January 15, 1919 Great Molasses Flood

“Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in MoscowRoger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile on May 6, 1954, with an official time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is recorded as the fastest man who ever lived. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters at an average 23.35 mph from a standing start, and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 markers at an average 27.79 mph.

I suppose it would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses, in January.

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated a large molasses storage tank at 529 Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston. Fifty feet tall and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons, about 14,000 tons of the sweet stuff, awaiting transfer to the Purity plant in Cambridge.

It had been cold earlier in the month, but on January 15, it was a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

If you’d been there at about 12:30, the first sound you might have heard was a rumble, like the sound of a distant train. The next sound was like that of a machine gun, as rivets popped and the two sides of the metal tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40′ high down the street at 35 miles per hour,bostonmolassesdisaster smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from their foundations. Horses, wagons, and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people as the brown flood sped across the North End. Twenty municipal workers were eating lunch in a nearby city building when they were swept away, parts of the building thrown fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen alive.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water, but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as molasses, acts very differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear”, in response to pressure. You do not propel yourself through non-Newtonian fluid, the stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps is swimming out of all that gunk.

The Boston Post reported “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”.

molasses-plaqueIn 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people, and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first rescuers on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims, while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

It was four days before the search was called off for additional victims. The total cleanup was estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

It was probably a combination of factors that caused the tank to rupture. Construction was poor from the beginning. Locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from the drippings down the outside of the thing, which was leaking so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

This was only the 6th or 7th time the tank had been filled to capacity, and the rising temperatures almost surely helped to build up gas pressure inside the structure. The Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition, was being passed in Washington the following day, to take effect the following year. I’m sure that distillers were producing as much hooch as they could while it was still legal. molly-molasses

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park, featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and bocce courts. The Boston Duck Tours DUKW’s regularly visit the place with their amphibious vehicles, especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on its side.


January 14, 1699 Witches

On January 14, 1699, Massachusetts observed a day of fasting for wrongly persecuting the “witches” of the earlier period

In 1692, a series of “witch trials” took place in the area now occupied by Danvers, Ipswich, Andover and Salem, Massachusetts.

The familiar version of the story begins with a slave named Tituba, often described as being black or of mixed race, though court documents from her trial describe her as “Indian woman, servant.”  5 men and 14 women were hanged as witches on Gallows Hill, as many as 17 more dying in the tiny, freezing stone compartments that passed for jail cells. One man, 81 year old Giles Cory, was “pressed” to death over two full days, as rocks were heaped on his chest to extract his “confession”.  Knowing that his possessions were forfeit to his tormentors should he confess, his only response was “more weight”.

Courts of “Oyer and Terminer” (to hear and determine) were disbanded by Governor Sir salem-witch-trialsWilliam Phipps, somewhere around the time when his own wife was accused of witchcraft.  This is the story as it’s commonly told, but the real origin of the late 17th century witchcraft hysteria started in Boston, four years earlier.

The conflict which took place in Ireland between 1641 and 1653 pitted native Irish Catholics against English and Scottish Protestant colonists, and their supporters.  Over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 sold as slaves during this period, while Ireland’s population fell from 1,500,000 to 600,000 in a single decade. By the mid 1600s, the Irish constituted most of the slaves sold to the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Montserrat.  About 70% of the entire population of Montserrat at this time, were Irish slaves.

Goodwife Ann “Goody” Glover and her family were among these white slaves, shipped to Barbados in the 1650s during the Irish Confederate Wars.  Her husband was apparently killed in Barbados for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith, while Ann either escaped or was released, depending on which version of the story you believe.  By 1680, Ann and her daughter landed in Massachusetts, where the pair worked as housekeepers for the Boston family of John Goodwin.

In 1688, 13 year old Martha, one of the Goodwin girls, accused the younger Glover of stealing fabric.  Ann’s daughter ran out in tears, which earned Martha a rebuke from Ann Glover.  Four of the five Goodwin children soon began to writhe and carry on in a manner which would become familiar four years later.  Their doctor concluded that “nothing but a hellish Witchcraft could be the origin of these maladies.”

There was no small amount of anti-Catholic bigotry in the trial that followed. Cotton Mather, the socially and politically influential New England Puritan minister called Glover “a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholick and obstinate in idolatry.”

During interrogation, Glover supposedly told Mather that she prayed to a “host of spirits”, possibly representing Catholic saints.  Mather argued that small doll-like figures found in her home represented these spirits, which were, in fact, demons.

