This Day in History

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September 18, 1793: Capitol cornerstone is laid

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1793, George Washington lays the cornerstone to the United States Capitol building, the home of the legislative branch of American government. The building would take nearly a century to complete, as architects came and went, the British set fire to it and it was called into use during the Civil War. Today, the Capitol building, with its famous cast-iron dome and important collection of American art, is part of the Capitol Complex, which includes six Congressional office buildings and three Library of Congress buildings, all developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As a young nation, the United States had no permanent capital, and Congress met in eight different cities, including Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia, before 1791. In 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which gave President Washington the power to select a permanent home for the federal government. The following year, he chose what would become the District of Columbia from land provided by Maryland. Washington picked three commissioners to oversee the capital city's development and they in turn chose French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant to come up with the design. However, L'Enfant clashed with the commissioners and was fired in 1792. A design competition was then held, with a Scotsman named William Thornton submitting the winning entry for the Capitol building. In September 1793, Washington laid the Capitol's cornerstone and the lengthy construction process, which would involve a line of project managers and architects, got under way.

In 1800, Congress moved into the Capitol's north wing. In 1807, the House of Representatives moved into the building's south wing, which was finished in 1811. During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington, D.C., and set fire to the Capitol on August 24, 1814. A rainstorm saved the building from total destruction. Congress met in nearby temporary quarters from 1815 to 1819. In the early 1850s, work began to expand the Capitol to accommodate the growing number of Congressmen. In 1861, construction was temporarily halted while the Capitol was used by Union troops as a hospital and barracks. Following the war, expansions and modern upgrades to the building continued into the next century.

Today, the Capitol, which is visited by 3 million to 5 million people each year, has 540 rooms and covers a ground area of about four acres.

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September 17, 1862: Battle of Antietam

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:00pm

Beginning early on the morning of this day in 1862, Confederate and Union troops in the Civil War clash near Maryland's Antietam Creek in the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.

The Battle of Antietam marked the culmination of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the Northern states. Guiding his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River in early September 1862, the great general daringly divided his men, sending half of them, under the command of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, to capture the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry.

President Abraham Lincoln put Major General George B. McClellan in charge of the Union troops responsible for defending Washington, D.C., against Lee's invasion. McClellan's Army of the Potomac clashed first with Lee's men on September 14, with the Confederates forced to retreat after being blocked at the passes of South Mountain. Though Lee considered turning back toward Virginia, news of Jackson's capture of Harper's Ferry reached him on September 15. That victory convinced him to stay and make a stand near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Over the course of September 15 and 16, the Confederate and Union armies gathered on opposite sides of Antietam Creek. On the Confederate side, Jackson commanded the left flank with General James Longstreet at the head of the center and right. McClellan's strategy was to attack the enemy left, then the right, and finally, when either of those movements met with success, to move forward in the center.

When fighting began in the foggy dawn hours of September 17, this strategy broke down into a series of uncoordinated advances by Union soldiers under the command of Generals Joseph Hooker, Joseph Mansfield and Edwin Sumner. As savage and bloody combat continued for eight hours across the region, the Confederates were pushed back but not beaten, despite sustaining some 15,000 casualties. At the same time, Union General Ambrose Burnside opened an attack on the Confederate right, capturing the bridge that now bears his name around 1 p.m. Burnside's break to reorganize his men allowed Confederate reinforcements to arrive, turning back the Union advance there as well.

By the time the sun went down, both armies still held their ground, despite staggering combined casualties--nearly 23,000 of the 100,000 soldiers engaged, including almost 4,000 dead. McClellan's center never moved forward, leaving a large number of Union troops that did not participate in the battle. On the morning of September 18, both sides gathered their wounded and buried their dead. That night, Lee turned his forces back to Virginia. His retreat gave President Lincoln the moment he had been waiting for to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a historic document that turned the Union effort in the Civil War into a fight for the abolition of slavery.

