Day By Day

Friday, January 15, 2010

This Day In History -- Kings and Queens

Today is "National Hat Day" so dust off that old straw boater, or that derby that's been sitting for years in your closet, or a felt fedora, or your favorite bowler or sombrero, or that old stovepipe hat that you used to wear as a kid thinking that it would make you "cool" and popular at school [it didn't], or just find a piece of construction paper and make your own. One way or another put some covering on your pate -- in this weather you probably need it.

On this day in 1559 Queen Elizabeth I ["Gloriana", "The Virgin Queen", "Good Queen Bess"] was crowned in Westminster Abby. She remains one of Britain's most admired monarchs and has been the subject of innumerable plays, films, novels and popular histories. Like all the Tudors her life was a soap opera that has titillated audiences for centuries.

Elizabeth's popular image is that of a strong and decisive figure, fully in command of her nation, if not of her heart, even [in a recent film] as a warrior queen, dressed in armor, rallying her troops on horseback to fend off the Spanish Armada. Academic historians, however, have a very different opinion of her. She is widely seen as emotionally unstable and indecisive, given to sudden impulses and fits of anger. She is popularly remembered as a great military leader, largely because of the defeat of the Spanish Armada [celebrated as one of Britain's greatest triumphs], but in fact she was just plain lucky. Most of her military adventures were poorly planned, funded and executed and were ultimately unsuccessful. She is identified with no great domestic initiative, preferring instead to consolidate those of some of her predecessors, and in the latter years of her reign were characterized by recurrent economic and military failures. She was more a survivor than a leader and benefited from the fact that most of the other crowned heads of Europe were distracted by internal problems and unable to take advantage of Britain's weakness.

More than anything else, Elizabeth's reputation benefits from the fact that her long and relatively peaceful reign of more than four decades was preceded and followed by times of extreme domestic turmoil. There is something to be said for that. While the popular image of Elizabeth is certainly wrong, that constructed by academic scholars has problems too. Historians have a bias in favor of strong, "transformative" leaders who inflict great change upon the people they govern. I, however, tend to admire those rulers who are content to be caretakers, providing effective and popular government during their terms of power. Elizabeth's motto was "video et taceo" ("I see, and say nothing"). There is a great deal of wisdom in that.

And on this day in 1947 the mutilated remains of Elizabeth Short, the "Black Dahlia", were found on a vacant lot in Los Angeles. The case has never been solved. Like her royal namesake the unfortunate Miss Short has been the subject of movies, plays, novels and many articles and websites. If you are in a macabre mood you might want to visit one of these [here or here] to see what all the fuss was about. Warning, not for weak stomachs -- keep away from children.

And on this day in 1967 the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I. Ah yes, I remember it well....

Entering the building:

On this day in 1929 Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. The son of a Baptist minister, King became involved at an early age in the civil rights movement. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, an act that catapulted him to national prominence. Two years later he was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1963 King led the famous March on Washington that culminated with his delivery of the magnificent "I Have A Dream" speech. He became, in the minds of many, the personification of the struggle for racial equality. His assassination in 1968 precipitated riots in cities across the country. He won the Nobel Prize, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He is remembered each year with a federal holiday. This year, Martin Luther King Day will fall on Monday, January 18th. At the time of his death King was a controversial figure within the civil rights community, subject to strong criticism by the radical left, and ever since activists have been fighting over his legacy. Most Americans, however, see him as the voice of reason, abjuring violence and advocating the goal of a color-blind society in which people will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The contradiction between this goal and the activist agendas of racial preferences and ethnic solidarity is a continuing source of controversy.

We should also remember that Dr. King was a Republican and his stated goals are very much in line with those today advocated by Republican Party leaders.