480 B.C. At the Battle of Salamis, a fleet of about 360 Greek triremes destroys the hitherto unstoppable Xerxes and his invading Persian fleet of 1,207 triremes in the waters just south of Athens. Despite Persia’s earlier successes against the Greeks, including their nominal victory at the Battle of Thermopylae a short month earlier, the force was stretched to its limit, and needed to consolidate its land and sea forces before the oncoming winter ended the campaigning season. The Greek states, under the leadership of Themistocles, saw an opportunity for their heavily outnumbered fleet to limit the Persians’ maneuverability in the tight reaches near Salamis Island, and thence to individually destroy them on nearly equal terms. The lopsided victory completely un-did Persia’s earlier victories ashore, and sent the Xerxes and his forces back into Anatolia for a generation. Of note, the Persian general staff, confident in their overwhelming numbers, convinced Xerxes to set up a throne on a prominent hill near the expected battle, where he could personally watch the victory.
420 A.D: Death of Saint Jerome (b.347 A.D.), an early Christian scholar and one of the Doctors of the Church, who is best known for his seminal work of translating Hebrew and Greek biblical texts into a standardized Latin version, known as the Vulgate, in addition to a huge number of incisive commentaries on various books and letters contained in therein. He is recognized as a Saint by all the major High Church denominations. You’ll recognize his iconography as the wizened man pulling a thorn from the lion’s paw, or struggling with temptation in the desert, or most likely, writing in the midst of a pile of books while being attended by angels.
1226: Death of the monk Francis of Assisi (b.1181), who renounced a life of wealth and soldiering in favor of a life of pious poverty and prayer. His Franciscan Order grew to be one of the most influential in Europe, with its ministry structured on the simple precept: “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps,” the injunction being drawn from Francis’ reading of Matthew 10:9. The current Bishop of Rome took Francis’ name when he ascended to the papacy in 2013.
1553: On the death of her half-brother Edward VI, Mary I of England, the legitimate offspring of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, is crowned Queen of England. Despite her father’s serial marriages and semi-Protestant breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church, she remained a lifelong Catholic, and within months or her coronation initiated a violent Catholic Restoration across the country that swept up many of the most notable men in the realm. The numbers of imprisonments and executions conducted under her hand earned her the lasting nickname of “Bloody Mary,” a reputation made worse by the glories of her half-sister Elizabeth I, who assumed the throne after Mary’s death in 1558. Despite her dark reputation, she is notable for being the first woman to successfully assume the throne of England, ironically paving the way for Elizabeth’s succession.
1574: Six years into what would become the Eighty Years War (also known as the Dutch War of Independence) a flat-bottomed fleet of boats and ships, collected and led by Prince William the Silent of the House of Orange, and manned by the Watergeuzen, lifts the Siege of Leiden, and saves the university city from certain desolation from the hand of the Spanish Duke of Alva. The dynastic ebbs and flows of the 16th and 17th Centuries provide much fodder for our lingering cultural sense of what is good and what is not. 17 provinces of the Netherlands were under Spanish rule, however, Spain was, itself, ruled by princes from the Austrian House of Hapsburg. The economic power of this tiny region provided an unusually lucrative income for the Spanish throne, and they took great pains to keep it under the Spanish thumb, both politically and economically. William of Orange tapped into the stirrings of Dutch nationalism and led a rebellion against Spanish rule that would eventually lead to the independence of the Netherlands in 1648. Back to the Siege of Leiden: this beautiful and strategically located city was a hotbed of independent thinking and support for the rebellion, and Alva was especially ruthless in his attempts to beat them down. The city’s outstanding defensive dispositions- walls and moats- protected it from Alva’s first investment a couple years earlier, and again during this siege. But the city’s situation also made them terribly isolated from William’s relieving force. William finally sent a carrier pigeon into the city, telling them to hang on for three more months, at which point he would arrive by boat with a relieving force. To do so, he broke the dykes between the North Sea and Leiden, and systematically sailed his fleet across the flooded polderland, driving Alva’s forces from the field and relieving the city, unloading tons of herring and white bread for the starving citizens. The event remains in the Dutch psyche, and includes those odd little bits that you sometimes wonder about. For example, if Dutch children are bad at Christmastime, they are threatened with being fed to the Black Prince (Alva always wore black), or they are threatened with being sent off to Spain, which would have been a terrifying proposition in 1574. The day is celebrated today with meals of herring and white bread, and a carrot & onion stew called “Hutspot,” which was actually a Spanish meal, abandoned hot by the defending army at the sudden appearance of the rising waters that carried in the watergeuzen.