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September 16, 1932: Gandhi begins fast in protest of caste separation

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1932, in his cell at Yerovda Jail near Bombay, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi begins a hunger strike in protest of the British government's decision to separate India's electoral system by caste.

A leader in the Indian campaign for home rule, Gandhi worked all his life to spread his own brand of passive resistance across India and the world. By 1920, his concept of Satyagraha (or "insistence upon truth") had made Gandhi an enormously influential figure for millions of followers. Jailed by the British government from 1922-24, he withdrew from political action for a time during the 1920s but in 1930 returned with a new civil disobedience campaign. This landed Gandhi in prison again, but only briefly, as the British made concessions to his demands and invited him to represent the Indian National Congress Party at a round-table conference in London.

After his return to India in January 1932, Gandhi wasted no time beginning another civil disobedience campaign, for which he was jailed yet again. Eight months later, Gandhi announced he was beginning a "fast unto death" in order to protest British support of a new Indian constitution, which gave the country's lowest classes--known as "untouchables"--their own separate political representation for a period of 70 years. Gandhi believed this would permanently and unfairly divide India's social classes. A member of the more powerful Vaisya, or merchant caste, Gandhi nonetheless advocated the emancipation of the untouchables, whom he called Harijans, or "Children of God."

"This is a god-given opportunity that has come to me," Gandhi said from his prison cell at Yerovda, "to offer my life as a final sacrifice to the downtrodden." Though other public figures in India--including Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambdekar, the official political representative of the untouchables--had questioned Gandhi's true commitment to the lower classes, his six-day fast ended after the British government accepted the principal terms of a settlement between higher caste Indians and the untouchables that reversed the separation decision.

As India slowly moved towards independence, Gandhi's influence only grew. He continued to resort to the hunger strike as a method of resistance, knowing the British government would not be able to withstand the pressure of the public's concern for the man they called Mahatma, or "Great Soul." On January 12, 1948, Gandhi undertook his last successful fast in New Delhi, to persuade Hindus and Muslims in that city to work toward peace. On January 30, less than two weeks after breaking that fast, he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on his way to an evening prayer meeting.

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September 15, 1978: Ali defeats Spinks to win world heavyweight championship

Sun, 09/14/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1978, boxer Muhammad Ali defeats Leon Spinks at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans to win the world heavyweight boxing title for the third time in his career, the first fighter ever to do so. Following his victory, Ali retired from boxing, only to make a brief comeback two years later. Ali, who once claimed he could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," left the sport permanently in 1981.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 14, 1942, the future world champ changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 after converting to Islam. He earned a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and made his professional boxing debut against Tunney Husaker in October 1960, winning the bout in six rounds. On February 25, 1964, Ali defeated the heavily favored Sonny Liston in six rounds to become heavyweight champ, after which he famously declared, "I am the greatest!"

During the Vietnam War, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. armed forces and in 1967 was convicted of draft evasion and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed and returned to the ring in October 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in the third round. On March 8, 1971, Ali fought Joe Frazier in the "Fight of the Century" and lost after 15 rounds, the first loss of his professional boxing career. In June 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali's conviction for evading the draft.

At a January 1974 rematch at New York City's Madison Square Garden, Ali defeated Frazier in 12 rounds. In October of that same year, an underdog Ali bested George Foreman and reclaimed his heavyweight champion belt at the heavily hyped "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire, with a knockout in the eighth round. On February 15, 1978, in Las Vegas, an aging Ali lost the title to Leon Spinks in a 15-round split decision. For Spinks, who was born in 1953 and won a gold medal in boxing at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, the fight was just the eighth of his professional career. However, seven months later, on September 15, Ali won the title back, in a unanimous 15-round decision.

In June 1979, Ali announced he was retiring from boxing. On October 2, 1980, he returned to the ring and fought heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, who knocked him out in the 11th round. After losing to Trevor Berbick on December 11, 1981, Ali left the ring for the last time, with a record of 56 wins, five losses and 37 knockouts. In 1984, he was revealed to have Parkinson's disease. Spinks retired from boxing in 1995 with a record of 26 wins, 17 losses and 14 knockouts.

