October 18, 1775 – Burning of Falmouth, Massachusetts by the British Navy

After the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the Royal Navy, under the command of Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, was instructed by the British Admiralty to suppress the burgeoning rebellion. Captain Henry Mowat received orders from Graves to “carry on such Operations upon the Sea Coasts … as you shall judge most effective for suppressing … the Rebellion.” Graves further ordered Mowat to “lay waste burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty’s ships …”

Captain Henry Mowat

Mowat left Boston Harbor on October 6, 1775 with a flotilla of five ships and 100 marines. Mowat was happy to take revenge against the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts (now Portland, Maine) where he had been held prisoner during Thompson’s War, an early American Revolutionary War confrontation between patriot militia and loyalists supported by the British navy, including Mowat’s sloop, the HMS Canceaux.

On October 16 he reached the outer parts of Falmouth harbor and anchored there. He gave the townspeople until October 18 at 9 a.m. either to swear an oath of allegiance to King George and surrender all arms, or to evacuate. In response, the people of Falmouth began to move out of the town. No oaths were sworn. A small number of muskets were surrendered, but no gun carriages.

Painted version of the map of Falmouth Neck as it was when destroyed by Mowat October 18, 1775. The map originally was created in 1850 and published by Bailey & Noyes of Portland

By 9:40 on October 18 the town appeared to be deserted, so Mowat ran a red flag up the Canceaux’s masthead, and ordered the fleet to begin firing. Incendiary cannonballs set fire to the harbor installations and most of the town’s houses and public buildings. The firing lasted, with little cessation, until six o’clock. When the bombardment appeared inadequate to Mowat, he sent a landing party to set fire to any buildings that had survived. By evening, according to Mowat, “the body of the town was in one flame.”

More than 400 buildings and houses were recorded as damaged or destroyed by fire. The townspeople were left to fend for themselves for the winter.

News of the raid caused uproar in the colonies. James Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and later a Paymaster General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, wrote to John Adams on October 20, 1775:

This is savage and Barbarous in the highest stage. What can we wait for now. What more can we want to Justifie any Step to take, Kill, and destroy, to refuse them any refreshments, to Apprehend our Enemies, to Confiscate their Goods and Estates, to Open our Ports to foreigners, and if practicable to form Alliances &c. &c.”

James Warren circa 1763 Oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress authorized the issue of letters of marque, licensing privateer actions against the British navy. The Second Continental Congress heard of the event just as word arrived of King George’s Proclamation of Rebellion. Outraged, Congress commissioned two ships on October 30 “for the protection and defense of the united Colonies.” The Falmouth incident was again mentioned on November 25, when Congress passed legislation described by John Adams as “the true origin of the American Navy.”


October 16, 1859 – John Brown, Harpers Ferry, and Langston Hughes

On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown (a white man known for his violent opposition to slavery) and 21 armed followers seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). The would-be revolutionaries, including three free blacks, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave, hoped to incite a rebellion of freed slaves and overturn the institution of slavery by force.

John Brown as a younger man

John Brown as a younger man

Brown’s goal was to do whatever it took to get slaves released from bondage; he felt anything less would make a mockery of God’s words as Brown understood them. As he told his interrogators after his arrest:

I want you to understand, gentlemen, that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.”

The small band was no match for the U.S. Marines however, and on October 18, under Colonel Robert E. Lee, the Marines stormed the armory, freed the hostages, and arrested Brown and his men.

Brown was tried for treason by the state of Virginia, but stated that he believed he was doing “God’s work” in trying to end slavery.

One of those who joined John Brown on his quest to strike a blow for the freedom of slaves was Lewis Leary, a free black harnessmaker from Oberlin, Ohio. He was married to Mary Patterson, a mixed-race woman who was an Oberlin College graduate. Leary had become involved with abolitionists in Oberlin, which had an active community and from which John Brown recruited him to join the raid. Leary died from wounds suffered in the conflict at Harpers Ferry.

Lewis Leary

His widow Mary later remarried an ardent Brown supporter, Charles Langston. In her old age, Mary raised her grandson, wrapping him in a bullet-riddled shawl that Lewis had worn at Harpers Ferry. That boy was Langston Hughes, the poet who made his name as a member of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1931 he wrote this poem addressed to black Americans who are “now free,” exhorting them to remember abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), his raid on Harpers Ferry, his trial and execution:

You will remember
John Brown

John Brown
Who took his gun,
Took twenty-one companions,
White and black,
Went to shoot your way to freedom
Where two rivers meet
And the hills of the
And the hills of the
Look slow at one another —
And died
For your sake.

