May 31, 1819: Birth of Walt Whitman

Spontaneous me, Nature,

The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with, Whitman
The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder,
The hill-side whiten’d with blossoms of the mountain ash,
The same, late in autumn—the hues of red, yellow, drab, purple, and light and dark green,
The rich coverlid of the grass—animals and birds—the private untrimm’d bank—
the primitive apples—the pebble-stones,
Beautiful dripping fragments—the negligent list of one after another, as I happen to call
them to me, or think of them,
The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)
The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me,
This poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry,
(Know, once for all, avow’d on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty, lurking,
masculine poems;)
Love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap,
Arms and hands of love—lips of love—phallic thumb of love—breasts of
love—bellies press’d and glued together with love,
Earth of chaste love—life that is only life after love,
The body of my love—the body of the woman I love—the body of the man—the body of
the earth,
Soft forenoon airs that blow from the south-west,
The hairy wild-bee that murmurs and hankers up and down—that gripes the full-grown
lady-flower, curves upon her with amorous firm legs, takes his will of her, and holds himself
tremulous and tight till he is satisfied,
The wet of woods through the early hours,
Two sleepers at night lying close together as they sleep, one with an arm slanting down across
and below the waist of the other,
The smell of apples, aromas from crush’d sage-plant, mint, birch-bark,
The boy’s longings, the glow and pressure as he confides to me what he was dreaming,
The dead leaf whirling its spiral whirl, and falling still and content to the ground,
The no-form’d stings that sights, people, objects, sting me with,
The hubb’d sting of myself, stinging me as much as it ever can any one,
The sensitive, orbic, underlapp’d brothers, that only privileged feelers may be intimate where
they are,
The curious roamer, the hand, roaming all over the body—the bashful withdrawing of flesh
where the fingers soothingly pause and edge themselves,
The limpid liquid within the young man,
The vexed corrosion, so pensive and so painful,
The torment—the irritable tide that will not be at rest,
The like of the same I feel—the like of the same in others,
The young man that flushes and flushes, and the young woman that flushes and flushes,
The young man that wakes, deep at night, the hot hand seeking to repress what would master
him; The mystic amorous night—the strange half-welcome pangs, visions, sweats,
The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers—the young man all color’d,
red, ashamed, angry;
The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie willing and naked,
The merriment of the twin-babes that crawl over the grass in the sun, the mother never turning
her vigilant eyes from them,
The walnut-trunk, the walnut-husks, and the ripening or ripen’d long-round walnuts;
The continence of vegetables, birds, animals,
The consequent meanness of me should I skulk or find myself indecent, while birds and animals
never once skulk or find themselves indecent;
The great chastity of paternity, to match the great chastity of maternity,
The oath of procreation I have sworn—my Adamic and fresh daughters,
The greed that eats me day and night with hungry gnaw, till I saturate what shall produce boys to
fill my place when I am through,
The wholesome relief, repose, content;
And this bunch, pluck’d at random from myself;
It has done its work—I tossed it carelessly to fall where it may.

May 30, 1806: Andrew Jackson Kills Charles Dickinson in a Duel

Charles Dickinson didn’t think much of Andrew Jackson. They were rivals horse breeders and plantation owners and jackson-dickinson-duelDickinson was sure Jackson had reneged on a bet and everyone knew that Rachel Jackson hadn’t gotten a true divorce before marrying Andrew, and he didn’t mind publishing a statement in the National Review calling Jackson a worthless scoundrel and a coward.

Andrew Jackson didn’t take a lot of guff and he didn’t have many choices; he challenged Dickinson to a duel.

As dueling was illegal in Tennessee, the two Tennessee men traveled to Harrison’s Mills on the bank of the Red River in Logan, Kentucky to settle their score. On the appointed day they took their positions 24 feet apart. A matched set of .70 caliber dueling pistols was presented and each man chose his weapon.

General John Overton then announced the duel should begin.

Squaring himself, Dickinson aimed and quickly fired at Jackson’s heart. He knew that he had aimed well, but despite smoke and dust billowing from Jackson’s coat – and his hand touching his chest, Jackson remained standing.

“My God! Have I missed him?” Dickinson called out.

He hadn’t missed – the shot had broken two of Jackson’s ribs and lodged inches from his heart, but that wasn’t enough to knock him down, and now the decorum of dueling required that Dickinson remained in place while Jackson patiently aimed to take his shot.
Jackson pulled the trigger, but the flint hammer stopped half-cocked.

