October 7, 1885 – Birthdate of Niels Bohr

It is impossible to overestimate the contributions to science made by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Not only did he come up with the theory of electrons traveling in discrete orbits around an atom’s nucleus, but he also originated the idea of the quantum leap between orbits – the basis of quantum theory. Moreover, he came up with the important idea of “complementarity” — that things may have a dual nature (both particle and wave), even though we can only experience one aspect at a time. (It should be noted that scientific discoveries are generally not made in vacuums. Bohr’s work built on the research of many who preceded him, including Sir J.J. Thomson, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Albert Einstein among others.)

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr

In 1921 Bohr founded the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen (renamed The Niels Bohr Institute in 1965) and remained director for the rest of his life. Bohr’s personal warmth, good humor, and hospitality helped make Copenhagen a refuge for many of the century’s greatest theoretical physicists who needed to escape Hitler’s juggernaut. Those who came to do research included Wolfgang Pauli (the grumpy physicist who said a theory by a student was so bad it was “not even wrong”), Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Edward Teller, and George Gamov.

Original building of the Institute for Theoretical Physics

Original building of the Institute for Theoretical Physics

In 1922, Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them.”

Bohr's 1913 model of the atom showing the quantum leap

Bohr's 1913 model of the atom showing the quantum leap

As the Encyclopedia Britannica reports:

In the fall of 1943, the political situation in Denmark changed dramatically after the Danish government’s collaboration with the German occupiers broke down. After being warned about his imminent arrest, Bohr escaped by boat with his family across the narrow sound to Sweden. In Stockholm the invitation to England was repeated, and Bohr was brought by a military airplane to Scotland and then on to London. Only a few days later he was joined by his son Aage, a fledgling physicist of age 21, who would serve as his father’s indispensable sounding board during their absence from Denmark.”

Bohr played an advisory role in the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico during World War II, a project dedicated to the development of the atomic bomb. He later became an advocate for sharing the bomb with the Russians in the name of peace, although, unlike American Robert Oppenheimer, he managed to escape suspicions of Communist sympathies.

It is no exaggeration to say that Niels Bohr helped to change the world in a way few people ever have. He died in Copenhagen on November 18, 1962. One of his sons, Aage Bohr, who also won a Nobel Prize in Physics, died on September 8, 2009. Aage used to joke that the most famous physicists in the world were all his “uncles.”

Niels Bohr (on the right) and his son Aage

Niels Bohr (on the right) and his son Aage

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Review of “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt” by Daniel Rasmussen

The riveting book American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen will keep you glued to your chair from start to finish. Rasmussen tells the story of the largest slave revolt in United States history – a story that is most striking for the fact that it has been virtually eliminated from textbooks.

In January of 1811, approximately 500 slaves from plantations in the New Orleans area tried to seize power and win freedom for those who labored in the sugar cane fields. The sugar cane industry was notorious for the intense workload and high death rate among the slaves. During harvest time, slaves worked sixteen hours a day. Yet the profits were so high, planters were unaffected by the fact that less than one-third of slaves survived past the third or fourth year. Louisiana planters claimed that Africans were “uniquely matched to the hot weather and tough work.” But this claim was belied by the high death rate as well as the necessity for whips, spiked iron collars, and face masks used on the slaves. As Rasmussen observes,

These colonial plantations were as close to a death camp as one could come in the late eighteenth century.”

The author recounts the incredible story of how the slave rebellion was organized, carried out, and viciously crushed by the combined forces of the planters and the U.S. Army and Navy. He details the brutal retaliation exacted by the planters, who decapitated some one hundred slaves, putting their heads on spikes all along the levee. He also decries the fact that the names of the brave rebel leaders – Kook, Quamana, Harry Kenner, and Charles Deslondes – have been lost to history, and he tells you exactly how and why the memory of this revolt was suppressed almost immediately. And in a fascinating twist, he explains how the slave rebellion and its aftermath became a factor in the victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans a year later, a victory that ultimately led to his presidency. Jackson, “the nation’s most celebrated killer of Native Americans,” was only one of several presidents dedicated to the hegemony of white Americans over the vast expanse of the American continent.

Rasmussen wants us to draw at least two important lessons from this story:

Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.”

Secondly, he mentions other black Americans who have fought against the U.S. government, such as Robert F. Williams (see my review of his story in the book by Timothy Tyson here). He observes that only those blacks who strike a conciliatory pose toward the government through peaceful resistance (such as Martin Luther King, Jr.) get written into history. The others get written out:

Robert F.Williams, like Kook and Quamana, like Charles Deslondes, took up arms against the United States of America in the name of freedom. They fought against U.S. government agents, they supported the overthrow of legally sanctioned racism, and they were exiled or executed for their actions.”