Now that you are
Many years free,
And the echo of the Civil War
Has passed away,
And Brown himself
Has long been tried at law,
Hanged by the neck,
And buried in the ground –
Since Harpers Ferry
Is alive with ghosts today,
Immortal raiders
Come again to town –

You will recall
John Brown.”

Langston Hughes

October 13, 1923 – Anglo-Saxon Clubs of Virginia Convene & Adopt a Constitution to Fight for White Supremacy

On this day in history, representatives from a number of posts of “the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America” met in Richmond, Virginia. Their purpose was “to preserve and maintain Anglo-Saxon ideals in America by ‘the strengthening of Anglo-Saxon instincts, traditions and principles,”“the intelligent selection and exclusion of immigrants,” and most importantly, the implementation of “fundamental and final solutions of our racial problems in general, most especially of the Negro problem.” [Richard B. Sherman, “‘The Last Stand’: The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Feb., 1988), pp. 69-92]

John Powell, the moving spirit behind the Anglo-Saxon Clubs

The group produced effective lobbyists, Sherman reports, who were able to push through a bill in Virginia ensuring “racial integrity.” Although the final measure was watered down a bit from what the Anglo-Saxon Club adherents proposed, the support from those in the eugenics movement as well as the press helped raise enough alarm about “racial intermingling” that the Racial Integrity Act was passed in 1924. As Sherman reports:

Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, with its ‘no trace’ definition of a white person [before, needless to point out, the widespread use of DNA testing would call that particular definition into question], and its accompanying ban on intermarriage, was possibly the most strict in the nation.”

The act not only banned anyone with black blood from marrying a white person, but also forbad “Orientals or other nonwhites” to marry Caucasians.

The act also required the registration of all Virginia residents with the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, noting their status as either white or “colored.” All doctors, midwives, and other health or county officials were required to fill out birth registration forms that clearly identified children they delivered as “colored” or “white.” The racial criteria strictly adhered to the “one-drop rule.”

Virginia’s governor was so pleased with the passage of the bill that he sent a copy to the other governors of each state requesting that they try to get similar acts passed. (Sherman, p. 79)

The law was the most famous ban on miscegenation in the United States, and was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1967, in Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1)

You can read the entire act here.

October 9 – Korean Alphabet Day

The Korean Alphabet Day, known as Hangeul Day (한글날) in South Korea, and Chosŏn’gŭl Day in North Korea, is a national Korean commemorative day marking the invention and the proclamation of Hangul (한글; 조선글), the alphabet of the Korean language, by the 15th-century Korean monarch Sejong the Great. It is observed on October 9 in South Korea and on January 15 in North Korea.

The Hanguel alphabet is very different than any of the European alphabets, but it is reportedly much easier to learn than Chinese or Japanese because there are only 24 letters. It was created by the much-loved King Sejong the Great in the 15th century. Prior to this Koreans used Hanja, based on elements of the Chinese alphabet along with native phonetic writing systems. However, because of the large number of characters needed to be learned, the lower classes, who often did not receive education, had difficulty learning to write. To promote literacy, King Sejong published Hunmin Jeongeum (훈민정음; 訓民正音), the document introducing the newly created alphabet, in 1446.

In 1926, the Korean Language Society, whose goal was to preserve the Korean language during a time of rapid forced Japanization, began a yearly celebration of the anniversary of the declaration of hangeul. A discovery in 1940 revealed that the Hunmin Jeongeum was announced during the first ten days (sangsun; 상순; 上旬) of the ninth month. The tenth day of the ninth month of the 1446 lunar calendar was equivalent to October 9 of that same year’s Julian calendar. The South Korean government, established in 1945, declared October 9 to be Hangeul Day, a yearly legal holiday which excused government employees from work.

In 2009, in celebration of the 563rd anniversary of the invention of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong, the 6.2-meter high, 20-ton bronze statue of King Sejong the Great of Joseon at Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul, was unveiled to the public.

Statue of King Sejong on Gwanghwamun Plaza

October 7, 1858 – Stephen A. Douglas Gives a Different Meaning of the Declaration of Independence Than That Proffered by Lincoln

In 1858, Senator Stephan A. Douglas, a nationally prominent spokesman for the Democratic party, was seeking reelection to a third term in the U.S. Senate. Lincoln was running for Douglas’s Senate seat as a Republican. They met for a series of seven debates during the campaign. On this day in history, Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln met for the fifth debate in Galesburg, Illinois on the campus of Knox College.

