Day By Day

Monday, January 18, 2010

This Day In History

Today is officially Martin Luther King Day honoring the memory of America's most noted civil rights leader and his vision of a color-blind society in which what mattered was the content of a man's character, not the color of his skin. We already talked about Rev. Dr. King last week on his birthday, so let's check out a couple of the other semi-official holidays that fall on this day.

Today is "National Thesaurus Day", celebrating the birth of Peter Mark Roget [1779] who compiled the first modern onomasticon [sorry, I just like using that word] in 1805. Roget's thesaurus was published commercially in 1852 and is still being sold today. As everyone knows, a thesaurus groups words according to their meaning as in:
Thesaurus: glossary, language reference book, lexicon, onomasticon, reference book, sourcebook, storehouse of words, teminology, treasury of words, vocabulary, word list.
Today is also "Winnie the Pooh Day" celebrating the birth of author A. A. Milne in 1882. Generations of children have been entertained by the adventures of Christopher Robin, Winnie, Eeyor, Piglet and all their friends. Milne was a prolific writer who produced a wide range of fiction in addition to the Pooh stories. Some of these can be accessed for free at Project Gutenberg [here]

On this day in 1949 Carlo [Charles] Ponzi died destitute in a charity ward of a Rio de Janeiro hospital. He was the inventor of the "Ponzi scheme" a swindle in which early investors are paid large returns drawn from deposits made by later investors. These "pyramid schemes" have become disturbingly common in recent years and can, as in the case of Bernie Madoff, cost investors billions of dollars when the pyramid collapses.

Entering the Building:

And on this day in 1782 Daniel Webster was born. He was never president, but for a while he was the most respected political figure in the country. By all accounts he was the greatest orator of his day. After his admission to the bar in New Hampshire he rose to prominence as a critic of the Monroe administration during the runup to the War of 1812. He was a staunch free-trader while the Republicans, from Jefferson on, had tried to use trade embargos as a diplomatic tool. Elected to Congress in 1812 he was a consistent critic of Madison's conduct of the war.

Webster's greatest early success, however, came as a legal advocate rather than as a politician. If you look at the great constitutional cases that were argued in the early years of the republic -- the ones that really defined the way the federal system would work -- Webster's name appears again and again. He argued Dartmouth College v. Woodward, McCullough v. Maryland, Cohens v. Virginia, and Gibbons v. Ogden, all of them landmark cases. His reputation as a constitutional scholar led to him being chosen as a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1820. There he further distinguished himself and began to attract national attention.

Returning to Congress in the 1820's he again was involved in a number of high-profile controversies, the most important of which was his defense of the rights of the Creek Indians against claims by the State of Georgia [which ultimately resulted in their being removed to the West] and in 1827 he was elected to the Senate, where he achieved his greatest triumphs.

In the Senate Webster abandoned his earlier defense of sectional interests and became a committed nationalist. He engaged South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne in a debate over States Rights that became one of the defining episodes in the controversy that ultimately led to the Civil War. He clashed with Andrew Jackson over the issue of the Second Bank of the United States, and was one of the founders of the Whig Party. Webster ran unsuccessfully for President three times; he was twice offered the Vice Presidency and turned it down; and he served as Secretary of State in two different administrations. As Secretary of State he negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with England that settled the country's eastern boundary. In the Senate he emerged as a leading critic of the War with Mexico. His greatest moment came in 1850 when he, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun cooperated to pass a series of laws (collectively called the "Compromise of 1850") that headed off a sectional crisis and postponed civil war for a decade. Democrats have criticized Webster as a shill for New England's commercial and manufacturing interests, but others have praised him not just as an eloquent spokesman for national unity and against slavery, but also for his role in creating the legal and legislative means for uniting the nation during its most dangerous decades. Stephen Vincent Benet described him like this:
[F]or a while, he was the biggest man in the country. He never got to be President, but he was the biggest man. There were thousands that trusted in him right next to God Almighty, and they told stories about him and all the things that belonged to him that were like the stories of'patriarchs and such. They said, when he stood up to speak, stars and stripes came right out in the sky, and once he spoke against a river and made it sink into the ground. They said, when he walked the woods with his fishing rod, Killall, the trout would jump out of the streams right into his pockets, for they knew it was no use putting up a fight against him; and, when he argued a case, he could turn on the harps of the blessed and the shaking of the earth underground.
From The Devil and Daniel Webster. You can read the whole thing online here. Go ahead, check it out, you'll enjoy it.

Also born on this day Archibald Alexander Leach [1904]. You probably know him better under his stage name of Cary Grant. As a boy he performed on the stage under his birth name, but when he began to have some success he changed it to Cary Lockwood. When he finally broke into films the studios made him change it again, to Cary Grant, so that he would have the same initials as Clark Gable [at least that was the rumor].