Jackson aimed again, and fired a second time.

The shot was good and the bullet hit Dickinson in the chest.
Dickinson would succumb to his wounds, dying later that night.

Andrew Jackson survived and went on to fight another day.

Reflecting on the duel, the doctor who treated Jackson remarked, “I don’t see how you stayed on your feet after that wound.” To which Jackson responded, “I would have stood up long enough to kill him if he had put a bullet in my brain.”




May 26, 1838: The Trail of Tears Begins

As U.S. soldiers proceeded with rounding up Cherokees, Indian missionary Daniel S. Buttrick, who would accompany the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, wrote from Brainard just north of the Georgia-Tennessee line:trail

“In Georgia there were supposed to be about 8000 Cherokees. These, in general, were taken just as they were found by the soldiers, without permission to stop either for friends or property.

As the soldiers advanced towards an Indian house, two little children fled in flight to the woods. The woman pleaded for permission to seek them or wait till they came in, giving positive assurances that she would then follow on and join the company.
But all entreaties were vain, and it was not till a day or two after that she could get permission for one of her friends to go back after the lost children! A man, deaf and dumb, being surprised at the approach of armed men, attempted to make his escape and, because he did not hear and obey the command of his pursuers, was shot dead on the spot! … Women absent from their families on visits or for other purposes were seized, and men far from their wives and children were not allowed to return, and also children being far from home were dragged off among strangers. Cattle, horses, hogs, household furniture, clothing and money not with them when taken were left. And it is said that the white inhabitants around stood with open arms to seize whatever property they could put their hands on… .

Thus in two or three days about 8000 people, many of where were in good circumstances and some rich, were rendered homeless, houseless and penniless and exposed to all the ills of captivity… . Those taken to the post at New Echota [Georgia] were confined day and night in the open air with but little clothing to cover them when lying on the naked ground.”



May 25, 1803: Birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson


“May be true what I had heard,Emerson
Earth’s a howling wilderness
Truculent with fraud and force,”
Said I, strolling through the pastures,
And along the riverside.
Caught among the blackberry vines,
Feeding on the Ethiops sweet,
Pleasant fancies overtook me:
I said, “What influence me preferred
Elect to dreams thus beautiful?”
The vines replied, “And didst thou deem
No wisdom to our berries went?”



May 24, 1883: Emily Roebling Crosses Brooklyn Bridge

When Emily Warren visited her brother (the commander of the Fifth Army Corps), at his army camp during the Civil War she had the good fortune to attend a military ball, and there she found herself quite taken with a dashing youngemily roeblingofficer.

The young officer was obviously smitten with her as well: “Some people’s beauty lies not in the features, but in the varied expression that the countenance will assume under the various emotions,” Washington Roebling wrote to his sister. “She is a most entertaining talker…”

It turned out the young officer was the son of John Roebling, the pioneer of suspension bridges who was planning a massive bridge over New York’s East River. The courtship didn’t take long – Emily Warren married Washington Roebling just as the war ended in 1865 and they immediately sailed to Europe for their honeymoon. The trip also provided Washington with an opportunity to research methods of underwater construction, particularly ways to avoid contracting “the bends” when resurfacing from the depths – which would help his father’s project immensely.

When they returned, construction on the Brooklyn Bridge was just beginning in earnest. John Roebling was very active in colossal project, looking after every detail on the worksite every day, but then disaster struck – his foot was crushed by an errant tugboat, and John Roebling died of tetanus 17 days later.

Young Washington immediately took over his father’s project, regularly descending beneath the river’s surface to inspect the caissons for the bridge piers, but before long he also took sick – from the same decompression sickness he had studied, contracted while working in the deep.

John Roebling was dead and Washington Roebling was now an invalid – weak and easily tired – who could only oversee construction from a window of his Brooklyn Heights home.
Who would take the reins of leadership for this immense work?

Emily Roebling began taking down copious notes on what her husband told her remained to be done. She studied the technical issues and learned about strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and the calculation of catenary curves. She inspected the worksite every day and conveyed her husband’s instructions to the workers and answered the questions they had. Eventually many began to suspect that she was the real intelligence behind the bridge.