More than 15,000 people attended. The focus of the debate was on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence; i.e., whether it was meant to apply only to white men. Douglas argued it was so intended:

I tell you that this Chicago doctrine of Lincoln’s-declaring that the negro and the white man are made equal by the Declaration of Independence and by Divine Providence-is a monstrous heresy. The signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the negro when they were writing that document. They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men. I see a gentleman there in the crowd shaking his head. Let me remind him that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves. Did he intend to say in that Declaration, that his negro slaves, which he held and treated as property, were created his equals by Divine law, and that he was violating the law of God every day of his life by holding them as slaves? It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen Colonies were slaveholding Colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slave-holding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. On the contrary, they all continued to hold their negroes as slaves during the revolutionary war. Now, do you believe-are you willing to have it said-that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence declared the negro his equal, and then was hypocrite enough to continue to hold him as a slave, in violation of what he believed to be the Divine law? And yet when you say that the Declaration of Independence includes the negro, you charge the signers of it with hypocrisy.

I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come.”

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, as he contended (in a speech on June 26, 1857) insisted that the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence. …” In other words, the purpose of law is to establish normative standards, and act as a bridge, from that which is, to that which ought to be. This philosophy was reified in the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln’s brilliant co-optation of the words used by the Founders – his insistence that this country live up to the words that comprise the compact agreed to in 1787, was a stroke of lawyerly genius that could not be gainsaid by the South. Henry L. Gates, Jr., writing in Lincoln on Race and Slavery, opined that this re-interpretation was “the most radical thing that Abraham Lincoln did.”

Today, most Americans believe in the elevated meaning that Lincoln gave to the Declaration. As Lincoln said in Peoria in 1854, we must re-adopt the Declaration along with practices and policies that harmonize with the plain meaning of the words set forth in the document:

If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.”


In the present time, on the Fourth of July, the document we celebrate is the one written by Jefferson, but translated by Lincoln, and thus is truly a document that guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all human beings in the United States. We still struggle with putting its fine intentions into practice, but the blueprint it outlines is one of which the country can be proud.

October 4, 1957 – The USSR Launches Sputnik

The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was about the size of a beach ball. It was a heavy beach ball, however, weighing in at 183.9 pounds. It took about an hour and a half to orbit the Earth, traveling at 18,000 miles per hour. According to NASA’s website:

That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race.”

‘The sound that forevermore separates the old from the new’
– NBC news (on Sputnik’s “beep-beep” chirp), 4 Oct 1957

When the news of Sputnik was broadcast, suddenly science became a popular subject. As “The New York Times” wrote on the occasion of Sputnik’s fiftieth anniversary,

For many, Sputnik was proof that American education, particularly in science, had fallen behind. Scientists and engineers warned Congress that the cold war was being fought with slide rules, not rifles. In response Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, providing, among other things, college scholarships and other help for aspiring scientists, engineers and mathematicians.”

Unfortunately, this science enthusiasm didn’t last long, especially once the Cold War ended. But as Natalie Angier observes in her excellent book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science:

Scientists are hardly alone in their conviction that America’s scientific eminence is one of our greatest sources of strength. Science and engineering have given us the integrated circuit, the Internet, protease inhibitors, statins, spray-on Pam, Velcro, Viagra, glow-in-the-dark slime, a childhood vaccine syllabus that has left slacker students with no better excuse for not coming to class than a ‘persistent Harry Potter headache,’ computer devices named after fruits or fruit parts, and advanced weapons systems named after stinging arthropods or Native American tribes.”

Sputnik stayed in orbit for 57 days. It was completely destroyed when it reentered the atmosphere on January 4, 1958. The U.S. launched its first satellite into orbit not long afterward, on February 1, 1958.

So have some cake today for Sputnik’s anniversary, and think about taking “A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science” with Natalie Angier in her entertaining book!

Prize-winning Sputnik cake by Mommabuda on cakecentral.com

October 2, 1869 – Birth of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi was born on this day in history in a Hindu merchant caste family in coastal Gujarat, in western India, and later trained in law at the Inner Temple, London.

Gandhi had a fascinating life, but most Americans don’t know much about him. He was married at age 13 – to an older woman, no less – she was 14. As a young boy, Gandhi was shy and fearful, frightened by the idea of thieves, ghosts, snakes, spiders, and even the dark. He hated leaving the safety of his home.

Yet Gandhi managed to overcome his fears, and grew up to work for Indian rights in both India and South Africa. He spoke to huge crowds advocating freedom and nonviolence, and organized marches, boycotts, fasts, and protests. He was a prolific writer, not just about political issues but on health matters. He also spent a total of nearly six years in prison.