Glover’s Gaelic was far better than her English, and the two “Gaelic speakers” hired to translate probably made some of it up as they went along.  Most damning was Ann’s inability to complete the Lord’s Prayer.  As a Catholic, she was either unable or unwilling to complete the prayer with the Protestant doxology, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever, Amen”, which doesn’t exist in the Catholic recitation.

That proved to be the final straw.  The court convicted Goodwife Ann Glover of witchcraft and sentenced her to be hanged, the sentence carried out before a jeering crowd on November 16th, 1688.  She was the last person be hanged for witchcraft in the city of Boston.

salemwitchhangedRobert Calef, a Boston merchant who knew her, said “Goody Glover was a despised, crazy, poor old woman, an Irish Catholick who was tried for afflicting the Goodwin children. Her behavior at her trial was like that of one distracted. They did her cruel. The proof against her was wholly deficient. The jury brought her guilty. She was hung. She died a Catholick.”  After the hanging, a contemporary wrote that the crowd wanted to destroy her cat as well, “but Mr. Calef would not permit it”.

A decade after the Glover execution, Cotton Mather was still carrying on against “idolatrous Roman Catholicks.”

Goody Glover’s execution would be overshadowed by the witchcraft hysteria unfolding farther up Massachusetts’ North Shore, four years later.

Sometime in the 1830s, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne added the “W” to his name, distancing himself from his twice-great grandfather and Salem witch trial judge, John Hathorne.  None of it did a lick of good for the poor collection of oddballs and outcasts whoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA would not survive the witchcraft hysteria of 1692.

On January 14, 1699, Massachusetts observed a day of fasting for wrongly persecuting the “witches” of the earlier period.  The state formally apologized for the whole mess 258 years later, in 1957.  In 1988, 300 years to the day after her hanging, Boston City Council proclaimed November 16 as “Goody Glover Day”.   Apparently, we can’t be too hasty about these things.

January 12, 1968 The Strangest Dogfight

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam

To the extent that most of us think about aerial combat, at least the non-pilots among us, I think we envision some variation of the dog fights between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Two aircraft, bobbing and weaving through the sky, each attempting to get the other in his sights.

Manfred von Richtofen

In the real world, Manfred von Richthofen, the most prolific ace of WWI with 80 confirmed kills, was killed by a single bullet fired from the ground, while pursuing Canadian pilot Wilfred May behind Allied lines. The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died moments later, and was buried with full military honors, by his enemies.

Possibly the strangest dogfight of WWII took place on August 17, 1943, between two German long-range “Condor” maritime patrol bombers, and an American B-24D Liberator bomber in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns. It must have looked like a motocross race between cement mixers.

Stripped of armor to increase range and carrying a full load of depth charges, the American anti-submarine bomber with its 10-man crew dove out of the clouds at 1,000 feet, throttles open and machine guns firing. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber. Rear-gunners returned fire, as Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. crash landed in the water, his aircraft breaking into three pieces.the-ark

Maxwell had named his B-24 “The Ark”, explaining that “it had a lot of strange animals aboard, and I hoped it would bring us through the deluge”. It must have worked, seven out of ten crew members lived to be plucked from the water. The second Condor made it back to Bordeaux, where it crashed and burned on landing.

Surviving Liberator crew members were rescued by the British destroyer Highlander, along with three Germans from that first Condor. It was all the Highlander crew could do, to keep the soaking wet combatants apart on the decks of the destroyer.

On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, an Iraqi Mirage fighter intercepted an American EF-111, an unarmed F-111 bomber modified for radar-jamming patrol. Flying at 200′ and equipped with sophisticated terrain-following radar, the bomber was able to climb up and over hilltops, while the French-made Mirage fighter had no such systems. The last that was seen of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed his aircraft into that same hillside.

f-15eLater in the same conflict, an Iraqi Hughes 500 helicopter was taken out by bombs dropped from an American Air Force F-15E bomber. At least one Iraqi PC-7 Turboprop pilot got spooked, bailing out of a perfectly good aircraft before a shot was fired in his direction.

The strangest dogfight in history took place on January 12, 1968, when four Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes took off from their base in North Vietnam, headed west toward Laos.

Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain had long been used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800′ mountain.

CIA-operated “Air America” captain Ted Moore was flying a UH-1D Huey helicopter at the

Lima site 85, atop 5,800 Phou Pha Thi Mountain

time, carrying a load of ammunition to Phou Pha Thi. Moore arrived to see two North Vietnamese biplanes, dropping 122mm mortar shells through holes in the floor and strafing the mountaintop with 57mm rockets. “It looked like WWI,” he later recalled. Moore gave chase, positioning his helicopter above one biplane, as flight mechanic Glenn Woods fired an AK-47 rifle down from above.