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September 14, 1901: McKinley dies of infection from gunshot wounds

Sat, 09/13/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1901, U.S. President William McKinley dies after being shot by a deranged anarchist during the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

McKinley won his first Congressional seat at the age of 34 and spent 14 years in the House, becoming known as the leading Republican expert on tariffs. After losing his seat in 1890, McKinley served two terms as governor of Ohio. By 1896, he had emerged as the leading Republican candidate for president, aided by the support of the wealthy Ohio industrialist Mark Hanna. That fall, McKinley defeated his Democratic rival, William Jennings Bryan, by the largest popular margin since the Civil War.

As president, McKinley became known--controversially--as a protector of big businesses, which enjoyed unprecedented growth during his administration. He advocated the protective tariff as a way of shielding U.S. business and labor from foreign competition, and he successfully argued for using the gold standard of currency.

Above all, however, McKinley's presidency was dominated by his foreign policy. In April 1898, he was pushed by Congress and American public opinion to intervene in Cuba's struggle for independence from Spanish colonial rule. In the first American war against a foreign power since 1812, the United States handily defeated Spain in just three months, freeing Cuba--although the island became a U.S. protectorate--and annexing Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. For the first time, the United States had become a colonialist power.

America's growing interests in the Pacific led McKinley's administration to greatly increase its involvement in Asian politics. In 1900, McKinley sent thousands of U.S. troops to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion, aimed at driving out foreigners. His aggressive "Open Door" policy declared U.S. support for an independent China and argued that all nations with commercial interests in China should be able to compete on equal footing.

The popular McKinley won a second term by even greater margins over Bryan, who attacked him on his "imperialism" in the Pacific and, domestically, on the growth of illegal monopolies, or trusts. There was little time to see what his second term would bring, however. On September 6, 1901, while standing in a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, McKinley was approached by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American anarchist carrying a concealed .32 revolver in a handkerchief. Drawing his weapon, Czolgosz shot McKinley twice at close range. One bullet deflected off a suit button, but the other entered his stomach, passed through the kidneys, and lodged in his back. When he was operated on, doctors failed to find the bullet, and gangrene soon spread throughout his body. McKinley died eight days later. Czolgosz was convicted of murder and executed soon after the shooting.

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September 13, 1814: Key pens Star-Spangled Banner

Fri, 09/12/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1814, Francis Scott Key pens a poem which is later set to music and in 1931 becomes America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." The poem, originally titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry," was written after Key witnessed the Maryland fort being bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the sight of a lone U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry at daybreak, as reflected in the now-famous words of the "Star-Spangled Banner": "And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."

Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, at Terra Rubra, his family's estate in Frederick County (now Carroll County), Maryland. He became a successful lawyer in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and was later appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

On June 18, 1812, America declared war on Great Britain after a series of trade disagreements. In August 1814, British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, Capitol Building and Library of Congress. Their next target was Baltimore.

After one of Key's friends, Dr. William Beanes, was taken prisoner by the British, Key went to Baltimore, located the ship where Beanes was being held and negotiated his release. However, Key and Beanes weren't allowed to leave until after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Key watched the bombing campaign unfold from aboard a ship located about eight miles away. After a day, the British were unable to destroy the fort and gave up. Key was relieved to see the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry and quickly penned a few lines in tribute to what he had witnessed.

The poem was printed in newspapers and eventually set to the music of a popular English drinking tune called "To Anacreon in Heaven" by composer John Stafford Smith. People began referring to the song as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson announced that it should be played at all official events. It was adopted as the national anthem on March 3, 1931.

Francis Scott Key died of pleurisy on January 11, 1843. Today, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1914 is housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

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September 12, 1940: Lascaux cave paintings discovered

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 11:00pm

Near Montignac, France, a collection of prehistoric cave paintings are discovered by four teenagers who stumbled upon the ancient artwork after following their dog down a narrow entrance into a cavern. The 15,000- to 17,000-year-old paintings, consisting mostly of animal representations, are among the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period.

