America’s most important historical dates will surprise you

Posted by on August 12, 2017 8:56 pm
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Summing up all of American history in one book is nearly impossible — that’s why author Carl M. Cannon ingeniously takes it one day at a time.

His “On This Date” (Twelve Books) highlights some of our country’s most important but less celebrated moments, from the arrival of the Mayflower through the 2016 presidential election, as calendar entries. The result is one of the oddest but most fun history books in recent memory.

The Post enlisted Cannon, the Washington bureau chief at RealClearPolitics.com, to pull together some of his favorite entries from each month. This list, adapted from his book, is by no means exhaustive; you won’t find references to 9/11, Pearl Harbor or the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, for example. But it represents a random assortment of the individual stories that helped shape, as Cannon puts it, “the constantly changing marvel” that is our American identity.

Jan. 1, 1915: NYC’s first female cabbie gets behind the wheel

On the very first day of 1915, a new taxi pulled up to a cabstand at Broadway and 50th Street — and immediately attracted attention on account to of the driver’s headgear: “a huge hat of leopard skin, and around her neck and over her shoulders the yellow and black spotted pelt of the same animal.”

While passers-by stopped and stared, driver Wilma K. Russey — who worked as an auto mechanic in Manhattan — approached an NYPD patrolman, Philip Wagner, who was directing traffic. She showed her chauffeur’s license to the police officer, who informed Russey there was no reason she shouldn’t take her place in the cabstand. The male cabbies debated “the feminine invasion of their business” but ultimately came to a quick consensus: They walked over to Russey’s car to congratulate her and offer words of encouragement.

Feb. 15, 1903: The teddy bear debuts

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In November 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt decided he needed a break from the White House. For the Rough Rider, a vacation meant hunting, so he traveled to Mississippi during bear-hunting season. On the second day of the trip, the hounds picked up a scent — and an aging 235-pound black bear was promptly clubbed and tied to a tree, awaiting the commander in chief’s lethal shot. Roosevelt, however, refused the unsportsmanlike opportunity. Although the bear was eventually euthanized, reporters’ stories still made the president seem merciful — and Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman immortalized the moment with an illustration showing the old bear as a cute little cub and the president waving his arm: “Drawing the line in Mississippi,” it read. Brooklyn candy-shop owner Morris Michtom saw the cartoon and had an idea for his wife Rose to stitch up stuffed-toy bears. The president gave his permission to dub them “Teddy’s bears,” and knockoffs quickly abounded.

March 11, 1989: ‘Cops’ premieres

The idea that you could get Americans to look and act ridiculous in front of a camera — and that people would willingly watch—was not new. But “Cops” was a fresh frontier. Producers John Langley and Malcolm Barbour initially found a receptive audience for their concept among Fox TV executives because a workers’ strike had left the network in the lurch.

Originally set in Florida, and heralded by the reggae earworm “Bad Boys,” the show followed the Broward County sheriff’s deputies as they made actual arrests — no writers required. Whether or not you think it’s the downfall of our civilization, it almost immediately attracted strong ratings and helped usher in an era of reality TV. And after more than 1,100 episodes, it’s still in production for Spike.

April 5, 1614: Pocahontas marries John Rolfe

A painting depicting the marriage ceremony of John Rolfe to Pocahontas.Getty Images

Don’t blame Disney: Pocahontas was being mythologized from the moment she came cartwheeling into the English settlers’ fort as the barely clothed, free-spirited teenage daughter of Chief Powhatan. John Smith was the first to stoke the legend, penning the now-famous account of Pocahontas saving him from execution upon his 1607 capture by the Tsenacommacah. How much of his account is true is up for debate, but it is a matter of record that after Smith left Jamestown for England, Pocahontas was taken hostage by settlers seeking the return of their own people. Her father agreed to a prisoner exchange but having been baptized by the settlers, his daughter chose to stay among them — marrying John Rolfe in 1614. Two years later they set sail for England, where Pocahontas rebuked Smith for leaving Virginia and forsaking the promises he had made to her people. As Pocahontas and Rolfe were returning to the New World in 1617, she became seriously ill and died in her husband’s arms. Rolfe was killed in an Indian attack in Virginia in 1622, so he was not around to counter the Rolfe-Pocahontas-Smith love triangle idea later exploited by writer John Davis in his book “Travels in the United States of America.”

May 5, 1862: Cinco de Mayo becomes a holiday

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Although Cinco de Mayo ostensibly celebrates a military victory by the Mexican army over French expeditionary forces in the city of Puebla on this date, it was an occasion that took hold among Mexicans living north of the border as a way of commemorating their Union sympathies in America’s Civil War. In the Gold Rush country of Northern California, fireworks were set off. Rifles were fired into the air at mining camps in Nevada, and spontaneous fiestas broke out in labor caps as far north as Oregon. The most organized celebrations among the vast Mexican diaspora in the West were held in Los Angeles, where Mexican-American politicians hosted rallies and delivered patriotic speeches. And forevermore, it became an excuse to drink too many margaritas.

June 10, 1752: Yosemite is named as the first US national park

Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley, circa 1865

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Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley in 1962

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Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley in 2016

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June had been a busy time for Abraham Lincoln in 1864. He was nominated to a second term at the GOP convention, called for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, accepted the resignation of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and watched in dismay as Ulysses S. Grant crossed the James River in defeat after gruesome Union losses at Cold Harbor. On the last day of the month, Lincoln signed legislation that didn’t seem particularly momentous: California lawmakers wanted a tract of land set aside for tourism rather than mining. The bill Lincoln signed on this date was the Yosemite Valley Grant Act. The statute laid claim, on behalf of the state of California, to the grand terrain we know as Yosemite National Park, upon the condition that it “be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” Thus, the creation of America’s “crown jewels” — our national parks.

