321: Emperor Constantine I issues a decree for a universal day for the worship of the sun. The edict was carefully designed to give pagans and Christians a common day for worship of Sol Invictus, who was Constantine’s monotheistic “spiritual patron” before he became a Christian. The sun-day was the also the first day of the Roman week. Constantine’s personal life straddled both camps; the edict effectively confirmed and formalized the Christian transition of the traditional Lord’s Day Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday in honor of the Resurrection.
1394: Birth in Lisbon of a boy who grew to become Prince Henry the Navigator (d.1460). After a career of guiding Portuguese seamen around the coast of Africa, he died 32 years before the greatest seaborne discovery of them all.
1475: Birth of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
1493: Christopher Columbus arrives in Lisbon aboard his carrack Nina, thus completing his first of three voyages of discovery to the New World.
1496: With news of Christopher Columbus’ recent discoveries spreading throughout Europe, English King Henry VII issues a letter of patent to Venetian sea captain Giovanni Caboto, anglicized to John Cabot, authorizing him to explore unknown lands in the name of the Crown. Making three voyages westward from the northern latitudes of England, he is acknowledged as the first European to set foot on the North American continent since the Viking Lief Ericson nearly five hundred years earlier.
1512: Birth of Gerardus Mercator (d.1594), the Flemish cartographer best known for his development of a projection of the earth’s surface that allows for straight-line plotting of a rhumb line course across the oceans. It’s a real problem to try to accurately present a spherical surface on a flat sheet of paper, and the Mercator projection provided an effective solution that is still in use today.
1519: Hernando Cortez lands in Mexico, looking for Aztec gold.
1678: Birth of Antonio Vivaldi
1702: Birth of Anne Bonney, an Irish-American pirate, known to run with Calico Jack.
1726: Birth of Admiral Richard Howe, brother of General Sir William Howe. The siblings commanded the British navy and army forces respectively during the opening hostilities of the American Revolution. Admiral Howe was nominally sympathetic to the American cause. When a peace initiative with the Continental Congress failed, he resigned his commission, but it was not accepted before the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Howe was assigned to command the Channel Fleet. He led several notable victories against the French, but his greatest victory came at home, when he almost single-handedly ended the Great Mutiny in 1797. His swarthy complexion earned him the nickname of “Black Dick” Howe.
1770: In Boston, British troops fire on a group of protesters, killing five of them, including a young boy and a black freeman named Crispus Attackus. Of note during the subsequent trial was their defense lawyer, noted Bostonian John Adams, cousin of the rabble-rouser revolutionary instigator Samuel Adams and one of the leading lights of the soon-to-be widespread revolution against British rule in the American colonies. It didn’t take long for the event to be memorialized as the Boston Massacre, in the process becoming a cultural touch point for the larger revolutionary movement.
1776: The Continental Navy’s Continental Marines storm ashore in Nassau, Bahamas, under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholas. The attack is the Marines’ first amphibious assault. No surprise, they successfully occupied Nassau, spending two weeks loading British guns and powder into the little Navy fleet. For some reason the island’s governor, who so hospitably did not offer significant resistance to the Americans, complained that the American officers drank their way through the occupation, completely draining his liquor supply
1776: Fortified by the dramatic and unexpected arrival of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga, General George Washington captures Dorchester Heights, thus dominating the British occupied port of Boston. Realizing the weakness of their now-untenable position, the British return control of the city to its citizens and begin a strategic withdrawal to New York.
1792: Birth of British polymath Sir John Herschel (d.1871), astronomer, chemist, mathematician and early adapter to the new science of photography.
1820: President James Monroe signs into law the Missouri Compromise, passed after months of bitter debate in both the House and Senate. As a political compromise, it did not meet any party’s view of actually solving the festering problem of slavery’s expansion into the new territories of the Louisiana Purchase. The terms of this law prohibited slavery in the western Territories north of 36-30N, except for Missouri, which would be admitted to the Union as a slave state, balancing the concurrent admission of Maine as a free state. Thomas Jefferson despised the compromise: “I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”
1836: Death of William Travis, James Bowie, Davy Crockett, and 184 other brave Texans, after 13 days of
1847: Birth of Scottish-American inventor Alexander Graham Bell
1849: Birth of American botanist Luther Burbank (d.1926), who invented, via cross-fertilization, grafting
1850: Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts rises on the floor of the Senate to give an impassioned speech in support of the developing Compromise of 1850. As the debate raged on, this speech is often referred back to as his “Seventh of March Speech.”
