September 10, 1813 We Have Met the Enemy, and They are Ours

The war of 1812 was fought in a series of land and sea battles along three fronts: The Atlantic Ocean & East Coast, the Southern States, and the Great Lakes & Canadian Frontier.


In June 1812, neither the United States nor the British Empire were prepared for war. Most of the British war machine was busy with a “Little Corporal” whose “Waterloo” lay two years into in an uncertain future.  

The Fledgling United States had only just disbanded the National Bank and now had no means of paying for war, while private northeastern bankers were reluctant to provide financing.

Support for the War of 1812 was bitterly divided, between the Democratic-Republicans of President James Madison, and the Federalist strongholds of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Of the six New England states, New Hampshire alone complied with President Madison’s requests for state militia.

War-of-1812-Hartford-Convention-2
William Charles certoon, satirizing Thomas Pickering and the radical secessionist movement discussed at the Hartford Convention. H/T Smithsonian Magazine, for the image

It may have been the most unpopular war in United States’ history.  Much of New England threatened to secede, their position bolstered by the sack of Washington in August, 1814.

New England may have followed through with secession following the Hartford Convention of 1814, had not the Federalist position been made risible by future President Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

Hartford Convention delegates ended with a formal report, resolutions from which would resurface decades later in a doctrine we know as nullification.

Opposition to America’s first declared war was vehement, and often bloody.  Four days after it began, the office of the Baltimore Federal Republican newspaper was burned to the ground by an angry mob, infuriated by the anti-war editorials of Alexander Contee Hanson.

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Tip of the hat to historiograffiti, for this image

Hanson reopened his paper a month later, shielded by Revolutionary War veterans James Lingan and “Lighthorse Harry Lee”, father of Civil War General Robert E. Lee. The armed protection did him little good. Another mob formed within hours, this time torturing and severely beating Hanson, Lignan and Lee, before leaving them for dead.

James Lignan died of his injuries. Hanson recovered and went on to serve in the House of Representatives. Lee survived the beating but remained partially blind from hot wax poured into his eyes by the mob.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake claimed 200 years later, that, “Our city has a long history of peaceful demonstrations.”  With all due respect to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore has been known as “Mobtown”, for at least that long.

The war of 1812 was fought in a series of land and sea battles along three fronts: The Atlantic Ocean & East Coast, the Southern States, and the Great Lakes & Canadian Frontier.

The British Navy had virtually unchallenged control of the Great Lakes in 1812, with several warships already on station. The only American warship on Lake Erie was the brig USS Adams, pinned down in Detroit and not yet fitted for service.

War of 1812

Detroit fell almost immediately and remained in British hands for over a year. The Adams was captured along with the town and renamed “HMS Detroit”.

Meanwhile, Americans captured an English brig, the Caledonia, and acquired three civilian vessels, the schooners Somers and Ohio and the sloop-rigged Trippe. All four were converted into warships, which Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry had towed by oxen up the Niagara River. The operation which took six days. Once in Lake Erie they sailed down the coast to Presque Isle, on the Pennsylvania coast.

Chesapeake Bay and Pittsburgh foundries produced guns and fittings, while two more warships were ordered built at Presque Isle. Meanwhile, Perry drafted 50 experienced sailors from USS Constitution, then undergoing refit in Boston Harbor.

Presque Isle, Pennsylvania
Presque Isle, Pennsylvania

The American squadron was almost complete by mid-July, but there was a problem. The sand bar at the mouth of Presque Isle Bay is only 5-feet deep. This sand bar kept the British blockade at bay, with a little help from 2,000 Pennsylvania militia and several shore batteries. Once ready though, American ships had to contend with the same obstacle.

British Commander Robert Heriot Barclay was forced to lift his blockade on July 29, due to a supply shortage and bad weather. Perry immediately began the exhausting process of moving his vessels across the sandbar. Guns had to be removed, the larger boats raised between “camels”:  barges lashed together and emptied of ballast to lift the ships high in the water. When Barclay returned four days later, he found the Americans had nearly completed the task.

What followed was one of history’s great head fakes. Naval warfare in the age of sail was typically conducted by two parallel lines of ships, pounding one another with cannon until one side could no longer take the punishment. Perry’s largest brigs were unready when the British fleet returned, yet the American gunboats formed into line of battle so quickly and with such confidence, that Barclay withdrew to await completion of HMS Detroit.

Put-In-Bay

Perry’s fleet established anchorage at Put-in-Bay on the Ohio coast. It was there that Barclay’s fleet came for them on September 10.

Battle lines converged outside the harbor shortly after 11:00am. Perry’s flagship USS Lawrence took a savage beating, the longer guns of HMS Detroit having 20 minutes to do their work before Lawrence could effectively reply.

Imacon Color Scanner
Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell, painted 1865, shows Oliver Hazard Perry transferring from Lawrence to Niagara

HMS Queen Charlotte added her gunfire to that of Detroit. Soon the American flagship was a wreck, with 80% casualties. Perry transferred his flag and rowed to the USS Niagara half a mile away, the brig being almost unscathed in the action, up to this point.

