Friday, 5 December 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

December 5

Very much a day of affairs political, as it goes, with many of them also proving to be of an American persuasion for some reason. This may simply be because it follows so swiftly on the heels of Thanksgiving, a holiday lasting a full two days “Across the Pond”, the first of which is devoted to feasting on an industrial scale, meaning that, consequently, the second becomes one for attempting to shed all those excess pounds that have been piled on during such over-indulgence. And what better means to achieve this end than via a bout of frenzied bargain-hunting, especially if it involves a spot of heavy-duty public brawling along the way? Black Friday, of course, which has now infiltrated its way into this country too, though, being very much British, we have dispensed entirely with the culinary niceties in order to get stuck straight into the fisticuffs as we go about securing the cutprice merchandise that we didn’t want the day before and the stores couldn’t shift but now we find we must have at any cost, if only to prevent our fellow shoppers from getting their hands on it instead, though the result in either case would be the same: in a few days’ time it will appear on e-Bay, probably with the rider, “slightly damaged.”
But enough of such whimsy, so let’s cut straight to our first event, which came along back in 1082 and which happened to be a Tuesday, though that would hardly have been uppermost in the mind of Ramon Berenguer II, Count of Barcelona, who found himself being assassinated this day. Ramon Berenguer II, Count of Barcelona should – as Wikipedia states – “not to be confused with” Berenguer Ramon II, Count of Barcelona, though they were, in fact twin sons of Ramon Berenguer I, Count of Barcelona, a man, it would seem, none too fussed when it came to thinking up names. Our (ill-fated) man ruled jointly with his twin, even though the pair never did quite get on and, once we reveal that the brother was also known as Berenguer Ramon the Fratricide, you’ll probably have a fair idea of the direction in which we’re heading. Poor old Ramon was “accidentally” shot whilst out hunting in the woods and, for some bizarre reason, folk tended to think this The Fratricide bloke had something to do with it, just because he became sole ruler afterwards. Though it didn’t do him much good. They made him go through trial by combat, which he lost, and ended up having to go on crusade, never to return the more.
But, as it goes, there was a lot of this sort of thing around back in those days. Take the case of William II of England, or Rufus as he was known (for being redfaced), son of the Conqueror, of course, and an even nastier piece of work than his dad. "A rumbustious, devil-may-care soldier, without natural dignity or social graces, with no cultivated tastes and little morality … addicted to every kind of vice," is the sort of fellow he was. Anyhow, come 2 August 1100 (a Thursday) and Rufus is enjoying a spot of hunting in the New Forest when, all of a sudden, he gets hit in the chest and killed by an arrow. Rather like with Richard III, who still has loyal followers today that refuse to accept he was behind the murders of the Princes in the Tower (“no proof”), there are those that maintain this could have been a genuine accident. However, the man who loosed the shot, Walter Tirel, a known crack shot, immediately hotfooted it off to France, whilst Rufus’ brother, Henry, who was also there at the time, spurred his own horse to full pace in the direction of the Treasury in Winchester, to claim both cash and crown, leaving the body to be recovered by a peasant.

By the time we come to 1349, the Black Death was in full swing and, as ever, times of crisis are opportunities for everyone to pull together. Instead, however, we get all of Europe doing its customary practice of looking around itself for someone to pin the blame on. As luck would have it, there on hand were the traditional scapegoats of such situations, those Medieval equivalents of our immigrants today, the Jews, who were promptly accused of causing the disease by deliberately poisoning wells. Of course, it wasn’t just the Jews who took the flak for it, rabid bigotry needing no second ask to get itself out into the open for a darn good airing, and so the fickle finger of blame was also pointed squarely at the usual suspects of Romanies and foreigners, along with anyone with any sort of skin disease. Bad news for those with leprosy and psoriasis, but also for those with even a touch of acne, all of whom were relentlessly exterminated. Though, as always, it was the Jews who bore the brunt when the Black Death Rioting really got underway: their entire population in Basel was burned at the stake, with much the same being repeated (with exile as the other option) in Toulon, Barcelona, Aragon, Flanders, Erfurt, Frieburg, Augsburg, Munich, Konisberg and Regensberg, with a special “Valentine’s Day Massacre” in Strasbourg, all culminating in the Nuremberg Massacre of 5 December 1349, in which five hundred and sixty of them were burned to death.