He concludes:

Coming to terms with American history means addressing the 1811 uprising and the story of Robert F.Williams – not brushing these events under the rug because they upset safe understandings about who were are as a nation.”

Evaluation: This is a fabulous book about a horrible subject. It is non-fiction but reads like a suspense novel. In addition, it contains critical information about our nation’s history, and how the government treated anyone who got in the way of the profit-maximizing and imperialist mission of the young country. I’d call it a must-read.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper, 2011

Author Daniel Rasmussen

October 2, 1833 – Organization of the New York City Anti-Slavery Society

On this day in history, an abolitionist organization was officially formed committed to making the U.S. a biracial nation of equals. However, an acknowledgment of the rights of the Southern States was set forth in its constitution:

While it admits that each State in which slavery exists has, by the Constitution of the United States, the exclusive right to legislate in regard to its abolition in said State, it shall aim to convince all our fellow-citizens, by arguments addressed to their understandings and consciences, that slave-holding is a heinous crime in the sight of God, and that the duty, safety, and best interest of all concerned require its immediate abandonment, without expatriation.

The society will also endeavour in a constitutional way to influence Congress to put an end to the domestic slave-trade and to abolish slavery in all those portions of our common country which come under its control, especially in the District of Columbia, and likewise to prevent the extension of it to any State that may hereafter be admitted to the Union.”

But that wasn’t all. Unlike previous abolitionist groups that promoted colonization of freed blacks, the New York City Anti-Slavery Society hoped to “elevate” and integrate blacks into society:

The society shall aim to elevate the character and condition of the people of colour, by encouraging their intellectual, moral, and religious improvement, and by removing public prejudice, that thus they may according to their intellectual and moral worth share an equality with the whites of civil and religious privileges; but this society will never in any way countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to physical force.”

Opposition was strenuous. A week later a meeting was called to protest the “reckless agitations of the abolitionists.” Theodore Frelinghuysen, United States Senator from New Jersey, declared that “nine tenths of the horrors of slavery were imaginary,” and that emancipationists were “seeking to dissolve the Union.”

Theodore Frelinghuysen

Theodore Frelinghuysen

Theodore Frelinghuysen was quite a prominent politician, running for Vice President with Henry Clay on the Whig ticket in the election of 1844. He also served as President of New York University and President of Rutgers College, and was active in evangelical Christian organizations. His moniker was the “Christian Statesman.”

Review of “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race” by Richard Rhodes

Beginning with a gripping blow-by-blow account of the Chernobyl accident, Rhodes explores the nuclear arms race from 1986 through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 in this important and thought-provoking book. He demonstrates that throughout the entire Cold War period, the U.S. had superior numbers of strategic nuclear bombs and warheads. The U.S. political debates that conjured the threat and fear of Soviet first-strike capabilities were “as divorced from reality as the debates of medieval scholars about the characteristics of seraphim and cherubim.”

What accounts from this divergence of fact and policy? One astute observation by Rhodes is that military leaders made “what philosophy calls a category mistake, an assumption that nuclear explosives are military weapons in any meaningful sense of the term, and that [therefore] a sufficient quantity of such weapons can make us secure.” That is, unlike conventional weapons, nuclear weapons are so qualitatively different in terms of both short and long term effects, that a strictly quantitative comparison is not valid.

Political concerns also have played a large role in nuclear arms accumulation. Rhodes points out that the Reagan administration sponsored “the largest peacetime buildup in American history.” Rhodes suggests that some of the motivation was “to starve the beast of government domestic spending, part of the conservative Republican agenda.”

In addition (in a harbinger of things to come), advisors to Reagan, Ford, and Bush such as Richard Perle, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz blatantly twisted intelligence to conform to a bias that was anti-Soviet and pro-military-industrial complex. Particularly in the case of Reagan, advisors had more freedom for manipulation given a president who could not speak coherently without cue cards.

One riveting section of the book describes a very close call to nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that took place in November 1983. “That,” Rhodes charges, “was the return on the neoconservatives’ long, cynical, and radically partisan investment in threat inflation and arms-race escalation.”

A continuing thread in the book is the intelligence, courage, and perseverance of Mikhail Gorbachev. Not only did he have to overcome the ossification of the Soviet system to effect perestroika, or reform, but the resistance of U.S. hardliners as well.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

How appropriate that Rhodes ends his book with a quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose opposition to a nuclear arms build-up helped to vitiate his career. Oppenheimer observed presciently in 1953:

“We may anticipate a state of affairs in which two Great Powers will each be in a position to put an end to the civilization and life of the other, though not without risking its own. We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”

As Rhodes charges, the U.S. chose “to distend ourselves into the largest scorpion in the bottle.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer

The risks of accidental nuclear war remain high. You can read accounts of some frightening “near misses” here and here. And now, with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump trading hostile rhetoric, the threat of non-accidental nuclear war has once again reared its head.

