April 17, 1790 – Death of Benjamin Franklin

On this day in history, Benjamin Franklin died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 84. Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1706. His formal schooling ended when he was ten. For a time he worked for his father (a tallow-chandler and soapmaker), and at age 12 he became an apprentice for his brother, a printer. At 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, finding work in print shops. Franklin was largely self-educated, being a voracious reader by his own account in the famous Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was also an inventor, coming up with such innovations as bifocals, a flexible catheter, the library step stool, the rocking chair, the lightning rod, the “Franklin stove” (a metal-lined fireplace for rooms that provided more heat and less smoke than the traditional open fireplace), and swim fins (for which he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968), inter alia.

Franklin in London, 1767, wearing a blue suit with elaborate gold braid and buttons, a far cry from the simple dress he affected at the French court in later years. Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House

Franklin in London, 1767, wearing a blue suit with elaborate gold braid and buttons, a far cry from the simple dress he affected at the French court in later years. Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House

He was a prolific writer, employing a number of pseudonyms, some of which included Silence Dogood (the thoughts of a “middle-aged widow” – Franklin was 16 at the time); Richard Saunders (used for his Poor Richard’s Almanac); Anthony Afterwit (who wrote about married life); Polly Baker (who examined society’s treatment of women – ironically, since Franklin was no paragon of virtue on that score); and Alice Addertongue and Busy Body (both purveyors of gossip).

Franklin’s Autobiography is still widely read today, especially in schools. It contains much good advice Franklin followed more in the breach than in the observation. For example, he listed 13 virtues he claims he practiced all his life:

Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”

Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”

Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”

Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”

Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Those who are familiar with Franklin’s life will recognize that when it came to his personal goals, Franklin was more of an aspirer than an accomplisher.

Franklin’s picture has appeared on every $100 bill since 1928. (His picture was on the first $100 Federal Reserve Note issued in 1914, but those bills, along with all other U.S. currency, were resized and redesigned in 1928.) The Treasury Department claims their records do not show why Franklin was selected for the $100 bills, now often referred to as “Benjamins.” The bill is one of two denominations printed today that does not feature a President of the United States; the other is the $10 bill, featuring Alexander Hamilton.


April 15, 1947 – Jackie Robinson Breaks the Color Line

On this day in history, Jackie Robsinon donned his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform (number 42) for the first time. His major league debut brought an end to approximately sixty years of segregation in professional baseball, known as the baseball color line.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, 1950

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, 1950

In 1956, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey recalled that summer, and what went into his decision to choose Robinson to cross the color line. He mentioned all the barriers, and how important it had been to pick someone who could withstand both the scrutiny and the fierce opposition:

I couldn’t come with a man to break down a tradition that had in it centered and concentrated all the prejudices of a great many people north and south unless he was good. He must justify himself upon the positive principle of merit. He must be a great player. I must not risk an excuse of trying to do something in the sociological field, or in the race field, just because of sort of a “holier than thou.” I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field. It didn’t matter to me so much in choosing a man off the field that he was temperamental, — righteously subject to resentments. I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load. That was the greatest danger point of all.”

Rickey lucked out with Jackie Robinson. He not only racked up records for his baseball prowess, such as the examples shown in this list.

• Named National League Rookie of the Year in 1947.
• Led the National League in stolen bases in 1947 and 1949.
• Led second basemen in double plays 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1952.
• Selected as the National League MVP in 1949
• Won the 1949 batting title with a .342.
• National League All-Star Team, 1949-1954.
• Had a career batting average of .311 with the Dodgers, .333 in All-Star games Led the Dodgers to six World Series and one World Series Championship in a 10-year span.

Jackie Robinson steals home during a game against the New York Giants in 1950

Jackie Robinson steals home during a game against the New York Giants in 1950

More importantly, he had the character to withstand the slings and arrows that constantly assailed him, and to rise above them. He quickly won the respect and enthusiasm of the fans, and gave hope to millions of people of color that the lines of segregation might not be so rigid after all.

April 13, 1743 – Birthdate (Sort Of) Of Thomas Jefferson and Review of “Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything” by Maira Kalman

Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of America, was born on April 2 according to the old style (Julian) calendar, which was changed in 1752 in the U.S. to the Gregorian calendar, still in use today. The new calendar pushed all dates forward by eleven days, so that Jefferson’s birthdate became April 13. Those born during this period often celebrated their birthdays on both days, if they celebrated at all. (According to scholars at Monticello, Jefferson always insisted the only birthday he observed was July 4, the birthday of his country.)