The somewhat laissez faire attitude of Charles IV, King of Bohemia (later to become Holy Roman Emperor) did nothing to calm the conflagration, seeing he decided not only that the Nuremberg town council should be let off entirely but that they were also perfectly at liberty to help themselves to the property of the Jews and knock down their houses to build markets on. All of which failed dismally to restore any kind of order and the slaughter continued. Disappointingly, Charles VI wasn’t ever endowed with one of those ludic nicknames that seemed so popular back then, such as Wilfred the Hairy or James the Just, though Charlie the Fathead might have suited him admirably. But, before we go accusing him of more addle-headed thinking than a below-average mule that’s been drinking snakebite and then suffered a savage blow to the head, we need to remind ourselves that it ran in the family. After all, his dad was none other than John the Blind, who actually was blind and had been since he was forty and yet still insisted on taking part in the Battle of Crécy (26 August 1346) a decade later, so that he could “land one blow with his sword.” You may be able to spot the flaw in his plan. For one thing, he couldn’t see anything of what was going on, least of all who was coming to get him for flailing his sword vaguely in their direction (“stand still, you blighters, and let me land you one”) and, for another, he and his two guides were firmly lashed together, which is perhaps not the perfect battle tactic. Plus, of course, as we all know, England was destined to win. He famously said "Let it never be the case that a Bohemian king runs.” Nor did he. Both he and his guides were promptly hacked to pieces.

By 1775, the Americans started getting in on the act. Or the Colonists as they still were then, seeing they hadn’t yet shaken off the yoke of their British overlords, mainly thanks to not having any big guns with which to do so. Something had to be done. As it goes, the British just happened to have some large artillery that would be just the job lying around in Fort Ticonderoga and so, without a shot being fired, they went in and helped themselves. Then, in the first recorded act of American nepotism, George Washington chose his good pal, Henry Knox, to be the one to hump them all the 223 miles to the south, where they were needed to relieve the Siege of Boston. Bit of a poisoned chalice, that, seeing it was deep midwinter and Knox looked like the sort of fellow who would rather have a second helping of dumplings than go traipsing around in the snow but, nevertheless, he obeyed orders, arriving at Fort Ticonderoga on 5 December 1775. He was about to embark on what has been described as “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” of the entire American Revolutionary War, the total weight of guns being a colossal sixty tons.

After going overland to Lake George, they were then loaded onto a gundalow, which promptly ran aground twice, though still made it across the lake, from where it was on to “42 exceeding strong sleds, and 80 yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield.” At Glen Falls, two feet of snow fell on Christmas Day and yet the ice was still too thin to get the guns across the Hudson, so they poured more water on top to try and thicken it. Then, when they finally did get going, they kept dropping the guns into the river, though always recovering every one until, at last, on January 27, they arrived, at which Knox went personally to tell Washington about it and to no doubt have a good sturdy breakfast. When the British, under General Howe, saw their own guns being placed against them, they quietly sloped off to Nova Scotia, whilst Knox became chief artillery officer of the Continental Army, and later served as the first United States Secretary of War

Now the Americans really get into their stride, with no less than three Presidents choosing this day to get themselves re-elected, which brings us to 1792 and good old George Washington. He became the first President of the United States in 1789 by a unanimous vote and still remains the only one ever to gain one hundred percent of the vote. Being as it was such an important office, Congress then voted him a salary of some $25,000 a year (a breathtaking sum then), only Washington said, ‘oh dear me, no – I have my image as a selfless public servant to consider’, and thus declined the offer, at which Congress then replied, ‘hold on there, Mr President’ (a title Washington himself insisted on, rather than some of the more pompous ones suggested by the Senate), ‘this could set a precedent in which only independently wealthy individuals would be able to run for office’ and so, reluctantly, Mr President agreed, meaning that, happily, that state of affairs never could or would occur.

Not quite so happy was the first Mr President’s demise. Having spent 12 December 1799 riding around in freezing rain, he ate his supper still wearing his sodden garments and then, savage sore throat notwithstanding, he went out to do the same again the next day. Needless to say, he got even sicker. Our George was a firm believer in bloodletting and, once three doctors had been summoned, they got stuck in with gusto, so much so that they ended up taking half of all his blood. Strangely enough, he died. His last words were: “Tis well.” Apart from the bungling doctors, of course.

