On This Date

From the Pilgrims to Today, Discovering America One Day at a Time


By Carl M. Cannon

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Forget what you were taught in seventh grade-this riveting book takes readers down American history’s back alleys and side streets.

From the arrival of the Mayflower through the 2016 election, On This Date explores five hundred years of American history, revealing a compelling tale for each day in the calendar year.

Drawing from Carl M. Cannon’s popular RealClearPolitics’ “Morning Note,” On This Date is focused on fascinating — and sometimes unknown — stories behind specific dates in U.S. history: What inspired Abraham Lincoln to grow his famous beard, what Dwight Eisenhower really thought about playing football against the great Jim Thorpe, the legal grounds for the first American divorce, who wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — and who profited from it.

Colorful yet authoritative, On This Date debunks some popular myths and celebrates America’s forgotten heroes.



Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana is known for expressing a sentiment that has become a cliché: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This quote is accurate—it comes from his book The Life of Reason—but he was not only making a negative point. The passage begins with an upbeat expression of the same idea. "Progress," he wrote, "far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness."

I would add to that sentiment an idea expressed by author David McCullough. Speaking at the 2003 Jefferson Lecture at the National Academy for the Humanities, McCullough defended historical books written for the mass public, and not just other academics.

"No harm is done to history," he said, "by making it something someone would want to read."

This admonition was somewhat self-serving, in that David McCullough has a gift for writing books that millions of people want to read. But his point is right. The approach used in this book, taking a digestible event from any given day—366 given days—was done with that in mind. The format comes out of a newsletter I send to some nineteen thousand subscribers five mornings a week in my capacity as Washington bureau chief and executive editor of RealClearPolitics.

Our online news site, devoted to politics and government, is assiduously nonpartisan. I'm aware that most journalists say similar things, and that for too many their work belies that claim. But at RCP our very business model depends on not taking sides in the great national argument between Republicans and Democrats—and Independents. In any event, I'm nonpartisan naturally, as the contents of this work will demonstrate.

Yet, it would be facile to claim that no guiding principles about America's place in the world inform this work. Many loyal readers of my "Morning Note" are already familiar with my underlying approach to writing about American history. I believe they can be distilled in a couple of sentences. The first is that notwithstanding the degraded condition of our dysfunctional, rude, hair-on-fire politics—and not minimizing the violence roiling the globe—through the years Americans have lived through similarly trying times, often facing even graver challenges.

My second point, which flows naturally from the first, is that we have usually prevailed. When we didn't prevail, we muddled through. Often, though not always, we learned something along the way. In researching this book, I stumbled across supporting evidence for this attitude in a 1921 essay by a Washington newspaperman and magazine writer named Edward G. Lowry. Well-known in his day and utterly forgotten now, Lowry helped popularize the famously taciturn nature of then vice president Calvin Coolidge. Lowry dubbed Coolidge the "Foster-Child of Silence," writing in one essay that the vice president was "a politician who does not, who will not, and who seemingly cannot talk."

The essay that caught my eye, however, was one in which he writes about how political life in Washington "proceeds from one crisis to another." He continued:

But do not despair of the Republic. The only thing one can be sure about in a crisis or situation or condition in Washington is that it is not unprecedented; it has happened before.… Certainly the sons and descendants of Jeremiah have rended their garments, beat their breasts, and made such loud lamentation before the Capitol and the White House after each of our war periods. They sat about in bewilderment as they sit now, and will again, saying to one another, 'Was there ever such an extraordinary situation? Was there ever such another mess as we find ourselves in now? Was there ever such another set of dolts, knaves, and incompetents in command of our destinies?' The answer is: There was. This is not the first time that the wind has moaned through the rigging.

My first book, The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, was an examination of how American presidents and other national leaders employ the language in the Declaration of Independence to rally their countrymen in times of war or national peril. It was published after September 11, 2001, about the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and landed me on C-SPAN's Booknotes program, hosted by C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb. Brian is the rare on-air host who reads a book before interviewing its author. This is not always good for the writer. Brian noted during our interview that as far as he could tell, I didn't have a bad word to say about any U.S. president. There was an answer to this observation, but I didn't give it.

"You'll notice that Richard Nixon's not in it," I quipped.

This was supposed to be a laugh line, except that Brian Lamb—who is disinclined to indulge his guests by playing the straight man—barely cracked a smile. In time, I came to see that there was something else wrong with my jibe: It was a cheap shot. To atone, Nixon is mentioned in this book. I'll do it right now, because on April 13, 1972, he said something pertinent to this project. Speaking in Ottawa at a formal dinner hosted by the Canadian president, President Nixon told a self-deprecating story about playing golf in Canada when he was vice president and how their group went to a pub afterward without changing clothes—and without the presence of Secret Service agents.