Maira Kalman creates gorgeous books, and fortunately, she is an excellent storyteller as well. Her book for children on the life of Lincoln was absolutely wonderful (see my review here) but I was worried about this one: what would she say about Jefferson and his unwillingness to give up his slaves?

Kalman does not make Jefferson’s weaknesses central to the book, but she doesn’t ignore them either. She writes:

‘The man who said of slavery ‘This ABOMINATION MUST END’ was the ownere of about 150 slaves. The MONUMENTAL MAN had MONUMENTAL FLAWS.”

Including a reproduction of the list of Jefferson’s slaves in his farm books, she notes:

OUR hearts are BROKEN.”

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Most of all, however, Kalman focuses on Jefferson’s eclectic range of interests, his love of books – “on history, science, philosophy, government, mathematics, music, art and so much more”), his work on his estate which he called Monticello, and his accomplishments in government.


She explains about his belief in the separation of church and state, and about his purchase from Napoleon of a large part of the land that became the United States.

She ends with the advice:

If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello.”

What an amazingly concise and astute way to summarize not just the character of Jefferson, but of the other Founding Fathers as well.

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The Matisse-like whimsical paintings in the book are bursting with vibrant colors, and the typeface varies in size, style, and color, depending on the text.


In the back, a brief annotated note section adds more details about the people and events described in the book.

Evaluation: This is an outstanding resource about Jefferson for readers of all ages. The text is funny and informative, with lots of kid appeal. The illustrations are stunning.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2014.

April 12, 1864 – Massacre at Fort Pillow

On this day in history, the troops of Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest butchered the black Union troops garrisoned at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. The garrison surrendered, but some four hundred soldiers were shot anyway. Two wounded black soldiers were buried alive but managed to dig themselves out. Many bodies were mutilated.

The war in Tennessee : Confederate massacre of Federal troops after the surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864.

The war in Tennessee : Confederate massacre of Federal troops after the surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864.

Richard Fuchs, author of An Unerring Fire (2002, p. 14), concluded:

The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct – intentional murder – for the vilest of reasons – racism and personal enmity.”

On April 17, 1864, Grant ordered General Benjamin F. Butler, who was negotiating prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy, to demand that in the exchange and treatment of prisoners, black prisoners had to be treated identically to whites. A failure to do so would “be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and [would] be so treated by us.”

General Grant

General Grant

This demand was refused and Confederate Secretary of War Seddon in June 1864 stated the confederate position:

I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners.”

On August 10, the Confederates agreed to a “man-for-man exchange” but not of black soldiers. General Robert E. Lee restated this position to General Grant in October, writing “…negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange.”

Meanwhile, Forrest did not pay the consequences for the actions of troops under his command. After the War, he was a pledged delegate from Tennessee to the New York Democratic national convention in 1868, and most notably, served as the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

April 10, 1865: President Lincoln Asks the Band to Play “Dixie”

General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. The next day, despite rain and mud there were some 3,000 people in the streets celebrating. Crowds serenaded President Lincoln throughout the day. “At length,” wrote a reporter for the Washington paper Daily National Intelligencer, “after persistent effort, the presence of Mr. Lincoln was secured. Three loud and hearty cheers were given, after which the President said:

‘FELLOW CITIZENS: I am very greatly rejoiced to find that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people cannot restrain themselves. [Cheers.] I suppose that arrangements are being made for some sort of a formal demonstration, this, or perhaps, to-morrow night. [Cries of `We can't wait,' `We want it now,' &c.] If there should be such a demonstration, I, of course, will be called upon to respond, and I shall have nothing to say if you dribble it all out of me before. [Laughter and applause.] I see you have a band of music with you. [Vocies, `We have two or three.'] I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular tune which I will name. Before this is done, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.’

In accordance with the request, the band struck up `Dixie,’ and at its conclusion played `Yankee Doodle,’ the President remaining at the window mean-while. The President then said: `Now give three good hearty cheers for General Grant and all under his command.’ These were given with a will, after which Mr. Lincoln requested `three more cheers for our gallant Navy,’ which request was also readily granted. The President then disappeared from the window, amid the cheers of those below. The crowd then moved back to the War Department, and loud calls were again made for Secretary Stanton.”

Lincoln in February, 1865

Lincoln in February, 1865

Less than a week later, Lincoln was dead.

