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. 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 Prince Henry the Navigator. After a career of guiding Portuguese seamen around the coast of Africa, he died 32 years before Columbus lands in the New World.
1475: Birth of the Renaissance Master, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.
1493: Christopher Columbus arrives in Lisbon aboard the Nina, 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, 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. Projecting a spherical surface on a flat sheet of paper is problematic, and the Mercator projection provided an effective solution that is still in use today
1519: Hernando Cortez lands in Mexico, looking for Aztec gold.
1702: Birth of Anne Bonney, an Irish-American pirate.
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.
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 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.
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.The island’s governor, who 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.
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 disagreed with 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.” Debate quickly shifted to Kansas-Nebraska divide, highlighted over the next thirty years by sporadic violence and hardening positions between Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders. Congress would engage again with the Compromise of 1850.
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.
1831: Birth of American inventor & businessman, George Pullman, inventor of the pull-down bed for those long distance train trips. The Pullman Sleeper also created an entirely new class of crew for the trains: the Pullman Porter, who was responsible for making and un-making the beds every day.
1836: Death of William Travis, James Bowie, Davy Crockett, and 184 other Texans, after 13 days of relentless siege of the Alamo mission-fortress, by the Mexican army under President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Travis’s plea led to the rallying cry of “Remember the Alamo!” that finally swept Mexican forces out of the Texas territory and back south of the Rio Grande.
1847: Birth of Scottish-American inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
1849: Birth of American botanist Luther Burbank, who invented, via cross-fertilization, grafting and hybridization, over 800 new plant species.
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.
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. The newly-commissioned USS Monitor is enroute under tow from New York, and about to enter the Chesapeake at Cape Charles.
1905: In an attempt to build on his assassinated predecessor’s reforms, and to placate 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 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. The Germans were starting to become impatient and their armies were poised to launch a strike against Petrograd. Lenin therefore decided to come to terms with Germany, no matter how punitive. Lenin argued that signing the treaty was an act of necessity, “a step back in order to take two steps forwards.” By making peace with Germany Lenin was able to concentrate his attention on his domestic opponents and consolidating power in Russia. In order to eliminate his political opponents, in December 1917 Lenin established the Cheka as his secret police, headed by the Polish Communist Felix Dzerzhinsky. In the summer of 1918, Lenin launched the Red Terror in an effort to kill his political opponents. Around 6000 people died as a result of the Red Terror, the most prominent victims of which was the Romanov family. In June 1918 the Tsar and his family were shot in the city of Ekaterinburg.
1922: Birth of Cyd Charisse. The actress and dancer was best known for her films with Fred Astaire and as the Scottish mountain girl who falls in love with Gene Kelly in Brigadoon (1954).
1946: Hanoi native, anti-Japanese guerrilla, anti-colonial nationalist Ho Chi Minh signs an agreement with the soon-to-be-post-colonial French government, confirming Vietnam as an autonomous state within the Indochinese Federation and the larger French Union. Minh commences a reinvigorated guerrilla campaign to forcibly evict France from its former colony.
1951: Opening arguments in the treason trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were found guilty.
1953: Death of Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.
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 being beaten by the LAPD. The acquittal of the offending officers triggered riots in Los Angeles the following year.