Today in 1775, Benjamin Franklin published An Imaginary Speech in defense of American courage, at London.
Franklin’s speech was intended to counter an unnamed officer’s comments to Parliament that the British need not fear the colonial rebels, because “Americans are unequal to the People of this Country [Britain] in Devotion to Women, and in Courage, and worse than all, they are religious.”
Franklin responded to the critique with wit and acuity. The colonial population had increased while the British population had declined, Franklin concluded that American men must be more “effectually devoted to the Fair Sex” than British men.
As for American courage, Franklin relayed a history of the Seven Years’ War in which the colonial militia forever saved blundering British regulars from strategic error and cowardice. Franklin declared, “Indiscriminate Accusations against the Absent are cowardly Calumnies.”
Regarding religion, Franklin reminded his readers that it was zealous Puritans that had rid Britain of the despised King Charles I. Franklin surmised that his critic was a Stuart [i.e. Catholic] sympathizer, and therefore disliked American Protestants, “who inherit from those Ancestors, not only the same Religion, but the same Love of Liberty and Spirit.”
Today in 1881 Albert McKenzie pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of embezzlement in Alameda County, California. McKenzie had originally been charged with a felony for taking $52.50 from his employer. Rather than go through a trial, the prosecution and defendant agreed to a plea bargain, a practice that was becoming increasingly common in American courts.
The right to a trial by jury was considered a central part of the justice system in the early days of the United States. The Seventh Amendment of the Bill of Rights codified it as an essential part of Americans’ civil liberties. But in the 1800s, a trend toward plea bargaining began. In Alameda County, from 1880 to 1910, nearly 10 percent of all defendants changed their “not guilty” pleas to “guilty of lesser charges.”
Today, the plea bargain is an essential part of the criminal justice system. The great majority of charges, over 90 percent in many jurisdictions, are resolved through some type of plea bargain.
Today in 1812, the most violent of a series of earthquakes near Missouri caused a so-called fluvial tsunami in the Mississippi River, actually making the river run backward for several hours. The series of tremors, which took place between December 1811 and March 1812, were the most powerful in the history of the United States.
The unusual seismic activity began on December 16, 1811, when a strong tremor rocked the New Madrid region. An even more powerful quake erupted, estimated to have had a magnitude of 8.6. Given that the area was sparsely populated and there weren’t many multi-story structures, the death toll was relatively low. However, the quake did cause landslides that destroyed several communities, including Little Prairie, Missouri.
The earthquake also caused fissures–some as much as several hundred feet long–to open on the earth’s surface. Large trees were snapped in two. Sulfur leaked out from underground pockets and river banks vanished, flooding thousands of acres of forests. On January 23 an estimated 8.4-magnitude quake struck in nearly the same location, causing disastrous effects. Fortunately, the death toll was smaller, as most of the survivors of the first earthquake were now living in tents, in which they could not be crushed.
The strongest of the tremors followed on February 7. This one was estimated at an amazing 8.8-magnitude and was probably one of the strongest quakes in human history. Church bells rang in Boston, thousands of miles away, from the shaking. Brick walls were toppled in Cincinnati. In the Mississippi River, water turned brown and whirlpools developed suddenly from the depressions created in the riverbed. Waterfalls were created in an instant; in one report, 30 boats were helplessly thrown over falls, killing the people on board. Many of the small islands in the middle of the river, often used as bases by river pirates, permanently disappeared. Large lakes, such as Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee and Big Lake at the Arkansas-Missouri border, were created by the earthquake as river water poured into new depressions.
This series of large earthquakes ended in March, although there were aftershocks for a few more years. In all, it is believed that approximately 1,000 people died because of the earthquakes, though there is no record of the Native American population in the area at the time.
Today in 1904 at Baltimore, Maryland, a small fire in the business district was wind-whipped into an uncontrollable conflagration that engulfed a large portion of the city. When the blaze finally burned down after 31 hours, an 80-block area of the downtown area had been destroyed. More than 1,500 buildings were completely leveled, and some 1,000 severely damaged, bringing property loss from the disaster to an estimated $100 million. Miraculously, no homes or lives were lost, and Baltimore’s domed City Hall, built in 1867, was preserved.
The Great Baltimore Fire was the most destructive fire in the United States since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city and caused an estimated $200 million in property damage.
Today in 1984 during the fourth orbital mission of the space shuttle Challenger, 170 miles above Earth, Navy Captain Bruce McCandless was the first human being to fly untethered in space when he exited the shuttle and maneuvered freely, using a bulky white rocket pack of his own design. McCandless orbited Earth in tangent with the shuttle at speeds greater than 17,500 miles per hour and flew up to 320 feet away from the Challenger. After an hour and a half testing and flying the jet-powered backpack, McCandless safely reentered the shuttle.
Later that day, Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stewart tried out the rocket pack.
Today in 2002, George W. Bush announced his plan to federally fund faith-based initiatives.
Bush proposed that faith-based organizations should assume a greater role in providing social-service programs without breaching the separation of church and state. He suggested that government should not discriminate against faith-based programs, but it should encourage them to flourish. Under his plan, religious groups could receive federal funding to implement programs usually carried out by secular non-profit organizations.
The new policy received bipartisan support, including leading Senators Joseph Liebermann and Rick Santorum. The senators agreed with Bush that individuals and couples should receive tax breaks for donations to faith-based charities as well as secular organizations.
Bush’s plan to federally fund faith-based programs upset die-hard secularists and debate over the efficacy and constitutionality of the program continued into his second term. A study by the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that approximately 70 percent of Americans prefer that government agencies provide the majority of aid to the needy and poor; the same number supported the right of church organizations to apply for federal funding for their social programs.
Today in 1795 the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, limiting the powers of the Federal Judiciary over the states by prohibiting Federal lawsuits against individual states.
“It has become rather commonplace for so-called literary critics to write off Sinclair Lewis as a novelist. Compared to…Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Faulkner…Lewis lacked style. Yet his impact on modern American life…was greater than all of the other four writers together.” – William Shirer
Happy birthday Sinclair Lewis, social critic and novelist. short-story writer, and playwright, born today in 1885 at Sauk Center, Minnesota.
His works are known for critical views of American society and capitalist values, and characterizations of modern working women. Lewis’ familiar works include Main Street(1920), Babbit(1922), and It Can’t Happen Here(1935). Arrowsmith (1925) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (which Lewis refused).
In 1930, Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first writer from the United States to receive the award. The Swedish Academy paid special attention to Babbitt.
Lewis died in Rome on January 10, 1951, aged 65. His cremated remains are buried in Sauk Centre. A final novel, World So Wide (1951), was published posthumously.
William Shirer, a friend and admirer of Lewis, disputed accounts that Lewis died of alcoholism per se. He contended that Lewis had a heart attack and that his doctors advised him to stop drinking. Lewis did not, and perhaps could not, stop.