June 21, 1811 – John Adams writes of George Washington’s Theatricality

As historian Gordon Wood observed in the May 25, 2017 “New York Review of Books,” George Washington “faced the awesome task of fashioning the character and responsibilities of the office [of President]. To that end, “[h]e commonly saw himself as an actor on stage and was always concerned with maintaining appearances.”

On this day in history, John Adams was thinking of that aspect of Washington when he wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush, reporting on his current life and thinking. Adams began with family news, and then wrote, “And now how Shall I turn my Thoughts from this good humoured Small Talk, to the angry, turbulent Stormy Science of Politicks.”

John Adams

Writing about politicians, he commented on how much of politics is theater, observing that:

Washington understood this Art very well, and We may say of him, if he was not the greatest President he was the best Actor of Presidency We have ever had. His Address to The States when he left the Army; His solemn Leave taken of Congress when he re[s]igned his Commission; his Farewell Address to the People when he resigned his Presidency. These were all in a strain of Shakespearean and Garrickal Excellence in Dramatic Exhibitions.”

Ron Chernow, in his biography of Washington, also wrote about Washington’s awareness of his image and the steps he took to manipulate it:

Aware of how impressive he looked atop a white mount, he once instructed a friend to buy him a horse, specifying that he ‘would prefer a perfect white.’ … So taken was Washington with his unblemished chargers that he had grooms rub them with white paste at night, bundle them in cloths, then bed them down on fresh straw. In the morning the hardened white paste gleamed, its paleness accentuated by black polish applied to the horses’ hooves. For command performances, the animals’ mouths were rinsed and their teeth scrubbed.”

Washington on a white horse

You can read Adams’ entire letter here.


June 18, 1815 – Napoleon Meets His Waterloo

As “National Geographic History Magazine” (January/February 2018) summarized:

In the early 1800s Napoleon Bonaparte stormed across Europe, swallowing up territory for his French Empire and challenging the supremacy of Britain on the seas. From 1804 to 1814, the Napoleonic Wars raged, as Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia all fought to hold back the fiery emperor of France. In 1814 it looked as though they had succeeded. Napoleon had abdicated and was exiled to the island of Elba. In France the Bourbon king Louis XVIII had been restored to power.”

But in February 1815, the shocked Europeans learned that Napoleon was back. Recent Napoleon biographer Andrew Roberts argued that Napoleon was not at all the quintessential warmonger he is commonly accused of being; not only was war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others, but it was clear there were many times Napoleon tried his best to abide in peace, only to have other leaders unwilling to tolerate his presence in Europe.

Napoleon; painting from 1814

This was certainly the case in 1815. The government of Britain, in particular, had no intention ever of letting Napoleon rule in peace, and regrouped their army in concert with the Germans, Belgians, Dutch, and Prussians against the perceived threat of Napoleon.

Napoleon was forced to raise a formidable army of his own, which he did in record time. His primary goal was to prevent his opponents from combining their armies before he could defeat them in sequence. To begin, Napoleon would need to attack the British commander, the Duke of Wellington, whose forces were massed Waterloo in present-day Belgium. Napoleon sought to time the battle before Wellington could be reinforced by Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussian forces. Napoleon’s plan might have worked, but for the weather, which prevented him from making an early start on the assault.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

On this foggy, muddy day in history, a battle was fought as soon as Napoleon could organize it, sometime after 11 a.m. Still, Blücher was not yet there, and Wellington thought the engagement would be lost by the British. Finally, around 4 p.m., Blücher’s forces arrived and started to attack the French. Napoleon had made the mistake of splitting up his Imperial Guard, and the usual fearsome force was ineffective. The French were forced to retreat.

While no one knows how many actually died at Waterloo because the French Army never had a chance to make a count, the best estimates suggest that of the 200,000 or so who fought there, some 50,000 lay dead or wounded at the battle’s end, along with 10,000 horses dead or dying.

The Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo

The results were even more momentous than a consideration of the casualty numbers. Waterloo brought the career of Napoleon Bonaparte to an end; no small matter. He abdicated in favor of his son on June 22. He then gave himself up to the British, who banished him to a cruel and insalubrious location in the middle of the Atlantic, in St. Helena. Thus was the map of Europe redrawn, and the Concert of Europe established, a balance of power and system of dispute resolution that restored peace and enabled Britain to grow to be the dominant global power of the 19th Century.

