Flag Day Part II

A living flag, U.S. Naval training station, Great Lakes, IL, 1917.

from Flag Day Part I

A few weeks later, on June 4, 1917, Kimber presented the flag in a more somber ceremony, largely for the American Ambulance Corps volunteers who were already stationed near Treveray, France.

“My instructions were to bring the flag as quickly as I could, and that I have done to the best of my ability. You know the history of this flag: how it was dedicated and blessed in California; how it led a parade in New York down Fifth Avenue before thousands of persons, and how it was saluted and cheered by that vast multitude; how an attempt to capture it was frustrated; how it reposed in the chancel of Old Trinity Church and was there seen and prayed for by hundreds; and how it was carried through England on its way to France.”

The ceremony ended in a promise by a military official that the defeat of German tyranny would “assure for all time the victory of right, of justice, and of liberty.”

Later that year Kimber realized his dream. He earned his wings as a pilot with the U.S. Air Service.

On June 15, 1918, the day after flag day and a year after his initial speech, he learned that his best friend from back home, Alan Nichols, had been killed behind enemy lines. He weeped for his friend, that war would take such a good man, unaware that in a few short months he would meet a similar fate.

On September 14th, Kimber had a particularly close mission, in which his plane was shot up almost beyond repair. But “The three vital parts—my engine, the gas tank, and I—were untouched,” he wrote home the following day. He concluded his letter with the words,

God was merciful to me; I hope I can prove myself worthy of His mercy in this war and in later life. Well I must quit; good-bye, good luck and lots of it and much love. God bless you all.”

Eleven days later, God was not so merciful. A month and a half before the Armistice ended the “War To End All Wars,” Kimber’s plane was shot down along the German lines.

“That war insistently devours such men as Clifford Kimber is its final indictment at the bar of civilization” — David Starr Jordan

*  *  *

Woodrow Wilson noted the importance of the flag in times of peace as well as war. But make no mistake, it’s always been war that has given flags their import. As Francis Scott Key wrote:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

Flags are born of war, defended in war, have perished in war. Our almost religious devotion to these pieces of fabric is largely due to the intangible and unpayable debt to those who gave their lives defending them.

It was during wartime that a group of traitors rebelling against the English crown sat down and adopted the flag, a symbol of what the newly united states were fighting for. Betsy Ross and the founders broke from European tradition by not placing the cross or overtly religious symbols on their banner. Instead they instituted a design that would make the U.S. flag unique.

Before June 1777, other Americans had placed 13 stripes on their flags, representing the 13 colonies, and a British Union Jack in the corner. But where the Union Jack had been, Ross and the founders placed a circle of 13 stars. A little redundant perhaps, but this allowed for the possibility of adding new stars to the flag for new states as the Union expanded.

As the number of states increased, so did the number of stars. Today, one can view the U.S.’s 230+ year history in a single glance. Always stars and stripes, always red, white and blue. But changing slowly to reflect the changing country, just like the Constitution.

Would the representatives of the 13 fledgling states that banded together in 1777 recognize the 50-star Mega-State that we know today? Perhaps not.

Would they recognize the flag?

In a moment.

On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

— Francis Scott Key, the less-recited 2nd verse of the Star-Spangled Banner

The Story of the First Flag : An Account of the Mission of Arthur Clifford Kimber

28 Incarnations of the U.S. Flag, 1775 – present

César Chavez Day

Last Monday in March
Actual birthday: March 31

“Money is not going to organize the disadvantaged, the powerless, or the poor. We need other weapons. That’s why the War on Poverty is such a miserable failure. You put out a big pot of money and all you do is fight over it. Then you run out of money and you run out of troops.” – César Chavez

On March 31 (or the last Monday in March), Americans in Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin celebrate César Chavez Day. César Chavez is most famous for organizing the historic food boycotts of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and for improving the working conditions of agricultural laborers in the United States.

“Do not romanticize the poor…We are all people, human beings subject to the same temptations and faults as all others. Our poverty damages our dignity.” – César Chavez

Chavez was born outside Yuma, Arizona in 1927.

