degree from Boston University’s Crozer Theological Seminary at age 25. Dr. King was so respected while in college that he was elected class president during his time in the seminary–despite being one of just a few African American students in his class. Upon graduation, Dr. King and his new bride, Coretta Scott King, moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he became deeply involved in the civil rights movement–most notably the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began with Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. With this leadership came danger; Dr. King was arrested and threatened, and his home was bombed during this period of protest. But his actions helped desegregate Montgomery public buses, and doing so, Dr. King became the national face of the civil rights movement. He continued his work to bring racial equality to Blacks all across the South through civil disobedience–Dr. King did not believe in violence or riots as a meaningful form of protest.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march of 250,000 people through Washington, DC, where he delivered one of the most famous and important speeches in world history–his “I Have a Dream” speech, which called for all people to live together as equals regardless of their skin color. Shortly after this march and Dr. King’s speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which further desegregated public facilities and places and made it illegal for employers to discriminate due to a person’s skin color. Next up was voting rights for minorities. In March of 1965, Dr. King organized a series of marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, protesting for the right of people of any skin color to vote. Later that year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, eliminating laws and restrictions that prevented African Americans from voting. For all of his important work, Dr. King was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Unfortunately, the nature of Martin Luther King’s work brought him many enemies. There were still quite a few people who still supported segregation and did not agree that African Americans deserved the same rights as Whites. One of those people was James Earl Ray. On April 4, 1968, Ray fired a shot at Dr. King as he was standing on the balcony of his Memphis motel room. He died an hour later at a nearby hospital. Ray immediately fled and was the subject of a two-month, five-country manhunt before he was finally arrested in London on July 19, 1968. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but as of today there remains some doubt that Ray either acted alone or had anything to do with Dr. King’s murder at all–despite him pleading guilty. Shortly before his death in 1998, Ray met with Dr. King’s son, Dexter, whom he told that he had nothing to do with the death of his father. Dexter told Ray that he believed him. The King family, and many others, believe there was a government conspiracy in place to silence Dr. King–knowing now that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover considered Dr. King an enemy, maybe there’s some truth to that. Regardless, his death triggered riots in cities across America–the antithesis of what Martin Luther King, Jr. preached. To this day, Dr. King is revered for his heroic efforts to peacefully create equality for people of all skin colors. In 1983, the third Monday in January was designated a legal holiday in the United States, a day we can all remember what Martin Luther King, Jr. gave for the good of humankind. Take a longer look into Dr. King’s work and the incomparable impact it made. You can also use this historic date to study more about the civil rights movements that took place as well as racial issues that are still rampant in society today.

That does it for the second part of historical figures and events for January. Stay tuned for the next part, coming soon! In the meantime, check out our partner site,, for more fun and factual lessons!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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