July 10, 1925: Evolution is debated in the courtroom

John Thomas Scopes (second from left)Getty Images

A small-town Tennessee courthouse was an early battlefield in the “culture wars.” At issue in the famous Scopes Trial was whether a science and math teacher had committed a misdemeanor by teaching evolution from a textbook adjudged by the state legislature to be hostile to the Christian religion. The trial featured historical heavyweights: Clarence Darrow for the defense and three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. It was chronicled by H.L. Mencken, the caustic Baltimore columnist, whose newspaper subsidized Scopes’ defense team. The drama still captivates, largely because of the “Inherit the Wind,” the play that became a 1960 movie starring Spencer Tracy. In the dramatization, Darrow is the voice of rationality; Bryan, a bigot, if not a village idiot. In real life, it wasn’t that clear-cut. One of the reasons Bryan aligned himself against teaching evolution was that he was part of a progressive, but faith-based, tradition that feared it would encourage “social Darwinism” — that is, a move toward eugenics and marginalizing the poor and handicapped.

Aug. 28, 1963: MLK delivers “I Have a Dream” speech

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Millions of words have been written about the 1963 march that took place on National Mall, especially Martin Luther King Jr.’s electrifying benediction that brought the events of this day to a close. His “I Have a Dream” speech is remembered for its soaring and optimistic language, but it also contained darker allusions to the police brutality, lynching, intimidation, beatings and murders underpinning the American form of apartheid known as “Jim Crow.” At the very hour King spoke, two women in their early 20s were stabbed to death inside the apartment they shared in Manhattan. Seven months later, George Whitmore Jr. an African-American drifter with a limited IQ, was picked out of a photo lineup by an assault victim. It turned out to be a misidentification but before the case unraveled, Brooklyn police beat Whitmore — interrogating him for hours, feeding him details about the Manhattan murders and finally extracting a false confession. The defendant immediately recanted but was convicted and put on death row. Eventually, the facts were sorted out and the real killer imprisoned. The case played a role in the Supreme Court that led to Miranda rights and in New York’s abandonment of capital punishment — and spawned the “Kojak” television series — but not before Whitmore spent nine years in prison.

Sept. 9, 1965: Sandy Koufax throws a perfect game

Sandy KoufaxGetty Images

A high-school baseball star in Brooklyn, Sanford “Sandy” Koufax signed a professional contract with his hometown team, the Dodgers, in 1955 after an Ebbets Field tryout. “There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up,” general manager Al Campanis recalled. “The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.” Campanis was Catholic, Koufax Jewish, but the pitcher’s talent was not a question of faith. By 1961, Koufax was the best in baseball on his way to four no-hitters. On Sept. 9, 1965, the hurler threw a perfect game in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs. But after leading his team into the World Series, he declined to pitch Game 1 because it fell on Yom Kippur. The Dodgers lost to the Twins 8-2. But Koufax came back to throw a complete game shutout in Game 5, helping his team take the Series in seven games.

Oct. 1, 1962: “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson premieres

The first episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”NBC via Getty Images

Admittedly, “The Tonight Show” was already successful when Johnny Carson took over hosting duties from Jack Paar. But, for the next three decades, comedian Carson turned the late-night program into freewheeling must-see TV, complete with his goofy “Carnac the Magnificent” turban, loose-limbed banter with guests and co-host Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen and an opening monologue that lightly skewered the news of the day. In short, he cemented the template for future generations of genial late-night hosts. Behind the scenes, he wasn’t as easygoing. Tough to work for, and apparently even harder to live with (he was married four times), Carson made salary demands that would cause a movie star to blush. Part of his appeal was that he helped us laugh at ourselves as well as our politicians, even as he kept his liberal politics hidden. In the 1970s, when a gasoline crisis coincided with an outbreak of UFO sightings, Carson quipped: “The bad news is that aliens have landed. The good news is that they pee gasoline.”

Nov. 1, 1872: Susan B. Anthony casts a vote

Susan B. Anthony (left) and Elizabeth Cady StantonGetty Images

By 1872, the Fourteenth Amendment had been ratified. Reconstruction was under way, and many Americans found it obscene that only one gender could participate in the most basic democratic exercise. Championing the rights of women was eloquent suffragette Susan B. Anthony, who, before the war, had been an abolitionist and prohibitionist. The temperance movement radicalized Anthony, though not in the way its leadership intended. Barred by men from speaking at anti-drinking rallies, she turned her intellect and ire away from the distillers and toward a bigger target: America’s male-dominated political system. And so, on the first day of November, she and three other women talked their way into registering to vote in a barbershop in the Eighth Ward in Rochester, NY. The male registrars didn’t want to do it, but Anthony threatened to sue them personally. The ballots they cast four days later were secret, but their sympathies were not: President Grant and his Republican Party were more receptive to women’s rights than the Democrats.

Dec. 25, 1776: George Washington crosses the Delaware

George Washington stands in the prow of a rowing boat crossing the Delaware.Getty Images

As 1776 wound to a close, Gen. Washington was in search of a victory to convince his men they were fighting for a cause that could prevail — so he conjured up a daring plan. At 11 p.m. on Christmas Day, he gathered his force of 5,400 men, divided them into three groups and led them across the icy cold Delaware River. The next morning, Washington realized that the only forces to make it to the staging area were those he led himself. The other two divisions, totaling some 3,000 men, were nowhere to be found. But time was of the essence, so his cold and hungry band of 2,400 citizen-soldiers marched on Trenton, surrounding the town and trapping the Hessians in their garrison. For the British, losses in Trenton and later Princeton were minor setbacks. But Washington’s victories convinced his troops, and his fledgling nation, that America could win the Revolutionary War.