399BC: Socrates is sentenced to death. A glass of hemlock seals his fate in the presence of his students. Do you ever wonder about this? Me too. Socrates was one of the leading intellectual lights of classical Athens. As a philosopher, he questioned almost everything and everyone, forcing men- not just students, but political leaders- to confront their own false thinking. The Socratic Method is a way of discerning Truth, particularly on moral issues, by asking a series of questions that individually are relatively insignificant, but which collectively lead the questioner to the truth he seeks. Socrates actually enjoyed skewering the big shots of Athenian society: he called himself “Athens’ gadfly” (like the fly that stings a horse into action). Eventually, his annoyances became too much for the Administration, and he was convicted at a kangaroo court of: 1) “corrupting youth” and, 2) “failing to honor Athens’ gods.”
270AD: Traditional date of the martyrdom of one of the Roman Church fathers, Valentinus. There are really only two known facts about him: 1) his name, and; 2) his burial place north of Rome. That said, there are more than a few biographical bits, variously recorded through the 13th century, that paint a little broader picture of his importance. His most common identity is either as a priest in Rome or a bishop of Terni, not far inland from Rome itself. The most detailed account of his activities indicates he was persecuted by the Emperor Claudius II, for officiating at the marriage of Christian couples, which was illegal at the time. Claudius himself became friends with Valentinus, until the priest tried to convert the Emperor himself to Christianity, at which point his vocation became treason. Conventional stoning failed to kill him, and the execution ended with his beheading.
600AD: Pope Gregory the Great issues a decree that confirms, “God bless you” is the correct response to a sneeze.
1564: Birth of Galileo Galilei (d.1642) in Pisa, Italy.
1621: The newly arrived Plymouth Colony elects Myles Standish as its Commander, a position to which he was repeatedly re-elected to the end of his life.
1778: John Paul Jones, Commanding Officer of the sloop of war USS Ranger, receives the first official salute of the US flag by a foreign power in Quiberon, France.
1779: Death of Captain James Cook (b.1728), during his third voyage of discovery in the Pacific Ocean. He was initially greeted as a god by the natives of Hawaii, who lavished him and his crew with every type of assistance during their earlier month-long stay on the island. Only a week or so after their departure, HMS Resolution suffered problems with her rigging, which necessitated the ship’s return for repairs. The islanders were not happy to see them again, and on this day attempted to steal a longboat from Cook’s shore party. A scuffle ensued, and dozens of the islanders descended on Cook and beat him to death as the rest of the crew vainly fought them off until they could themselves escape. After the event, the Hawaiians honored Cook’s body with full royal rites and ceremony.
1797: A Royal Navy fleet of 15 ships of the line (plus 5 frigates) under Admiral Sir John Jervis, meets, splits and soundly defeats a Spanish fleet of 27 ships of the line (plus 7 frigates) at the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent. The decisive victory allowed the RN to resume its patrols in the Mediterranean and brought fame and fortune to Jervis, including ceremonial swords, gold medals, promotion, knighthood, and a huge share of prize money. More importantly for the future of the Royal Navy, his young commander Horatio Nelson was recognized for his stunning display of derring-do during the battle, leading a boarding party to capture the Spanish ship San Nicholas, with which his own ship Captain was entangled. Seizing the opportunity to double the capture, Nelson then ordered a second boarding party to continue with him across to the similarly entangled San Jose, which also surrendered to Nelson. Nelson himself was knighted into the Order of Bath and made Rear Admiral, and given command of the RN force that went on to repeated victories against the French throughout the Mediterranean theatre, most notably at the Battle of the Nile 18 months later.
1801: After 35 ballots in the House of Representatives, and only 15 days before the inauguration, Thomas Jefferson is elected 3rd President of the United States, finally defeating his running mate, Aaron Burr. The November 4th general election gave both Burr and Jefferson 73 electoral votes each, thus sending the vote to the House. An electoral technicality- the winner needed a majority of state votes (9 needed (Jefferson had 8))- kept the election in turmoil for over three months. The logjam was broken when the Federalists reasoned that a peaceful turnover of power required that the majority party be allowed to have its choice for President. The following vote gave Jefferson 10 states, Burr 4, and two states voted “blank,” thus launching Jefferson into his highly eventful presidency.
1818: Birth of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
1846: The United States Navy issues a General Order replacing the term “larboard” with “port.”