1770: Death of Christian evangelist and founder of Methodism, George Whitfield (b.1714), whose open-air sermons in the fields of England sparked a significant spiritual revival in that country. He first came over to the New World in 1738 and continued his custom of preaching the Gospel to huge crowds in outdoor venues. In 1740 he began a preaching a series of revivals that lasted continuously for several months, beginning in New England and ending in Charleston, South Carolina. His work during this period, and the explosive growth of churches throughout the colonies are now known as The Great Awakening. Whitfield’s voice, his crossed eyes, his charisma and his message made him one of the most recognized and celebrated men in the English colonies, widely admired by even the worldly Benjamin Franklin, who considered him a lifelong friend. He is buried in the Old South Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
1881: Birth of Ludwig von Mises (d.1973), the Austrian economist who was particularly outspoken about the deadly effects of socialist economic models on both the economies and political lives of nations. His work and legacy became known as the Austrian School of economics, characterized by a deep understanding and broad-based endorsement of the efficacy of capitalism and free markets in the affairs of men and nations.
1882: American inventor Thomas Edison, creating the market infrastructure for his electrical inventiveness, opens his first commercial hydroelectric power station on the Fox River near Appleton, Wisconsin.
1890: Urged by naturalists Galen Clark and John Muir, and building on the Yosemite Grant signed by President Lincoln, Congress establishes Yosemite National Park, a spectacular glacial valley and wilderness area in the central Sierra Nevada range that defines the National Park system to this day.
1901: Birth of Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (d.1954), widely regarded as one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20thCentury. His most notable blend of theoretical physics with its practical applications resulted in the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction, the Chicago Pile-1, in 1942, as an early proof-of-concept for the Manhattan Project. He also published incisive papers on quantum theory, particle physics and statistical mechanics. I can’t begin to explain them, but they are real, and Fermi’s was the mind that made the concepts accessible to the wider scientific community.
1908: Sale of the first Model T Ford, marketed for the unheard of price of $850.00, when most automobiles of the day cost well over $2,000. Henry Ford was determined to build a machine that virtually anyone could afford- including his factory workers. Between the initial start-up in 1908 and the end of the run in 1927, the Ford Motor Company build over 15,000,000 of them, a record only recently surpassed by the air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle (which shut down production in Mexico just a couple years ago).
1927: Outfielder Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees smacks his 60th home run of the season, a record that will stand until 1961.
1928: Birth of Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor and relentless Nazi-hunter, Elie Wiesel (d.2016).
1928: The Soviet Union, showing the world that “experts” can really make an economy hum, announces its first Five Year Plan, setting production quotas, prices, distribution plans and work assignments for the entire country. Thirteen plans later, the system collapsed into a market-based system.
1935: Fascist Italy, governed by the internationally popular Progressive reformer Benito Mussolini, opens its invasion of Abyssinia, an eight month conflict that ended with the region’s annexation into the Italian Empire of Italian East Africa. The glory days were brief, as the colonies were stripped away from Italy by the Allies of World War II, and granted independence as Ethiopia and Somalia.
1938: Three short weeks after Adolf Hitler’s incendiary speech demanding “self-determination” for the German population living in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region, the leaders of France, Italy and Great Britain agree to permit Germany to annex the region into the Third Reich. The Munich Agreement, as the diplomatic initiative was known, exemplified the principle of appeasement as a means to prevent war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was its most vocal advocate, pointedly refuting opposition leader Winston Churchill’s increasingly strident identification of the latent threat of continued German aggression and Britain’s woeful inability to militarily resist it. You’ll note that the principals at the conference did not include any Czech representation, nor anyone from the Soviet Union. Given Great Britain’s defense pact with Czechoslovakia, the Czechs refer to this settlement as the Munich Diktat.
Chamberlain, on his arrival back in England, held his precious umbrella in one hand and waved a piece of paper in the other, uttering a phrase that has become an iconic illustration of the dangers of an over-intellectualized bad idea put into practice:
“…the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine [waves paper to the crowd – receiving loud cheers and “Hear Hears”]. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you …
“My good friends, for the second time in our history a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” [Chamberlain’s reference is to Beaconsfield’s return from the Congress of Berlin in 1878]
Churchill was not impressed. He railed in Parliament:
“We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat…you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi régime. We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude…we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road…we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
Neither was Hitler… (from a speech to his generals in August, 1939):
“The enemy did not expect my great determination. Our enemies are little worms, I saw them at Munich. […] Now Poland is in the position I wanted. […] I am only afraid that some bastard will present me with a mediation plan at the last moment.”
1941: In German-occupied Kiev, Ukraine, the SS commander orders the massacre of the city’s Jewish population, and over the course of two days, kills 33,771 civilians in a ravine named Babi Yar, just outside the city.
1949: Chinese warlord Mao Tse Tung proclaims the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
1955: First television broadcast of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club.
1979: As the first step in implementation of the Carter-Torrijos Panama Canal Treaty, the United States formally released its sovereignty over the Canal Zone, changing its status to a tenant of the Panamanian government.