337AD: Death of Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. He aggressively set about un-doing the persecutions carried out by his predecessor, Diocletian. In particular, he issued the Edict of Milan in 313, declaring religious tolerance throughout the Empire as the law of the land. He also rebuilt the ancient Turkish city of Byzantium, re-naming it Constantinople and making it the capital of the eastern portion of the Empire, a position it maintained for another thousand years.
735AD: Death of The Venerable Bede (b.672), English historian and theologian, whose many scholarly works include the first comprehensive history of the British Isles, titled Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People).
1332: Birth of Ibn Khaldun (d.1406), the great Arab polymath whose theory of business cycles and the rise and fall of nations remains foundational to any serious sociological study.
1453: After a 53 day siege by the Moslem armies of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, the Byzantine capital of Constantinople falls to the Turks, closing the final chapter of the 1,500 years of the Roman Empire, and decisively ending the existence of Christianity in its Anatolian heartland. Ironically, the seeds of the defeat were planted by the massive depredations of the 4th Crusade some 200 years prior, when the city underwent another siege and sacking from its erstwhile Christian allies. The Ottoman Empire established this day remained a potent threat to Europe for nearly 500 years, until it was finally dismantled by the victorious Allies at the conclusion of the Great War.
1521: Concluding the process of the Imperial Diet that began in mid-April, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V issues the Edict of Worms, formally declaring Martin Luther a heretic and outlaw, subject to arrest and punishment. The edict reads in part: “For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.” Disregarding prior negotiations that promised safe passage, Luther’s friend and mentor Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony captured him enroute to his home and spirited him away to safe haven in Wartburg Castle, where he began work on his German translation of the Bible. The Edict was temporarily suspended in 1526 but was put back in force in 1529. Although it was never enforced against Luther himself, it was used as justification for arrests of Lutheran agitators in the Low Countries under Charles’ direct control.
1541: Death of French religious reformer John Calvin (b.1509), one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation, whose insights and writings on Christian doctrine remain the foundation of the Presbyterian and other Reformed churches. Much of his work occurred in Geneva, where his church became a center for a group of English dissidents under John Knox, among other groups dealing with the intellectual and religious ferment of the time.
1626: Director-General of the New Netherlands division of the Dutch West Indian Company, Peter Minuit, purchases Manhattan Island from the local indigenous tribe for items valued at 60 Guilders, often mis-represented as $24 of wampum. In order to both help perpetuate tradition (the $24 story), while still propagating something resembling truth, here is a little context: records also exist of Minuit negotiating for similar ownership rights on Staten Island in trade for “duffle cloth, iron kettles and axe heads, hoes, drilling awls, Jew’s Harps and other divers items…” Historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in 1999 put this into modern terms: “…the Dutch were engaged in high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness in tasks ranging from clearing land to drilling wampum.”
1703: After capturing a Swedish fort further up the Neva River, and determined to drag sclerotic Russian leadership and society into the mainstream of the Western European world, Tsar Peter I (The Great) commissions the city of Saint Petersburg as he lays the foundation stone of the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zyachay (Hare) Island in the Neva delta. He names the new city after his patron saint, and sets in motion a development process that brings in the finest Western European architects and planners to essentially create- tabula rasa- the northernmost, and most beautiful capital city in Europe.
1738: Christian conversion of John Wesley, who went on to lead the Methodist movement in Great Britain.
1738: The English colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland sign a peace treaty, ending Cresap’s War, also known as the Conojocular War. The boundary dispute arose out of an imprecise description of Pennsylvania’s southern boundary in its 1681 charter- or more exactly, a very precise description based on incorrect geography: the start point was the town of New Castle, Delaware, and from thence “…a circle drawn at twelve miles distance from New Castle Northward and Westward unto the beginning of the fortieth degree of Northern Latitude, and then by a straight Line Westward..” Without going into gory detail, the dispute reared up in 1730 when Maryland began to enforce its territorial claims after ten years of settlements and counter-settlements by Pennsylvanians in the lands west of the Susquehanna River. The flash point became dueling ferry services (no joke) established by the two colonies. In 1730 two Pennsylvanians attacked the Maryland ferry run by Thomas Cresap. No-one was injured, but Cresap began a harassment campaign against Pennsylvania settlers, eventually leading sporadic violence against both parties, and ultimately to the militias of both colonies marching across each others’ claims. King George II ordered the Royal Committee for Plantation Affairs to settle the dispute, and the agreement was signed on May 25th. The territorial definition was conclusively settled after the 1767 survey completed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.
1787: The Constitutional Convention, under the leadership of General George Washington, convenes in Philadelphia to write a new governing document to replace the inadequate Articles of Confederation.
1803: Birth of prolific English author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (d.1873), whose original prose includes such current clichés as: “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the great unwashed” and “the pursuit of the almighty dollar” and perhaps most famously, “It was a dark and stormy night…”
1859- Abolitionist John Brown leads a group that murders five pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas. Before the secessionist movement took root in the South, “Bleeding Kansas” became the violent first battleground between pro and anti-slavery forces.
1866: Death of General Winfield Scott, USA (b.1786). The old warhorse, also known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” served his country over the course of a 47 year active duty career, commanding forces in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Blackhawk War, the Second Seminole War, and for a short time after the opening guns, the War Between the States. He served 20 years as Commanding General of the United States Army (equivalent to the current Army Chief of Staff). He became a national hero after the Mexican campaign, which led to an unsuccessful run for the Presidency as a Whig in 1852. More important from his service in Mexico was his role in leading and training an entire generation of Army officers who would go on to distinguish themselves on both sides of the Civil War.
