Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essayist, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. Son and grandson of Protestant divines, Emerson attended Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, entering the Unitarian ministry in 1829.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion;…The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance,” Essays, First Series, 1841.

A popular, if unconventional preacher, young Emerson’s sermons consisted of personal reflections on spirituality and virtue. He avoided expounding doctrine or engaging in scriptural exegesis. Increasingly dissatisfied with traditional protestant theology, Emerson resigned from the ministry in 1832. By the end of the decade, however, he was the leading exponent of transcendentalism, a philosophy that maintains the universality of creation, upholds the intrinsic goodness of man, and grounds truth in personal insight.

From the 1830s on, Emerson and a group of like-minded thinkers including Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were based in Concord, Massachusetts. The transcendentalist community at Concord not only shared radical religious views, but also embraced forward-looking social reforms including abolition, temperance, and woman suffrage.

Emerson lived in his family home, The Old Manse, for one year, where he completed his manifesto, Nature (1836), and composed the poem “Concord Hymn” (1837) which commemorates the Revolutionary War battle with its phrase, “And fired the shot heard round the world.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife later rented the Old Manse.) A prolific writer and thinker, Emerson’s collected essays earned international acclaim, and, for decades, he remained a popular lecturer.

The Old Manse

The Old Manse, Concord. c1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

 By the time of his death in 1882, the eighty-year-old radical was heralded as the “Sage of Concord.”

Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

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Pennsylvania Avenue

Capitol-Building-from-Pennsylvania-Avenue-Circa-1903

On May 23, 1865, the Army of the Potomac celebrated the end of the Civil War by parading down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Only weeks before, mourners watched Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege travel the same thoroughfare. With many buildings still dressed in black crepe, this joyous procession could not help but remind spectators of that unhappy occasion.

Laid out by Pierre L’Enfant, Pennsylvania Avenue was one of the earliest streets constructed in the federal city. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson considered the avenue an important feature of the new capital. After inspecting L’Enfant’s plan, President Washington referred to the thoroughfare as a “Grand Avenue.” Jefferson concurred, and while the “grand avenue” was little more than a wide dirt road, he planted it with rows of fast growing Lombardy poplars.

Although Pennsylvania Avenue extends seven miles, the expanse between the White House and the Capitol constitutes the ceremonial heart of the nation. Washington called this stretch “most magnificent & most convenient” and it has served the country well. Ever since an impromptu procession formed around Jefferson’s second inauguration, each United States president has paraded down the Avenue after taking the oath of office. From William Henry Harrison to John F. Kennedy the funeral corteges of the seven presidents who died in office followed this route.

Not just the scene of official functions, Pennsylvania Avenue is the traditional parade and protest route of ordinary citizens. During the depression of the 1890s, for example, Jacob Coxey marched 500 supporters down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to demand Federal aid for the unemployed. Similarly, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration, Alice Paul masterminded a parade highlighting the woman suffrage movement. In July 1932, a contingent of the Bonus Expeditionary Force carried flags down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House where they planned to form picket lines. Pennsylvania Avenue also has served as a background for more lighthearted celebrations, including a series of day and nighttime Shriner’s parades in the 1920s and 1930s.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

The Homestead Act

The-Homestead-Act

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. The act provided settlers with 160 acres of surveyed public land after payment of a filing fee and five years of continuous residence. Designed to spur Western migration, the Homestead Act culminated a twenty-year battle to distribute public lands to citizens willing to farm. Concerned that free land would lower property values and reduce the cheap labor supply, Northern businessmen opposed the act. Unlikely allies, Southerners feared homesteaders would add their voices to the call for abolition of slavery. With Southerners out of the picture in 1862, the legislation finally passed.

homestead

The first homestead in the United States, U.S.A. 1904. Prints & Photographs Division

By 1900, homesteaders had filed 600,000 claims for 80 million acres. Most pioneers settled in the Western Plains states. Experienced farm workers from other states or Europe, they abandoned family and community ties for the isolation of pioneer life gambling that conditions would favor prosperity.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

Johns Hopkins

Johns-Hopkins.jpg

Johns Hopkins was born on May 19, 1795, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, to a Quaker family. Convinced that slavery was morally wrong, his parents freed their slaves. As a result, Johns had to leave school at age twelve to work in the family tobacco fields. Hopkins regretted that his formal education ended so early. Ambitious and hardworking, he abandoned farming, and, at his mother’s urging, became an apprentice in his uncle’s wholesale grocery business when he was seventeen. Within a decade, he had created his own Baltimore-based mercantile operation. Hopkins single-mindedly pursued his business ventures. He never married, lived frugally, and retired a rich man at age fifty. A series of wise investments over the next two decades—he was the largest individual stockholder in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, for example—further increased his wealth. He used his fortune to found Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, incorporating them in 1867.