First studied by the French archaeologist Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil, the Lascaux grotto consists of a main cavern 66 feet wide and 16 feet high. The walls of the cavern are decorated with some 600 painted and drawn animals and symbols and nearly 1,500 engravings. The pictures depict in excellent detail numerous types of animals, including horses, red deer, stags, bovines, felines, and what appear to be mythical creatures. There is only one human figure depicted in the cave: a bird-headed man with an erect phallus. Archaeologists believe that the cave was used over a long period of time as a center for hunting and religious rites.

The Lascaux grotto was opened to the public in 1948 but was closed in 1963 because artificial lights had faded the vivid colors of the paintings and caused algae to grow over some of them. A replica of the Lascaux cave was opened nearby in 1983 and receives tens of thousands of visitors annually.

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September 11, 2001: Attack on America

Wed, 09/10/2014 - 11:00pm

At 8:45 a.m. on a clear Tuesday morning, an American Airlines Boeing 767 loaded with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The impact left a gaping, burning hole near the 80th floor of the 110-story skyscraper, instantly killing hundreds of people and trapping hundreds more in higher floors. As the evacuation of the tower and its twin got underway, television cameras broadcasted live images of what initially appeared to be a freak accident. Then, 18 minutes after the first plane hit, a second Boeing 767--United Airlines Flight 175--appeared out of the sky, turned sharply toward the World Trade Center, and sliced into the south tower at about the 60th floor. The collision caused a massive explosion that showered burning debris over surrounding buildings and the streets below. America was under attack.

The attackers were Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations. Reportedly financed by Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization, they were allegedly acting in retaliation for America's support of Israel, its involvement in the Persian Gulf War, and its continued military presence in the Middle East. Some of the terrorists had lived in the United States for more than a year and had taken flying lessons at American commercial flight schools. Others had slipped into the U.S. in the months before September 11 and acted as the "muscle" in the operation. The 19 terrorists easily smuggled box-cutters and knives through security at three East Coast airports and boarded four flights bound for California, chosen because the planes were loaded with fuel for the long transcontinental journey. Soon after takeoff, the terrorists commandeered the four planes and took the controls, transforming the ordinary commuter jets into guided missiles.

As millions watched in horror the events unfolding in New York, American Airlines Flight 77 circled over downtown Washington and slammed into the west side of the Pentagon military headquarters at 9:45 a.m. Jet fuel from the Boeing 757 caused a devastating inferno that led to a structural collapse of a portion of the giant concrete building. All told, 125 military personnel and civilians were killed in the Pentagon along with all 64 people aboard the airliner.

Less than 15 minutes after the terrorists struck the nerve center of the U.S. military, the horror in New York took a catastrophic turn for the worse when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in a massive cloud of dust and smoke. The structural steel of the skyscraper, built to withstand winds in excess of 200 mph and a large conventional fire, could not withstand the tremendous heat generated by the burning jet fuel. At 10:30 a.m., the other Trade Center tower collapsed. Close to 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center and its vicinity, including a staggering 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers who were struggling to complete an evacuation of the buildings and save the office workers trapped on higher floors. Only six people in the World Trade Center towers at the time of their collapse survived. Almost 10,000 other people were treated for injuries, many severe.

Meanwhile, a fourth California-bound plane--United Flight 93--was hijacked about 40 minutes after leaving Newark International Airport in New Jersey. Because the plane had been delayed in taking off, passengers on board learned of events in New York and Washington via cell phone and Airfone calls to the ground. Knowing that the aircraft was not returning to an airport as the hijackers claimed, a group of passengers and flight attendants planned an insurrection. One of the passengers, Thomas Burnett, Jr., told his wife over the phone that "I know we're all going to die. There's three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey." Another passenger--Todd Beamer--was heard saying "Are you guys ready? Let's roll" over an open line. Sandy Bradshaw, a flight attendant, called her husband and explained that she had slipped into a galley and was filling pitchers with boiling water. Her last words to him were "Everyone's running to first class. I've got to go. Bye."

