1468: Death of Johannes Gutenberg (b.1398), who invented re-usable, movable type for printing presses, launching an information revolution. In 1455 he published his first major project, the Holy Bible, of which about 180 were produced. The last modern sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible was for $2,200,000 in 1978. Many of the other surviving copies have been broken apart for sale of individual leaves or sections; an estimated 21 remain intact as complete.
1478: Birth of the counselor to Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More (d.1535), who called himself “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Venerated in the Catholic Church as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, judge, social philosopher, author, statesman, and noted Renaissance humanist. He served Henry VIII as Lord High Chancellor of England from October 1529 to May 1532.
1488: Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz lands at Mossel Bay in what is now South Africa, becoming the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail into the Indian Ocean.
1497: In Florence, Italy, the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola instigates from the pulpit a quest for purity from “moral laxity,” calling for systematic destruction of any items that might lead to sin: i.e., mirrors, cosmetics, statuary, fine arts, books, and the like. He ordered the items piled in the central square, and on this day burned them to ashes, in what he called The Bonfire of the Vanities. Yes, the original and actual one, not the metaphor. The event represented the apex of Savonarola’s spiritual and political influence over Florence, whose leading family (the Medici) had been regular targets of his righteous indignation, despite their earlier patronage of his ministry. By May, his exhortations became too much for Pope Alexander VI, who finally excommunicated him. A year later, after torture and confessions, Savonarola himself and two associates were executed, and their bodies burned in the very spot of the Bonfire of the Vanities. To avoid their remains becoming the relics of martyrs for his faithful followers, the corpses were re-burned twice, their bones crushed and thoroughly mixed in with the ashes of brushwood, and then thrown into the River Arno to eliminate the need for a grave site. Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching remains the archetype for near-cultic demagoguery.
1587: Death of Mary, Queen of Scots (b.1542). executed on allegations of treason against Elizabeth I. She was, in fact, deeply entwined in several conspiracies seeking to depose Elizabeth and re-impose Catholic rule to Great Britain. She had family connections to the French throne, who threatened military action but sent none. The more aggressive Spanish throne was actually deep in planning to perform multiple assassinations, including a regicide, in order to un-do Henry VIII’s work of creating a nominally Protestant kingdom. Elizabeth’s counselor*, Francis Walsingham, penetrated the Spanish plans and captured documents signed by Mary that directly implicated her in the plot. Her fate was thus sealed. At her execution, the axe man picked up her head to present it to the crowd, but it fell back to the platform, with the executioner left holding only her red hair, which was actually a wig that disguised her short, grey locks.
1693: In the colony of Virginia, the College of William and Mary is granted a Royal Charter from King William III and Queen Mary II.
1756: Birth of Aaron Burr (d.1836), one of the key second-level leaders of the American Revolution: soldier, New York politician, and Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President. Best remembered today for the duel he fought with former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who died of his wounds.
1775: Completely stymied by the continuing unrest in its primary New World port, the British Parliament formally declares Massachusetts to be in rebellion.
1793: Death of New England farmer Samuel Whittemore (b.1696), who, at age 78 was the eldest of the original cadre of Massachusetts militia who fought the British Regulars on their retrograde from the battles of Lexington and Concord on 19th April, 1775. Shot, bayonetted, beaten, and left for dead, he recovered from his wounds and lived to the ripe old age of 96. In 2005 the legislature designated him as an official state hero of Massachusetts, whose memory is celebrated on this day.
1794: Creating the rare exception that perhaps proved the French Revolution was not a complete human disaster, on this day the National Assembly abolishes slavery throughout the territories of the French Republic.
1825: John Quincy Adams is elected to the Presidency by the House of Representatives. In the four-way race for president during the November election, none of the other three candidates was able to secure a majority of electoral votes. Adams actually finished second in the original electoral count behind Andrew Jackson, who had a plurality, but not the required majority, thus sending the election to the House, per the rules laid down in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution.
1839: Birth of German aviation pioneer Hugo Junkers (d.1935).He pioneered the design of all-metal airplanes and flying wings. His company, Junkers Flugzeug- und Motorenwerke AG, was one of the mainstays of the German aircraft industry in the years between World War I and World War II.
1867: Birth of author Laura Ingalls Wilder (d.1957), whose stories of life growing up on the wild American prairie have inspired generations of more sedentary explorers.
1898: Opening day of the criminal libel trial of Emile Zola, the brilliant French intellectual and journalist who sparked The Dreyfus Affair with a front page, open letter to the President of the French Republic entitled “J’Accuse!”. His accusation was that the French government was intentionally covering up an egregious miscarriage of justice- the conviction of an artillery captain of espionage four years earlier- because the captain was Jewish, and because the government was, at its core, anti-Semitic and reactionary. The ensuing controversy almost immediately polarized French society, and for another eight years l’affaire Dreyfus was bitterly fought out in the press and in the courtrooms of France. Alfred Dreyfus himself was at the time imprisoned on Devil’s Island. When the President eventually offered to pardon him, he refused, insisting on complete exoneration. As Zola predicted, the truth eventually became clear, and Dreyfus was released from prison and re-instated in 1906 as a major. He fought in the Great War from start to finish, and left the army as a lieutenant colonel. For his part, Zola was convicted on the 23rd of the month and immediately fled to England, where he remained through June 1899. After his return to France he continued to write, but in September 1902, he died suddenly in his apartment, the cause being carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked chimney. Conspiracy Alert: the roofer who intentionally blocked the chimney took credit for the act as a political statement, as he himself lay on his deathbed ten years later.