Damaged masts and rigging on the British side resulted in collision between Detroit and Queen Charlotte. They were still snarled up as Niagara broke through the British line, pounding them with broadsides from 18 32-pounder carronades and two 12-pounder long guns. Smaller English ships attempted to flee but were quickly overtaken.

U.S. Brig Niagara
Brig USS Niagara, 2013

That afternoon American and English vessels, the latter now prizes of war, were anchored with hasty repairs already underway. Oliver Hazard Perry took an old envelope and scrawled his now famous message to future President William Henry Harrison. “Dear General, We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry“.

Niagara remains in service to this day, a Coast Guard sail trainer and outdoor exhibit for the Erie Maritime Museum.  One of the last surviving ships, from the War of 1812.

September 9, 490BC Marathon

It has been said that western culture stands with one foot in Athens and the other, in Jerusalem. The stakes of what was about to happen on the beaches at Marathon, are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of western civilization hung in the balance.

King Darius I, third King of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   200 years before the classical age of Greece, several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea.

Achaemenid_Empire
Achaemenid Empire

The year was 499BC and this “Ionian Revolt” lasted, until 493BC.  Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Every night before dinner according to Herodotus, Darius required one of his servants three times, to say to him “Master, remember the Athenians“.

Darius
Darius I

The Persian “King of Kings” sent emissaries to the Greek city states demanding gifts of earth and water, signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother with a trial.  They threw the ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they called down. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire.

25 centuries ago, Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea.   A force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica, fetching up in a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

Pheidippides

An army of 9,000-10,000 hoplites (armored infantry) marched out of Athens under the leadership of ten Athenian Strategoi (Generals), to face the 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry of the Persians.  The Athenian force was soon joined by a full muster of 1,000 Plataean hoplites, while Athens’ swiftest runner Pheidippides was dispatched to Lacedaemon, for help.

The festival of Carneia was underway at this time, a sacrosanct religious occasion during which the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) army would not fight, under any circumstance.   Sparta would be unavailable until the next full moon, on September 9.  With 136 miles to Marathon, Spartan reinforcement was unlikely to arrive for a week or more.

The Athenian force arrived at the Plain of Marathon around September 7, blocking the Persian route into the interior.

Facing a force more than twice as large their own, ten Greek Generals split 5 to 5 whether to risk battle.

Greco Persian

A “Polemarch” is an Athenian civil dignitary, with full voting rights in military matters.  General Miltiades, who enjoyed a degree of deference due to his experience fighting Persians, went to the Polemarch Callimachus, for the deciding vote.

The stakes of what was about to come are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of western civilization hung in the balance.

Athens itself stood defenseless, with every warrior here on the plain of Marathon. Miltiades spoke.  ‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided.  Half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

With less than a mile between them, the two armies had faced one another for five days and five nights.  On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

Marathon Charge

Weighed down with 70lbs per man of bronze and leather armor, the Greek line likely marched out to 200 yards, the effective range of Persian archers.  Greek heavy infantry closed the last 200 meters at a dead run, the first time a Greek army had fought that way.

Persian shafts flew by the thousands, yet the heavy armor and wooden shields of the hoplite formation, held.  Bristling with arrows yet seemingly unhurt, the Greek phalanx smashed into the Persian adversary, like an NFL front line into an “Antifa” mob.

Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire, describes the impact.  “The enemy directly in their path … realized to their horror that [the Athenians], far from providing the easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had first imagined, were not going to be halted … The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of fighting in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze … in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crash of metal into flesh and bone; then the rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering … could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze“.

Darius’ force was routed, driven across the beach and onto waiting boats.  6,400 Persians lay dead in the sand. An unknown number were chased into coastal swamps, and drowned.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Marathon Battle

In the popular telling of this story, Pheidippides ran the 25 miles to Athens and announced the victory with the single word “Nenikēkamen!” (We’ve won!”), and dropped dead.

That version first appeared in the writings of Plutarch, some 500 years later.  It made for a good story for the first Olympic promoters too, back in 1896, but that’s not the way it happened.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described by no less a figure than Cicero as the “Father of History”, tells us that Pheidippides was already spent.  No wonder.  The man had run 140 miles from Athens to Lacedaemon, to ask for Spartan assistance.

Despite the exhaustion of battle and the weight of all that armor, the Athenian host marched the 25 miles back home, arriving in time to head off the Persian fleet.  The Spartans arrived at Marathon the following day, having covered 136 miles in three days.

Though a great victory for the Greeks, Darius’ loss at Marathon barely put a dent in the vast resources of the Achaemenid Empire.  The Persian King, would return.

September 8, (est) 480BC The Battle of Thermopylae

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill where the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

In 490BC, the Persian King Darius I sent an amphibious expedition into the Aegean, only to be defeated by a far smaller force of Athenians at the Bay of Marathon.