Moore and Woods dropped back to the second biplane, as the first crashed into a ridge west of the North Vietnamese border. Moments later, the second crashed into a mountainside, as the other two slipped back into North Vietnamese air space. The entire chase had taken about 20 minutes.

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam.

On July 27, 2007, Air America veterans Marius Burke and Boyd Mesecher presented the CIA with “An Air Combat First”, an oil on canvas painting by Keith Woodcock, depicting the shoot-down. The event was attended by members of the Air America Board, pilot Ted Moore, wife of flight mechanic Glenn Woods Sawang Reed, CIA paramilitary veteran Bill Lair; and the painting’s donors. Presumably, the painting hangs at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A testament to the only time in the history of the Vietnam war, that an enemy fixed-wing aircraft was shot down, by a helicopter.

January 11, 1935 Amelia Earhart

The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca picked up radio messages that she was lost and low on fuel on July 2, 1937, and then she vanished

Amelia Earhart was born July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, the first surviving child of Samuel “Edwin” and Amelia “Amy” Otis Earhart. Amy didn’t believe in raising “nice little girls”, she allowed “Meeley” and her younger sister “Pidge” to live an outdoor, rough and tumble “tomboy” kind of childhood.

Edwin seems to have had life-long problems with alcohol, often resulting in an inability to provide for his family. Amelia must have been a disciplined student though, she graduated with her high school class, on time, despite attending six different schools. She was certainly independent, saying in later life that “The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune”.

Amelia saw her first airplane in 1908, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. It was a rickety old biplane and the girls’ father was trying to interest them in going for a ride.  At the time they preferred the merry-go-round, Earhart later describing the
biplane as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”

In 1919, Earhart spent time with her sister in Toronto, working as a nurse’s aid where she met several wounded aviators, just home from WWI. She developed a strong admiration for aviators, spending much of her free time watching the Royal Flying Corps practice at a nearby airfield.

A ten minute ride at a Long Beach California air show in 1920 changed her life, from that time on she knew she wanted to fly.

amelia-earhartEarhart worked at a variety of jobs from photographer to truck driver, earning money to take flying lessons from pioneer female aviator Anita “Neta” Snook. She bought a second hand Kinner Airster in 1921, a bright yellow biplane she called “The Canary”, and flew it to 14,000’ the following year, a world altitude record for female pilots.

Lack of funds grounded her for a time, but she was flying out of the Dennison Airport in Quincy Massachusetts by 1927. She invested in the airport and worked as a salesman for Kinner airplanes in the Boston area, all while writing about flying in the local newspaper, soon becoming a local celebrity.

Charles Lindbergh’s New York to Paris Flight on May 20-21 of that year was the first solo, non-stop transatlantic crossing by airplane. Aviatrix Amy Phipps Guest wanted to be the first woman to make the flight, but later decided it was too dangerous. Instead she would sponsor the trip, provided they found “another girl with the right image”.

Now nicknamed “Lady Lindy”, Earhart became the first woman to make the solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic on May 21, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh.

Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California on this day, January 11, 1935.

Two years later, Earhart and copilot/navigator Frederick J. Noonan attempted to fly around the world. The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca picked up radio messages that she was lost anddaily-news-earhart low on fuel on July 2, 1937, and then she vanished. The four million dollar search and rescue effort which followed was the most expensive in history, but to no avail. Earhart and Noonan were never seen again.

For years, the prevailing theory has been that Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra ran out of fuel and plunged into the Pacific. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has been exploring a 1½ mile long, uninhabited tropical atoll called Nikumaroro, in the southwestern Pacific Republic of Kiribati. After eleven visits to the atoll, TIGHAR sonar images revealed a straight, unbroken anomaly under the sand, remarkably consistent with the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra. nikumaroro-atoll

TIGHAR has re-examined 120 known reports of radio signals which could have been sent from the Earhart aircraft between July 2 and July 18, the day the official search was called off.  They’ve concluded that 47 of them are credible. The remains of a very old campfire has been discovered on the island, along with a 1930s-vintage clothing zipper, bone-handled pocket knife of the type Earhart was known to carry, and a jar of a once-popular anti-freckle cream.  13 human bones have been discovered which may belong to a white female, around the same age and height as Earhart was when she disappeared in 1937.

What was then Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, is no tropical island paradise.  There is no fresh water and daytime temperatures exceed 100° Fahrenheit in July. Its only inhabitants are Birgus latro, commonly known as the coconut crab. Also known as the coconut-crabrobber crab or palm thief, Birgus latro is the largest terrestrial hermit crab in the world, weighing up to 9lbs and measuring over 3′ from leg tip to leg tip.

