1512: The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican opens for public visitation for the first time since completion of the great ceiling fresco by Michelangelo.
1517: Augustinian monk Martin Luther makes public his objection to the sale of indulgences by posting on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg a list of 95 “theses” which outlined a comprehensive, biblical-based dissent of papal authority, and set in motion the spiritual, intellectual and political upheaval we now know as the Protestant Reformation.
1520: Fifteen months after departing on his epic voyage of discovery, Ferdinand Magellan enters the narrow strait that now bears his name. The “shortcut” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans cuts off significant distance from the more navigationally straightforward route around Cape Horn, and it avoids the ferocious westerlies and high sea states of the Horn passage. On the other hand, the narrowness of the channel and those same prevailing westerlies make the strait a particularly difficult passage in a sailing vessel, especially for a square-rigged design that does not go well to windward.
1587: Leiden University- the oldest university in the Netherlands- opens it library. After its initial founding in 1575, the university itself quickly became the intellectual hub of the Reformation period. It remains on the top tier of academic and research universities world-wide. Known for its historic foundations and emphasis on the social sciences, the university came into particular prominence during the Dutch Golden Age, when scholars from around Europe were attracted to the Dutch Republic due to its climate of intellectual tolerance and Leiden’s international reputation. During this time, Leiden became the home to individuals such as René Descartes, Rembrandt, Christiaan Huygens, Hugo Grotius, Baruch Spinoza and Baron d’Holbach.
1765: Continuing to pursue novel ways to get the American colonies to pay for the French and Indian War, Parliament passes the Stamp Act, a tax levied on every sheet of paper imported into the colonies, with payment proven by the presence of a royal stamp on the paper itself. Colonial leaders become highly agitated by this seemingly arbitrary ability of the government to tax its subjects without consultation.
1783: The final public execution is held at London’s Tyburn Gallows. The place played a significant role in 18th century popular culture, with permanent grandstands set up for the regular spectacle. A number of popular catch phrases were coined to describe the happenings: a Tyburn dance or jig (i.e., the post-drop twitching); take a drive to Tyburn (i.e., in the gaol wagon); the Lord Manor of Tyburn (the executioner). According to the estimable Wikipedia, the condemned were expected to put on a good show, being both well-dressed for the hanging, and displaying no fear. Those that failed to live up to the crowd’s standards were jeered. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty coarse time. The site is now covered by the traffic roundabout at Marble Arch.
1790: British author and political philosopher Edmund Burke publishes his letter, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he examines the French body politic and its leadership through the lens of the same Natural Law that guided the original revolution in the former British colonies. Burke is not impressed, and says so in scathing and prescient terms that accurately predicted the ruinous events on the continent. His main argument is that the abstract foundations of the French revolution could in no way account for the complexity of human nature, and were thus doomed to lead to tyranny. Further, he had no time for the rule of intellectuals, arguing that, “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor.”
1814: The Congress of Vienna meets to negotiate the form of European politics after the final defeat of Napoleon at the hands of the Sixth Coalition and 25 years of nearly continuous war. The resulting Treaty of Paris exiled the former emperor to tiny Elba off the south coast of France, but you’ll remember that he didn’t really relish the concept of staying there the rest of his life.
1861: The day after General Winfield Scott resigns as Commanding General of the Army, President Lincoln appoints the young and ambitious George B. McClellan to replace him.
1864: Closing of the Second War of Schleswig, in which Denmark cedes the provinces of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg to Prussia. This war is one of three initiated by Prussia under the leadership of Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, and is studied at the war colleges today as a prime example of Clausewitz’ dictum that war is “an extension of diplomacy by other means.” In Bismarck’s context, war was an acceptable and useful action in support of limited and carefully defined territorial and political goals. His other wars were a relatively minor but victorious clash with Austria that he declined to follow up with further conquests, and the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck’s philosophy in the present-day language of “irregular warfare,” “calibrated application of force,” “stabilization operations,” “building partner capacity,” are still in use today (see first Gulf War).
1871: Birth of American author Stephen Crane (d.1900), whose classic The Red Badge of Courage vividly tells the story of a Civil War private who seeks redemption from his earlier desertion by repeatedly throwing himself at subsequent battles through the eyes of his original idealism; a glory glaringly at odds with the actual war’s gory reality.
1879: Birth of American humorist Will Rogers (d.1935), whose wry quips, homespun humor and incisive newspaper columns gave voice to the American heartland during the boom and bust period of the 1920s-30s. He died in a plane crash flying with the pioneer aviator Wiley Post
1887: Birth of Chiang Kai-sheck (d.1975), Nationalist Chinese leader who followed Dr. Sun Yat-sen in wrenching Chinese society away from its feudal dynastic roots during the Northern Expedition of the 1920s. After Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1927, Chiang became the de facto leader of the Republic of China, and strenuously opposed the rise of the Communists under Mao Tse-tung. After the Japanese defeat in World War II, the civil war that broke out in China eventually drove Chiang, a strong U.S. ally against the Japanese, to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), where he set up the Republic of China government in exile and ruled with an iron fist until his death.