As Achaemenid Emperor, leader of the most powerful state of his time, King Darius I was sovereign over 21 million square miles and more.  He had more to deal with than a handful of malcontents in the Peloponnese.  At the moment, Darius had an Egyptian revolt to put down, but the “King of Kings’” would be back.  He had a score to settle with the Greeks.   King Darius died before he was through, so it was that the Persian King Xerxes would return to finish what his father had begun, ten years before.

In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state.  De facto military leaders of the Greek alliance, the Spartans were then celebrating the religious festival of Carneia.  Lacedaemonian law forbade military activity at this time, the same reason the Spartans had shown up late at Marathon, ten years earlier.  

Spartan leaders went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for advice.

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The Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi was a seer, usually selected from among epileptics, as the Greeks believed seizures were evidence that the sufferer was in touch with the Gods. A careful ritual was observed, before the Priestess would speak.  First she would bathe in the Castalian Spring, before drinking from another stream. A priest would then pour ice water over a goat, to determine the presence of Apollo. The goat’s shivering was understood to indicate that the God was present, and that he had invested his powers in the Oracle. If the signs were fortuitous, the Oracle would then inhale the gas emitted from a chasm near the temple.  With volcanic gasses rising from the ground beneath her, the “Pythia” would then mount to the Tripod.  Only then would she speak.

Priestess of Delphi
Oracle at the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

“Hear your fate”, said the oracle, “O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces.  Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons, or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles. For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him, strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus, and will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.”

For King Leonidas of Sparta, the meaning was clear.  He himself would have to die to fulfill the Oracle’s prophesy.

Leonidas gathered a small blocking force of 300 Spartan Peers, all of them “Sires”. This was understood to be a suicide mission. Leonidas wanted only those warriors who would leave behind, a son.

Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC, but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.  Thermopylae.

Thermopylae topo

The 300 marched out at the head of an allied army of 7,000, to meet a Persian horde modern estimates put at 100,000 to 150,000. A native of Trachis told the Spartan General Dienekes, that Persian archers were so numerous their arrows would block out the sun. “Good”, replied the general. “Then we shall fight in the shade”.

When the overwhelming Persian army demanded the Spartans lay down their arms, Leonidas’ response was short and sweet.  “Molon Labe”, he said.  Come and get them.

The two armies collided on or about the 8th of September, 480BC.  Thermopylae, a mountain pass delineated by the Phocian Wall on one side and the Aegean Sea on the other, measured the width of two carts abreast, negating the Persian numerical advantage. Great piles of Persian dead choked the pass by the end of the 9th. Nothing that Xerxes could throw at the Greek heavy infantry could break their phalanx.

A traitor to his people then rose among the local population, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.

Thermopylae

Knowing he was betrayed and would soon be surrounded, Leonidas sent most of the allied soldiers away.  They would be needed for the battle yet to come.

On day three, King Leonidas was left with his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans.  True to form, the Theban band defected en masse to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity.  Still, the hordes of Xerxes were unable to break through the Greek line, even on two fronts.  They backed off and rained down arrows from a distance, until no Greek was left standing.

Artemisium devolved into a meaningless stalemate, and yet the Greek alliance had demonstrated itself more than capable of standing up to the mightiest empire of its time.   Athens, lacking the manpower to fight simultaneously on land and at sea, abandoned their city to be burned to the ground.  The regrouped Greek Navy crushed the Persians at Salamis.  The last Persian invader was driven off the Greek mainland the following August, following Greek victory at a place called Plataea.

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill where the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

battlefield-of-thermopylae

September 7, 70 The Jewish-Roman Wars

Built under the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC, Solomon’s Temple was the first holy temple in ancient Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic sources the temple stood on part of the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Zion, for 410 years, before being sacked and burned to the ground by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BC.


Built under the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC, Solomon’s Temple was the first holy temple in ancient Jerusalem.  According to Rabbinic sources the temple stood on part of the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Zion, for 410 years, before being sacked and burned to the ground by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BC.Solomons TempleSo important is this event to the Jewish people that it is commemorated still as the saddest day of the Jewish calendar.  A day of fasting and mourning known as Tisha B’Av.

A second temple was built on the site in 516BC, and expanded during the reign of Herod the Great. This second temple stood until the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70AD, falling according to Jewish tradition, on the same day as the first temple.

The first Roman involvement with the Kingdom of Judea came in 67BC.  The client Kingdom of the Herodian Dynasty became a Roman Province in the year 6AD.

Long standing religious disputes erupted into a full scale Jewish revolt in 66. Thousands of Jews were executed in Jerusalem and the second temple plundered, resulting in the Battle of Beth Horon in which a Syrian Legion was destroyed by Jewish rebels. The future emperor Vespasian appointed his son Titus as second in command, entering Judea in 67 at the head of four legions of Roman troops.

Arch_of_Titus_Menorah
“Depiction of the Roman triumph celebrating the Sack of Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The procession features the Menorah and other vessels taken from the Second Temple”. H/T Wikipedia

A three year off and on siege followed, with Vespasian being recalled to Rome in 69 to become Emperor. The Great Jewish Revolt was now Titus’ war.