During the “Roaring Twenties” a booming economy had increased the demand for cheap labor; however the Great Depression brought this to a halt. In 1929 the U.S. government began a program of mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican ancestry. The program was called “repatriation”, even though over half of the deportees had been born in the U.S. (The Forgotten “Repatriation” of Persons of Mexican Ancestry and Lessons for the War on Terror, Kevin Johnson)

The Chavez family was not removed, but they lost their farm and grocery store in Arizona, causing them to move to California to become migrant farm workers. César attended approximately 30 schools during these transitory years. Having completed the eighth grade he dropped out to help support the family after his father was injured in an accident. In 1944 he joined the Navy and served for two years.

César Chavez in the Navy
César Chavez in the Navy

In 1948 the Chavez married and moved to San Jose, California, where he met Father Donald McDonnell. Chavez later said about McDonnell:

“He told me about social justice, and the Church’s stand on farm labor and reading from the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, in which he upheld labor unions. I would do anything to get the Father to tell more about labor history. I began going to the bracero camps with him to help with the mass, to the city jail with him to talk to the prisoners…”

Chavez was influenced by the works of St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi. He joined Fred Ross’s Community Service Organization, initially organizing voter registration. After ten years he left the organization and moved his family to Delano, California to co-found what would become the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huertes. The prevailing belief at the time was that the migrant life of farm workers and high illiteracy rates made unionizing impossible.

However, by September 16, 1965 (Mexican Independence Day) Chavez had amassed over 1200 members who voted to join the grape strike organized by Filipino Americans in the AFL-CIO. The following year Chavez led strikers on a 340 mile march from Delano to the steps of the state capital building in Sacramento. In 1968 he held his first hunger strike to draw attention to the treatment of grape farm workers.

When Giumarra, the largest grape grower in California, was allowed by other grape growers to use their labels to minimize effectiveness of the boycott, the UFW extended the boycott to all California grapes

Over the next two decades, Chavez’s boycotts, strikes and fasts improved the working conditions of farm workers, increased wages, united Latino-Americans laborers, and reduced pesticide use. It was in pursuit of this last goal that Chavez kicked off the “Wrath of Grapes” campaign in 1986, and held his final hunger strike in 1988, lasting 36 days.

With respect to pesticides, Chavez compared the role of farm workers to that of the canary in a coal mine: sickness endured by the farm workers was the first sign of the harmful effects of pesticides that would later be evident in consumers.

Chavez died on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona. He had been in Yuma testifying in a civil suit filed by a lettuce grower suing farm workers for damages brought on by a UFW lettuce boycott in the 1980s. He died about twenty miles from his birthplace.

The following year, his wife accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his honor.

“It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.” — César Chavez

“We want to be recognized, yes, but not with a glowing epitaph on our tombstone…” — César Chavez

Digital History – Mexican-American Voices: César Chavez

St. Patrick’s Day around the world

March 17


I’m tired of these @#$%! snakes
on these #$%@$! Irish plains!
— St. Patrick, 433 AD

When the going gets tough, the tough go green. And the hard times haven’t dimmed the green glow (or watered down the green beer) of St. Patrick’s Day from the Emerald Isle to North America.

For a run-down of the slave-turned-priest who we celebrate today, check out last year’s St. Patrick’s Day post: Green is Good.

This year we travel around the world to see how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in different cities.

American Servicemen and women in Baghdad held their first (and possibly last) St. Patrick’s Day Parades. It was considerably smaller than, say, New York’s festivities, but the tiny procession drew a respectable amount of confused looks from curious Iraqis. AFP

In New Orleans, the St. Patrick’s parades are second only to Carnival/Mardi Gras. Instead of throwing beads, float-riders threw food: full heads of cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. “Everything you need to make an Irish stew, minus the meat,” says New Orleans native Odin (yes, that’s his real name). And that’s exactly what participants do with it. “And if you’re a mother with kids, forget it.You’ll go home with more food than you could eat in a month.”

But watch out for large flying edible projectiles!

The St. Patrick’s Day parade in Toronto is relatively young, but gaining in popularity. The Irish have a long tradition in Canada’s largest city. According to toronto.ctv.ca:

In 1847, when the city of Toronto was only 13 years old and had only 20,000 residents, more than 38,000 Irish refugees of the Great Famine — which lasted from 1845 to 1851 — arrived in the city.

In the U.S. the two most famous celebrations are the parades in Boston and New York.

