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. 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
1564: Birth of Galileo Galilei (d.1642) in Pisa, Italy
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
1812: Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry signs a redistricting bill designed to favor his Democratic-Republican political party. The unusual shape of the ensuing districts, one
1818: Birth of the abolitionist and public speaker, Frederick Douglass
1847: Birth of Thomas Alva Edison (d.1931), the brilliant inventor dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” who held 1,093 U.S. patents on a plethora of gadgets and processes that in many respects define the 20th century. He began his professional life as a telegrapher, becoming very familiar with the physics and practical application of electricity, which in turn fed his mind with scores of ideas, many of which paid off handsomely. A couple examples: the stock market ticker, the kinetoscope motion picture process, phonographic sound recording and, of course, the carbon-filament incandescent light bulb. One of his most important works was the establishment of his industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he and a core staff pursued any and every lead
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.
1933: President-elect Franklin Roosevelt survives an assassination attempt in Miami. An unemployed bricklayer named Guiseppe Zangara shouts “Too many people are starving!” and fires six shots toward FDR, who had just finished a speech from the back of his car. Five people were hit, including the mayor of Chicago, who was mortally wounded. Zangara was executed for the killing on March 5th, a mere four weeks after the event.
1939: Launch of the German battleship Bismarck..
1942: Singapore falls to Japanese forces. Continuing their juggernaut throughout the western Pacific region, the Japanese army’s Malay Peninsula campaign ends with the surrender of over 60,000 British and Imperial forces defending Singapore. The most famous “…doh!” from the battle was the defender’s realization that virtually all of Singapore’s defenses were designed to repel an attack from seaward. The Japanese arrived instead from the landward approaches and entered the island opposed only by small arms fire across the single small bridge connecting it to the mainland.
1945: President Franklin Roosevelt meets with Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, aboard USS Quincy (CA-71), formally establishing diplomatic ties between the new Arab kingdom and the United States.
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. Although the speech was intended to lift Soviet Russia into a new, more open environment, the deadening bureaucracy that underlay Stalin’s power stayed in place through 1990, when the internal contradictions of the communist system finally collapsed of their own weight.
1965: Canada adopts the Maple Leaf flag.
1971: Great Britain officially adopts the decimal system for their currency, dropping the ancient pound-shilling-pence (“LSD”) denominations.
1989: Iranian holy man Ayatolla