The Jewish historian Josephus acted as intermediary throughout much of the siege, though his impartiality has been questioned since he was both friend and adviser to Titus. At one point Josephus entered the city to negotiate but later fled, wounded by an arrow in a surprise attack which almost caught Titus himself.

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, Oil on canvas by David Roberts, 1850

A brutal siege of Jerusalem followed through most of the year 70, in which Jewish Zealots burned their own food supply, forcing defenders to “Fight to the End”. During the final stages, Zealots following John of Giscala still held the Temple, while a splinter group called the Sicarii (literally, “Dagger Men”), led by Simon Bar Giora, held the upper part of the city. The Second Temple, one of the last fortified bastions of the rebellion, was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, July 29 or 30, 70AD. By September 7 the Roman army under Titus had fully occupied and plundered all of Jerusalem.

Masada
Mountain fortress of Masada. Note the siege ramp to the right, by which the besieging force gained access to the top. The Romans built that.

The first Jewish-Roman war would last another three years culminating in the Roman siege of the mountain fortress of Masada, in which defenders committed mass suicide in April 73 rather than being conquered by the Romans.

There would be two more Jewish-Roman wars:  Kitos War (115–117), sometimes called the “Rebellion of the Exile”, and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 through 135. The wars had a cataclysmic impact on the Jewish people, the resulting diaspora changing a major Eastern Mediterranean population into a scattered and persecuted minority. The Jewish people would not reestablish a major presence in the Levant until the constitution of the State of Israel, in 1948.

Emperor Justinian built a Christian church in the 530s on the ruins of the Second Temple, which was burned to the ground by Sassanid Emperor Khosrau II early in the 7th century. The Umayyad Caliphate built the “Farthest”, or “al-Aqsa” mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the site, following the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 637.  Islamic authorities have ruled over the city ever since, with the exception of an 88-year period following the First Crusade, 1099-1187.

old-city

The Jerusalem Islamic “Waqf”, a religious trust acting as civil administrators for the “Haram esh-Sharif” ( “The Noble Sanctuary”), or “Temple Mount” to Christians and Jews.  Currently supported by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Waqf has held administrative authority over the holy sites of Jerusalem since the Muslim reconquest of the city in 1187.  Israel recaptured the old city after the 6-day war in 1967, when they informed Waqf authorities that it would be allowed ongoing control over the old parts of the city.

An uneasy status quo remains to this day, with Israel maintaining “overall sovereignty” and the Muslim authorities maintaining “religious sovereignty”, over the Old City of Jerusalem.  .9 square kilometers walled up within the modern city, the Old City is home to some of the most religiously significant sites on the planet: the Temple Mount and Western Wall for Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, for Muslims.

September 6, (est) 1673 A Locker Room Joke

On or about this day in 1673, Father Marquette asked the Chief of the Peoria about another tribe living down the river.

Marquette_Joliet

On May 17, 1673, Father Jacques Marquette set out with the 27-year old fur trader Louis Joliet to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi River.

The voyage established the possibility of water travel from Lake Huron to the Gulf of Mexico, helping to initiate the first white settlements in the North American interior and bestowing French names on places from La Crosse to New Orleans.

Relations with natives were mostly peaceful at this time, as several tribes jockeyed for advantage in the lucrative French fur trade.

Marquette Joliet Route

On or about this day in 1673, Father Marquette asked the Chief of the Peoria about another tribe living down the river.

Having no desire to share such a privileged position, the chief indicated that those people down the river…they didn’t amount to much. Don’t even bother. The chief called the group “Moingoana”, a name later transliterated into French as “Des Moines”.

Marquette was expert by this time, in several native dialects. Even so, the chief may have indulged himself in a little gag at the expense of the priest. The Miami-Illinois language is extinct today, but linguists suggest that Moingoana may derive from “mooyiinkweena”, translating if I may be polite, as, “those excrement-faces.”

Marquette and Joliet didn’t discover the Mississippi River, Native Americans had been there, for thousands of years. The Spanish explorer Hernan DeSoto had crossed the “Father of Waters” 100 years before. What they did was to establish the feasibility of travel from the Great Lakes, to the Gulf of Mexico. Armed with this information French officials led by the explorer LaSalle would erect a 4000-mile system of trading posts nearly exterminating every fur-bearing mammal in the upper Midwest and permanently altering indigenous cultures, along the way.

As for Des Moines there are alternate explanations of where the name comes from. They are much to be preferred I’m sure, by residents of the Hawkeye state. Even so it’s just possible Father Marquette had one put over on him that day, in 1673. That perhaps the Capital City of Iowa bears the name, of a 350-year-old locker room joke.

September 5, 1698 Death and Taxes

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

It’s been said there are only two sure things in life. None of us get out of here alive, and the government thinks it’s entitled to what you earn. Or something like that.

There have always been taxes, but over the years some governments have come up with truly imaginative ways to fleece their citizens.