April 7, 2003 – The Supreme Court Decides Virginia v. Black

In the 2003 case Virginia v. Black (538 U.S. 343), three defendants were convicted in two separate cases of violating a Virginia statute against cross burning. In an opinion authored by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court struck down Va. Code Ann. §18.2—423 (1996) to the extent that it considered cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate:

We conclude that while a State, consistent with the First Amendment, may ban cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate, the provision in the Virginia statute treating any cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate renders the statute unconstitutional in its current form.”

In the opinion, Justice O’Connor recounted the history of the Ku Klux Klan and the display of a burning cross “used to communicate both threats of violence and messages of shared ideology.” She cited the Klan constitution which claims that the “fiery cross” is the “emblem of that sincere, unselfish devotedness of all klansmen to the sacred purpose and principles we have espoused.” She also adduced instances in which the burning cross was used by the Klan as “a sign of celebration and ceremony” such as at a marriage of two Klan members. Nevertheless, she acknowledged:

…while a burning cross does not inevitably convey a message of intimidation, often the cross burner intends that the recipients of the message fear for their lives. And when a cross burning is used to intimidate, few if any messages are more powerful.”

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Nevertheless, she was unwilling to compromise the First Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, providing that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Citing previous rulings of the Court, she observed: “The hallmark of the protection of free speech is to allow “free trade in ideas”–even ideas that the overwhelming majority of people might find distasteful or discomforting.”

She admitted that “Virginia’s statute does not run afoul of the First Amendment insofar as it bans cross burning with intent to intimidate.” But the Court agreed with the Supreme Court of Virginia in its finding that the Virginia statute was “overbroad” in inferring intent from the burning of a cross by itself:

As the history of cross burning indicates, a burning cross is not always intended to intimidate. Rather, sometimes the cross burning is a statement of ideology, a symbol of group solidarity. It is a ritual used at Klan gatherings, and it is used to represent the Klan itself. Thus, “[b]urning a cross at a political rally would almost certainly be protected expression.” R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S., at 402, n. 4 (White, J., concurring in judgment) (citing Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S., at 445). Cf. National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977) (per curiam). Indeed, occasionally a person who burns a cross does not intend to express either a statement of ideology or intimidation. Cross burnings have appeared in movies such as Mississippi Burning, and in plays such as the stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.”

Justice O’Connor did not address what would constitute sufficient proof of “intent to intimidate.” It seems she was willing to accept any explanation offered by Klan members, notoriously not given to self-incrimination.

In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas basically writes, “Oh, come on!” He argues:

In our culture, cross burning has almost invariably meant lawlessness and understandably instills in its victims well-grounded fear of physical violence.”

Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas

In addition he contended that the Virginia statute prohibited only conduct, not expression. However, he clarified:

Even assuming that the statute implicates the First Amendment, in my view, the fact that the statute permits a jury to draw an inference of intent to intimidate from the cross burning itself presents no constitutional problems. Therein lies my primary disagreement with the plurality.”

He went on to note that in other instances of potential harm, the Court had not imposed a scienter requirement. Indeed, he averred, “Considering the horrific effect cross burning has on its victims, it is also reasonable to presume intent to intimidate from the act itself.” He concluded:

…the plurality strikes down the statute because one day an individual might wish to burn a cross, but might do so without an intent to intimidate anyone. That cross burning subjects its targets, and, sometimes, an unintended audience, see 262 Va., at 782; see also J.A. 93—97, to extreme emotional distress, and is virtually never viewed merely as “unwanted communication,” but rather, as a physical threat, is of no concern to the plurality. Henceforth, under the plurality’s view, physical safety will be valued less than the right to be free from unwanted communications.”

In 2002, the Virginia legislature responded by enacting a new statute numbered § 18.2-423.01. The original Section 18.2-423, held unconstitutional, has not been repealed. The new statute, however, does not contain a prima facie evidence provision and applies to “objects,” not mentioning crosses in particular. The statute makes burning an object on the private property of another with the intent to intimidate a crime in itself; whereas, burning an object on a highway or other public place with the intent to intimidate must be “in a manner having a direct tendency to place another person in reasonable fear or apprehension of death or bodily injury.”

Ku Klux Klansmen and women at a cross "lighting" (as opposed to "burning") on November 12th, 2005.

Ku Klux Klansmen and women at a cross “lighting” (as opposed to “burning”) on November 12th, 2005.

