Today in 1836 at San Antonio, Texas, Colonel William Travis issued a call for help on behalf of the Texan troops defending the Alamo, an old Spanish mission and fortress under siege by the Mexican army.
Addressing one of the pleas to “The People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” Travis signed off with the now-famous phrase “Victory or Death.”
Travis’ daring defiance of the overwhelmingly superior Mexican forces has since become the stuff of myth, and a facsimile of his famous call for help is on permanent display at the Texas State Library in Austin.
Today and for the next two weeks the letter is on loan to the Alamo for the public to view.
Today in 1803, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, decided the landmark case of William Marbury versus James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States and confirmed the legal principle of judicial review–the ability of the Supreme Court to limit Congressional power by declaring legislation unconstitutional.
The court ruled that Thomas Jefferson, via his secretary of state, James Madison, was wrong to prevent William Marbury from taking office as justice of the peace for Washington County in the District of Columbia. However, it also ruled that the court had no jurisdiction in the case and could not force Jefferson and Madison to seat Marbury. The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court jurisdiction, but the Marshall court ruled the Act of 1789 to be an unconstitutional extension of judiciary power into the realm of the executive.
In writing the decision, John Marshall argued that acts of Congress in conflict with the Constitution are not law and therefore are non-binding to the courts, and that the judiciary’s first responsibility is always to uphold the Constitution. If two laws conflict, Marshall wrote, the court bears responsibility for deciding which law applies in any given case.
Today in 1917 British authorities gave Walter H. Page, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, a copy of the “Zimmermann Note,” a coded message from Arthur Zimmermann to Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Mexico. In the telegram (also known as the Zimmermann Telegram), intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence in late January, Zimmermann stated that in the event of war with the United States, Mexico should be asked to enter the conflict as a German ally. In return, Germany promised to restore to Mexico the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
After receiving the telegram, Page promptly sent a copy to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who in early March allowed the U.S. State Department to publish the note. The press initially treated the telegram as a hoax, but Arthur Zimmermann himself confirmed its authenticity. The Zimmermann Note helped turn U.S. public opinion, firmly against Germany.
The original telegram that was handed to Page was thought to have been destroyed. In October 2005 an astute historian recognized the document and recovered it.
Today in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-0 to overturn the $200,000 settlement awarded to the Reverend Jerry Falwell for his emotional distress at being parodied in Hustler, a pornographic magazine.
In 1983, Hustler ran a piece parodying Falwell’s first sexual experience as a drunken, incestuous, childhood encounter with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell, an important religious conservative and founder of the Moral Majority, sued Hustler and its publisher, Larry Flynt, for libel. Falwell won the case, but Flynt appealed, leading to the Supreme Court’s hearing the case because of its constitutional implications.
The Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that, although in poor taste, Hustler’s parody fell within the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and the press
Today in1840, former President John Quincy Adams began to argue the Amistad case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1839, a Spanish slave ship La Amistad appeared off the coast of New York. The “slaves” aboard it, who were free Africans kidnapped in Africa and originally bound for sale in Cuba, had rebelled, killing the Spanish ship’s captain and cook. The African mutineers then promised to spare the lives of the ship’s crew and their captors if they took them back to Africa. The crew agreed, but then duped the slaves by sailing up the coast to New York, where they were taken into custody by the U.S. Navy.
A complicated series of trials ensued regarding the ownership and outcome of the ship and its human cargo. Although the federal government had ruled the slave trade between the U.S. and other countries illegal in 1808, the “peculiar institution” persisted in the South and some northeastern states.
The Navy captains who commandeered the Amistad off the coast of New York turned the ship in to authorities in Connecticut. In Connecticut at this time, slavery was still technically legal, a fact that further complicated the case. Abolitionists filed a suit on behalf of the Africans against the slave captors for assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment. Spain, backed by a 1795 anti-piracy treaty with the U.S., also claimed rights to the Amistad and her cargo. President Martin Van Buren, personally neutral on the issue of slavery and concerned about his popularity in southern states, supported Spain’s claim.
After two district courts ruled in favor of the abolitionists, President Van Buren immediately instructed the U.S. attorney general to appeal. Abolitionists hired Adams, who some referred to as “Old Man Eloquent,” to argue for the Africans’ freedom in the Supreme Court.
Adams’ skillful arguments convinced the court to rule in favor of returning the Africans to their native country, but later, President Tyler refused to allocate federal funds to send the Africans back to Africa. Instead, the abolitionists had to raise money to pay for the expense.
Today in 1969 a North Vietnamese mortar shell hit a Douglas AC-47 gunship. Airman First Class John L. Levitow threw himself on an activated, smoking magnesium flare, dragged himself and the flare to the open cargo door, and tosses it out just before it ignited. For saving his fellow crewmembers and the gunship, Airman Levitow was later awarded the Medal of Honor. He was one of only two enlisted airmen to win the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam and was one of only five enlisted airmen ever to win the medal.
Today in 1944 Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill’s guerrilla force, nicknamed “Merrill’s Marauders,” began a campaign in northern Burma.
Within the military, a type of “Help Wanted” ad appealed for applicants to participate in a “dangerous and hazardous mission.” About 3,000 soldiers volunteered from stateside units to create what was officially called the 5307th Composite Unit, code named “Galahad.”
Brigadier General Merrill trained his men in the art of guerrilla warfare in the jungles of India. The commando force was formed into six combat units–Red, White, Blue, Green, Orange, and Khaki–with 400 men in each (the remaining 600 men or so were part of a rear-echelon headquarters that remained in India to coordinate the air-drops of equipment to the men in the field).
The Marauders’ mission began with a 1,000-mile walk through dense jungle, without artillery support, into Burma, which, when done, consisted of five major and 30 minor engagements with a far more numerous Japanese enemy. They had to carry their supplies on their backs and on pack mules, and were resupplied only with airdrops in the middle of the jungle. Merrill’s Marauders succeeded in maneuvering behind Japanese forces to cause the disruptions necessary to throw the enemy into confusion. They were so successful, the Marauders managed even to capture the Myitkyina Airfield in northern Burma.
When their mission was completed, all surviving Merrill’s Marauders had to be evacuated to hospitals to be treated for everything from exhaustion and various tropical diseases to malnutrition or A.O.E. (“Accumulation of Everything”). They were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation in July 1944, which was re-designated the Presidential Unit Citation in 1966. Every member of the commando force also received the Bronze Star, a very rare distinction for an entire unit. Merrill remained in the Far East and was made an aide to General Stillwell.
Happy birthday Admiral Chester Nimitz born today in 1885 at Fredericksburg, Texas.
Assuming command at the most critical period of the war in the Pacific, Admiral Nimitz, despite the losses from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the shortage of ships, planes and supplies, successfully organized his forces to halt the Japanese advance.
He commanded Allied naval, land and air forces in the South Pacific during World War II, and signed the Japanese surrender document on September 2, 1945.
In December 1944 Nimitz was promoted to Fleet Admiral (five stars). Since the rank of Fleet Admiral is a lifetime appointment, he remained on active duty for the rest of his life, with full pay and benefits.
Chester Nimitz died February 20, 1966, at Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay. He is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, California.