Next up, in 1804, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence bloke, of course, so if he did nothing else after that, at least that catchy second line of his would become "one of the best-known sentences in the English language.” Though nowhere in it appear the words “Declaration of Independence,” and it was originally known as the Dunlap broadside (Dunlap being the printer), with possibly the most infamous name to appear on it being that of John Hancock, now immortalised in American folklore as the slang term for a signature. After his Declaration triumph, Jefferson followed Washington’s precedent by being elected for a second term on 5 December (1804) and then, when the end came, going out in the most memorable fashion. Having been in declining health for a year, on 3 July 1826 he was overcome with fever. The doctor was summoned but there was little hope, and at eight that evening he woke and uttered his famous last words: “Is it the fourth yet?” To which the doctor replied, "It soon will be". He died at ten to one on the afternoon of the Fourth of July, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, and a few hours before John Adams (the second President, with Jefferson as his Vice President), Adams own last words being, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Alas, untrue, but only just.

 In 1832, Andrew Jackson was also re-elected on this day. He was the first US President to suffer a physical attack when a chap he had drummed out of the Navy for embezzlement suddenly turned up and walloped him one and then scarpered with several of Jackson’s party in hot pursuit, including author Washington Irving, though Jackson ended up letting his assailant off.

The next time was a bit of a closer call and the first attempt to kill a sitting President of the USA, (though he was actually standing at the time) when Richard Lawrence, a house painter from England, pounced, aiming a pistol at Jackson. It misfired but, luckily, Lawrence had a second gun. Which misfired too, durn it. At which, a rather less forgiving this time Jackson laid into him with his cane until David Crockett came along to restore a bit of order. Lawrence later claimed that, with Jackson dead, “money would be more plenty” and that he “could not rise until the President fell.” But then he went and spoiled his defence by insisting that he was the deposed English king, Richard III, dead since 1485, at which he was deemed insane. Jackson, on the other hand, was the first President to have killed another man in a duel. And to have been married twice. To the same woman. Once bigamously. But we won’t get into that now – that’s how the duel started in the first place.

 One last President to get in on the 5 December act was James K Polk (yes, there really was a President Polk) who, this day in 1848, triggered the Gold Rush by confirming that gold had been discovered in California. To begin with, however, it was more of a Gold Amble or even a Plod, seeing it was way back in January that the first nugget had been picked up.

But nothing much happened, even with a San Francisco newspaper proclaiming the discovery in March and despite the fact that merchant, entrepreneur and Lincoln-lookalike Samuel Brannan went marching up and down the streets holding aloft a vial of gold and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” as if he had some kind of vested interest or other. Apart from having bought up every last article of prospecting kit he could lay his hands to sell in his shop, that is. As usual, it took a President to get the ball rolling and, once it was, there was no stopping it. Few, however, made any real profit and many died in the attempt, though traders tended to fare better, including Levi Strauss, who began selling denims in San Francisco in 1853.

Anything the Americans can do, so can we (except, perhaps, liberate ourselves from a hated British government, though our Scottish comrades gave it a good go) and on 5 December 1905, Henry Campbell-Bannerman became Prime Minister. You might well say Who, but he was actually the first ever to officially be called Prime Minister, as before that it had always been a term of abuse, the title having been coined for use on Walpole, a big fat wealthy waste of space that abhorred any iota of talent (so, very much in the sense we still use it today). Unfortunately, CB’s health declined and, by April 1908, he was forced to resign because of it. He died nineteen days later and, true to all our 5 December heroes, his (inaccurate) last words were, “This is not the end of me.” Like most Liberals, a tad overoptimisitic, we fear. Though he was the last PM to actually die at Number Ten, and that’s a trend that could stand some reviving.

Finally though, if you’d not heard of Campbell-Bannerman, then do spare a thought for Andrew Bonar Law, a Canadian, making him the only PM born outside Britain, a feat he topped by serving in that office from 23 October 1922 to 22 May 1923, just 211 days and the third shortest in history. The poor fellow would eventually die of throat cancer and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, at his funeral in Westminster Abbey, Herbert Asquith acidly remarked that they were “burying the Unknown Prime Minister next to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” Asquith, it should be observed, was a fellow Liberal, and you need friends like that, don’t you?

Black Death Riots: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Knox: Charles Willson Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Ox Team: By M.A. Wageman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Polk: By James_Polk.jpg: Brady, Mathew B., 1823 (ca.)-1896, photographer: derivative work: Superwikifan (James_Polk.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Brannan: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Washington: John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Jefferson: Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Jackson Shooting: By Bonus Onus at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
 Jackson: Thomas Sully [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Campbell-Bannerman: Leslie Ward [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Bonar Law: Leslie Ward [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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