1864: Under the command of Lieutenant George Dixon, and with a volunteer crew of seven others, the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley sinks USS Housatanic in Charleston harbor. After completing the attack, the hand-crank powered sub mysteriously sank and remained unlocated until 1995. On recovery, her entire crew of 8 was found entombed on board. They were subsequently re-buried with full military honors in a Confederate cemetery in Charleston. The submarine itself is now on display in the recovery laboratory on the grounds of the former Charleston Naval Base. This was not her first sinking; twice before, she flooded and went to the bottom, the first time killing five, and the second time killing all 8 aboard, including the designer himself.
1865: General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army sacks Columbia, SC, creating havoc that consumes more than 2/3 of the city by fire. Commenting later, Sherman said, “Though I never ordered it and never wished it, I have never shed any tears over the event because I believe it hastened what we all fought for, the end of the War.”
1867: The first ship passes through the Suez Canal.
1898: The American battleship USS Maine mysteriously blows up in Havana harbor. In the United States, William Randolph Hearst leads the journalistic hysteria in demanding a declaration of war with Spain, not only to avenge the loss of the ship and its sailors, but to free Cuba and the Philippine Islands from the yoke of Spanish colonial oppression. The “Splendid Little War” that follows gives us Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill, the battle of Manila Bay (“You may fire when your are ready Gridley…”) and new American possessions of Cuba, the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico.
1898: Birth of il Commendetore, Enzo Ferrari (d.1988), the Italian race car driver for Alfa Romeo, who went on to produce his own series car that bear his name.
1930: Clyde W. Tombaugh, an astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, discovers Pluto. The formerly 9th planet’s average distance from the sun is 4 billion miles, and it takes 248 earth years to complete one orbit. Without getting into too much detail, the search for “Planet X” had been ongoing since 1906 under the guidance of the great mathematician and astronomer Percival Lowell. The search was a result of observed differences between the actual and predicted positions of the recently discovered planet Neptune, which itself was discovered by similar mathematical calculation (vice direct observation and discovery) in 1846. Tombaugh targeted the predicted position of Planet X with systematic exposures of discrete sky sections taken roughly two weeks apart. The images were then studied through a blink comparator, a device that flashed from one image to another to show motion, similar to the little cartoons you make when you flip the edges of a stack paper. Through this process, the fixed stars will- of course- stay fixed, but planetary motion will be exposed.
1941: Birth of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il
1945: President Franklin Roosevelt meets with Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, aboard USS Quincy (CA-71) in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. The meet formally established diplomatic ties between the new Arab kingdom and the United States.
1945: Three years after its loss to the Japanese, American forces re-take the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay.
1956: At the 20th Soviet Party Congress, General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev gives a four hour speech entitled “The Personality Cult and its Consequences.” Given behind closed doors, it is often referred to as the “Secret Speech,” although it gained wide and official circulation in the months that followed. In it, Khrushchev repudiates the methods and results of Stalin’s stewardship of the Soviet state, in particular the perversion of leadership into a cult of personality, and the wholesale abuses of individuals and groups who opposed his rule.
1959: Fidel Castro is sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba after forcing former dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile in the Dominican Republic. The event is the culmination of the three year guerrilla campaign that Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevarra, the hard-line Argentine Marxist, led from the Sierra Maestra mountains. Fidel’s dictatorship was the first Communist government in the western hemisphere.
1967: Death of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (b.1904), who served as head of the Manhattan Project in WWII. Following the war he served as chief advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission. He lost his security clearance in 1954, in part for opposing continuing development of the hydrogen bomb. The other part was his outspoken political opinion-making during the Red Scare, a position deemed inappropriate for someone in the AEC. After the 1945 Trinity detonation, Oppenheimer stated that one of the first things he thought of was a quote from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
1971: Great Britain officially adopts the decimal system for their currency, dropping the ancient pound-shilling-pence (“LSD”) denominations.
1972: Wilt Chamberlain scores his 30,000th point in a game against the Phoenix Suns, completed in 941 games. Five of the remaining six players took well over a thousand games; the sixth, Michael Jordan took 960.
1989: Iranian “holy” man Ayatolla Khomehni issues a fatwa for any good Muslim to murder British author Salmon Rushdie, whose book Satanic Verses was declared to be heretical.