The adult coconut crab feeds on fruits, nuts, seeds, and the pith of fallen trees, but will eat carrion or just about anything else if given the chance. It’s anyone’s guess how the two aviators spent the last hours of their lives, or who it was who lit that fire or left those bones. Looking at the size of these things, it’s not difficult to imagine why there are only 13.

January 9, 1492 Mermaid Sighting

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone who stood against them.  The conquered peoples described the period differently.  Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said  “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during mongol-warriorsthe 13th and 14th century.  The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connecting Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east.  Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes.  It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end.  Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century.  After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible.   Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

toscanelli-mapIt’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth.  The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong.  In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands.  He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China).  Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether. This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486.  At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492.  The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.mermaid

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months.  Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, when Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”.  “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology.  These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

mermaid-manateeColumbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder.  These marine herbivores measure 10’ to 13′ from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.  Not everyone was quite so dismissive.  A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure.  I think it’s possible that ol’ John Smith needed to get out a little more.manatee

January 8, 1790 State of the Union

In the electronic age, the media business model depends on the ability to rent an audience to a sponsor. The SOTU is usually go-to programming, but not always

Article II, Section 3 of the United Sates Constitution requires of the President that: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”. While the language is nonspecific, the President traditionally makes his report sometime in late January or early February.

george_washingtonOn January 8, 1790, a joint session of Congress gathered to receive the first such address. It wasn’t where you might think. A mob of angry soldiers had converged on Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1783, demanding payment for their service in the Revolution. The Congress fled Pennsylvania all the way to New York.  It wouldn’t be until July 6 of 1790 that Congress passed the Residence Act, placing the permanent seat of the Federal Government on the “River Potomack”. For the time being, the government was conducting its business in Federal Hall, built in 1700 as New York City Hall.

President George Washington delivered that first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress, but Thomas Jefferson ended the practice in 1801, considering it “too monarchical”. Instead, he wrote his annual message and sent it to Congress where it was read by a clerk, starting a tradition which would last for over 112 years.

Woodrow Wilson delivered the message himself in 1913, re-establishing the old practice inwoodrow_wilson spite of initial criticism.

Today we call it the “State of the Union”, but that term didn’t come around until Franklin Roosevelt used it in 1934. In prior years, it was “the President’s Annual Message to Congress”.

Most of the Presidents who followed would deliver the message in person, though not all. 1981 was an inauguration year and the last of three when we had two SOTUs: Jimmy Carter’s written address, and the personal State of the Union address from the incoming President, Ronald Reagan. The first two were 1953 with the transition from the Truman Presidency to that of Eisenhower, and the Eisenhower/Kennedy transition of 1961.

Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting President to address the Congress at night, when he asked for the declaration that brought us into WWI. President Roosevelt set a precedent in 1936 when he delivered the SOTU address at night, and it’s been a nighttime event ever since.

harry_trumanCalvin Coolidge’s 1923 address was the first to be broadcast on radio, and Harry S. Truman’s 1947 State of the Union was the first to be broadcast on television. Bill Clinton’s 1997 SOTU was the first to be broadcast live on the internet.

For a time, television networks imposed a time limit on the address. That ended with Lyndon Johnson’s SOTU in 1968, the first address followed by extensive commentary, provided by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Milton Friedman, among others.

The 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster forced President Reagan to postpone his State of the Union for a week, the first time the address had ever been so postponed.

In the electronic age, the media business model depends on the ability to rent an audience to a sponsor.  The SOTU is usually go-to programming, but not always.  In 1997, Bill Clinton prepared to deliver his State of the Union, as a California jury delivered the verdict in OJ’s civil trial.  Coverage decisions must have made media executives pull their hair out.  Lucky for them, the verdict came in just as Clinton was finishing up.  CBS, ABC and CNN stayed with the President’s address.  NBC did likewise, while its cable affiliate MSNBC switched to the verdict.  At least one CBS affiliate split the screen and showed both.

It’s customary for at least one cabinet member to act as “designated survivor”, remaining away from the address in case some catastrophic event takes out the President along with the first three in line of succession: the Vice President, Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate. Since the Islamist terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, a few members of Congress are asked to stay away as well. These few are relocated to an undisclosed location where they would form the nucleus of a “rump congress”, in case of some unforeseen and catastrophic disaster.

When now-President Elect Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address, he will preside over a fiscal operating debt of $19.95 Trillion, $1.03 Trillion higher than the day Barack Obama delivered his last and $8.9 Trillion higher than his first.  My fellow pachyderms are so fond of talking about fiscal responsibility.  I’d hope this first Republican President in eight years will talk about unplugging the national ATM from our kids’ credit cards, and putting an end to this generational theft.  Or at least slowing it down, but I’m not holding my breath.


