Day By Day

Monday, January 11, 2010

This Day In History

Today is, wait for it..., "Step in a Puddle and Splash a Friend Day". I'm not kidding you. You can even find e-cards to send commemorating it. Since I'm not about to tell you to go out and find a puddle [if you can, on such a clear day] and splash a friend [assuming, of course, that you have one], so in lieu of that here's a clip of a kid from Pittsburgh having more fun with puddles of water than anyone has a right to.

That's one of the movies I could watch over and over again. It's probably the greatest Hollywood musical of all time.

On this day in 49 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. To explain why this is an important event we need a little background.

In the first century BC the Roman Republic was collapsing, a victim in many ways of its own success. Military conquests had made Rome the superpower of the Mediterranean world, but it had also vastly enhanced the role of the military in Roman society and government. Various generals, backed by provincial troops loyal to them, not to Rome, vied for political power in the capital and the result was civil war.

Trouble began early in the century with the "Social War" [91-88 BC] that pitted Rome against her Italian allies who had been excluded from and were demanding Roman citizenship. Two generals, Marius and Sulla, distinguished themselves in that war and soon were contesting for power in Rome. Caesar was a nephew of, and strong supporter of, Marius who represented a faction [the "Populares"] that sought and gained strong support from the common people. Unfortunately for Caesar and other Populares Sulla, at the head of a provincial army, seized power in Rome, had himself appointed dictator for life, and began a reign of terror in which many of Marius' followers were slaughtered.

Fearing for his life, Caesar left Rome and joined the army. Then after Sulla's death in 78BC he returned to Rome and entered politics. For several years he pursued a political career and enjoyed some success, but ran up enormous debts, both political and financial. His real break came when he secured a military appointment in Spain and achieved some impressive victories there over local rulers. In 59BC Caesar re-entered politics and in an incredibly dirty campaign had himselv elected consul. He was now playing in the big leagues. He formed political alliances with powerful figures Pompey and Crassus and together the three men [the "first triumverate"] forced through a popular law distributing public lands to the poor. At the end of his term as consul Caesar returned to the military being appointed governor of four provinces. There he achieved significant victories over Gaulish and German tribes, greatly expanding Rome's rule in northern Europe.

While Caesar was fighting in the north. Pompey seized power in Rome and in 49BC ordered Caesar to disband his armies and return to Rome. Not being a fool, Caesar realized that following Pompey's orders would leave him exposed to his political enemies and probably cost him his life. He therefore made a momentous decision -- instead of disbanding his armies he marched them south, and on Jan 10-11 crossed the northern boundary of Italy, thus precipitating a new round of civil wars. As you all know Caesar won those wars and set himself up as sole ruler of Rome. This marked the end of the Roman Republic for all intents and purposes. The crossing of the Rubicon, then, marked the decisive moment when Caesar seized the initiative, bet it all on a daring plan, and took the step from which there was no turning back. Ever since the term has had the connotation of taking the all or nothing initiative.

On this day in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon to be a national monument. Roosevelt is famous these days for his conservationist policies, which are widely misunderstood.

During his presidency Roosevelt established a number of national monuments, created the U. S. Forest Service under the leadership of Gifford Pinchot [later Governor of Pennsylvania], and signed the "Reclamation Act of 1902" [the Newlands Act] which provided government support for irrigation projects in arid areas of the West. He further appointed an "Inland Waterways Commission" to study and manage flood control and navigation on the nation's river systems, and the National Conservation Commission, which was to oversee the rational exploitation [not the preservation] of the nation's natural resources.

Roosevelt's aim in setting out his conservation policies was not so much to "preserve" the wilderness in its pristine shape, as many of today's environmentalists would argue, but to have the government rationally manage the exploitation of natural resources.

Like all "Progressives" Roosevelt was mostly concerned with using the power of the government to rationalize and manage all aspects of American life for the common good, and that was a very different thing from today's "preservationist" movements. To give you a specific example of the difference: Roosevelt wanted the natural beauties of the parks to be accessible to all people so that they could appreciate firsthand the glories of the western environment. Today, preservationists are attempting to ban the public from many parks in order to retain their natural purity. Roosevelt and today's environmental activists represent two very different, and often opposed tendencies in American political culture.