49 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar, leading a huge army of Roman Legionnaires, crosses the Rubicon River into metropolitan Rome to confront the Senate. When he made the decision to cross, he became a de facto and de jure traitor to the Roman Republic. The laws of imperium gave provincial governors and generals the right to raise and use Roman armies, but they were forbidden to exercise imperium in Rome proper, defined as the region south of the Rubicon River. Any troops who accompanied their general in violating imperium were likewise guilty of treason. With full understanding of the ramifications of his action, Caesar made the decision on this day, saying, “The die is cast…” and there was nothing the Senate could do to stop him. The act triggered a civil war that forced the transition of Rome from a Republic to a Dictatorship, with Caesar himself as the first Dictator. “Crossing the Rubicon” remains in our language idiomatically to describe a decision passing the point of no return.
630: Arab warlord and putative prophet Mohammad, leading an army of some 10,000 soldiers from his hometown of Medina, conquers nearby Mecca in a nearly bloodless assault that puts the city at the heart of Mohammad’s burgeoning new religion.
1349: A pogrom sweeps through the Jewish sector of Basil, Switzerland, triggered by a panic over the onset of Black Death in the city. As with many other calamities throughout history, the Jews provided a convenient scapegoat to explain forces that were beyond people’s control. On this day, virtually the entire Jewish population of Basil is rounded up and taken to an island in the middle of the Rhine River, where the children are separated from their parents and forcibly baptized. The remaining Jews, more than 600 of them, are crammed into a specially built wooden barn, into which they are subsequently locked, and burned alive. The Basil pogrom is the first of a series of pogroms that swept through the Rhine valley in subsequent months, with massacres occurring even in towns where there was no Black Death.
1536: Death of Catherine of Aragon (b.1485), Henry VIII’s first wife, and mother of his first heir to the English throne. If there were tabloids in those days, Henry and his women would be on the front page every day.
1610: Galileo makes his first telescopic observation of the moons of Jupiter.
1729: Birth of Edmund Burke (d.1797), Member of the British Parliament who nonetheless supported the cause of the American Revolution, based on his admiration of its dependence on the principles of classical liberalism and the Scottish Enlightenment. His writing defined the “Old Whigs” of the 18th Century. He was an unabashed critic of the excesses of the French Revolution, best known in this regard for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he correctly identified that a government unconstrained by external morality would descend into tyranny. Today, Burke is widely considered the father of modern Conservatism. Wikipedia highlights a typical Burkean quote: “The writers against religion, whilst they oppose every system, are wisely careful never to set up any of their own.” –from his book, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).
1735: Birth of John Jervis, 1st Earl St. Vincent, one of the Royal Navy’s greatest commanders, and primary mentor of Horatio Nelson.
1755: Birth of Alexander Hamilton (d.1804), on tiny Nevis Island in the St. Vincent and Grenadines chain in the Caribbean, British Crown territory.
1776: American pamphleteer Thomas Paine publishes his magnum opus, Common Sense, 48 pages of clear reasoning and straightforward prose that laid out the case for American independence in a way that was not only heard, but understood by the common citizens of the British colonies. The pamphlet was a runaway best-seller, with the highest per capita sales and circulation of any publication in American history. Given the treasonous nature of the material, Paine published the book anonymously, but when independence came into the open at the Continental Congress, Paine contributed all of his earnings to the Continental Army, saying, “As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author.”
1806: A massive State Funeral is conducted for Horatio Lord Nelson, killed at the Battle of Trafalgar on the 21st of October. More than 10,000 sailors surged into London to escort his casket from lying in state at Greenwich to the service at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was entombed.
1863: The Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes, attacks and sinks the USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas.
1866: Establishment of the Royal Aeronautical Society, in London. The Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk was in 1903, however, the actual scientific physics and mechanics of it, had been under worked on for decades before.
1870: Convinced that there was a viable market for the crude oil of western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the grocery wholesale businessman, accountant, careful investor and “early adapter,” John D. Rockefeller incorporates the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, headquartered in Cleveland. The company grew quickly and eventually dominated the oil industry, not only making Rockefeller the richest man in history, but also causing Congress to pass the Sherman Anti-Trust act in 1890, its first target being the company that made crude oil and its many derived products cheaper and more accessible to people and businesses nation-wide.
1873: Death of Napoleon III (b.1808), nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the only French leader to carry the titles of both Emperor and President of the Republic. He was an interesting character, in particular from our perspective, as he actively asserted French interests in Mexico.
1879: Opening moves of the Anglo-Zulu War, with the British crossing the Buffalo River to begin their invasion of Zululand.