A Roebling competitor, Abram Hewitt, admitted as much. When the Brooklyn Bridge was finally complete he called it “an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred… The name of Emily Warren Roebling will…be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature and all that is wonderful in the constructive world of art.”
On May 24, 1883, the bridge officially opened amid a frenzy of ceremonies celebrating this triumph of engineering. As construction workers raised their hats and cheered, it was Emily Warren Roebling who rode across the new Brooklyn Bridge in the first open carriage, carrying a plump rooster to symbolize victory. President Chester A. Arthur and Governor Grover Cleveland, accompanied by a contingent of marching bands, crossed from the Manhattan side to meet her.



May 23, 1921: The Great War Dead are Welcomed Home

Our republic has been at war before, it has asked and received the supreme sacrifices of its sons and daughters, and faith in America has been justified. Many sons and daughters made the sublime offering and went to hallowed graves great waras the Nation’s defenders. But we never before sent so many to battle under the flag in foreign land, never before was there the impressive spectacle of thousands of dead returned to find eternal resting place in the beloved homeland…

These dead know nothing of our ceremony today. They sense nothing of the sentiment or the tenderness which brings their wasted bodies to the homeland for burial close to kin and friends and cherished associations. These poor bodies are but the clay tenements once possessed of souls which flamed in patriotic devotion, lighted new hopes on the battle grounds of civilization, and in their sacrifices sped on to accuse autocracy before the court of eternal justice.

We are not met for them, though we love and honor and speak a grateful tribute. It would be futile to speak to those who do not hear or to sorrow for those who cannot sense it or to exalt those who cannot know. But we can speak for country, we can reach those who sorrowed and sacrificed through their service, who suffered through their going, who glory with the Republic through their heroic achievements, who rejoice in the civilization, their heroism preserved. Every funeral, every memorial, every tribute is for the living–an offering in compensation of sorrow. When the light of life goes out there is a new radiance in eternity, and somehow the glow of it relieves the darkness which is left behind.
Never a death but somewhere a new life; never a sacrifice but somewhere an atonement; never a service but somewhere and somehow an achievement. These had served, which is the supreme inspiration in living. They have earned everlasting gratitude, which is the supreme solace in dying…

I would not wish a Nation for which men are not willing to fight and, if need be, to die, but I do wish for a nation where it is not necessary to ask that sacrifice. I do not pretend that millennial days have come, but I can believe in the possibility of a Nation being so righteous as never to make a war of conquest and a Nation so powerful in righteousness that none will dare invoke her wrath. I wish for us such an America. These heroes were sacrificed in the supreme conflict of all human history. They saw democracy challenged and defended it. They saw civilization threatened and rescued it. They saw America affronted and resented it. They saw our Nation’s rights imperiled and stamped those rights with a new sanctity and renewed security.

We shall not forget, no matter whether they lie amid the sweetness and the bloom of the homeland or sleep in the soil they crimsoned. Our mindfulness, our gratitude, our reverence shall be in the preserved Republic and maintained liberties and the supreme justice for which they died.
– Warren G. Harding



May 20, 1854: Thoreau Listens to Dusk

Very low thunder-clouds and showers far in the north at sunset, the wind of which, though not very strong, has cooled the air. Saw the lightning, but could not hear the thunder. I saw in the northwest first rise, in the rose-tinted horizon sky, a dark, narrow, craggy cloud, narrow and projecting as no cloud on earth, seen against the rose-tinged sky, – the Leopard-Frogcrest of a thunder-storm, beautiful and grand. The steadily increasing sound of toads and frogs along the river with each successive warmer night is one of the most important peculiarities of the season. Their prevalence and loudness is in proportion to the increased temperature of the day. It is the first earth-song, beginning with the croakers, (the cricket’s not yet), as if the very meads at last burst into a meadowy song. I hear a few bullfrogs and but few hylodes. Methinks we always have at this time those washing winds as now, when the choke-berry is in bloom – bright and breezy days blowing off some apple blossoms.



May 19, 1856: Charles Sumner delivers “The Crime Against Kansas” speech

It was one of those hot May days in Washington, and the Old Senate Chamber was packed well beyond capacity. The temperature had reached 90 degrees by the afternoon session when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner rose to speak. Sumner_Brady

Sumner stood six-foot, two-inch tall; he was broad-chested, and bombastic, and, at a time when most senators dressed in black frock coats, Sumner favored light-colored English tweed coats and lavender trousers. He was Harvard educated, highly cultured, and he knew that he was brilliant. His literary style was florid and rife with detail, allusion, and quotations from the classic orators of Greece and Rome. His best friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow declared he delivered speeches “like a cannoneer ramming down cartridges”, while Sumner himself admitted that “you might as well look for a joke in the Book of Revelation.”