The passengers fought the four hijackers and are suspected to have attacked the cockpit with a fire extinguisher. The plane then flipped over and sped toward the ground at upwards of 500 miles per hour, crashing in a rural field in western Pennsylvania at 10:10 a.m. All 45 people aboard were killed. Its intended target is not known, but theories include the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, or one of several nuclear power plants along the eastern seaboard.

At 7 p.m., President George W. Bush, who had spent the day being shuttled around the country because of security concerns, returned to the White House. At 9 p.m., he delivered a televised address from the Oval Office, declaring "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve." In a reference to the eventual U.S. military response he declared: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led international effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and destroy Osama bin Laden's terrorist network based there, began on October 7, 2001. Bin Laden was killed during a raid of his compound in Pakistan by U.S. forces on May 2, 2011.

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September 10, 1897: First drunk driving arrest

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1897, a 25-year-old London taxi driver named George Smith becomes the first person ever arrested for drunk driving after slamming his cab into a building. Smith later pled guilty and was fined 25 shillings.

In the United States, the first laws against operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol went into effect in New York in 1910. In 1936, Dr. Rolla Harger, a professor of biochemistry and toxicology, patented the Drunkometer, a balloon-like device into which people would breathe to determine whether they were inebriated. In 1953, Robert Borkenstein, a former Indiana state police captain and university professor who had collaborated with Harger on the Drunkometer, invented the Breathalyzer. Easier-to-use and more accurate than the Drunkometer, the Breathalyzer was the first practical device and scientific test available to police officers to establish whether someone had too much to drink. A person would blow into the Breathalyzer and it would gauge the proportion of alcohol vapors in the exhaled breath, which reflected the level of alcohol in the blood.

Despite the invention of the Breathalyzer and other developments, it was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving increased and lawmakers and police officers began to get tougher on offenders. In 1980, a Californian named Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, after her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver while walking home from a school carnival. The driver had three previous drunk-driving convictions and was out on bail from a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier. Lightner and MADD were instrumental in helping to change attitudes about drunk driving and pushed for legislation that increased the penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. MADD also helped get the minimum drinking age raised in many states. Today, the legal drinking age is 21 everywhere in the United States and convicted drunk drivers face everything from jail time and fines to the loss of their driver's licenses and increased car insurance rates. Some drunk drivers are ordered to have ignition interlock devices installed in their vehicles. These devices require a driver to breath into a sensor attached to the dashboard; the car won't start if the driver's blood alcohol concentration is above a certain limit.

Despite the stiff penalties and public awareness campaigns, drunk driving remains a serious problem in the United States. In 2005, 16,885 people died in alcohol-related crashes and almost 1.4 million people were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

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September 9, 1893: President's child born in White House

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 11:00pm

Frances Folsom Cleveland, the wife of President Grover Cleveland, gives birth to a daughter, Esther, in the White House.

On June 2, 1886, in an intimate ceremony held in the Blue Room of the White House, President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom, the daughter of Cleveland's late law partner and friend, Oscar Folsom. Fewer than 40 people were present to witness the 49-year-old president exchange vows with Frances, who at 21 years of age became the youngest first lady in U.S. history.

As a devoted family friend, Cleveland allegedly bought "Frank" her first baby carriage. After her father's death, he administered her estate. When Frances entered Wells College, Cleveland, then the governor of New York, asked Mrs. Folsom's permission to correspond with the young lady. After his inauguration as president in 1885, Frances visited Cleveland at the executive mansion. Despite a 27-year difference in age, their affection turned to romance, and in 1886 the couple were married in the White House.