Evaluation: This well-written history and cautionary tale continues to have relevance.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Knopf, 2007

A 1953 detonation of the 23 kiloton XX-34 Badger at the Nevada Test Site.

September 28, 1938 – Cubs Game History of “Homer in the Gloamin”

Charles Leo “Gabby” Hartnett (December 20, 1900 – December 20, 1972) was an National Major League Baseball catcher and manager who played nearly his entire career with the Chicago Cubs. He is widely considered to have been the greatest National League catcher in the first half of the 20th century.

hartnetta

“Homer in the Gloamin'” refers to a game-winning home run hit by Hartnett in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 28, 1938. The Cubs were trailing Pittsburgh by only half a game, and the lightless Wrigley Field was gradually being overcome by darkness. The score was tied 5-5; if it had become too dark, the game would have had to be replayed from the beginning. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, two strikes on him, and the umpires ready to end the game, Hartnett launched a shot into the gloom and haze which would be remembered as his “Homer in the Gloamin'”. The Cubs were now in first place, culminating a tremendous 19-3-1 September run, and the pennant would be clinched three days later. Unfortunately, the Cubs were swept in the World Series by the New York Yankees, their fourth Series loss in ten years.

The Cubs have appeared in a total of eleven World Series. The 1906 Cubs won 116 games, finishing 116–36 and posting a modern-era record winning percentage of .763, before losing the World Series to the Chicago White Sox (“The Hitless Wonders”) by four games to two. The Cubs won back-to-back World Series championships in 1907 and 1908, becoming the first major league team to play in three consecutive World Series, and the first to win it twice. Then there was a long drought; it took 108 years for the Cubs to win another World Series, which they did in 2016.

The Drought Is Over

The Drought Is Over

The story of “Homer in the Gloamin” seems to be known by every single person in the entire Chicago metropolitan area, although not so much outside of it.

September 26, 1941- Final Destruction of Jews in Eishishok

Eishishok (or Ejszyszki) used to be one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania. The founding families of Jewish Eishyshok were believed to have come from a sect dating from eighth-century Babylonia, which by the eleventh century had shifted one of its centers from the Middle East to Europe.

Before the Holocaust, the Jewish population of Eishyshok was approximately 3,500. Contemporary Eishyshok is a town without Jews.

The Germans arrived in Eishistok in June of 1941, collecting and confiscating Jewish valuables, and initiating a program of abuse and humiliation. On September 21, an SS mobile killing squad arrived, accompanied by Lithuanian volunteers. Four thousand jews from both Eishistok and the surrounding area were herded into three synagogues. On September 25, the men were led in groups of 250 to the old Jewish cemetery, ordered to undress at the edge of open pits, and shot by Lithuanian guards. The next day, on this day in history, the women and children were shot near the Christian cemetery. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial reports:

Nine hundred years of Jewish life and culture in Eishishok came to an end in two days.”

A book on this community, There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok by Yaffa Eliach, was a 1998 Finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction.

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September 24, 1755 – Birth of John Marshall, Fourth Chief Justice of U.S. Supreme Court

John Marshall was born in a rural community on the Virginia frontier, in what is now Fauquier County, on September 24, 1755.

His parents decided John was to be a lawyer, and John’s father bought him a copy of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England for John to read and study. After serving in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Marshall read law under the famous Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, George Wythe; was elected to Phi Beta Kappa; and was admitted to the Bar in 1780. He was in private practice in Fauquier County before entering politics.

In 1788, Marshall was selected as a delegate to the Virginia convention responsible for ratifying or rejecting the United States Constitution, which had been proposed by the Philadelphia Convention a year earlier. Together with his fellow Virginians James Madison and Edmund Randolph, Marshall led the fight for ratification. He was especially active in defense of Article III, which provides for the Federal judiciary. Marshall identified with the new Federalist Party (which supported a strong national government and commercial interests), and opposed Jefferson’s Republican Party (which advocated states’ rights and idealized the yeoman farmer and the French Revolution).

John Marshall painting from 1797

In 1798, Marshall declined a Supreme Court appointment by President John Adams, recommending Bushrod Washington, who would later become one of Marshall’s staunchest allies on the Court. Instead, Adams named Marshall as Secretary of State.

