Today in 1789, New Jersey ratified the Bill of Rights, becoming the first state to do so. New Jersey’s action was a first step toward making the first 10 amendments to the Constitution law and completing the revolutionary reforms begun by the Declaration of Independence.
The Anti-Federalist critics of the U.S. Constitution believed the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government by outlining its rights but failing to delineate the rights of the individuals living under it. Before the Massachusetts ratifying convention would accept the Constitution, which they finally did in February 1788, the document’s Federalist supporters had to promise to create a Bill of Rights to be amended to the Constitution immediately upon the creation of a new government under the document.
As promised, the newly elected Congress drafted the Bill of Rights on September 25, 1789. Virginia was the necessary11th of 14 states (Vermont became a state) to ratify the first ten amendments on December 15, 1791.
Today in 1923, the U.S. Patent Office grants Patent No. 1,475,074 to Garrett Morgan for his three-position traffic signal. Though Morgan’s was not the first traffic signal (that one had been installed in London in 1868), it was an important innovation by having a third position besides just “Stop” and “Go,” and regulated crossing vehicles more safely.
At the time there were manually operated traffic signals where major streets crossed one another, but they were not all that effective because they switched back and forth between Stop and Go with no interval in between; drivers had no time to react when the command changed. This led to many collisions between vehicles that both had the right of way when they entered the intersection.
The signal Morgan patented was a T-shaped pole with three settings. At night, when traffic was light, it could be set at half-mast (like a blinking yellow light today), warning drivers to proceed carefully through the intersection. He sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000.
Today in 1820 the American whaler “Essex”, was attacked by an 80-ton sperm whale 2,000 miles from the western coast of South America. An enraged bull whale rammed the ship twice and capsized the vessel.
The 20 crew members escaped in three open boats, but only five of the men survived the harrowing 83-day journey to the coastal waters of South America, where they were picked up by other ships. Three other men who had been left on a desolate Pacific island were saved later.
Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick” (1851) was inspired in part by the story of the “Essex.”
Today in 1945, a series of trials of accused Nazi war criminals, conducted by a U.S., French, and Soviet military tribunal based in Nuremberg, Germany, began.
These trials of war criminals were authorized by the London Agreement, signed in August 1945 by the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the provisional government of France. It was agreed at that time that those Axis officials would be tried by an international war tribunal. (A trial for accused Japanese war criminals would be held in Tokyo.) Nineteen other nations would eventually sign on to the provisions of the agreement.
The charges against the 24 accused at Nuremberg were (1) crimes against peace, that is, the planning and waging of wars that violated international treaties; (2) crimes against humanity, that is, the deportation, extermination, and genocide of various populations; (3) war crimes, that is, those activities that violated the “rules” of war that had been laid down in light of the First World War and later international agreements; and (4) conspiracy to commit any and all of the crimes listed in the first three counts.
There were 216 court sessions. On October 1, 1946, verdicts on 22 of the 24 defendants were handed down (two were not present; one had committed suicide in his prison cell, another was ultimately deemed mentally unfit): 12 of the defendants were sentenced to be hanged, including Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Martin Bormann, and Herman Goering . Ten of the 12 were hanged on October 16. Bormann was tried and sentenced in absentia (he died trying to escape Hitler’s bunker at the close of the war, but was only declared officially dead in 1973). Goering committed suicide before he could be hanged. The rest of the defendants received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life. All of the defenses offered by the accused were rejected, including the notion that only a state, not an individual, could commit a war crime proper.