But it took some time for him to overcome his inhibitions. In 1888, Gandhi left his family behind, moving to London so he could study law.

Gandhi as a young attorney in South Africa

Gandhi as a young attorney in South Africa

At age 22 and now a lawyer, he returned to India. He failed to succeed there and took a job as a lawyer for a distant cousin in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, he was shocked at the treatment of Indians by the racist white government, and began speaking about nonviolence as a means of protest. In 1894 he founded the Natal Indian Congress to fight for Indians’ rights. Gandhi eventually called his strategy of passive resistance “satyagraha,” which means “firmness for truth and love.”

Gandhi moved back to India in 1915, where he received a hero’s welcome and continued his work for social reform and independence from colonial rule by Great Britain. He used fasting, a boycott of British products, and most notably, a protest against British control of salt. India was surrounded by salty ocean waters, and salt was readily available from the ocean or from shallow salt pans typically located along the coast, but the British would not allow Indians to collect, produce, or sell their own salt. They could only buy salt from the British, and it was heavily taxed.

On March 12, 1930, Gandhi, now aged 60, began his historic Salt March. He led around 80 others (including an American journalist) on a 24-day, 240-mile trek to the seaside town of Dandi. When he arrived, he committed the illegal act of scooping up a small handful of salt from the mud in the beach. This simple symbolic act made headlines around the world and ignited a campaign of mass civil disobedience.

Gandhi on the Salt March

Gandhi on the Salt March

Gandhi, needless to say, was taken to jail. But a female Indian poet, Sarojini Naidu, took over the protest and led nearly 2500 marchers to the Dharasana Salt Works. British-led police brutally clubbed the marchers upon their arrival, even though the protesters did not fight back or even try to defend themselves. Once again the news was broadcast to the world.

Gandhi continued to agitate, get arrested, and go on protest fasts that were increasingly harmful to his health.

At the outset of World War II, Gandhi opposed providing any help to the British war effort and he campaigned against any Indian participation in the World War II. He condemned Nazism and Fascism, but prioritized independence for India.

Smithsonian reports:

By 1942, Prime Minister Churchill felt enough pressure to send Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, to discuss a change to India’s political status. But upon learning that Cripps wasn’t actually offering full independence and that current Indian politicians would still have no say in military strategy, the Congress and the Muslim League rejected his proposal.”

Gandhi, nearing age 73, led a new round of protests, calling for the British to “Quit India” in a 1942 speech in Mumbai made to the National Congress Party.

Gandhi in August, 1942

Gandhi argued that this was the moment to seize power:

Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.”

He added, perhaps in anticipation that this movement would not go over well with the Raj (the name for British-controlled India):

Take a pledge, with God and your own conscience as witness, that you will no longer rest till freedom is achieved and will be prepared to lay down your lives in the attempt to achieve it. He who loses his life will gain it; he who will seek to save it shall lose it. Freedom is not for the coward or the faint-hearted.”

The Congress agreed that Gandhi should lead a nonviolent mass movement, passing the “Quit India Resolution.” The British government responded quickly, and within hours after Gandhi’s speech arrested Gandhi and all the members of the Congress Working Committee.

Gandhi’s arrest lasted two years. During this period, his long time secretary died of a heart attack, his wife Kasturba died after 18 months’ imprisonment; and Gandhi himself suffered a severe malaria attack. He was released before the end of the war on May 6, 1944 because of his failing health and necessary surgery; the Raj did not want him to die in prison and enrage the nation.

At the end of the war, the British gave clear indications that power would be transferred to Indian hands. At this point Gandhi called off the struggle, and around 100,000 political prisoners were released, including the Congress’s leadership.

In 1947, Britain finally enacted the Indian Independence Act that declared British India would be divided into the two countries of India and Pakistan (the latter country designated for Muslim peoples). Gandhi was opposed to the separation, fearing it would cause more problems, which it did, and which remain to this day. Gandhi, now elderly and frail, worked hard to prevent a civil war in India until his assassination on January 30, 1948.

Mahatma Gandhi writing a letter in January 1948. Courtesy: mkgandhi.org

Prime Minister Nehru said upon announcing Gandhi’s death:

The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.”

Besides Gandhi’s influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., others profoundly influenced by Gandhi included Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the Myanmar freedom activist, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gandhi’s actual first name was Mohandas, but most people know him by the name given to him from midlife on, “Mahatma” which means “Great Soul.”