"We went in and sat down," Nixon recalled. "The waiter looked us all over, and some way he seemed to think he recognized me, but he wasn't sure."

"After we had finished—he was a very polite waiter—and were ready to leave, the waiter came up and said, 'Sir, if you don't mind, I have a bet with the bartender, and you can help me win it or I might lose it.'

"What is the bet?" Nixon asked.

"I bet him five dollars that you are Vice President Nixon."

"Well, call him over and we will confirm it," Nixon recalled.

The bartender paid the bet, but as Nixon left the pub, the bartender mumbled to the waiter, "You know, he doesn't look near as bad in person as he does in his pictures."

Richard Milhous Nixon, speaking two years before he would resign from office to avoid impeachment, then summed up the moral of his vignette. "Maybe none of us look quite as bad in person as we may in our pictures," he said. "We must never miss the opportunity to see each other in person, to discuss our differences."

These are words to live by, especially in today's politically divided America where the election returns that don't go our way prompt rival inauguration weekend parades and #NotMyPresident campaigns on social media. Anyway, Nixon also told his audience about speaking in Guildhall in London in 1958 and how the most eloquent speech, and the briefest one, ever made in that storied venue had been delivered by a British prime minister 150 years earlier.

After Lord Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, William Pitt the Younger was toasted at a banquet in his honor as the savior of Europe. He rose to respond, answering in these words: "I return you many thanks for the honor you have done me; but Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example."

Nixon, speaking without notes, had the quote almost exactly right. This is also a timely sentiment, in the wake of Britain's election to part with its Continental neighbors. It's timeless, too. When Germany fell on May 8, 1945, Winston Churchill stood on the balcony of a government building overlooking Whitehall and told the huge crowd serenading him below, "God Bless you all. This is your victory."

"No," roared back the adoring crowd, "it is yours!"

It was Churchill who had it right. To extrapolate to the United States of America, certainly our nation has been served in its time of utmost need by marvelous men and wonderful women, but mostly, it was built by all of us, one day and one deed, at a time—and not only by the "Greatest Generation."

Speaking of that dwindling cohort, just before the sixtieth anniversary of the 1944 Normandy invasion, I visited Pointe du Hoc, where the U.S. Army Second Ranger Battalion used ropes and knives to scale the cliffs on D-Day. The Rangers' bravery has been immortalized in forums ranging from a 1962 movie classic starring John Wayne called The Longest Day to a stirring June 6, 1984, speech at Normandy by onetime Hollywood leading man Ronald Reagan.

"Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs—and before me are the men who put them there," President Reagan said while looking upon the aging citizen-soldiers who'd returned to the site of their former glory.

"These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc," Reagan added. "These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war."

The Americans and their Allies were not the only fighting men at Normandy on D-Day. Those foreboding cliffs were defended that day by the Wehrmacht's 352nd Infantry Division, a veteran-studded force under the overall command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In The Longest Day, an officer named Werner Pluskat is the first German soldier to spot the huge American and British armada as it appears out of the dawn mists. He frantically calls headquarters on the field phone from his concrete bunker as it's being shelled.

"You know those five thousand ships you say the Allies haven't got?" he yells into the phone. "Well, they've got them!"

The real-life Major Pluskat may or may not have been on the beach that morning. Some of his men later claimed he was carousing in Caen the night before and slept late. But Pluskat survived the war and was a paid consultant to Daryl Zanuck and Cornelius Ryan on The Longest Day, so in the film version he is not only there, and sober, but in full uniform with his faithful German shepherd by his side when the Allied invasion commences. Some of Normandy's concrete bunkers still stand; while a White House correspondent I went to see them in advance of President George W. Bush's 2004 visit. When I arrived, a German family was inside the structure looking around. Recognizing me as an American, the father, a middle-aged man my own age, became agitated.

"Lass uns gehen," he said to his wife. Let's leave.

She seemed unsure, as did their children. I had smiled at them, and certainly had not been unfriendly.

"Hinausgehen!" he told his family with more urgency. Go out. And they did.

The encounter was slightly unsettling. It was the flip side of the warmth bestowed on me six decades after the invasion by appreciative French residents in the coastal Normandy towns of Colleville-sur-Mer and Sainte-Mère-Église. Although I appreciated pro-U.S. sentiment—especially coming from people who had so much to be thankful for—I hadn't personally done anything to merit their gratitude, any more than the German man who felt embarrassed by my presence in the bunker had done anything to feel shame. When I hiked up the bluff from Omaha Beach to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, no enemy machine guns fired away at me. Quite the contrary: Old men in their berets deferentially stepped off the footpath to let me pass.