1899: Only months after our prying the islands from Spanish colonial rule, Philippine nationalists rebel against nascent American rule, opening the Philippine Insurrection. The war officially lasts through July, 1902, but at that point the rebellion simply moved underground, becoming a terrorist movement that simmered and flared for two years. In April, 1904, the Moro Rebellion broke into open warfare against American occupation forces, becoming a bitter jungle war lasting through June, 1913.
1895: Birth of George Herman Ruth, Jr. (d.1948), the great slugger for the New York Yankees.
1899: The U.S. Senate ratifies the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the “Splendid Little War” between Spain and the United States. Commissioners from the United States and Spain met in Paris to produce a treaty that would bring an end to the war after six months of hostilities.
1902: Birth of Charles Lindbergh (d.1974).
1904: First shots of the Russo-Japanese War, a torpedo attack by Japanese warships against the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur, Manchuria. The bitter 18 month conflict centered on Russian desires for a warm-water seaport for their Pacific fleet, and the Japanese Empire’s equal determination to prevent such a force from establishing a presence so near the Japanese homeland.
1906: Birth of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (d.1997), whose patience in the search for “Planet X” came to fruition on the 18thof February, 1930. He discovered Pluto in 1930, the first object to be discovered in what would later be identified as the Kuiper belt. At the time of discovery, Pluto was considered a planet, but was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.
1906: Birth of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d.1945), whose incisive observations on the nature of the Christian in civil society are cited to this day. One of his core theses was the fight against what he called “cheap grace,” a philosophy that fails to comprehend the extraordinary price paid for God’s real gift of grace. He was an outspoken leader of the German church resistance to the Nazi movement. Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943 as part of bureaucratic infighting between the Abwher (of which he was an agent, and active participant in plots against Hitler) and the SS. After multiple prison transfers, he stood before a kangaroo court, was found guilty, and was executed by hanging only three weeks before the end of the war.
1906: Launch of HMS Dreadnaught, the first modern battleship, whose innovations were so overwhelming that she immediately made all earlier warships completely obsolete. The scramble to compensate for Britain’s sudden advantage triggered a naval armaments race- particularly with Germany- that was one of the proximate triggers for the Great War eight years hence. Dreadnaught’s technical innovations centered on her design as an “all big gun” platform: ten 12” guns mounted in five turrets with only minimal secondary armament, as opposed to the conventional bristling of multiple layers of secondary and tertiary guns. She was also the first warship to be powered by steam turbines, giving her a speed in excess of 21 knots, unheard of in an age of 12 knot capital ships. For naval historians, HMS Dreadnaught set the marker that decisively defined the end of the transition from sail to steam, and set the standard for all the naval innovations to come. There is the pre-Dreadnaught era, and the Dreadnaught era, which lasted to the rise of aircraft carriers in the early 1930s.
1912: Birth of Eva Braun (d.1945), mistress of Adolf Hitler. She was a German photographer who met Hitler in Munich when she was a 17-year-old assistant and model for his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann.
1913: Birth of civil rights activist Rosa Parks (d.2005), whose refusal, in December of 1955, to sit in the back of the bus finally sparked the kind of widespread outrage that led to the burgeoning and ultimately successful civil rights movement.
1913: Final ratification of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, the full text of which reads: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” You’ll note there is no “temporary” in the text, contrary to the gripes of the many, many in the country who find this a most obnoxious levy.
1917: The United States breaks diplomatic relations with Imperial Germany, the day after the Germans announce the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters surrounding Great Britain.
1924: Death of President Woodrow Wilson (b.1856), incapacitated since collapsing of exhaustion in September of 1919. He further suffered a debilitating stroke on October 2nd that year, leaving him paralyzed on the left side and blind in the left eye. From that point, he was essentially sequestered from seeing anyone except his wife and doctor. The isolation most particularly affected the Vice President and Cabinet officers, who carried on their duties with Presidential relations carefully stage-managed by his wife, Edith. His incapacity was a primary argument in support of the 25th Amendment.
1937: Death of Elihu Root (b.1845), who served as Secretary of War under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, Secretary of State for President Roosevelt, and Senator from New York, in between practicing law and serving as member of various commissions and delegations. His was one of the great practical minds who helped define the United States’ coming of age as a world power.
1942: Continuing their South Pacific juggernaut, Japan initiates an invasion of Singapore.
1950: Birth of the great Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, 9-time Olympic gold medalist, including 7 at the 1972 games in Munich.
1952: Death of Britain’s King George VI (b.1895). Although his declining health from lung cancer was well known, his sudden death at age 57 came as a shock to the nation. His daughter Elizabeth, now suddenly Queen Regent, was out of the country at the time.
1959: The Soviet Union launches the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile- the world’s first- creating yet another layer of technical anxiety and competition between themselves and the U.S. The launch was the core issue in the “missile gap” controversy that dominated the 1960 presidential election between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy.
1959: Deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Big Bopper Richardson in a plane crash in Iowa. “The Day the Music Died,” for legions of pop music fans.
1962: In an attempt to apply economic sanctions against a hostile communist regime, the United States institutes an embargo of imports and exports from Cuba. The embargo remained in effect through 10 U.S. presidencies.
1964: The Beatles perform their first gig on the Ed Sullivan Show, marking the beginning of the musical British Invasion.
1993: Death of American tennis star and Richmond, Virginia native Arthur Ashe (b.1943), winner of not only three Grand Slam titles, but also individual titles at Wimbledon, the US, French and Australian Open tournaments. After retiring from tennis, he became an outspoken advocate for ongoing civil rights issues both in the United States and internationally, particularly during South Africa’s long return from apartheid. He died from complications created during his second open heart surgery, when he was transfused with blood tainted with the AIDS virus. During his decline, his graciousness and lack of public bitterness over his fate was an inspiration to millions.
1996: Chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov loses his first match to the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer.
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