European Broadcasting
H/T Wikipedia

Twenty-eight countries around the world have a “Telly Tax” paid in the form of a broadcast receiving license.  There’s good news though, the British government will waive half of it, if you can prove you’re legally blind.

This is in addition to the council tax, income tax, fuel tax, road tax, value added tax, pasty tax, national insurance, business rates, stamp duty, and about a thousand other taxes. But hey, the health care is free.

Tennessee passed a “Crack Tax” on illegal drugs in 2005, which drug dealers were expected to pay anonymously in exchange for a tax stamp (don’t ask). The measure was found unconstitutional in 2009, on grounds that it violated the drug dealer’s fifth amendment right to protection from self-incrimination.

Milwaukee attorney Robert Henak became a collector of state drug tax stamps, not long after helping to overturn Wisconsin’s crack tax on similar grounds.

a97318_g201_3-crack-tax

Undeterred, then-Governor Elliott Spitzer proposed a tax on illegal drugs as part of the Empire State’s 2008-’09 budget, making New York the 30th state to pass such a measure. “Mr. Clean” stepped down in a hooker scandal, amid threats of impeachment by state lawmakers. The state Senate passed a budget resolution the following day, specifically rejecting the crack tax.

Massachusetts will charge you a “meals tax” on five donuts, but not 6. Good to know, next time you want to plow into a box of donuts in one sitting.

Illinois taxes candy at a higher rate than food. Any item containing flour or requiring refrigeration is taxed at the lower rate, because it’s not candy. So, yogurt covered raisins are candy, but yogurt covered pretzels are food. Baby Ruth bars are candy, but Twix bars are food. Get it? Neither do I.

tax-this-cow1

New Zealand proposed a tax on bovine flatulence in 2003, to curb “Global Warming”. The fuss raised by New Zealand farmers over a tax on cow farts, was near-measurable on the Richter scale.  Red-faced politicians quietly dropped the proposal.

President Obama levied a 10% tax on indoor tanning in 2010, leading to 10,000 of the nation’s 18,000 tanning salons closing, with a loss of 100,000 jobs. The measure may actually have had a net negative effect on treasury proceeds.

Bricked up window

In 1662, King Charles II levied a tax on fireplaces.  Britons hurried to brick up fireplaces to avoid the hearth tax, preferring to shiver rather than pay up.  The village baker in Churchill in Oxfordshire knocked out the wall from her oven to avoid the tax and, unsurprisingly, burned the whole village down.

The idea worked so swell that England introduced a property tax in 1696, based on the number of windows in your home. Homeowners bricked up windows to avoid the tax, leaving them ready to be re-bricked and glazed, should such an opportunity ever arise.

The English government repealed a window tax in 1851 and France in 1926, but you can still find homes with bricked up windows. Perhaps they’re getting ready for window tax version 2.0. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne proposed just that, as recently as 2012.

a97318_g201_1-flush-tax

In 2004, the Maryland Legislature passed a monthly fee on sewer bills, ostensibly to protect the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic tributaries. You pee, you poo, you pay. The fee doubled in 2012, the year in which Governor Martin O’Malley signed a tax – on rain.

At one point, Holland levied a tax on the width of homes. Not surprisingly, the skinniest house in the world can be found at Singel 7, in Amsterdam. It’s a meter across, barely wider than its own door.

By all means tat yourself up if you like. Just don’t do it in Arkansas where tattoos, body piercings and electrolysis is subjected to a 6% sales tax.

On September 5, 1698, Czar Peter I was just returned from a trip to Europe, hot to “modernize” the Russian empire. All those European guys were clean shaven, so Peter introduced a tax on beards.

Beard_token

When you paid your beard tax of 100 Rubles, (peasants and clergy were exempt), you had to carry a “beard token”. Two phrases were inscribed on the coin: “The beard tax has been taken” and “The beard is a superfluous burden”. Failure to shave or pay the tax might lead to your beard being forcibly cut off your face. Some unfortunates had theirs pulled out by the roots, by Peter himself.

An anti-religious man and a Big fan of Voltaire and the secular humanist philosophers, ol’ Pete passed a tax on souls in 1718, joining the Russian levy on beehives, horse collars, hats, boots, basements, chimneys, food, clothing, all males, birth, death and marriage.

KingJohnMagnaCarta2

When Henry I reigned over England (1100 – 1135), people who avoided military service were charged a “Cowardice Tax”, called a ”Scutage”. The levy was modest at first, but Richard Lionheart’s little brother John raised it by 300% when he became King, charging even his own knights during years when there were no wars. It’s no small part of what led to the Magna Carta.

Often, taxes are used to shape social policy.

In 1862, the California legislature passed a tax on Chinese residents, entitled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California.

CHINESE_COOLIES

The new law levied a tax of $2.50 per month on every ethnically Chinese individual residing within the state, and followed a gold rush era measure levying a tax of $3.00 a month on all Chinese miners. This at a time when the average gold miner made $6 per month.