John “Wacko” Hurley has helped organize the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade for a half-century and has been its lead organizer for the past two decades.

The New York parade dates back to 1766 and is one of the city’s oldest annual traditions. It was originally organized by military units before falling upon the shoulders of Irish fraternal clubs in 1811.

A few years back the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade counted 150,000 participants. That’s marchers alone, not spectators. The people lining the parade route and watching on TV numbered in the millions.

And of course there’s Ireland. Surprisingly Ireland held a disappointing, lackluster St. Patrick’s Day celebration until recently. It wasn’t until 1996 that Dublin, inspired by the success of fanfare overseas, held it’s first major St. Patrick’s Day festival. Amazingly, that first crowd numbered over 400,000. Today the festival has grown to six full days of activities, and visitors to the festival number over a million.

Wherever you celebrate today, there’s a good chance you’re a stone’s throw away from an Irish pub.

And if not, you can always go throw cabbage at someone.

Let us know how that goes!

St. Urho’s Day

March 16

St. Urho statue, Menahga, Minnesota

St. Patrick is world-famous for driving the snakes out of Ireland, but the day before St. Patrick’s Day we celebrate an oft-overlooked saint named Urho, who is said to have performed the equally admirable feat of ridding his Finnish homeland of hungry grasshoppers, thus saving Finland’s all-important grape crop, and the Finns themselves, from devastation.

Plaques proclaim St. Urho’s glory, including one in Minnesota that describes the annual ceremony in his honor:

At sunrise on March 16, Finnish women and children dressed in royal purple and nile green gather around the shores of the many lakes in Finland and chant what St. Urho chanted many years ago: “Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen” (Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away!”

Urho’s deeds are recalled in poems like The Legend of Saint Urho, by Linda Johnson. Statues have been erected in his honor. His feast day is celebrated with relish by Finnish communities throughout Minnesota.

But before you go impressing your Finnish friends with all your knowledge about their culture, you should know that, while St. Urho is a symbol of pride for many Finnish-Americans, sadly the Finns themselves are all but ignorant of their great national hero. (Or of the notion that grapes grew there.)

This is because St. Urho is a completely made-up saint. He was conjured up and popularized by Finnish-Americans (most-likely intoxicated) in Minnesota in the mid-1950’s.

Envious of the attention paid to Ireland’s patron saint on May 17, Finnish Minnesotans, created their own hero, possibly inspired by the name of then Finnish Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen. There is some debate over who is to blame—I mean, who is responsible for inventing the now world-famous saint.

Richard Mattson, a department store manager in Virginia, Minnesota, explained,

“[Gene] McCavic, a co-worker at Ketola’s Department Store, chided me in 1953 that the Finns did not have saints like St. Patrick. I told her the Irish aren’t the only ones with great saints. She asked me to name one for the Finns. So I fabricated a story and thought of St. Eero (Eric), St. Jussi (John), and St. Urho. Urho, a common Finnish name, had a more commanding sound.”

— “St. Urho Creator, Richard Matteson, Dies“, Mesabi Daily News, (June 7, 2001), Linda Tyssen Williams; “Well, Here We Are: The Hansons and the Becks” by J. Robert Beck

Mattson’s original St. Urho rid Finland of its frogs, not grasshoppers, a tradition that changed over time.

Soon, the employees of Ketola’s came to respect the Finnish saint, or at least their manager’s Finnish dry humor, and began throwing “St. Urho’s Day” parties as an inside joke for their beloved manager.

The story of St. Urho was reported in the Mesabi Daily News in 1956. That may be where Sulo Havumaki, a school district psychologist in Benmidji, Minnesota got wind of it.

“Sulo was a devout Catholic and, feeling left out because there weren’t any Finnish saints, made one up with tongue in cheek: St. Urho (Maybe he adopted Mattson’s…)” — William Reid

Sulo’s devotion to the obscure saint was well-known in the town. One story goes that when a neighbor’s family took a trip to Finland, they played a rather unusual practical joke on Sulo. They took some very old bones and wood with them and arriving in Finland, found a recent obituary in a Finnish newspaper. From Finland they shipped the wood and bones to Sulo along with a fictitious letter, in the name of the recently deceased…

“Sulo received the letter, which said something like “Dear Prof. Havumaki: I am the keeper of the last relics of St. Urho. News of your faith and dedication to St. Urho have reached me across the ocean. I am dying, and commend to you those last relics because I know you will protect and revere them, and pass them to the next custodian when the time is right…”

William Reid – http://www.sainturho.com/havumaki.htm

Sulo took the saint and ran with it, codifying much of the lore and the rites of the festival that is St. Urho’s Day.