Mrs. Cleveland, who replaced Cleveland's sister Rose Elizabeth as White House hostess, won immediate popularity for her good looks and unaffected charm. After the president's defeat in his 1888 reelection bid, the Clevelands lived in New York City, where their first child, Ruth, was born in 1891. In 1892, in an event unprecedented in U.S. political history, the out-of-office Cleveland was elected president again. Frances Cleveland returned to Washington and resumed her duties as first lady as if she had been gone but a day. On September 9, 1893, the first family saw the addition of a second child. Esther was the first child of a president to be born in the White House but not the first child ever to be born there. In 1806, James Madison Randolph was born to Martha Randolph, the daughter of President Thomas Jefferson.

When Grover Cleveland left the presidency in 1897, his wife had become one of the most popular first ladies in history. In 1908, she was at his side when he died at their home in Princeton, New Jersey. Five years later, she married Thomas J. Preston, Jr., a professor of archeology at Princeton University.

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September 8, 1974: Ford pardons Nixon

Sun, 09/07/2014 - 11:00pm

In a controversial executive action, President Gerald Ford pardons his disgraced predecessor Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed or participated in while in office. Ford later defended this action before the House Judiciary Committee, explaining that he wanted to end the national divisions created by the Watergate scandal.

The Watergate scandal erupted after it was revealed that Nixon and his aides had engaged in illegal activities during his reelection campaign--and then attempted to cover up evidence of wrongdoing. With impeachment proceedings underway against him in Congress, Nixon bowed to public pressure and became the first American president to resign. At noon on August 9, Nixon officially ended his term, departing with his family in a helicopter from the White House lawn. Minutes later, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States in the East Room of the White House. After taking the oath of office, President Ford spoke to the nation in a television address, declaring, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."

Ford, the first president who came to the office through appointment rather than election, had replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president only eight months before. In a political scandal independent of the Nixon administration's wrongdoings in the Watergate affair, Agnew had been forced to resign in disgrace after he was charged with income tax evasion and political corruption. Exactly one month after Nixon announced his resignation, Ford issued the former president a "full, free and absolute" pardon for any crimes he committed while in office. The pardon was widely condemned at the time.

Decades later, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation presented its 2001 Profile in Courage Award to Gerald Ford for his 1974 pardon of Nixon. In pardoning Nixon, said the foundation, Ford placed his love of country ahead of his own political future and brought needed closure to the divisive Watergate affair. Ford left politics after losing the 1976 presidential election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Ford died on December 26, 2006, at the age of 93.

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September 7, 1813: United States nicknamed Uncle Sam

Sat, 09/06/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1813, the United States gets its nickname, Uncle Sam. The name is linked to Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, New York, who supplied barrels of beef to the United States Army during the War of 1812. Wilson (1766-1854) stamped the barrels with "U.S." for United States, but soldiers began referring to the grub as "Uncle Sam's." The local newspaper picked up on the story and Uncle Sam eventually gained widespread acceptance as the nickname for the U.S. federal government.

In the late 1860s and 1870s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) began popularizing the image of Uncle Sam. Nast continued to evolve the image, eventually giving Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit that are associated with the character today. The German-born Nast was also credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as well as coming up with the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic Party and the elephant as a symbol for the Republicans. Nast also famously lampooned the corruption of New York City's Tammany Hall in his editorial cartoons and was, in part, responsible for the downfall of Tammany leader William Tweed.

Perhaps the most famous image of Uncle Sam was created by artist James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). In Flagg's version, Uncle Sam wears a tall top hat and blue jacket and is pointing straight ahead at the viewer. During World War I, this portrait of Sam with the words "I Want You For The U.S. Army" was used as a recruiting poster. The image, which became immensely popular, was first used on the cover of Leslie's Weekly in July 1916 with the title "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" The poster was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions.

In September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as "the progenitor of America's national symbol of Uncle Sam." Wilson died at age 88 in 1854, and was buried next to his wife Betsey Mann in the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York, the town that calls itself "The Home of Uncle Sam."

