King George III: The Abdication that Never Happened

George III was Britain’s king during the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence called him, “A Prince whose character is … marked by every act which may define a Tyrant.” But recent research has revealed a surprise about the king — one that hardly smacks of tyranny. In 1783, as the Revolutionary War drew to a close, George III almost abdicated—as revealed by a draft abdication speech in his own hand, recently discovered. The king’s speech blames the loss of the colonies on selfish partisanship within Britain. (Apparently, little has changed in the U.K. or in its former colonies.) King George also concluded that he had nothing left to offer. “A long Experience … has gradually prepared My mind to expect the time when I should be no longer of Utility to this Empire; that hour is now come; I am therefore resolved to resign My Crown and all the Dominions appertaining to it to the Prince of Wales my Eldest Son and Lawful Successor and to retire to the care of My Electoral Dominions the Original Patrimony of my Ancestors.” (The last point means he planned to move to his family’s duchy in Germany.) Continue reading “King George III: The Abdication that Never Happened”

Police History: Constable vs. Paramilitary

Calls to abolish or massively reform America’s police sound new and radical. Yet history offers a very old model for those reforms: an alternative to our current military style of policing. In the world of the Founding Fathers, civilian constables enforced the law. They had done so for 150 years in the American colonies — and for longer in England. And they would continue well into the 19th Century.

police history: a constable or beadle
An English constable (technically, a beadle)

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This Week in History: the Ashmolean Museum

This week in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology opened in Oxford. It was the world’s first university museum and was named after Elias Ashmole, who in 1677 had given Oxford University what became the museum’s first collection. Construction also began in 1677. The current museum building was finished in 1845.

Ashmolean Museum

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Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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This week in history: Huaynaputina

This week in 1600, South America experienced the most violent volcanic eruption in its recorded history. The volcano known as Huaynaputina, in Peru, exploded, and the impact was global. The surrounding area was devastated, of course – much of it buried in six feet of volcanic ash and rock. But the eruption also altered global climate, as major volcanoes sometimes do – with ash and other particulates flung into the sky blocking sunlight around the world, leading to falling temperatures. That in turn brought famines, floods, droughts, and waves of cold weather to various regions in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the eruption of Huaynaputina and other volcanoes around the same time probably contributed to the Little Ice Age: a period of historic cold weather around the world, from the 1600’s to, arguably, the 1800’s. Continue reading “This week in history: Huaynaputina”

This week in history: the Diet of Worms

This week in 1521 saw the opening of the Diet of Worms: the great meeting of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire to address the turmoil created by Martin Luther. Luther was a clergyman and professor who had repeatedly criticized the Church and attacked its doctrines. His aggressive and outspoken writings had found sympathetic ears across Germany and the rest of the empire, striking fear in the Catholic establishment. Emperor Charles V presided over the Diet, in the city of Worms in the German Rhineland, and he summoned Luther to answer for his views. Luther naturally feared that attending the Diet would lead to his death, but his patron and protector, Elector Frederick III of Saxony, negotiated safe passage to and from the meeting. Continue reading “This week in history: the Diet of Worms”