"Américain," one Frenchman told his grandson as I walked by. The little boy saluted me.

John McCain once wrote that he learned to love his country—truly love his country—while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. I think I know what he means. I had always been proud to be American, but hadn't really done anything to merit that pride. United States citizenship was conveyed on me at birth, a gift from the cosmos, on account of being born in San Francisco to American-born parents. Not an accomplishment; an act of good fortune.

After my visit to Normandy, I began to see this happy accident as an obligation. To do what? Pay my taxes, and be thankful for the opportunities this country has given me and my family? To exhibit a welcoming attitude toward immigrants? To vote, and recycle, and volunteer, and make charitable donations? Sure, all of that.

But I also felt called do my part by aiding in the task of telling America's story—to ourselves, and the rest of the world. This book is an effort to fulfill that duty. It tells individual stories, one day at time, a snapshot of an event or person that I hope will flesh out a constantly changing marvel that a friend of mine once dubbed "the American Identity."

Carl M. Cannon
Arlington, Virginia
July 4, 2017

January 1, 1915

Everybody Stopped and Stared

At 10 a.m. on the first day of the New Year, a New York City taxicab headed east on Fiftieth Street before turning right onto Broadway. It was parked to await the day's first fare. Nothing unusual, even a century ago, except for a couple of details about the driver, whose appearance stopped traffic and prompted a story in the New York Times under the headline:


Even before it was apparent that the cabbie was wearing a skirt, the new taxi attracted attention on account of the driver's headgear—"a huge hat of leopard skin, and around her neck and over her shoulders the yellow and black spotted pelt of the same animal."

Don't let the costume fool you. The driver, "Miss Wilma K. Russey," worked as an auto mechanic in a Manhattan garage. While passersby stopped and stared she approached an NYPD patrolman, Philip Wagner, who was directing traffic. She showed her chauffeur's license to the police officer, who informed her there was no reason she shouldn't take her place in the cabstand. (Below is a photograph of Miss Russey, courtesy of the National Archives.)

A first hurdle cleared, a second presented itself—the male cabdrivers. Forming impromptu discussions groups, they discussed "the feminine invasion of their business," the Times reported, before a quick consensus emerged: When it did, they walked over to her car to congratulate her and offer words of encouragement.

One final obstacle remained. How would passengers react? The answer came quickly. A group of men approached Russey, asking if her cab was engaged.

"Where do you want to go?" she asked.

"No place in particular," answered one. "Just take us down Broadway a-ways. All we want is to have the first ride in your taxi."

January 2, 1620

Absolute Quiet

The Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower began gathering the materials to build their settlement on this date. The site they chose was near a hill they dubbed Plymouth Rock, which rose 165 feet from the shoreline. A nearby stream they called Town Brook had good fishing, and the topography made it a natural fortress. In addition, native people had already cleared the surrounding land before leaving the area, which the Pilgrims considered a sign from God.

Although they didn't know it, this emptiness was the work of disease, not Providence. French explorer Samuel de Champlain had seen hundreds of wigwams here in 1605, with some two thousand people occupying the land. Fifteen years later, they were all gone. An uneasy silence settled over the Mayflower passengers as they contemplated their new home.

No fireworks or gaiety had greeted the New Year. Pilgrims didn't celebrate like that. Their calendar didn't turn over on this day anyway. These settlers used the old Julian calendar, not today's Gregorian calendar, meaning that by their calculations, it was only December 21. Their calendar year began March 25. Not that any of this mattered to them; they didn't celebrate March 25, either. For that matter, they didn't observe Christmas. December 25 was important to them that year because it was when they framed their first wooden house in the New World.

"What would have astounded a modern sensibility transported back to that Christmas Day in 1620 was the absolute quiet of the scene," wrote Mayflower author Nathaniel Philbrick. "Save the gurgling of Town Brook, the lap of waves against the shore, and the wind in the bare winter branches, everything was silent as they listened and waited."

That silence would give way in the four ensuing centuries to the cries of millions of newborn babies, the shrieking of charging warriors of all colors and ethnicities, the screams of wailing widows, and the babel of every language spoken on Earth.

Other sounds would include the buzzing of saws, the pounding of hammers, and the reverberations of industrialization's noisy machines, accompanied by the endless buzz of a contentious, martial, industrious, loud, litigious, inventive, violent, spiritual, and preternaturally self-confident people.