April 6, 1965 – U.S. Officially Goes on the Offensive in Vietnam

On this day in history, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, issued on his behalf “National Security Memorandum 328.” (McGeorge “Mac” Bundy was United States National Security Advisor first to President John F. Kennedy, and stayed on to serve Lyndon B. Johnson in that capacity after Kennedy’s assassination. Today he is known primarily for his role in escalating the involvement of the United States in Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.)

McGeorge Bundy,  June 25, 1965

McGeorge Bundy, June 25, 1965

Memo 328 represented a shift in policy from the position that all US military operations in South Vietnam were to be defensive in nature.

The memo, drafted & signed by Bundy, approved the “slowly ascending tempo of ROlLING THUNDER operations” or sustained bombing missions, over North Vietnam. These actions, along with the introduction of combat troops in March, 1965, in turn created a reassessment in the Vietnamese Communist Party of its own war strategy. 

As suggested by an online seminar on the War at Vassar College, the Communist Party in Hanoi endeavored (successfully, as it turned out) to get the United States bogged down in a war that it could not win militarily and create unfavorable conditions for political victory. The Communist Party believed the United States would eventually tire of the war and demand a negotiated settlement.

You can read the full text of this document here.

April 4, 1968 – Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this date in 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., American civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was assassinated at the age of 39. In January of 1965, he was asked in an interview reprinted here about plots on his life. He replied:

If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically. I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that America today is an extremely sick nation, and that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.”


April 1, 1968 – Defense Secretary Robert McNamara Makes a Really Good Career Move

On this day, Robert S. McNamara began his new position as head of the World Bank. The previous November, he had announced that he was resigning from his office as Secretary of Defense to accept the World Bank appointment. The announcement came as the War in Vietnam was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States and abroad.

Robert McNamara with Vietnam appropriately at his side

Robert McNamara with Vietnam appropriately at his side

McNamara served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as the 8th defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. [The Department of Defense was only formed in 1949, in an amendment made to the National Security Act of 1947.) In McNamara’s obituary (he died in 2009 at age 93), the New York Times reported:

As early as April 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, called Vietnam “McNamara’s War.” Mr. McNamara did not object. “I am pleased to be identified with it,” he said, “and do whatever I can to win it.”

Back in 1972 he declared: “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning this war.”)

Advising Johnson, McNamara provided false intelligence (that he called “iron-clad evidence”) about an attack on American warships by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964. Johnson used this information to get Congress to authorize the war.

McNamara during a press conference about the alleged Gulf of Tonkin attack on American ships

McNamara during a press conference about the alleged Gulf of Tonkin attack on American ships

Nevertheless, thirty years later (and after some 58,000 had died in the war), he confessed in a memoir that the war was “wrong, terribly wrong.”

McNamara was involved in a number of other fiascos besides the huge one of the Vietnam War, including the disastrous Bay of Pigs and plans for using the U.S. military to overthrow the Castro government in Cuba. He was also assigned by Kennedy to come up with ways “to stir things up on the island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder” (per notes taken by Robert Kennedy). There are those who believe all this “stirring up” led Castro to plot revenge via the assassination of John Kennedy.

McNamara walking with President John Kennedy on July 8, 1961, in Hyannis Port

McNamara walking with President John Kennedy on July 8, 1961, in Hyannis Port

In 1995, McNamara took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.” In return, he faced a firestorm of scorn.

McNamara served for 13 years as president of the World Bank. His work there too has drawn heavy criticism. Nevertheless, at least he avoided the worst of the fallout from Vietnam, which fell heavily on President Johnson instead.

McNamara arriving for work at the World Bank

McNamara arriving for work at the World Bank

March 31, 1968 – President Lyndon Johnson Opts Not to Seek Re-election

On this day in history, Lyndon Johnson, 36th President of the United States, stunned the nation by announcing “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your President.” At a later news conference he averred his decision was “completely irrevocable.”


The Vietnam War had gotten out of control, and the country was polarized. Johnson found himself increasingly under fire from both the right and the left. He was unable to devise a strategy for victory, withdrawal, or peace with honor. On March 31, 1968, he announced he would not run for re-election. The War would eventually claim the lives of 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese.

NPR has a very good 5 minute program produced in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of President Johnson’s stunning announcement that he would not seek another term in office. As NPR producer John McDonough observed, “nobody saw it coming.” You can learn more about it, and also hear the president make his historic statement here. You can also read the entire text of the speech here, in which President Johnson begins by proclaiming his intention to wind down the Vietnam War.

Lyndon B. Johnson speaks to nation on TV on March 31, 1968

Lyndon B. Johnson speaks to nation on TV on March 31, 1968


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