Johns Hopkins Hospital

[Baltimore, Md., Johns Hopkins Hospital, main building]. [between 1890 and 1910]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Hopkins died in 1873. His will divided $7 million equally between the hospital and the university. At the time, the gift was the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history. Hopkins also endowed an orphanage for African-American children.

Johns Hopkins University opened February 22, 1876. Hopkins’ first President, Dr. Daniel Coit Gilman, set a new standard for higher education by focusing on ground-breaking research and advanced study. The research university system he introduced continues to characterize American higher education today. Johns Hopkins Hospital opened in 1889, and the medical school opened four years later. Here too, rigorous academic standards and an emphasis on scientific research profoundly influenced medical practice in the United States.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

 

Founding of Jamestown

Founding of Jamestown

On May 14, 1607, English settlers arriving under the authority of the Virginia Company of London chartered by King James I established the first permanent British settlement in North America at a place they named Jamestown, Virginia.1 We landed all our men,” George Percy wrote in his account of the event, “which were set to worke about [i.e., on] the fortification, and others some to watch and ward as it was convenient.”

Virginia Discovered and Discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606 [detail showing Jamestown]. 

The Jamestown colonists struggled with leadership and survival from the beginning. Captain John Smith spent his first months in Virginia exploring in the Chesapeake region, undergoing capture by the regional Algonquian “great emperor,” Powhatan, with whom he subsequently developed a mutually wary and respectful relationship. In 1608 Smith was chosen to be president of Jamestown’s governing council and proved to be an able leader. Yet Smith returned to England in 1609, and only 60 of the 214 colonists survived the Starving Time of the ensuing harsh winter. The arrival of fresh supplies from England in the spring fortified the colony and enabled it to endure.

Virginia Discovered and Discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606 [detail showing Powhatan chief]. 

On July 30, 1619, under the provisions of the Virginia Company Charter, the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown “to establish …one uniform government over all Virginia,” thereby becoming the first representative legislative assembly of European Americans in the Western Hemisphere. (Tradition dates the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy of five Indian tribes in upper New York state between 1570 and 1600.) Jamestown was also the site of the Americas’ first Anglican church. 3

Another event of momentous consequence took place in August 1619 when a Dutch ship exchanged a cargo of some twenty captive Africans for food. Although the Africans’ legal status in these early years was probably closer to indentured servitude than to the full-fledged slavery that hardened in Virginia by the end of the century, this event represented both the founding African presence and the foundation of slavery in British North America.

Despite the success represented by the colony’s survival and political organization, relations with the Algonquians were unstable and at times violent. In March 1622, more than three hundred colonists were killed by the Algonquians just outside Jamestown and more than twice that number died in an epidemic the next December. Following these events, King James revoked the Virginia Company’s charter in 1624. In 1625 his son King Charles I made Virginia a royal colony.

Old Church, Jamestown, Va. William Henry Jackson, photographer, c1902. 

 


 

1. It should be noted that because of the then-ten-day difference between the “Old Style” (Julian) calendar used by Englishmen until 1752, and the “New Style” (Gregorian) calendar in use since 1752, the date when settlement began was actually May 24 in modern terms.

2. The words of George Percy are quoted in a timeline about the Jamestown settlement in the Encyclopedia Virginia. The timeline is part of an essay on the early Jamestown settlement.

3. Church of England in Virginia, in the Encyclopedia Virginia.

 

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

On May 8, 1846, General Zachary Taylor defeated a detachment of the Mexican army in a two-day battle at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. This victory forced Mexican troops across the Rio Grande River to Matamoros, protecting the newly annexed state of Texas from invasion. Five days later, the United States declared war against Mexico. At the direction of President James K. Polk, General Taylor led American forces on to brilliant victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista.

Battle of Buena Vista

“A little more grape Capt. Bragg”–General Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista, Feby 23d, 1847 / Cameron ; lith. & pub. by N. Currier. General Taylor on horseback, in midst of battle scene.

After a childhood on the Kentucky frontier, Taylor spent most of his adult life in the army. Widely admired for his military prowess, he was elected president on the 1848 Whig ticket. Taylor’s administration was marred by improprieties on the part of cabinet members and controversies surrounding territory acquired by settlement of the Mexican-American War. He died before the Compromise of 1850 resolved these issues, having served just sixteen months in office.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress

Robert E. Peary

Robert E. Peary

On May 6, 1856, Robert E. Peary, who claimed discovery of the North Pole, was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania.