1901: The first oil “gusher” at the Spindletop Field near Beaumont, Texas.
1905: Russian workers, infuriated by the slow pace of reform and brought to a fever pitch of discontent by communist agitators, storm the Czar’s Winter Palace in a short, sharp action now known as the Revolution of 1905. Order is restored by Czarist soldiers, but at the cost of scores of civilian lives. This short revolution resulted in the establishment of both a constitutional monarchy and of a Duma (representative assembly), and reforms to conscription and workers rights. The fact that changes could actually be forced on the sclerotic Russian government opened the door for further agitation, particularly from the nascent communist movements.
1918: In southern Arizona, a detachment of U.S. Army troops exchanges fire with Yaqui Indians in the Battle of Bear Valley, the last battle of the U.S. Indian Wars.
1920: Two years after President Wilson announced his 14 Points, and 14 months after the Armistice ended the carnage of the Great War, the victorious Allies and vanquished Central powers formally sign the Treaty of Versailles, idealistically speaking out loud their hopes for a permanent regime of peace, while instinctively understanding the fatal flaws of that lofty idealism. I’ve quoted French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch before, but his prescience during the signing ceremony bears repeating: “This is not a peace. It is a twenty year armistice.”
1923: Birth of car guy, Carol Shelby (d.2012) – his name attached to the Cobra and dozens of other racing and road cars.
1938: Birth of the San Francisco Giant’s great first baseman and slugger, Willie McCovey (d.2018)
1940: The army of Finland completely halts a Soviet offensive along the Raate-Soumussalu Road. The Winter War between Finland and the USSR exposed the naked aggression of the Soviet state, and generated admiration for Finland’s continued fight in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Unfortunately for Finland, their opposition to Russian aggression put them on the same “side” as Nazi Germany, even though they never formed a formal alliance with Germany.
1941: First flight of the Avro Lancaster bomber. Its huge bomb bay and dependable flight systems made it one of the best loved and most useful machines of the Allied air fleet.
1941: Birth of singer/songwriter Joan Baez.
1942: The Japanese army, having swept virtually all of the Philippine Islands under its control in less than two months, opens its final siege on the remaining American forces on the Bataan Peninsula.
1943: Formal signing of the Allied effort during the Second World War. Under tremendous diplomatic pressure from the United States, Great Britain signs a treaty with the Republic of China to help ensure their continued combat participation against Japan. The high cost of this treaty was Britain’s eventual post-war position vis-a-vis their pre-war sphere of influence in Asia. The British-Chinese Agreement for the Relinquishment of Extra-Territorial Rights in China formally brought to an end the era of monopolistic trade concessions along with British (and U.S.) exemption from Chinese laws. The war not only fundamentally changed the relationship between China and the Western world (i.e. this treaty), but also among the Chinese themselves, as the Nationalists, with whom this treaty was made, found themselves increasingly at odds with the Communists as the war wound down.
1960: Construction formally begins on Aswan High Dam, with Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser flipping a switch that detonated thousands of pounds of dynamite embedded in granite on the eastern shore of the Nile. Nasser exploited Soviet funding and construction assistance for the dam as a cudgel against the United States and the West, partly in response to the Suez crisis of 1956.
1968: NASA’s Surveyor 7 lunar lander makes a soft landing near the rim of Tycho crater, where it spends the next 42 (earth) days completing a thorough photographic survey plus multiple tests of the lunar soil. This was the last of the un-manned U.S. visits to the moon. The estimable Wikipedia makes the following commentary about the program:
The simple and reliable mission architecture was a pragmatic approach to solving the most critical space engineering challenges of the time, namely the closed-loop terminal descent guidance and control system, throttleable engines, and the radar systems required for determining the lander’s altitude and velocity. The Surveyor missions were the first time that NASA tested such systems in the challenging thermal and radiation environment near the Moon.
The machine was scheduled to be visited by the crew of Apollo 20 but that mission, along with Apollos 18 & 19, was cancelled for budget reasons.
1976: Death of mystery writer Agatha Christie (b.1890), who remains the best-selling novelist of all time, with 66 books and 14 short story collections.
1980: President Jimmy Carter signs a $1,500,000,000 bailout of Chrysler Corporation.
1991: United States Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Secretary Tariq Aziz meet in Geneva in a final attempt to find a diplomatic solution to Iraq’s August invasion of Kuwait, which Iraq still claimed as its “19th Province.” I can tell you, as one of the Joint Staff officers who helped work up Baker’s talking points, that this meeting would either end the crisis, or clear the path for war. We watched with great anticipation.
1991: The United States Congress authorizes the President to use military force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which they have occupied since August.