Adams and the Federalists were defeated in the presidential election of 1800, but the President and the lame duck Congress passed what came to be known as the Midnight Judges Act, which made sweeping changes to the federal judiciary, including a reduction in the number of Justices from six to five (upon the next vacancy in the court) so as to deny Jefferson an appointment until two vacancies occurred. In addition, since the incumbent Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth was in poor health, Adams nominated Marshall. Marshall was confirmed by the Senate on January 27, 1801, and received his commission on January 31, 1801. President John Adams offered this appraisal of Marshall’s impact: “My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.”

Marshall served as Chief Justice during the administrations of six Presidents: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He helped to establish the Supreme Court as the final authority on the meaning of the Constitution in cases and controversies that must be decided by the federal courts. According to the Oyez Project, Marshall’s impact on constitutional law is without peer, and his imprint on the Court’s jurisprudence remains indelible.

In the excellent book John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved The Union by Harlow Giles Unger, Unger takes the interesting approach of illuminating the contributions of John Marshall to the protection and preservation of the Constitution by describing the many ways in which Thomas Jefferson sought to subvert it. This book will educate readers about the actual operations of the early republic, rather than the usual “patriotic” myths fed to students of history. Although revered as a “Founding Father,” Jefferson was in truth often interested more in advancing his own ideas and ambition than in honoring the Constitution.

cover_john_marshall

Marshall’s legacy as the 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was the assurance of “the integrity and eminence of the Constitution and the federal government.” Marshall, who was the longest serving Chief Justice in American history, signed over 1,180 decisions, writing 549 of them. As Unger shows:

In the course of his Supreme Court leadership Marshall stood at the center of the most riveting – and most important – courtroom dramas in the nation’s formative years. Case by case he defined, asserted, and when necessary, invented the authority he and the Court needed to render justice, stabilize the federal government, and preserve the Union and its Constitution.”

Because of Marshall’s efforts, the judiciary became an equal branch of the federal government. But it was not a predetermined outcome. When Jefferson didn’t get his way, he used every means at his disposal to try to vitiate the judiciary. To his chagrin, however, even when he appointed his own men to the bench, they became so impressed with Marshall’s erudition, devotion to the law, and integrity, that one by one, they became Marshall men instead of Jefferson men.

John marshall painting 1828

To this day, the decisions written or influenced by Marshall continue to shape the American polity. From his opinion in Marbury v. Madison, in which he established the independence of the federal judiciary, to his insistence in U.S. v. Burr that no one, not even the president, is above the law, Marshall made a lasting and positive imprint on the character of the country. And while Jefferson continued to insist, even when retired, that the federal and state governments represented two independent and equal sovereigns, Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland, set forth the precedent that state action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the Federal government. The United States would be a radically different place had it not been for “the great,the good, the wise” John Marshall, as he was described by another famous and well-respected Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Story.

Daguerreotype of Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, 1844

Discussion: One reason I like Unger very much as a historian is that he has always been able to avoid portraying the Founding Fathers in sepia tones with golden halos. He is not loathe to point out, for example, that Jefferson was a vicious man who operated sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. He is not reluctant to provide evidence for how much of the Declaration of Independence was lifted by Jefferson from other writings, such as those of John Locke, or how pusillanimously Jefferson behaved when the fighting broke out in the American Revolution. He also takes Jefferson to task for his treasonous acts against President John Adams when Jefferson himself was serving as Vice President. (This includes the concealment of evidence by Jefferson that would exonerate Adams from charges of impeachment, a movement for which Jefferson was leading the chorus.) And he doesn’t hesitate to speak of Jefferson’s bribes to members of the press to calumniate his opponents; his threats to start a Civil War if he were not elected in 1800; his blatant disdain of the Constitution when it got in the way of what he wanted to do; and his attempts to emasculate the judiciary so that it could not rule against any of his decisions.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Jefferson largely escapes such a close look at his behavior because of the need for the American narrative to show him as a great man, who joined other great men to create a great nation. Even the recent DNA evidence of Jefferson’s long-time affair with Sally Hemings has been downplayed, and those who acknowledge it are quick to point out Jefferson’s long-standing relationship with her, as if his alleged monogamy would make up for his taking up with a fifteen-year old girl when he was forty-six, a girl who was in his care as a slave, unable not to do his bidding. The entire time she was his mistress, she continued to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She was not even freed by his will when he died. But collective memory serves to establish moral, political, and social lessons, and to help form an understanding of who we are as a people. Truth can often fall by the wayside.

Unger, however, has a respect for facts.

He also has a keen eye for those early figures in our history who displayed more character, more nuance, more courage, and more loyalty to the aims of the young country. One of those was John Marshall. This well-written story will keep your attention from beginning to end. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014

John Marshall by Henry Inman, 1832