The national boundaries within Europe as set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815

The national boundaries within Europe as set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815

June 16, 1858 – Lincoln Delivers His “House Divided” Speech

On this day in history, delegates met in Springfield, Illinois for the Republican State Convention. They chose Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S. Senate, to run against the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. That same night, at 8 p.m., Lincoln delivered an address to his colleagues.

Abraham Lincoln in Urbana, Illinois, April 25, 1858 by Samuel G. Alschuler

His theme was “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” a phrase from the Gospels familiar to Lincoln’s audience. [“Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.” Matthew 12:22-28, Luke 11:17–22 and also Mark 3:23–27, New King James Version (NKJV)]

Lincoln’s friends considered the speech as too radical for the occasion and advised Lincoln against delivering it. But Lincoln reportedly told his law partner, William H. Herndon:

The proposition is indisputably true … and I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times. I would rather be defeated with this expression in the speech and it held up and discussed before the people than to be victorious without it.” (as recalled by Herndon and reported in multiple sources including Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher, eds.)

Herndon later reflected, “Through logic inductively seen,” he said, “Lincoln as a statesman, and political philosopher, announced an eternal truth — not only as broad as America, but covers the world.”

Lincoln began the speech stating the proposition at the outset:

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention.

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.

We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.

In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

You can read the entirety of the speech here.

Lincoln and Douglas

June 14, 1838 – U.S. Congressman Benjamin Howard Expresses His Regret that Women are Straying from Their Proper Sphere

Benjamin Chew Howard was an American congressman from Baltimore County, Maryland. His father was John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary War officer after whom Howard County, Maryland was named when it officially was formed as a county in 1851.

Benjamin Chew Howard

Benjamin Chew Howard

On this day in history, Representative Howard rose in the House during the debate over the annexation of Texas to express his “regret” that so many women had presented petitions on this matter:

These females could have a sufficient field for the exercise of their influence in the discharge of their duties to their fathers, their husbands, or their children, cheering the domestic circle, and shedding over it the mild radiance of the social virtues, instead of rushing into the fierce struggles of political life.”

By leaving their proper sphere, Howard charged, women were “discreditable, not only to their own particular section of the country, but also to the national character.”

Source: Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, & Women’s Political Identity by Susan Zaeske, University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

June 12, 1929 – An African-American Woman at a White House Tea

As the U.S. House of Representatives history site reports, “Oscar De Priest was the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, ending a 28–year absence of black Representatives.” De Priest represented the South Side district of Chicago in the first congressional district (adjacent to the 13th district, from which Barack Obama would later be elected as a U.S. Senator).

Oscar Stanton De Priest, member of the United States House of Representatives

Oscar Stanton De Priest, member of the United States House of Representatives

Herbert Hoover’s wife Lou now had a problem, however. She had planned to invite the wives of U.S. Congressmen to the White House, but inviting an African-American to the White House was a controversial move. But as an American Presidents blog post explains: “It would be difficult to ignore White House traditions, so canceling the event was not really an option. Nor would the Hoovers snub Mrs. DePriest by excluding her.”

The solution they arrived at was to invite the wives in several groups, finding out first which wives would be offended to be at the same social function as Mrs. DePriest. They further determined to have her at the last of the teas, so that southern wives would not boycott subsequent gatherings.

First Lady Lou Hoover

First Lady Lou Hoover

The blog post further notes:

One last preparation was needed: the morning of Mrs. DePriest’s expected visit, White House security and doormen were alerted ‘to be careful when a colored lady should present herself and say she had an appointment with Mrs. Hoover, lest they create a scene by refusing her admittance.’”

On this day in history, June 12, 1929, Mrs. Hoover received Mrs. DePriest and others in the White House Green Room. They then assembled for tea in the Red Room. Although the event went well, public reaction was heated:

“Some southern newspaper editors accused Mrs. Hoover of ‘defiling’ the White House. The Texas legislature went so far as to formally admonish her. President Hoover, in his memoirs, said that ‘the speeches of southern Senators and Congressmen… wounded [Mrs. Hoover] deeply.’ Mrs. Hoover’s secretary, Ruth Fesler, later recalled that the first lady ‘stood her ground; she had done the right thing and she knew it.’”