1903: The Colombian province of Panama stages a revolt and declares its independence. The United States immediately recognizes the new nation, and guarantees its defense. Conveniently, the United States also has plans to build a canal across the isthmus, and the new government of Panama graciously cedes the Canal Zone to the U.S. to ensure the security and successful administration of the project.
1905: In an attempt to bring Russia politically into the 19th century, Russian Tsar Nicolas II grants a constitutional creation of a national legislative assembly, the Duma. I wonder how that reform worked out for them?
1918: After four years of bitter fighting in the southern Alps, Austria-Hungary surrenders to Italy, thus closing the Great War’s Italian front. You may remember that this was the area where Earnest Hemingway was wounded as a Red Cross ambulance driver, and which later became the setting for his novel A Farewell to Arms.
1918: Spurred on by communist agitators, and triggered by the issuance of an order to sortie the High Seas Fleet for combat against the Royal Navy, over 40,000 German sailors mutiny in support of a smaller cadre of earlier mutineers who were already imprisoned. Chanting the slogan, “Peace and Bread!” (Frieden und brot!), the sailors surge through the city, overwhelming the police and taking control of key government buildings. News of the mutiny spreads throughout Germany, catapulting the Social Democrat Party (SPD) from a rump of left-wing radicals into a powerful force suddenly at the head of a communist revolution. With the real possibility of a devastating social revolution compounding German losses on the Western Front, the government convinces the Kaiser to abdicate the monarchy, thereby permitting the formation of an interim constitutional government. Although the SPD did not plan on completely overthrowing the existing order, the revolutionary and political turmoil continued to ferment throughout the major German cities but never proceeded to the level of violence or political angst duplicating the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. The German revolution fizzled out concurrent with the announcement of the Weimar Republic in August of 1919.
1926: Death of legendary sharpshooter, Annie Oakley (b.1860).
1938: Radio impresario Orson Welles broadcasts a “live” report of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds.
1939: President Franklin Roosevelt orders the U.S. Customs Service to allow cash and carry sales of armaments to the European war, Great Britain in particular.Roosevelt demanded money for the purchases, and indefinite “lease” agreements to such British colonial holdings as Bermuda, Diego Garcia, the Virgin Islands, unlimited access to Canadian harbors.
1941: President Franklin Roosevelt signs into law the Lend-Lease Act that commits the U.S. to providing supplies and equipment to Great Britain and her allies in support of her war effort against Nazi Germany.
1941: USS Reuben James (DD-245), a WWI vintage “4-piper” destroyer on Neutrality Patrol in the northeastern Atlantic, is torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, becoming the Navy’s first combat loss of WWII, with a loss of 105 of her 159 man crew. The sinking ignited high indignation in the United States, even spawning a folk song by Woodie Guthrie: “What were their names, tell me what were their names? Did you lose a friend on the good Reuben James?”
1942: German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, having had his North African armored juggernaut stopped at the gates of Alexandria, is forced to begin his withdrawal back toward Tunisia as a result of British Field Bernard Montgomery’s armoured breakout at the seam between the German and Italian forces. The advancing British not only split the Axis force, they also threatened to completely encircle the Germans. Rommel ignored a direct order from Hitler to fight to the last man, deciding instead to save his forces and make a strategic withdrawal to a position where he could counter-attack the soon-to-be overextended British tanks. Rommel’s withdrawal today was the turning point for the Battle of El Alemain.
1952: The United States detonates its first hydrogen bomb, Operation IVY MIKE, at Eniwetok Atoll. The blast came in at 10 megatons.
1954: Death of French post-impressionist painter Henri Matisse (b.1869).
1957: The Soviet Union launches the first living being into orbit, the dog Laika, who survives the launch and initial orbit, but dies within two hours. There was no plan for a de-orbit recovery, and the Soviets announced she died by being automatically euthanized prior to oxygen deprivation. Recently opened archives indicate she actually died from overheating due to a critical component of the booster system failing to detach.
1966: The River Arno floods Florence, Italy, cresting at 22 feet, causing 113 deaths, displacing over 30,000 from their homes, and creating untold havoc on thousands of pieces of Renaissance art and books.
1979: Under the direction of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian University “students” storm the United States Embassy in Tehran and take 90 hostages, 53 of whom are American citizens. Despite a few releases, the Americans are held hostage for 444 days, released by the Iranian government at the hour of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as President at noon on January 20th, 1981.
1984: Death of Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi (b.1917), assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards four months after she ordered the Indian army to storm the Sikh temple of Harmandir Sahib to put down a nascent Sikh independence movement. The daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, she became India’s first female PM, and legitimately earned her reputation as a ruthless consolidator of both India’s governing structures and its regional hegemony.
1998: The Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein declares it will no longer cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. I haven’t talked to any of the inspectors myself, but I’m willing to bet they didn’t notice much of a difference before and after the announcement.