January 4, 1642 The Great Rebellion

Agree or disagree with US war policy, what we do in this country we do as a nation. It would seem absurd to us to see the President and the Congress raise separate armies to go to war with one another

Agree or disagree with US war policy, what we do in this country we do as a nation.  It would seem absurd to us to see the President and the Congress raise separate armies to go to war with one another, but that’s just what happened in 17th century England.

Queen Elizabeth I passed away without issue in 1603, succeeded by her first cousin, twice

Elizabeth I

removed, King James VI of Scotland.  For the first time, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united under single rule.

The English Parliament of the age didn’t have a permanent role in government, instead being a temporary advisory body, summoned and dismissed at the will of the King.  Practically speaking, the King had no means to enforce his will on matters of taxation, without the consent of the “gentry”, the untitled land owning classes who were the primary means of national tax collection.  This gave rise to an elected “House of Commons”, joining the House of Lords to form a Parliament.

James thought of Kings as “little Gods on Earth”, and had long gotten whatever he wanted from a supine Scottish Parliament.  The English Parliament was another matter.  James’ entire reign and that of his son Charles I was one long contest of wills with the English governing body.

The Three Faces of Charles I

Charles’ 1625 marriage to a Roman Catholic, French princess Henrietta Maria, did little to win him support in Protestant England.  His interventionist policies in the 30 years’ war made things worse, ending with Parliament bringing impeachment proceedings against his minister, the Duke of Buckingham.  Parliament drew up the “Petition of Right”, invoking the Magna Carta and severely limiting the King’s right of non-Parliamentary taxation, along with other restrictions on the Royal Prerogative.  Charles looked to the House of Lords to check the power of the Commons, but both houses ratified the measure by the end of May.

The King dissolved this first Parliament in 1629, putting nine of its leaders in prison and unwittingly making them martyrs for their cause.  The following 11 years are sometimes called “the personal rule” or the “eleven years’ tyranny”.  Charles had severe money problems by 1640, forcing him to call another Parliament.   The King wanted a more docile body this time, so he appointed many of his adversaries as Sheriffs, knowing that this would require them to stay within their counties, making them ineligible for election.  To others he bestowed aristocratic titles, making them ineligible for the House of Commons.  Of course, that only moved them to the House of Lords.

What the King saw as reasonable, the legislative body saw as opportunity to negotiate, and this “Short Parliament” was dissolved within a month.  That was May 1640, and Charles once again called a Parliament in November.  This was to be his “Long Parliament”, proving as uncooperative as any before it.

Lenthall kneels to Charles during the attempted arrest of the Five Members

In January, Charles directed Parliament to surrender five members of the Commons and one Peer on grounds of high treason.  On the following day, January 4, 1642, the King himself entered the House of Commons with an armed guard of 400, demanding that the offenders be handed over.  The Speaker, William Lenthall, replied, “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”  He might as well have told the King “I work for these people.  I don’t work for you”.

It was a grave breach of protocol, no King had ever entered the House of Commons.  Making things worse, the botched arrest had cut the feet out from under Charles’ supporters.  The two sides began to arm themselves that summer.  Full-scale civil war broke out that October.

The son of a Royalist is questioned by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, in “And when did you last see your father?” by William Frederick Yeames

What’s been variously described as one or two separate civil wars ensued, in which 300,000, 6% of the country’s population or roughly twice the percentage lost in the American Civil War, lost their lives.  A “Rump” House of Commons indicted the King on treason charges, in a trial which was never recognized by the upper house.  Charles maintained that he was above the law, while the court argued that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise”. Execution of Charles I

Charles I was found guilty of treason and sentenced to die by decapitation.   Clothed in two shirts by his own request, lest any shiver of cold be misinterpreted as a sign of fear, the King of England put his head on the block on January 30, 1649.  “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things,” he said. “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be”.  With that, he extended his hands to signal he was ready, and his head was parted with a stroke.

The Rump House of Commons disbanded the House of Lords and England was briefly governed as a Commonwealth, but Charles soon came to be seen as a Martyr King.  Oliver Cromwell established a Protectorate with himself as Lord Protector.  He was briefly succeeded by his son on his death in 1658, but the son was not the equal of his father.  Parliament was reinstated and the monarchy restored to Charles’ eldest son, who became Charles II in 1660.billofrights

In the American colonies, Charles II renamed a slice of southern Virginia after his father “Carolus”, the Latin for Charles, and North and South Carolina were born. The Petition of Right would pop up 129 years later, reflected in the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh amendments of the United States’ Constitution, part of what we now know as the Bill of Rights.