814 A.D.: Death of Charlemagne, first to hold the title of Holy Roman Emperor. His conquest and rule over a continuous empire covering most of central and western Europe created, for the first time in the post-Roman era, the political conditions for what we now know as “Europe,” an entity, rather than the plethora of tribes and anarchy that followed the collapse of Roman rule.
1225: Birth of Thomas Aquinas (d.1274), who began his career as an Italian monk, but whose force of intellect and spiritual insights catapulted him to professorship at the University of Paris, where he was prolific in his writings and instruction of the burgeoning cadre of church intellectuals. One of his key philosophical insights was the idea of the validity of truth being known through observation, a process he referred to as “natural revelation,” which helped lay the foundation for the growth and strength of the scientific revolution in Europe. A great bulk of a man, his taciturn nature caused one of his early professors to declare him a “dumb ox…[whose] teaching will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard around the world.” His life and works remain the gold standard for intellectual Christianity. He was canonized in 1323, and is today held as a model teacher for aspiring Catholic priests, and anyone who thinks seriously about the relationship of science and faith.
1547: Death of the mercurial King Henry VIII (b.1491), leaving in his wake the 6 year old Edward VI as king.
1595: Death of Sir Francis Drake (b.c1540), of dysentery while anchored off the coast of Portobela, Panama. After a swashbuckling and heroic career at sea, which included significant harassment of Spanish treasure fleets, secret surveys, a circumnavigation of the globe, and the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Drake’s life ended while engaged on yet another crusade against the treasures of Spanish America. He requested to be buried in his full armour, and was buried at sea in a lead coffin, which is today the object of regular treasure hunts.
1646: After a tumultuous reign that saw two vicious civil wars fought between his royalist army and armies of an increasingly assertive Parliament, King Charles I is beheaded for high treason. General Oliver Cromwell assumes a role as Lord Protector of the Realm.The conflicts were in many respects the logical end of a representative Parliament finally facing down a king who believed his decisions and demands were legitimized under the concept of Divine Right. During Cromwell’s interregnum, both sides backed down enough for a restoration into the beginnings of the constitutional monarchy we know today.
1661: As part of the settlement leading to the restoration of the British monarchy, the two-years dead remains of Oliver Cromwell are exhumed and ritually executed for regicide, 12 years to the day from Charles I’s beheading at Cromwell’s instigation. After the ceremony, the mutilated corpse was tossed into a common pit grave, and his head was displayed on a pike outside Westminster until 1685. It changed hands several times as a historical curiosity, and was finally buried in 1960.
1759: Birth of Scottish poet laureate Robert Burns.
1787: In the final battle of what today is an obscure incident, an unauthorized militia aligned with Massachusetts farmer Daniel Shays conduct a short, sharp battle with the legitimate Massachusetts Militia at the Springfield Armory. Four of Shays’ men are killed, twenty are wounded, and the rebels flee north, totally disbanded. Shays’ Rebellion grew out of attempts to collect debts left over from the Revolution. European investors were putting the squeeze on Boston business owners, demanding payment in specie. The businessmen, in turn made the same demands on their debtors, mostly small freehold farmers in the central part of the state. The collections quickly descended into complete seizures of properties, including houses of the farmers, who felt helpless to resist. Finally, in August of 1786, Bunker Hill veteran Daniel Shays had had enough, and under the rubric of revolution, organized his first band of militia to force the issue at the Springfield courthouse. The situation festered through the Fall and Winter, leading to the climactic battle this day, where the Massachusetts militia, without authorization, drew weapons and ammunition from the Federal Arsenal to prevent Shays’ group from expropriating it first. The threat of further actions of this nature underscored the fundamental weakness of the Articles of Confederation, and spurred calls for a constitutional convention to draft a more effective form of national government, which we now know as the Constitution.
1801: Birth of Horatia Nelson (d.1881), illegitimate daughter from the torrid and shockingly public affair between Royal Navy hero Horatio Lord Nelson and Mrs. Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Consul in Leghorn, Italy.
1813: First publication of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice.
1832: Birth of British author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his nom du plume, Lewis Carroll (d.1898). His artistic bent was toward word-play and nonsense literature, most famously his Alice books and the Snark and Jaberwocky poems. He also spend his final 25 years mastering a new art form, photography, creating images of children that are frankly uncomfortable to look at in today’s context, but were in the center of Victorian haute couture when they were made.
