November 22, 2013 – U.S. Senate Alters Its Filibuster Rules

On this date the U.S. Senate approved, on a 52 to 48 vote, a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the ability of the minority party to filibuster most presidential nominees, allowing a simple majority vote to be determinative. The change meant that the filibuster would no longer applies to judicial or executive-branch nominees but still apply to bills and Supreme Court nominations.

The Democrats contended they were trying to resolve the gridlock that had been plaguing Congress, but Republicans said the Senate’s move represented an outrageous repudiation of the minority party’s right to influence policy.

However, as Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist who researches the filibuster, said:

Over the last 50 years, we have added a new veto point in American politics. It used to be the House, the Senate and the president, and now it’s the House, the president, the Senate majority and the Senate minority. Now you need to get past four veto points to pass legislation. That’s a huge change of constitutional priorities. But it’s been done, almost unintentionally, through procedural strategies of party leaders.”


November 20, 1789 – New Jersey Is The First State to Ratify The Bill of Rights

On this day in history, New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights had been introduced by James Madison on June 8, 1789.

Originally, seventeen articles were proposed; These were subsequently reduced to the twelve amendments passed by Congress and sent to the states on September 25, 1789. New Jersey approved eleven. The first, relating to how federal representation would be determined based on population, was ratified by New Jersey but not by the required number of states. The second, relating to the salaries of members of Congress, was rejected by New Jersey, but then approved in 1992 as the 27th Amendment. Articles 3 through 12 became the 1st through 10th Amendments.

You can read the twelve articles, as proposed, here. You can also enlarge these Library of Congress images to read all seventeen articles.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution submitted to the state legislatures from the appendix to the Senate Journal, First Congress, First Session.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution submitted to the state legislatures from the appendix to the Senate Journal, First Congress, First Session.

November 18, 2003 – Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gay Marriage

On this day in history, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (798 N.E.2d 941, Mass. 2003) that the state constitution guaranteed gay couples the right to marry. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote:

The question before us is whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry. We conclude that it may not. The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals.   It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.   In reaching our conclusion we have given full deference to the arguments made by the Commonwealth.   But it has failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts thus began on May 17, 2004, as a result of that Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling. Massachusetts became the sixth jurisdiction in the world (after the Netherlands, Belgium, Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec) to legalize same-sex marriage. It was the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney responded by calling for an amendment of the Massachusetts constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. President George W. Bush called for a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution in his 2004 State of the Union address, saying, “Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”

In 1996, Congress enacted The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (Pub.L. 104–199, 110 Stat. 2419) allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. DOMA, in conjunction with other statutes, had barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as “spouses” for purposes of federal laws, effectively barring them from receiving federal marriage benefits. DOMA’s passage did not prevent individual states from recognizing same-sex marriage, but it imposed constraints on the benefits received by all legally married same-sex couples.

In July 2009, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to seek federal marriage benefits for some 16,000 gay and lesbian couples who had wed since the state became the nation’s first to legalize same-sex marriage. She called on the Supreme Court to review the Defense of Marriage Act, contending DOMA was unconstitutional by interfering with a state’s right to regulate marriage under the Tenth Amendment.

Additionally, she contended that DOMA exceeded Congress’ authority under the Spending Clause because the law impacts joint state-federal programs, such as Medicaid and operation of veterans’ cemeteries.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor (133 S.Ct. 2675, 2013) by a vote of five to four in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was “unconstitutional as deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” (DOMa section 3 required federal laws and agency rulings, regulations and interpretations to define the words marriage and spouse as referring only to marriages between a man and a woman.)

However, individual states may still ban same-sex marriages. Because the circuit courts are now split on their support of these bans, the Supreme Court may have to take up the issue, in spite of its announcement in October of 2014 that it would not hear same-sex marriage cases.

November 17, 1951 – Denise McNair’s Birthday

On this date in history, Denise McNair was born. She would live just eleven years. Denise was one of four children killed during the KKK terrorist attack against the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Four members of the Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite with a delayed-time release outside the basement of the church (which had been a rallying point for civil-rights activities).


Twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room for closing prayers when the bomb exploded. Twenty-two were injured, and four killed, including Denise, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (age 14) and Carole Robertson (age 14). Denise was the youngest. She was a student at Center Street Elementary School, where she had many friends including the future Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

More than 8,000 mourners, but no city officials, attended the funeral service. The four who committed the crime were not convicted until after the case was re-opened several times. (One died before being charged, one was convicted in 1978, and the other two were not convicted until 2000.)

In 1964, Joan Baez recorded this haunting song reproduced in the video below, “Birmingham Sunday,” written by her brother-in-law and fellow folk singer and activist Richard Farina.

Review of “Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe” by Simon Winder

Danubia is a very quirky book – part history, part travelogue – written by a very witty Englishman. It describes the land once ruled by the Habsburg family, who formed governments dominated by Germans and Hungarians, even though the people over whom they presided were a mixture of various and numerous Slavic nationalities (Polish, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Ruthenian, Slovenian, Galician, Bukovenian, etc.). In addition, the history of the area requires a discussion of the influence of the Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Kosovars, Albanians, and Turks, not to mention the Avars, Huns, and Ostrogoths.


Through most of their reign, the Habsburgs each took the title of “Emperor.” Often the “empire” in question referred to the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne, but which (in Voltaire’s mot juste) was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the title referred to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In all years, the extent and degree of power exercised by the Emperor differed greatly among various corners of the empire.