January 3, 1938

The March of Time

Polio mostly struck children in the early twentieth century, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt was thirty-nine when he contracted the dreaded disease that cost him use of his legs. In a rare concession to his condition, FDR championed research into polio and other childhood afflictions and celebrated his birthday by raising money from wealthy donors at the Presidential Birthday Balls for Crippled Children.

But the man who hosted "fireside chats" over the radio realized he could reach millions of potential donors via the airwaves. In 1937, he announced creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and turned to Hollywood pals to help devise a nationwide pitch. At a meeting to plan the campaign, comedian and singer Eddie Cantor wisecracked, "We could call it the 'March of Dimes.'"

This was a pun based on a popular newsreel called The March of Time. But Cantor's quip was too catchy to ignore and by the time Roosevelt reincorporated his family charity into the NFIP on this date in 1938, the name had stuck.

"The March of Dimes will enable all persons, even the children, to show our president that they are with him in this battle against this disease," Cantor proclaimed. "Nearly everyone can send in a dime, or several dimes. However, it takes only ten dimes to make a dollar and if a million people send only one dime, the total will be $100,000."

This estimate proved conservative. By Roosevelt's birthday, 2.5 million dimes had flooded into the White House. An ailing FDR made his final March of Dimes radio appeal on January 30, 1945, his last birthday, asking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to read it to their fellow Americans.

"The success of the 1945 March of Dimes in the campaign against infantile paralysis does not come as a surprise to me," FDR wrote. "We are a nation of free people, and free people know how to go over the top—whether it's a Nazi wall, a Japanese island fortress, a production goal, a bond drive, or a stream of silver dimes."

By April, Franklin Roosevelt was dead, but the March of Dimes lived on. Four years later, former Roosevelt law partner Basil O'Connor used money from the fund to underwrite promising research being done by a University of Pittsburgh virologist.

His name was Jonas E. Salk.

January 4, 1896

The Saints Go Marching In

A wagon train emerges from the Utah mountains carrying 148 pilgrims, including Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is midsummer 1847 and the "saints" are seeking a new Zion. As he gazes on the great Salt Lake valley, Young realizes he's found it. "This is the place," he proclaims simply.

America's first home-grown religion had burgeoned since 1830, when Joseph Smith published The Book of Mormon, which told of a lost Hebrew text claiming that Jews had lived in the New World. The country was full of self-proclaimed prophets preaching the "Old Time Religion," but this was a new faith altogether. However odd its tenets seemed to traditional Christians, Smith's teachings attracted adherents in droves, many of them farmers from Northern Europe.

What made Mormonism a target was its approval of polygamy. Plural marriage was practiced in the Old Testament, but in nineteenth-century America it could get you killed, which was what happened to Joseph Smith and his brother at the hands of an Illinois lynch mob in 1844.

Smith's successor led the saints westward in search of a place they could live in peace. Brigham Young and his followers weren't afraid. They were biding their time until their persecutors couldn't easily overpower them.

"If the people of the United States will let us alone for ten years," Young vowed, "we will ask no odds of them."

Ten years later, when LDS church membership reached 55,000, President James Buchanan removed Young from his position as governor of the Utah Territory—Young's twenty wives were a sticking point—and ordered federal troops to march on the redoubt the Mormons called the "State of Deseret." This time the saints girded for a fight.

The shooting war envisioned by both sides never materialized, however, and in 1890 then Mormon leader Wilford Woodruff issued "The Manifesto" renouncing polygamy. This set the stage for Utah statehood, which came on this date in 1896. President Grover Cleveland signed the proclamation, and word was telegraphed to Salt Lake City. A battery of the Utah National Guard unleashed a twenty-one-gun salute, shopkeepers closed their doors, American flags were unfurled, and spontaneous celebrations erupted.

"Thank God Utah is a state after fifty years of struggle," Woodruff wrote to his son. "We have conquered."

January 5, 1643

Purify or Separate?

The Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower were followed a decade later by an armada of Puritans led by John Winthrop aboard the flagship Arabella.1 Divorce was disallowed by the Church of England, but these people had sailed to America in protest against their mother country's official church. (For the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans, here's a rule of thumb: Pilgrims were separatists who broke away from the Church of England; Puritans wanted to purify the church from within—hence the name—but still felt impelled to leave England.)