The freshman senator had been planning this speech for months, and had carefully written every word out in longhand and had commissioned an advance printed edition—112 pages long. By the time he entered the chamber on May 19, he had memorized every word of the address he entitled “The Crime Against Kansas.”

He adopted the tone of an erudite classical scholar lecturing slow-witted children and spoke for five hours over two days. The Boston Brahmin particularly singled out two Democratic senators for insult – Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois – “a noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator” – and Andrew Butler of South Carolina – who had taken “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”

Radical Abolitionists across the north hailed his tour-de-force performance.

Two days later, after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Sumner sat at his desk signing his postal frank to envelopes containing the printed speech. Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who was Senator Butler’s cousin, entered the old chamber carrying a gutta-percha cane of the type often used to discipline unruly dogs.

Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head. Sumner was trapped by his heavy desk which was bolted to the floor and could not escape. Brooks continued striking him about the head until Sumner ripped his desk from the floor, and blinded by his own blood, staggered up the aisle and collapsed. Brooks continued to beat the motionless Sumner until his cane broke.

Bleeding profusely, Charles Sumner was carried away. Preston Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained.




May 18, 1963: John Fitzgerald Kennedy addresses Vanderbilt University

If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system. Modern cynicsJFK Vanderbilt and skeptics see no more reason for landing a man on the moon, which we shall do, than the cynics and skeptics of half a millennium ago saw for the discovery of this country. They see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.

But the educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that “knowledge is power,” more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people, that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, “enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

And, therefore, the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist at every level of government the improvement of education for all Americans, from grade school to graduate school.

Secondly, the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.

“At the Olympic games,” Aristotle wrote, “it is not the finest and strongest men who are crowned, but they who enter the lists-for out of these the prize-men are elected. So, too, in life, of the honorable and the good, it is they who act who rightly win the prizes.”



May 17, 1864: James Conness proposes the Yosemite Bill to in Congress

The Army of the Potomac was still licking its wounds from the bloody Battle of the Wilderness, and the first soldiers were just being buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

It wasn’t a time to think about parks.Lincoln-Yosemite

But on this day in the middle of the Civil War, Senator John Conness from California introduced a bill to Congress which proposed to set aside the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove for the future enjoyment of everyone.

A little over a month later, on June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act to preserve forever these beautiful sights he had never seen, thousands of miles away in California.

Frederick Law Olmstead was put in charge of developing Yosemite Park. “It was during one of the darkest hours,” Olmsted wrote, “before Sherman had begun the march upon Atlanta, when the paintings of Bierstadt and the photographs of Watkins, both productions of the war time, had given to the people on the Atlantic some idea of the sublimity of the Yosemite.”

There may have been some political debts being repaid as well. Thomas Starr King. King, a Unitarian minister in San Francisco, was a great champion of the Yosemite Valley, and also an unwavering supporter of the Union. He helped to raise over a million dollars for wounded Union soldiers and the Lincoln administration was beholden to King and other California friends of Yosemite for their financial contributions to the war effort.

Also, the Yosemite Bill proposed something that wasn’t politically possible prior to secession. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had consistently asserted that the national government had absolutely no authority muddling with land grants and if it did the government would be “warped so far from the path it had previously followed.”

By 1864, Lincoln and the wartime Congress realized that the political landscape would never return to its pre-war status quo. With this in mind, Lincoln began to fundamentally redefine and expand the role of government to include intervention in public education, transportation, and agriculture, and to increase its commitment to freedom.

As Frederick Law Olmsted acknowledged, the Yosemite Grant did not stand apart from the Union war effort; rather, it reflected how the war was changing the role and expectations of the national government.

In his Gettysburg Address Lincoln had promised a war-weary nation “a new birth of freedom.” When Olmsted was appointed to draft a charter and plan for Yosemite, he expanded upon Lincoln’s vision, and made the case that it is a “political duty” of republican government to set aside “great public grounds for the free enjoyment of the people.”

It was an acknowledgement that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence included not just “life” and “liberty”, but also “the pursuit of happiness.”

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