Winder’s droll observations about the ramshackle “government” operated by the Habsburgs are informative and often downright hilarious. For example, he first describes the results of a “final flourish of Habsburg genetic stupidity” when Emperor Franz I married his first cousin and sired an heir (Ferdinand) who suffered from physical handicaps and could not father children himself. Rather than seek a competent successor to rule, the Emperor insisted on maintaining “legitimism.” Winder states:

Charles X may have been stupid, vengeful and incompetent, but he was the rightful King of France. For Franz I to pass over his son Ferdinand for a more suitable heir would be dangerous as well as virtually republican. So the inflexible and God-fearing Franz insisted on being succeeded by someone effectively incapable of ruling.”

Winder withal is often trenchant and original. For example, he notes that in the spring of 1918, every conceivable Habsburg war aim had been met:

…[with their] borders not only secure but all the countries beyond them prostrate. No Russian army could ever invade Hungary again, no Serb army Croatia, no Romanian army Transylvania. All that remained was to stand by and wait for the Germans to defeat the British, French, and Americans and all would be well.”

However, even though none of the soon-to-be victorious powers had made any commitment to break up the Empire, its internal ethnic tensions were so great that the Empire simply ceased to exist.

The organization of the book is somewhat whimsical. Rather than proceeding in a strictly chronological manner, Winder writes of his peregrinations in the area, and regales the reader with stories associated with each particular location at which he happens to stop. He can be a bit frustrating in that he frequently refers to specific paintings or buildings (with which he seems to assume the reader is familiar) to illustrate a point, but does not furnish the reader with a picture or reproduction that would clarify those illustrations. Nevertheless, I can overlook that flaw because most of the writing is quite sprightly and irreverent — one can almost hear a British accent in his prose.

A number of maps are included.

Evaluation: It would be hard for anyone to find this playful and entertaining history tedious. Winder gleefully adds snarky commentary to his descriptions of “the very peculiar Habsburg family: an unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors….” As Winder argues, the history of Europe hardly makes any sense without the Habsburgs, so he tries (successfully) to make the process of learning about it as painless as possible. Not only does he inject plenty of humor into the story, but he simplifies the details as much as necessary to spare readers a “pedantic horror show.” (For example, the full title for Philip “The Handsome” was Philip I of Castile, Philip II of Luxemburg, Philip III of Brabant, Philip IV of Burgundy, and so on and so on. Winder just calls him “Philip The Handsome.”)

Even if you ordinarily avoid history, this book is pretty fun. Yes, you learn about wars and rebellions, but also about alchemy, bear-moats, hunting with cheetahs, decorative bull skulls, Maria Teresa’s breakfast nook in the zoo, and the complications of the huge jaw characteristic of the inbred Habsburgs. (It was said Charles V could not eat in public because of it, and “the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces.”)

Christoph Amberger’s portrait of the Emperor Charles V

Christoph Amberger’s portrait of the Emperor Charles V

Rating: 4/5

Paperback copy purchased in Vienna published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2013

November 12, 1816 – Thomas Jefferson Expresses Favor For Crushing Monied Corporations

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to Tom Logan conveying his fears about the rise of aristocracy in the U.S.:

I hope we shall … crush in [its] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

This was not a new theme of Jefferson’s, but it usually was couched in attacks on Alexander Hamilton. Most recently, this quote was cited by Justice John Paul Stevens in concurring in part and dissenting in part in the Opinion of the Court for Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n (No. 08-205, decided January 21, 2010). Justice Stevens (who retired on June 29, 2010) employed entertaining sarcasm in noting:

The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind. While individuals might join together to exercise their speech rights, business corporations, at least, were plainly not seen as facilitating such associational or expressive ends.”

Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens

November 10, 1919 – Birthdate of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov

On this day in history, Mikhail Kalashnikov was born in Russia. Kalashnikov went on to become a Russian general as well as a designer of small arms – most famously, the Avtomat Kalashnikova assault rifle developed in 1947, commonly known as the AK-47.

Mikhail Kalashnikov presents his legendary assault rifle to the media while opening the exhibition "Kalashnikov - Legend and Curse of a Weapon" at a weapons museum in Suhl, eastern Germany, in 2002

Mikhail Kalashnikov presents his legendary assault rifle to the media while opening the exhibition “Kalashnikov – Legend and Curse of a Weapon” at a weapons museum in Suhl, eastern Germany, in 2002

The AK-47, recognizable by its banana-shaped ammunition magazine, was the most popular rifle in the latter half of the 20th Century. More AK-type rifles have been produced than all other assault rifles combined. As of 2009, some 100 million AK-47 assault rifles had been produced, although it is estimated that half of them are counterfeit. (Izhmash, the official manufacturer of AK-47 in Russia, did not patent the weapon until 1997, and in 2006 accounted for only 10% of the world’s production.)

Moslem fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front with AK-47s

Moslem fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front with AK-47s

The main advantages of the Kalashnikov rifle are said to be its simple design, fairly compact size, and adaptation to mass production. It is inexpensive to manufacture, easy to clean and maintain, and is rugged and reliable.

The AK-47 is included in the flag of Mozambique (it is the only national flag in the world to feature such a modern rifle); the coat of arms of East Timor; and on the flag of Hezbollah, inter alia.

Flag of Mozambique

Flag of Mozambique

Kalashnikov died on 23 December 2013 at a hospital after a prolonged illness. He was 94. On his 90th birthday he was named a “Hero of the Russian Federation” and presented with a medal by President Dmitry Medvedev who lauded him for creating “the brand every Russian is proud of.” Still, he said in 2002, he would have prefered to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — “for example a lawnmower.”

Kalashnikov in need of a lawn mower

Kalashnikov in need of a lawn mower


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