1883: After 14 years of highly technical and complex construction, the Brooklyn Bridge opens for traffic.
1896: In Moscow, the thirty year old Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov is crowned Czar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.
1896: In New York, James Dow publishes his first index of key industrial stocks, 12 companies with an index value of 40.94.
1906: The Wright Brothers receive U.S. Patent number 821,393 for their “flying machine.” The patent is the result of the Wright’s extensive testing and refinement of aircraft control mechanisms on their basic 1903 design, and was indicative of their decision to leave the bicycle business and make a go of it in the nascent field of commercial aviation. This is the same patent I mentioned the other day that led Glenn Curtis and others to create work-arounds that would avoid patent infringement issues, although the patent fights between them would continue for years.
1914: Bosnian Serb anarchist Gavrillo Princip leaves Belgrade on a conspiratorially secret 10 day journey to Sarajevo.
1915: Eruption of Northern California’s Mount Lassen, the only other U.S. volcano in the lower 48– besides Saint Helens– to blow in the 20th century. This was the first of 107 separate eruptions that occurred during the next twelve months.
1921: Opening day in the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, in Boston. The two immigrant Italian anarchists, usually described sympathetically as a shoe-maker and a fish monger, were arrested for robbery and murder, and after a internationally sensational trial were sentenced to death. The trial gained notoriety not only for the lurid twists and turns promulgated by both the prosecution and the defense (“someone changed the barrel of his gun!”), but also by the two’s unrepentant status as international anarchists. Further controversy followed as the presiding judge Webster Thayer refused to grant five motions for new trials, later confronting a colleague with, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while…” Sacco and Vanzetti’s case became cause célèbre with leftists world-wide, and even non-leftists grew increasingly uncomfortable with the court’s seeming disregard for normal evidentiary rules and appeal procedures. With the wheels of justice inexorably moving forward, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on August 23rd, 1927. To no one’s surprise, anarchist riots and bombings broke out in response as far away as Buenos Aires.
1923: First running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in Sarthe, France. This race is highlighted in the film Ford v Ferrari.
1927: In Dearborn, Michigan, last day of production of the Ford Model T, as equipment on the assembly line is changed out to produce the new Model A. The Model T was the first car to be mass-produced, beginning in 1908. With over 15,000,000 produced, it was the best-selling car in the world until surpassed by the Volkswagen Beetle in 1972. Interestingly, as part of its centenary celebrations in 2003, Ford produced six new Model Ts using long-warehoused original components and other parts made from original drawings.
1937: Opening Day of the Golden Gate Bridge, linking San Francisco with Marin County.
1940: Opening of the 9-day Battle of Dunkirk, where British and other Allied forces were surrounded on the French beach by two German armies which swept across the Low Countries and burst out of the “un-passable” Ardennes Forest to overwhelm the defenses of France. Inexplicably, rather than destroying or capturing the fleeing forces, Hitler ordered a ceasefire that lasted three days, during which the British were able to establish a defensible perimeter and set conditions for a somewhat orderly evacuation under fire, which rained down primarily from the Luftwaffe. The eventual evacuation of 338,226 men via a flotilla of “the little ships of Dunkirk” became the stuff of legend, and the nucleus of the army that would return to the Continent at Normandy four years later.
1941: On her breakout cruise into the North Atlantic, the German battleship Bismarck engages and sinks HMS Hood, which goes to the bottom with the loss of all hands save three.
1941: Three days after obliterating HMS Hood and making her way into the North Atlantic, the German battleship Bismarck is crippled by a torpedo shot from an ancient Fairey Swordfish biplane from HMS Ark Royal, allowing the British battleships King George V and Rodney and their escorts to close the German vessel and open fire. A fierce gun duel rages for nearly two hours, after which Bismarck sinks from the combined effects of gunfire and intentional scuttling. 111 survivors are rescued by the British ships before leaving the area from a U-boat threat. The wreck of the Bismarck was discovered and documented in June of 1989 by Robert Ballard.
1947: President Harry S. Truman signs into law an economic assistance act for Greece and Turkey that will become the foundation for the Truman Doctrine on controlling the spread of Communism.
1958: First flight of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II.
1961: President John F. Kennedy gives his famous speech committing the United States to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back by the end of the decade.
1964: President Lyndon Baines Johnson announces the Great Society legislative program, in which he promises to “eliminate poverty and racial injustice in America.” I wonder how it all worked out…
1968: USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffers an explosion of unknown origin and sinks with 99 souls on board into 9800 feet of water, 400 miles southwest of the Azores. The circumstances of its sinking remain partially classified, but all of the evidence points to an on-board malfunction of a torpedo. Nothing supports the undying conspiracy theories that she was intentionally torpedoed by the Russians in retaliation for our salvage of a Soviet Hotel class submarine off the coast of Hawaii. Interestingly, then-Captain Robert Ballard and the Woods Hole Institute used their search for the Titanic as cover for their actual search for the remains of Scorpion. The wreckage site is regularly monitored for radioactive contamination from its reactor and torpedoes.
1972: President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonoid Brezhnev sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The landmark agreement limited the parties to a single fixed site (Moscow and Grand Forks, ND) and for practical purposes enshrined Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as a viable basis for the relationship of the two nuclear superpowers. The United States withdrew from the treaty in December, 2002, per the provision requiring six months notice.
1977: Mountaineer George Willig performs a single-handed free climb of the south tower of New York’s World Trade Center. He is arrested for trespassing and fined $1.10, a penny for each floor.