During the early years of the twentieth century, the conquest of the North and South poles became the object of fervent international competition. Teams from Russia, Norway, Italy, and the United States vied to be the first to fly their nation’s flag at the summit of the world. Many expeditions, such as the failed Ziegler Expedition pictured below, sought to explore the Arctic from the northernmost point of Russia, Franz Josef Land. Robert Peary set his sights on Greenland as the launching ground of a northward dash to the pole.

Photographed off the coast of Franz Josef Archipelago, Soviet Union during failed Ziegler expedition to the North Pole; Anthony Fiala, photographer, March 1905. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Peary received his degree in civil engineering from Bowdoin College in 1877 and went to work for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey before obtaining a commission in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps. His first assignments took him to tropical, rather than arctic climates. In 1884 and again in 1887, Peary was responsible for surveying a route for a proposed canal through the jungles of Nicaragua. On his second trip to Nicaragua, Peary was accompanied by his assistant, Matthew Henson, who also was his trusted companion throughout his Arctic explorations.

In 1886, Peary obtained leave from the Corps and set out to explore the Greenland ice cap. This was the first of a series of trips to Greenland during 1886-97 in which Peary mapped Greenland’s northern coastline and gathered data regarding meteorological and tidal patterns of the Arctic Ocean. Perhaps most important, Peary encountered the Inuit people of northern Greenland. He learned their language and customs as well as techniques of survival in the Arctic—igloo- and sled-building, hunting, and the use of sled dogs and seal-fur suits.

Peary adopted a number of other practices that facilitated his exploration of the region, including the establishment of support bases and shelters, a backup supply line using relay teams, and the construction of a ship, the Roosevelt, built to withstand the Arctic ice.

Departure of Peary and the ‘Roosevelt’ from New York. G.W. Bitzer, camera; United States: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, Jul.16, 1905.

Peary had powerful support for his project with the enthusiasm of President Theodore Roosevelt and the financial backing of prominent individuals and institutions, including the National Geographic Society. With their support, Peary was able to finance the building of the Roosevelt to his specifications:

The Roosevelt embodies all that a most careful study of previous polar ships and my own years of personal experience could suggest. With the sturdiness of a battleship and the shapely lines of a Maine-built schooner, I regard her the fittest icefighter afloat. As I write these lines, I see her slowly but surely forcing a way through the crowding ice. I see the black hull hove out bodily onto the surface of the ice by a cataclysm of the great floes. I see her squeezed as by a giant’s hand against a rocky shore till every rib and timber is vocal with the strain. And I see her out in the North Atlantic lying to for days through a wild autumn northeaster, rudderless, with damaged propeller, and shattered stern post, …a scrap of double reefed foresail keeping her up to the wind, riding the huge waves like a seagull till they are tired out.

Robert Peary, Secrets of Polar Travel. New York: The Century Co., 1917. p28-31.

Peary’s team failed to reach the pole in an initial 1905 voyage, and he returned to New York with an ice-damaged ship. Significant repairs to the ship postponed another attempt until 1908. It was on this latter trip that Peary reported success. On April 6, 1909, after months of travel and preparation, Peary reached what he believed to be the North Pole, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Inuit companions. Henson recalled the discovery of the North Pole after nineteen years of Arctic exploration in an interview at the time of his 1936 retirement from the U.S. Customs House:

 “When the compass started to go crazy,” he recalled, “I sat down to wait for Mr. Peary. He arrived about forty-five minutes later, and we prepared to wait for the dawn to check our exact positions… The next morning when [the] positions had been verified, Peary said: “Matt, we’ve reached the North Pole at last.”

“Matt Henson.” Theodore Poston, interviewer; New York City, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

After time spent taking notes regarding their location, the team began the arduous return trip. When Peary notified the world that the North Pole had been attained, he was immediately embroiled in a controversy that continues to this day.

Shortly before Peary made his announcement, Dr.Frederick A. Cook (a companion on one of his earlier journeys in 1891) claimed that he himself had reached the pole on April 21, 1908. At the time, the National Geographic Society examined the records of both men and concluded that Peary and Henson had reached the pole first. Dr. Cook was subsequently involved in other controversies and his claim was further discredited.

Peary’s achievement was hailed worldwide; he was given medals and a pension by the U.S. Congress and feted at dinners. Proper recognition for Henson was long-delayed. President Taft appointed him as a customs clerk in 1913, but it was not until 1944 that he received the Congressional medal that was awarded to all other members of Peary’s expedition.

This was not the end of the story, however. In 1989, after years of increasing public skepticism, the National Geographic Society reexamined the records made by Peary and Henson and concluded that their calculations were incorrect—leaving them short of the pole. Nevertheless, Peary’s achievement remains substantial in the development of Arctic exploration methods and in his knowledge of the region.

Source: Courtesy of The United States Library of Congress