In 1795, British prime minister William Pitt (the Younger) levied a tax on wig powder.  By 1820, powdered wigs were out of style.

In New Jersey you can buy a pumpkin free of tax, until it been painted, varnished or cut up, for decoration. Then you’ll be charged a sales tax.

Pious politicians can’t resist “sin taxes”, “nudging” citizens away from the likes of evil weed and John Barleycorn, all the while making the self-righteous and the virtue-signaling feel good about themselves.

New Mexico likes competitive sports just fine but, games of chance like bingo or raffles? That’ll cost you another half-point.

I wonder. If cigarette taxes are supposed to encourage smoking cessation and taxes on Chinese were supposed to decrease competition from coolie labor, what are income taxes are supposed to do?

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Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton introduced the first tobacco tax in 1794, and they’ve been with us ever since.

Federal and state governments both get their vig on a pack of butts, ranging from 30 cents a pack in Virginia, to $4.35 in New York. Throw in the taxes levied by counties, municipalities, local subdivisions and Boy Scout Councils (kidding), and people really do change behavior. Just, not always in the intended direction. There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, home to a few hundred and measuring about a square mile. Their cigarette taxes are near zero and, until recently, tribal authorities sold about a hundred million packs a year.

European governments levied a tax on soap in the middle ages, leading to memorable moments in personal hygiene, I’m sure.

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In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

In the first century AD, Roman Emperors Nero and Vespasian levied a tax on pee. Honest. In those days, the lower classes pissed into pots which were emptied into cesspools.

Urine was collected for a number of chemical processes such as tanning, and it did a swell job whitening those woolen togas. When Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax his father showed him a gold coin, saying “Pecunia non olet”. “Money does not stink”.

Vespasiano e vespasiani.

To this day, Italian public urinals are called vespasiani.  In France they’re vespasiennes. And if you need to pee in Romania, you could visit the vespasiene.

My personal favorite might be the long distance tax that used to appear on American phone bills. This one began as a “Tax the Rich” scheme, first implemented to pay for the Spanish-American war, in 1898. Nobody ever made long distance phone calls but rich guys, right? It took a lawsuit to end the damned thing which was finally discontinued, in 2005.  We can’t be too hasty about these things.

September 4, 1886 Geronimo

One of eight brothers and sisters, the boy was called by the singularly forgettable name of “Goyahkla” meaning,, “one who yawns”.  Those who faced the man in combat knew him to be anything but, forgettable.

He was born on June 16, 1829 to the Chiricahua Apache, in the Mexican-occupied territory of Bedonkoheland, in modern-day New Mexico. One of eight brothers and sisters, he was called by the singularly forgettable name “Goyahkla”, translating as “one who yawns”.

Geronimo, younger

Much has been written of the conflict between Natives and American settlers, but that story has little to compare with the level of distrust and mutual butchery which took place between Mexico and the Apache.

First contact between the Crown of Castile and the roving bands of Apache they called Querechos, took place in the Texas panhandle, in 1541.

Initial relations were friendly, but 17th century Spanish slave raids were met by Apache attacks on Spanish and Pueblo settlements, in New Mexico

By 1685, several bands of Apache were in open conflict with the polity which, in 1821, would become known as the United States of Mexico.  Attacks and counter attacks were commonplace, as Presidios – Spanish fortresses – dotted the landscape of Sonora, Chihuahua and Fronteras. 5,000 Mexicans died in Apache raids between 1820 and 1835 alone.

Over 100 Mexican settlements were destroyed in that time.  The Mexican government placed a bounty on Apache scalps in 1835, the year that Goyahkla turned 6.

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Goyahkla married Alope of the Nedni-Chiricahua band of Apache when he was 17.  Together they had three children. On March 6, 1858, a company of 400 Mexican soldiers led by Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco attacked the native camp as the men were in town, trading. Goyahkla came back to find his wife, children, and his mother, murdered. 

He swore that he would hate the Mexicans for the rest of his life.

Chief Mangas Coloradas sent him to Cochise’ band to help exact retribution on the Mexicans.  It was here that Goyahkla earned a name that was anything but forgettable.

Ignoring a hail of bullets, he repeatedly attacked the soldiers with a knife, killing so many that they began to call out to Saint Jerome for protection. The Spanish name for the 4th century Saint was often the last word to leave their lips: “Geronimo”.

Geronimo Portrait

In 1873, the Mexican government and the Apache came to peace terms at one point, near Casa Grande. Terms had already been agreed upon when Mexican soldiers plied the Apaches with Mezcal.  Soon, soldiers began murdering intoxicated Indians, killing 20 and capturing many more before the survivors fled into the mountains.

Geronimo would marry eight more times, but most of his life was spent at war with Mexico, and later with the United States. According to National Geographic, he and his band of 16 warriors slaughtered 500 to 600 Mexicans in their last five months alone.

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By the end of his military career, Geronimo was “the worst Indian who ever lived”, according to the white settlers. He and his band of 38 men, women and children evaded thousands of Mexican and US soldiers.  Geronimo was captured on this day in 1886, by Civil War veteran and Westminster, Massachusetts native, General Nelson Miles. With the capture of Geronimo, the last of the major US-Indian wars had come to an end.