Mrs. Jessie De Priest

Mrs. Jessie De Priest

June 9, 1986 – The Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster is Submitted to President Reagan

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The Rogers Commission, a special task force, was created by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the disaster. The report, released and submitted on this day in history, both determined the cause of the disaster that took place 73 seconds after liftoff, and urged NASA to improve and install new safety features on the shuttles and in its organizational handling of future missions.

Flight Crew of the Challenger

The late Caltech physicist and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, Richard Feynman, was asked by the head of NASA to be on the Rogers Commission.

Feynman, in one of his several autobiographical books, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, describes what happened to the Challenger in detail, based on what he learned during the investigation. Members of the commission received many briefs on all the parts of the shuttle and how they fit together. There was a lot of information, and it was technical and confusing.


In a closed meeting of the commission, an engineer from Thiokol Company, Mr. McDonald came to testify, on his own, uninvited. He told the surprised members that Thiokol engineers had been concerned about the effect of low temperatures on the O-ring seals between the rocket joints. The rubber of the O-rings had to be resilient in order to expand and make the seal. Thiokol engineers had indicated to NASA that the shuttle shouldn’t fly if the temperature fell below 53 degrees. Engineers and managers at NASA however, were not convinced by the evidence presented by Thiokol. On the morning of January 28, the temperature was 29.

The next day following the closed meeting, an open, televised meeting was scheduled. Feynman started his morning with a trip to the hardware store and got some tools. As the meeting convened, he asked for ice water. He took some O-ring pieces he had in his pocket, squeezed them in a C-clamp, and put them into the glass of ice water. He pressed the button for the microphone, and announced the results of his experiment:

I discovered that when you undo the clamp, the rubber doesn’t spring back. In other words, for more than a few seconds, there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees. I believe that has some significance for our problem.”


As Feynman reported, “…that night, all the news shows caught on to the significance of the experiment, and the next day, the newspaper articles explained everything perfectly.”

Feynman concluded his testimony by stating: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Edward R. Tufte has also written about the Challenger disaster in his book Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, in which he argues that it was the poor presentation of evidence by Thiokol engineers that beclouded the message they were trying to send. NASA employees could not detect the danger from the confusing graphics prepared by Thiokol. Tufte, also the author of The Visual Design of Quantitative Information, and Envisioning Information, demonstrates graphically how careful design of information can have an effect on the efficacy of communication.


June 6, 1892 – Benjamin Harrison Becomes First Sitting U.S. President to Attend a Major-League Baseball Game

Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd President of the United States, serving from 1889 to 1893. His grandfather, war hero William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president.

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin was born in Ohio as one of thirteen children. At college, he distinguished himself in debating, which motivated him to pursue a career in law. He passed the bar in 1854, moved to Indianapolis, and went into a partnership with the governor’s son. Before long, Harrison got involved in the Republican party, and won the position of city attorney of Indianapolis in 1857. Harrison served in the Civil War, and was considered a “war hero” although he didn’t see much fighting.

He also had a reputation for probity in an era when this enabled him to stand out, and eventually made it to the presidency thanks to some “fake news” that was spread about Grover Cleveland (as recounted by history professor Catherine Clinton in To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents.)

Harrison himself attributed his victory to “divine intervention.”

Once in office, as Professor Clinton writes, Harrison “simply followed the lead of the party bosses who’d manufactured his election.” He never shed his “stodgy public image” but he did make one decidedly un-stodgy move, when on this date in history, he attended a baseball game in Washington, D.C.

Stephen V. Rice, writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, reports that Harrison explained in 1889:

‘I used to go to a game in Indianapolis once in a while, and also in Chicago, and I always enjoyed it . . .I find a good deal of pleasure in watching a good game of ball.’”

The game he attended was between the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators, and was played at Boundary Field, two miles from the White House.

Rice describes the scene:

Harrison arrived at the ballpark in a stately horse-drawn carriage and was seated prominently in the first row of the press box, above the grandstand. He wore a large black derby, a frock coat, a white shirt and a black necktie. One hand rested on an ornamental cane. The ballplayers gazed up at him from the field, and the 2,400 fans were abuzz over the distinguished visitor.”

The final score was Cincinnati 7, Washington 4. Harrison left the game early, however. He was preoccupied, Rice reports, with the Republican National Convention, which was taking place over the next four days in Minneapolis. Harrison received his party’s nomination to run for a second term, but he lost the election in the fall to his predecessor, Democrat Grover Cleveland, the 22nd President of the U.S. and then also the 24th.