1857: The U.S. Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, rules in the Dred Scott Case, agreeing that: 1) Persons of African descent are not citizens of the United States, therefore the slave Dred Scott had no standing in the court; 2) property rights are not automatically relinquished crossing jurisdictions. As such, Congress cannot ban slavery in the territories (voiding the Missouri Compromise), and; 3) the Fifth amendment prohibits the freeing of slaves brought into federal territories. The case provides a cautionary note for those legal voluptuaries who believe that the decisions of the Court permanently trump the deliberations and decisions of the legislative branch, and those who would exploit the Court to advance a political agenda that would not stand normal deliberative scrutiny in a legislative debate.
1862: The Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (ex- USS Merrimack) sorties from the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth and attacks the Union fleet blockading the mouth of the James River. Her first target is USS Cumberland, which she sinks by ramming. Virginia then attacks USS Congress, which puts up a stiff fight, damaging Virginia’s stack and two cannons, but without creating appreciable damage to her iron cladding. Congress’ captain intentionally runs the ship aground and surrenders. While offloading prisoners, a Union shore battery at Newport News Point suddenly opens fire on Virginia. In reply, Virginia fires red-hot shot into the stricken Congress, which explodes and burns to the waterline. As Virginia begins her transit back to Norfolk for battle damage repairs, she commences a third attack, this time against USS Minnesota, whose captain tried to escape but ran aground on a sandbank. Being late in the day, Virginia left her quarry for the night and continued down the Elizabeth River, with plans to complete the destruction of the Union fleet the next morning. Meanwhile, the newly-commissioned USS Monitor is enroute under tow from New York, and about to enter the Chesapeake at Cape Charles.
1890: The longest bridge in Great Britain (at 1710 feet), the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland, is opened by the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII of the United Kingdom.
1895: Birth of American General Matthew Ridgway (d.1993), best remembered for his command of U.S. 8thArmy in Korea, where he revitalized a demoralized and retreating army and put them on the attack against the communist onslaught from the North. When General MacArthur was relieved of command by President Truman in the Spring of 1951, Ridgway was awarded his fourth star and took over as Supreme Commander of the UN forces engaged in Korea.
1905: In an attempt to build on his assassinated predecessor’s reforms, and to placate nascent agitation by unionists and communists, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II agrees to create a representative legislature, the Duma.
1912: The National Biscuit Company introduces the Oreo cookie to the mass market.
1912: Norwegian Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen re-establishes contact with the outside world, with the electrifying report that he and his expedition reached the South Pole on the 18th of December, 1911.
1918: Only months after completing their overthrow of the Tsar, the new communist government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics sues for peace with the Central Powers and signs the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ending Russian participation in the Great War.
1922: Birth of Cyd Charisse (d.2008). The actress and dancer was best known for her films with Fred Astaire [photo] and as the Scottish mountain girl who falls in love with Gene Kelly in Brigadoon (1954).
1924: The city of Fiume, on the Dalmatian coast of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 18th Century scramble to supplant Venice as the principal Adriatic seaport, the Emperor in 1719 granted Fiume status of Free State within the Empire. The city’s status rose and fell periodically during the Ottoman period, the political agitation often aided and abetted by Italy, particularly after the 1870-era unification. At the close of the Great War, the Paris Peace Conference delegates, working under the guidance of President Wilson’s 14 Points, pressed forward with the dismemberment of Ottoman territories in the Balkans based on the concept of national self-determination. Fiume almost immediately became a flashpoint. Since “nationalism” in the Balkan context
1938: After five years of dry holes, Standard Oil of California finally discovers oil near Dahran in Saudi Arabia. The American oil consortium who did the exploration and development of the oil industry there went through several iterations, finally becoming the Arabian-American Oil Company, more commonly known as Aramco.
1951: Opening arguments in the treason trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
1981: Long-time CBS Radio and television correspondent Walter Cronkite, signs off on his last broadcast of the CBS Evening News.
1991: An amateur video, taped by George Holliday, surfaces of a drunken Rodney King “not getting along” with the LAPD. He was, in fact, beaten to a pulp, but the acquittal of the offending officers triggered riots in Los Angeles the following year.
2005: Adventurer and aviation dynamo Steve Fossett (1944-2007) lands at the old Air Force base in Salina, Kansas, to complete the world’s first solo, non-stop, unrefueled powered flight around the world. The plane was a carbon-fiber wonder designed and built by the great Burt Rutan.