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September 6, 1915: First tank produced

Fri, 09/05/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1915, a prototype tank nicknamed Little Willie rolls off the assembly line in England. Little Willie was far from an overnight success. It weighed 14 tons, got stuck in trenches and crawled over rough terrain at only two miles per hour. However, improvements were made to the original prototype and tanks eventually transformed military battlefields.

The British developed the tank in response to the trench warfare of World War I. In 1914, a British army colonel named Ernest Swinton and William Hankey, secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence, championed the idea of an armored vehicle with conveyor-belt-like tracks over its wheels that could break through enemy lines and traverse difficult territory. The men appealed to British navy minister Winston Churchill, who believed in the concept of a "land boat" and organized a Landships Committee to begin developing a prototype. To keep the project secret from enemies, production workers were reportedly told the vehicles they were building would be used to carry water on the battlefield (alternate theories suggest the shells of the new vehicles resembled water tanks). Either way, the new vehicles were shipped in crates labeled "tank" and the name stuck.

The first tank prototype, Little Willie, was unveiled in September 1915. Following its underwhelming performance--it was slow, became overheated and couldn’t cross trenches--a second prototype, known as "Big Willie," was produced. By 1916, this armored vehicle was deemed ready for battle and made its debut at the First Battle of the Somme near Courcelette, France, on September 15 of that year. Known as the Mark I, this first batch of tanks was hot, noisy and unwieldy and suffered mechanical malfunctions on the battlefield; nevertheless, people realized the tank's potential. Further design improvements were made and at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, 400 Mark IV’s proved much more successful than the Mark I, capturing 8,000 enemy troops and 100 guns.

Tanks rapidly became an important military weapon. During World War II, they played a prominent role across numerous battlefields. More recently, tanks have been essential for desert combat during the conflicts in the Persian Gulf.

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September 5, 1836: Sam Houston elected as president of Texas

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1836, Sam Houston is elected as president of the Republic of Texas, which earned its independence from Mexico in a successful military rebellion.

Born in Virginia in 1793, Houston moved with his family to rural Tennessee after his father's death; as a teenager, he ran away and lived for several years with the Cherokee tribe. Houston served in the War of 1812 and was later appointed by the U.S. government to manage the removal of the Cherokee from Tennessee to a reservation in Arkansas Territory. He practiced law in Nashville and from 1823 to1827 served as a U.S. congressman before being elected governor of Tennessee in 1827.

A brief, failed marriage led Houston to resign from office and live again with the Cherokee. Officially adopted by the tribe, he traveled to Washington to protest governmental treatment of Native Americans. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson sent him to Texas (then a Mexican province) to negotiate treaties with local Native Americans for protection of border traders. Houston arrived in Texas during a time of rising tensions between U.S. settlers and Mexican authorities, and soon emerged as a leader among the settlers. In 1835, Texans formed a provisional government, which issued a declaration of independence from Mexico the following year. At that time, Houston was appointed military commander of the Texas army.

Though the rebellion suffered a crushing blow at the Alamo in early 1836, Houston was soon able to turn his army's fortunes around. On April 21, he led some 800 Texans in a surprise defeat of 1,500 Mexican soldiers under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the San Jacinto River. Santa Anna was captured and brought to Houston, where he was forced to sign an armistice that would grant Texas its freedom. After receiving medical treatment for his war wounds in New Orleans, Houston returned to win election as president of the Republic of Texas on September 5. In victory, Houston declared that "Texas will again lift its head and stand among the nations....It ought to do so, for no country upon the globe can compare with it in natural advantages."

Houston served as the republic's president until 1838, then again from 1841 to 1844. Despite plans for retirement, Houston helped Texas win admission to the United States in 1845 and was elected as one of the state's first two senators. He served three terms in the Senate and ran successfully for Texas' governorship in 1859. As the Civil War loomed, Houston argued unsuccessfully against secession, and was deposed from office in March 1861 after refusing to swear allegiance to the Confederacy. He died of pneumonia in 1863.

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