Questions governing marriage inevitably arose in the colonies. The first case involved Elizabeth Luxford, who petitioned the courts in December 1639 on grounds her husband James was married to another woman when he wed her. James was fined and sent packing to England. The real precedent came on January 5, 1643,2 when Denis Clarke abandoned his wife, Anne, and their two children to take up with another woman, with whom he also had two children. In an affidavit to John Winthrop Jr., the son of the colony's founder, Denis acknowledged what he'd done, while refusing to return to Anne, who was granted a divorce for desertion.

Although their doctrinal differences would determine New England's state borders, Pilgrims and Puritans both were Protestant sects. Martin Luther, Protestantism's founder, had written about divorce as early as 1519, two years after he sparked the Reformation. Luther's opposition to celibacy helped prompt the split with Rome, but that wasn't all he had to say about marriage. Luther counseled that marital unions existed for love and companionship, not solely procreation. This was a far-reaching idea—literally. It traveled across the ocean, touching the nonseparatist Puritans who came to believe that in marriages and politics sometimes separation was the answer. Luther also described marriage as a civil contract, not a sacrament, consigning it to the purview of secular, not ecclesiastic, authorities. Here was another idea with profound ramifications. The seeds containing the legal basis for gay marriage, in other words, were planted in the early sixteenth century by a German priest and carried across the ocean on ships named Mayflower and Arabella. They lay dormant for four and a half centuries, but not forever.

January 6, 1913

Seeking a Permit, Not Permission

The first issue of the Women's Political World appeared on this date. An in-house organ of the New York-based Women's Political Union, headed by Harriot Stanton Blatch, its objective was gaining the vote for women in the Empire State. The publication also kept readers apprised of the sisterhood's efforts in the rest of the country. And on this day, feminist dynamo Alice Paul made a formal request to Richard Sylvester, police chief in Washington, D.C.

Writing on the stationery of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Ms. Paul informed Major Sylvester that she had "the honor to request that a permit be granted for a woman suffrage procession, to be held on the 3rd day of March, 1913."

She described the proposed route: from the base of the Capitol steps, down Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Treasury and Executive Mansion back to Pennsylvania Avenue and down Seventeenth Street to Continental Hall, when the procession would end in a mass meeting.

But March 3, 1913, was the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration as president, as Alice Paul knew only too well. So did the police chief, who cited it as a pretext for denying the permit. The women's proposed march route was the same as the traditional inauguration parade, which was the point of the entire exercise. In a letter to fellow suffragist Mary Ware Dennett, Paul termed this route women's rightful "place." A local newspaper, the Washington Times, took up the cause, noting in an editorial that "men's processions have always marched there."

Sylvester was forced to relent. Alice Paul's march took place and President-elect Wilson, arriving in the capital that afternoon by train, expressed surprise by the sparseness of the crowd greeting him at Union Station.

"Where are all the people?" he inquired.

Watching the women's parade, Wilson was told.

This answer was true, but incomplete. What they were really watching was the march of history. As for Sylvester, he was hauled before a congressional committee to defend his officers for standing idly by while women marchers were pestered by jeering hooligans who tore their signs and engaged in what newspapers termed "ribaldery." Two years later, he resigned under pressure. Alice Paul was just getting started.

January 7, 1947

Then All the Reindeer Loved Him



  • "[ON THIS DATE] is rich in forgotten facts about celebrated patriots and unearthed tales of the daring and genius of ordinary Americans. Popular history at its very best, as entertaining as it is instructive, and a moving appreciation of the restless upstarts who carved a nation from the wilderness and made it the most successful enterprise in human history."—Senator John McCain
  • "ON THIS DATE shows the country as it really has been. It is also a love letter to America. [It] will give those who have been deprived of the experience the opportunity to fall in love with their country. For those who have been more fortunate, it will provide a chance to fall in love all over again."—RealClearPolitics.com
  • "A terrific book! America's rich history told as a daily heartbeat, not a dry list of dates. Everyone is here: the great and the forgotten, the heroic and the hilarious, artists, activists, inventors, adventurers, and more. A patriotic pageant, and a joy to read."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 48.0px; text-indent: 48.0px; font: 19.0px Calibri; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}David Von Drehle, author of Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year

On Sale
Jul 18, 2017
Page Count
400 pages

Carl M. Cannon

About the Author

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief of RealClearPolitics and a past recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Distinguished Reporting and the Aldo Beckman Award, the two most prestigious awards for White House coverage. Previous positions include Executive Editor of Politics Daily, Washington Bureau Chief for Reader’s Digest, White House correspondent for both the Baltimore Sun and National Journal, a fellow-in-residence at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and a past president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. He is the author of The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, co-author of Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy with Lou Cannon, and Circle of Greed with Patrick Dillon. Carl was also a member of the San Jose Mercury-News staff awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

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