1833: Birth of Charles “Chinese” Gordon (d.1885), one of the great British generals from the heyday of Victorian colonial expansion. He had a long and colorful career, which is reflected in his nickname, to say nothing of all the schools and roads named in his honor. And remember all the Islamist quacking about “the Mahdi” coming back after our invasion of Iraq? Gordon fought the guy himself in Sudan, and was killed by an onslaught of Mahdi forces on the steps of the palace in Khartoum.
1850: The great Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduces on the floor of the U.S. Senate The Compromise of 1850, a complicated set of bills designed to diffuse the increasingly volatile issue of slavery in the new territories of the United States. The proximate trigger was the end of the Mexican War, which brought with it a huge acquisition of territory from the Mexican Cession, the status of which could not be adequately defined by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which set the slave-free line in the territories at N36-30*). Without going into all the details- and they are worth the time to study- the bottom line of the 1850 plan was this: a) California is admitted as a free state; b) Texas is admitted as a slave state; c) Texas drops its claims for territories in New Mexico in exchange for Federal assumption of Lone Star debt (hmm- plus ca change, as they say); d) New Mexico and Utah territories are organized to permit popular sovereignty to decide slave or free status; e) the importation and sale of slaves is prohibited in the District of Columbia, although slave labor there remains legal; f) the Fugitive Slave Act is strengthened. The final portions of the Compromise passed in September, 1850, cooling emotions for another four years.
1861: Kansas, “Bleeding Kansas” of the decade prior, is admitted to the Union as a free state.
1862: Launch of USS Monitor at the Brooklyn Navy yard in New York. She was built in 120 days from the contract signature to launch.
1880: Birth of professional drunk W.C. Fields (d.1946). “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” or, “I cook with wine. And sometimes I even add it to the food.”
1890: Birth of Robert Stroud (d.1963), convicted of manslaughter of a love rival, and later the murder of a prison guard, before becoming The Birdman of Alcatraz and something of a folk hero. Twice sentenced to death, he spent his entire bird-raising career at Leavenworth Prison, in Kansas.
1912: Birth of American artist Jackson Pollock (d.1956).
1919: The delegates meeting at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles approve a motion to develop a League of Nations, based on President Wilson’s 14 Points.
1921: Birth of Donna Reed (d.1986). The perfect girlfriend in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the perfect wife and mother in The Donna Reed Show (1958-66), she also played a “fallen woman” in From Here to Eternity (1953).
1924: Opening day in Chamonix, France of the first Winter Olympics.
1938: First flight of Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighter. The airplane was the machine that later carried Major Richard Bong, USAAF to 40 victories in the Pacific theater of WWII, making him the United States’ all-time fighter ace.
1943: The U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force launches its first raid into Germany, sending 91 B-17s and B-24s against submarine construction yards in Wilhemshaven.
1944: After 872 days of creating unrelenting shelling and misery for the population of the former Saint Petersburg, the German Wehrmacht lifts its Siege of Leningrad and withdraws, finally allowing for opening a broad corridor for the Soviet government to re-arm and re-supply the citizens and armed forces of that beleaguered city.
1945: The Red Army liberates the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
1947: Death of Chicago mobster Al Capone.
1948: Death of Orville Wright (b.1871).
1951: The U.S. begins nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Range, using a B-50 bomber (a modified B-29) to drop a Mk-4 device, approximately the same size and weight of the Fat Man used at Nagasaki but with new triggering mechanisms and a modified nuclear pit. The vast majority of the 1,054 U.S. live tests were conducted at the Nevada site.
1956: Death of journalist H.L. Menckin (b.1880). “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
1958: Lego Corporation patents its design for locking bricks.
1967: The crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, are killed when a fire sweeps through the Command Module during a routine rehearsal prior to the scheduled launch. The ignition source was not conclusively discovered, but the flaws inherent in the initial design were exacerbated by the module being pressurized with pure oxygen to 16 psi to simulate structural pressures in space. Redesign efforts put the program on hold for 20 months.
1971: In Uganda, Colonel Idi Amin leads a coup d’état against Milton Obote, becoming president of that benighted land.
1986: Space Shuttle Challenger blows up 73 seconds into launch, killing all 7 astronauts aboard.