Day By Day

Monday, December 07, 2009

This Day In History

Today is "the day that shall live in infamy" -- one that nobody [except on one public occasion, George Herbert Walker Bush] will ever forget. Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. Each year on this date flags are to be flown at half-staff to commemorate the men and women who gave their lives on that terrible day. The National Geographic has assembled a remembrance page [here] with links to a number of resources. Check it out. And while you are at it, take a look at the U. S. Navy's official image page here. And here is a site put together by the National Park Service. Whatever else you do, take a few minutes today to remember Pearl Harbor.

One year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States launched the USS New Jersey, the biggest battleship of its day. This symbolizes an important fact. The great sacrifices of the American people and the exploits of our men and women in arms were magnificent, but what really overwhelmed the Japanese in World War Two was the immense productive capacity of American industry.

Let's see now, what else happened on this date? Well, for one thing Marcus Tullius Cicero was assassinated in 43 BC.

Cicero is renowned as the greatest of Roman orators and was also an influential humanistic philosopher and educator [he is frequently credited with introducing the great Greek philosophers into Roman culture and translated a number of their most important works into Latin]. He also was a major political figure during the turbulent first century BC. In general Cicero emerged as a conservative republican, speaking out forcefully against constitutional innovation and despotism. His speeches in defense of the republic were remembered, and influenced many of the founders of the American Republic. But in the context of his times Cicero was playing out of his league. In the course of his political intrigues Cicero antagonized Marc Antony. When Antony and Octavian joined forces to form the "Second Triumvirate" they agreed to eliminate all of their enemies and Cicero's name was near the top of the list. He was tracked down and killed, after which he was beheaded and his head and hands displayed in the Roman Forum.

And on this date in 1787 Delaware became the first State to ratify the Federal Constitution. We tend today to focus on the Philadelphia Convention that took place earlier in the year and which produced the draft of the Constitution that was then sent to the States for ratification, but many scholars argue [rightly, I think] that the ratification debate, which continued for nearly two years, was more important than the formal deliberations of 1787. It was during this debate, which was carried on in every State, that the real meanings and understandings of what the Constitution represented were hashed out. To get some sense of the range of the ratification debate and the major positions that emerged during it check out Bernard Bailyn's two volume work The Debate Over the Constitution: Federalist and AntiFederalist Speeches, Articles and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Constitutional history. In particular everyone should read Benjamin Franklin's speech given at the close of the Constitutional Convention that begins "I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present...."

Entering the Building:

Mary Stuart [1542]. What a life this woman had! Her father was James V, King of Scotland. He died six days after she was born, which made her Queen of Scots. At the age of fifteen she was married to Francis, Dauphin of France [who was fourteen at the time], and one year later he became King Francis II of France. That made her at age sixteen Queen of France as well as of Scotland and, because her great grandfather had been King Henry II of England, she was in the line of succession to the British throne. Sounds pretty good, eh? Then it all fell apart.

Only a few months after ascending to the throne, her husband, Francis, died of an ear infection, and his brother Charles became King. Mary, a widow at the age of seventeen, returned to Scotland. In 1765 she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart. They were not a happy couple -- Henry was three years younger than Mary and was an alcoholic and a mean drunk. It is likely that he was also syphilitic. Everyone seems to have hated him, including Mary. Nevertheless they soon produced a son, James, although everyone [Henry included] seems to have assumed that the child wasn't his. Once a son and heir to the throne had been born Henry became superfluous and Mary ignored him. Then in a fit of jealousy Henry had her lover, David Rizzio, murdered in her presence. A few months later Henry's body was found on Palace grounds. He was in his nightshirt and had been strangled. So much for Mary's second marriage. She was in her mid-twenties and twice a widow.

A few months later Mary married again, to James Hepburn [who was widely believed to be the murderer of her second husband]. This was too much for the Scots who rose in protest agains the royal shenanigans. Mary was arrested, thrown in prison, and forced to abdicate in favor of her son, who became King James VI of Scotland. Escaping from prison, Mary fled to England where she looked to her first cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, for protection. That didn't work out well. Previously Mary had contested Elizabeth's claim to the throne and many English Catholics still considered her to be the true Queen of England. Elizabeth was not about to put up with that. She had Mary imprisoned. While in prison Mary instigated three plots to have Elizabeth assassinated. Finally, her patience at an end, Elizabeth ordered Mary tried on the charge of treason. She was found guilty and was executed in 1787 at the age of forty-four. Some Catholics to this day consider her to be a martyr to the faith and many of her personal possessions have been preserved as relics.

In a way Mary won in the end. Elizabeth died without issue, and that made Mary's son, little Jamie, the heir to the English throne. He became King James I of the United Kingdom in 1603.