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This week in history: Encyclopaedia Britannica

December 12, 2019

This week in 1768, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell of Scotland published the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It had just 3 volumes—quite a contrast to the thirty-two volumes of the fifteenth and final edition, published in 2010. Despite small beginnings, Britannica quickly gained a reputation for excellence and was soon considered the most authoritative English language encyclopedia. Ironically given the name, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. has become an American company. Sears Roebuck bought the rights in 1920, and the company now operates out of Chicago. 

Sadly, the information economy offers little market for large collections of large books, so the 2010 edition was the last hard copy. But the company now publishes Encyclopædia Britannica Online. It’s going strong, though it faces fierce competition from free online encyclopedias like Wikipedia – which benefits from a staff of 7.7 billion potential writers, since it’s open source – and Ancient History Encyclopedia

This image is a copperplate from the first edition, engraved by Andrew Bell.

This week in history: Napoleon III

December 3, 2019

This week in 1852, Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte became Emperor of France. His father was the younger brother of the original Napoleon. And his mother was the daughter of the famous Josephine – the long-term mistress and eventually wife of the first Napoleon — by her other (first) husband. To capitalize on his famous uncle’s reputation, the new emperor took the name Napoleon III. (In theory, the first Napoleon’s four-year-old son had ruled for about two weeks in 1815, as Napoleon II.) Read more…

This week in history: Thespis

November 26, 2019
Photo by Sailko, used with permission under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic (CC BY 2.5)

This week in 534 BCE, Thespis of Icaria became the first person we know of to portray a character on stage in ancient Greece. He sang about myths to an audience in Athens. But rather than just narrating by song, he played the various characters in the story, using masks to differentiate them. Thespis also won Athens’ first recorded “Best Tragedy” competition. Then he took it on the road, performing in the various Greek city-states with his masks, props, and costumes. Thespis changed theatrical story-telling in the ancient world – and today, we use “thespian” as a synonym for actor, in his honor.

Time for an Independent Attorney General

November 25, 2019

Almost every U.S. state has an independent attorney general. Forty-eight of our state governors can’t fire their AG at will, so they can’t avoid justice through control of state prosecutors. American Presidents, however, however, can fire the U.S. Attorney General, for any reason. Yet the White House generates far more potential corruption than any governor’s mansion, due to its greater power. In fact, thanks to the modern imperial presidency, the U.S. executive now overshadows the other two branches, disrupting the Founding Father’s plan for a balance of power. And the extreme partisanship of 21st Century politics boosts Presidents’ might even further. It renders them almost immune to impeachment and even to justice from the ballot box. That leaves law enforcement as a crucial check on executive corruption. But the federal prosecutors’ hands are tied by the Presidents’ power to fire them. So the U.S. must learn from the wisdom of its own states.

This article takes no position on the conduct of Presidents Trump or Obama or any of their predecessors. Rather, it offers a non-partisan, traditional American solution, of equal value to all sides and thoroughly vetted by our many states. It offers a constitutional amendment creating an independent Attorney General. Read more…

This week in history: Queen Elizabeth

November 18, 2019

This week in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor was declared queen of England and Ireland, following the untimely death of her half-sister, Queen Mary. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her first and most important job as queen was to marry and produce an heir. Her sister Mary had married the King of Spain (leading to an unhappy long-distance marriage), and Elizabeth could have chosen a foreign royal too. Many of her advisors, on the other hand, preferred a noble English husband. Either way, conventional wisdom demanded marriage, since a kingdom without an heir is unstable, and since a mere woman can’t reign alone. Yet after Elizabeth had flirted with various foreign and English suitors for years, it became clear the queen would never marry. It’s not that Elizabeth disliked men. In fact, she apparently had a taste for big, athletic bad boys. Rather, the queen probably felt that, in a man’s world, a husband would steal some of her authority. And for an energetic, forceful, and smart ruler like Queen Elizabeth, that was unacceptable. So she reigned alone and became known and loved as the Virgin Queen (though her actual virginity seems doubtful). And she ruled well, blazing her own trail as a ruling queen without husband or heir. Her forty-five-year reign saw a steady rise in English might and witnessed the defeat of Europe’s greatest power – as Elizabeth’s navy (and bad weather) foiled a Spanish invasion and destroyed the Spanish Armada, in 1588. The Elizabethan era also saw a great flowering of English culture, including the rise of English drama and the start of Shakespeare’s career. Read more…

This week in history: The Mayflower

November 11, 2019
Painting by William Halsall

This week in 1620, passengers and crew aboard The Mayflower got their first glimpse of the New World, sighting modern-day Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The travelers spent a couple of days trying to sail further south to Virginia, their intended destination, but strong winds pushed them back to the natural harbor at Cape Cod. After anchoring on November 11, the settlers drafted and signed The Mayflower Compact, which established a form of government for the colony. Arguably, it was North America’s first written constitution. Read more…

This week in history: The Sistine Chapel

November 5, 2019
Photo by Antoine Taveneaux, reproduced with permission under the Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license

This week in 1512, the Vatican revealed the newly-painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for the first time. Renaissance master Michelangelo had begun the work in 1508, under commission from Pope Julius II (often called the warrior pope). The master had actually resisted the project at first. The scale of the job intimidated him (with good reason). And – amazingly from the viewpoint of history – Michelangelo considered himself more a sculptor than a painter. He also thought that his enemies had arranged the commission, assuming he would fail. But Pope Julius was relentless. Read more…

This week in history: Annie Edson Taylor

November 1, 2019

On October 24th 1901, Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to “raft” over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. She accomplished this feat on her 63rd birthday with the intent of securing her finances, through speaking engagements and other publicity. Unfortunately, she never made much money from the venture – mostly because her associates swindled her during post-stunt publicity tour. Annie did write a memoir that briefly improved her finances, but not for long. She died in 1921 in relative obscurity. Today, however, Kathleen Ordiway portrays Taylor at the “Encounter Niagara” tour at the falls, ensuring the survival of her legacy.

This week in history: Louis XIII

October 17, 2019

On this day in 1610, Louis XIII was crowned King of France, following the assassination of his father, Henry IV. The new king was only nine, so his mother, Marie de’ Medici, ruled as regent. Her mismanagement, however, along with widespread hostility toward her Italian favorites, led the teenage Louis XIII to take over in 1617. He then exiled his mother and execute several of her followers. Louis XIII ruled well, thanks in large part to his brilliant chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. The king died in 1643 and was succeeded by his son, Louis XIV, a.k.a. the Sun King, who made France the greatest power in Europe.

This week in history: Theodore Roosevelt

October 14, 2019

This week in 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. chief executive to fly in an airplane. More than 10,000 people attended the event at Kinloch Field in St. Louis. The pilot, Archibald Hoxsey, flew Roosevelt around the field twice, for a distance of about three miles, in a flight lasting three minutes and twenty seconds. Roosevelt greatly enjoyed the experience and waved to the crowd from the circling airplane. Hoxsey, on the other hand, suffered great anxiety, fearing what might happen if the former President were injured or killed. But the plane landed with both pilot and passenger in great spirits.

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