Geronimo became a celebrity in his old age, marching in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905.  He converted to Christianity and appeared in county fairs and Wild West shows around the country.

Geronimo in old age

In his 1909 memoirs, Geronimo wrote of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair:  “I am glad I went to the Fair. I saw many interesting things and learned much of the white people. They are a very kind and peaceful people. During all the time I was at the Fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often”.

Geronimo was thrown from a horse in February 1909 and contracted pneumonia after a long, cold night on the ground. He confessed on his deathbed that he regretted his decision to surrender. His last words were to his nephew, when he said “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive”.

August 29, 1893 Nothing to See Here

To this day there remains no clear standard as to what’s in the public interest to know, and where lies the individual’s right, president or not, to a modicum of privacy.

“Rare photograph of Roosevelt in a wheelchair, with Ruthie Bie and Fala (1941)” – H/T Wikipedia

In the summer of 1921, a 39-year old Franklin Delano Roosevelt was enjoying some family vacation time at Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine. On August 10 he complained of fever and chills, and took to bed. The condition persisted for weeks. Four Physicians attended the future president of the United States, the diagnosis, poliomyelitis.

Roosevelt would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, able to stand only for brief and painful moments with the help of leg braces. During four elected terms the press went to great lengths to deemphasize if not hide altogether, the president’s disability.

On October 2, 1919, a near fatal stroke left President Woodrow Wilson incapacitated, unable to speak or move. First Lady Edith Wilson jealously guarded her husband’s condition from the press and the president’s opponents, blocking access and screening presidential paperwork. Sometimes she even signed her husband’s name, without his knowledge or consent. Edith denied usurping the presidency to herself but claimed instead to be acting only as “Steward”.

If you were around in 1978 you may remember the cringeworthy media coverage of Jimmy Carter’s hemorrhoids, raising the question of what’s in the legitimate public interest and what if any right does a president have to any sense of personal dignity, let alone privacy.

Fun fact:  The only former executioner ever elected President of the United States, Stephen Grover Cleveland is best remembered for being the only President to ever serve two non-consecutive terms.  The 22nd and 24th President of the United States was also, something of a medical miracle.

President Cleveland was inaugurated for the second time in the midst of the Panic of 1893, the worst economic downturn in American history, until the great depression. The nation suffered vast unemployment with hundreds of businesses closing down.  The railroad industry was devastated.  With a nation struggling, many looked to the new President to provide hope and a new direction.

Early in his second term, the President noticed a bumpy and rapidly growing patch on the roof of his mouth.   White House physician Dr. Robert Maitland O’Reilly took one look and pronounced:  “It’s a bad looking tenant, and I would have it evicted immediately”.

The health of the famously rotund, cigar chomping President was already a matter of public concern. Cleveland feared a cancer diagnosis would set off a panic.  The tumor would have to be removed and the whole procedure, kept secret.

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The only answer to the prying eyes of the press was to do it on the move, so there could be no scar.  President Cleveland  announced a four-day vacation aboard the private yacht Oneida, a cruise through Long Island Sound to Buzzard’s Bay and on to the President’s summer home called Gray Gables, on Cape Cod.

What followed is enough to amaze an oral surgeon and make the rest of us squirm. On July 1, 1893, the President was strapped to a chair and anesthetized with ether.  The tumor extended through the president’s hard palate and upper jaw and nearly to his left eye. A surgical team of six removed nearly the entire left side of the upper jaw along with the tumor, and five teeth.  The operation had taken ninety minutes and there was no external incision. It was all done through the President’s mouth. The trademark mustache remained undisturbed. Later on the president was fitted with a rubber prosthesis restoring Cleveland’s speech, and facial disfigurement.

The procedure was carried out in strict secrecy but didn’t remain that way, for long. On August 29, 1893, reporter Elisha Jay Edwards of the Philadelphia Press broke the story of a presidential surgery too bizarre to be true. White house staff denied the story, and launched a coordinated smear campaign against the journalist. Even the steward on board the Oneida stuck the story, declaring the president never missed a meal on that summer cruise. Other newspapers piled on denouncing Edwards as a “liar” and a “disgrace to journalism”.

A medical miracle for its time, what really transpired onboard the Oneida remained secret until 1917, nine years after Cleveland’s death. 

One of the foremost newspapermen of the age Elisha Edwards was ruined and struggled even to find work, for the next fifteen years. The man wouldn’t see his reputation restored for 24 years.

To this day there remains no clear standard as to what’s in the public interest to know, and where lies the individual’s right, president or not, to a modicum of privacy.

August 16, 1346 A Feudal State

Few understood at the time that the whole system was about to come crashing down, near a place called Crécy.

From the time of Charlemagne, the social and political structure of Middle Ages European society revolved around a set of reciprocal obligations between a warrior nobility supporting and in turn being supported by, a hierarchy of vassals and fiefs.

This was Feudalism, a system in which the King granted portions of land called “fiefs” to Lords and Barons in exchange for loyalty, and to Knights (vassals) in exchange for military service.

Knights were a professional warrior class,  dependent upon the nobility for lodging, food, armor, weapons, horses and money.

The entire edifice was borne up and supported by peasants, serfs who farmed the land and provided vassal and lord alike with material wealth in the form of food, and other products.

None of this is to be confused with the notion, of chivalry. The 18th century historian and political economist Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi wrote “We must not confound chivalry with the feudal system. The feudal system may be called the real life of the period of which we are treating, possessing its advantages and inconveniences, its virtues and its vices. Chivalry, on the contrary, is the ideal world, such as it existed in the imaginations of the Romance writers. Its essential character is devotion to woman and to honour”.

Few understood at the time that the whole system was about to come crashing down, near a place called Crécy.

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Crécy Battlefield

The Battle of Crécy is memorable for several reasons. Crude cannon had appeared in siege operations during the Muslim conquest of Spain, (al Andalus), but this was the first time artillery was used in open battle. Perhaps more important though less evident at the time, was that Crécy spelled the end of feudalism.

The Battle of Crécy was the first major combat of the hundred years’ war, a series of conflicts fought over a 116-year period for control of the French throne.  King Edward III invaded the Normandy region of France on July 12, 1346. Estimates vary concerning the size of his army, but not of its composition. This was not an army of mounted knights, though there were a few of those. This was a yeoman army of spearmen and foot archers, ravaging the French countryside as they went and pursued by a far larger army of French knights, and mercenary allies.

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A fortunate tidal crossing of the Somme River gave the English a day’s lead, allowing Edward’s forces time to rest and prepare for battle as they stopped near the village of Crécy.

Edward’s forces took a strong defensive position overlooking flat agricultural land, natural obstacles to either side effectively nullifying the French numerical advantage. The French army under King Philip VI was wet and exhausted when they arrived on the 26th but launched themselves nevertheless, directly at the English lines.

Genoese crossbowmen opened the battle on the French side, but wet strings hampered the weapon’s effectiveness. English archers had unstrung longbows during the previous night’s rain, and now showered thousands of arrows down on the heads of the adversary. The French first line broke and ran, only to be accused of cowardice and hacked to pieces by knights to the rear.

French mounted knights now entered the fray, but orderly lines soon dissolved into confusion. The muddy field combined with English obstacles and that constant barrage of arrows unhorsed French knights and confused their lines.

Riderless horses and unmounted knights alike were run down by successive waves of horsemen, each impatient to win his share of the “glory”. Those who made it to the English side faced a tough, disciplined line of spearmen and foot soldiers who held their position. Once unhorsed, heavily armored knights were easy prey to the quick and merciless knives of the English.

Crecy, Bowmen

In the midst of battle a messenger sought out the English King beseeching aid for the King’s son, the 16-year-old Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince. Edward responded “Do not send to me so long as my son lives; let the boy win his spurs; let the day be his.”

Philip’s ally, the blind King John of Bohemia, heard that the battle was going badly for the French. He ordered his companions to tie his horse’s bridle to theirs, and lead him into the fight. It was the last time he was seen alive.

Ich Dien

The Black Prince did indeed earn his spurs that day and, according to legend retrieved the helmet from the dead king and adopted as his own the triple ostrich plume with the words “Ich Dien”. I serve.  To this day that heraldic badge symbolizes the the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, to the British throne.

When it was over, the mythical age of chivalry lay dead in the mud and the blood of Crécy, alongside the feudal system.  2,200 Heraldic coats were taken as trophies. The English side suffered 1/10th the number of casualties, as the French.  

In the words of A Short History of the English People, by John Richard Green, “The churl had struck down the noble; the bondsman proved more than a match in sheer hard fighting, for the knight”.  After Crécy, the world’s land battles would be fought not by armored knights fighting toe-to-toe with battle-axe and lance but by common foot soldiers with bow, spear and gun.

August 25, 1830 A Scrap of Paper

The story of how a night at the opera led to two world wars.

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars once belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. A Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

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The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic and mostly French speaking, in contrast with the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north. 

Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant. Meanwhile high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, La Muette was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29, 1828.   During one performance a riot broke out during a particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland). 

It was August 25, 1830.

Soon the melee was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Meanwhile Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

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Leopold I, 1st King of the Belgians

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence. Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

By this instrument Great Britain, Austria, France, the German Confederation led by Prussia, Russia and the Netherlands had formally recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In 1914, Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight.  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the slow-moving behemoth, of Imperial Russia.  The only obstacles were the neutral states of Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Believing Great Britain would remain on the sidelines, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4, beginning a great sweep through Belgian territory into France. The government of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German assumptions were grievously mistaken.  Great Britain declared war within hours of the German invasion.

A regional squabble begun that June with the assassination of an Archduke would plunge the world into war, in August. Two world wars, really, with a 20-year break to grow a new generation, in-between.

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