Regardless of the saint’s origin, St. Urho’s Day is a very real reason (excuse) for Finnish-Americans to throw parties and drink beer in his honor.

For these true-believers, St. Patrick’s Day is merely “Hangover Day.”

from sainturho.com

Ode to Saint Urho
by Gene McGavin

Ooksi kooksi coolama vee
Santia Urho is ta poy for me!
He sase out ta hoppers as pig as pirds.
Neffer peefor haff I hurd tose words!…

…So let’s give a cheer in hower pest vay
On Sixteenth of March, St. Urho’s Tay.

Origin of St. Urho

Bug Girl’s Blog


Good Samaritan Involvement Day

March 13

The Good Samaritan, by Luca Giordano

[published March 13, 2009]

Last week, Warner Brothers released the long-awaited blockbuster Watchmen. Watchmen is based on a comic book about a group of not-your-run-of-the-mill superheroes in a dark, film noir alternate reality.

It’s a superhero story without heroes, but its antihero may be Rorschach, a masked vigilante who before donning a mask was Walter Kovacs, a New York City tailor. In the original Watchmen, a chance encounter with a woman named Kitty Genovese fundamentally changes Kovacs’ view of the world:

One day a young Italian-American woman comes into the shop and asks Kovacs to make her a dress from a special fabric. She doesn’t like the way it turns out and leaves it, so Kovacs keeps the material.

I’ll pause here to say that Watchmen blends fiction and reality so well it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. Walter Kovacs/Rorschach is a fictional character. But Kitty Genovese is very real; and she’s why we observe Good Samaritan Involvement Day today, on March 13.

Kitty Genovese

The oldest of five children, the real Kitty Genovese was raised in Brooklyn, New York. In 1964, the 29 year-old was living with her girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York, and working at a sports bar on Jamaica Avenue.

Mary Ann was sound asleep by the time Kitty drove up around 3 am. Kitty parked about 100 feet from her apartment. On her way to the apartment, Kitty was attacked and stabbed twice in the back by a strange man.

Kitty screamed for help. According to reports, several witnesses heard the screams, and her attacker fled.

But no one came out to help.

The killer came back to the scene ten minutes later to find Kitty barely conscious, lying near the back of the building, where she had staggered with her remaining strength. He stabbed her several more times, sexually assaulted her as she lay dying, and stole $49 from her wallet.

Police responded to a call that came after the second attack. Kitty died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

The killer, later identified as Winston Moseley, confessed to the murder without emotion, as well as to two other murders, telling police he simply wanted to kill a woman.

As cold-blooded as the killer was (44 years later, the  inmate still shows no remorse), he’s not the reason why psychologists study Kitty Genovese’s gruesome murder.

Two weeks after the murder, a newspaper article reported that the number of witnesses who either heard or saw parts of the murder was 38.

Later reports reduced this to a dozen or so witness. Still, her murderer, armed with only a knife, walked away from the crime without so much as a reprimand. An initial call to the police was not given high priority. And in the half hour between the first screams and the killer’s final exit, only one neighbor made a move to stop him, by yelling out, “Leave the girl alone,” the comment that caused the killer to flee the first time.

The murder made national news. People were outraged and dumbstruck at the actions — or inaction — of the seemingly ordinary, law-abiding citizens of Kew Gardens. While psychologists studied the case to understand the “Bystander Effect” (also known as the “Genovese Effect”), communities sought to change the urban phenomenon by establishing Neighborhood Watch groups. New York police dispatchers were reorganized to better respond to emergency calls. And Good Samaritan Involvement Day was created as the antidote to the Genovese bystanders.

The Watchmen

In the graphic novel Watchmen, Walter Kovacs reads about Kitty Genovese’s murder in the newspaper. Deeply troubled by those who watched it and did nothing, Kovacs fashions a mask from the dress Kitty had left behind and becomes “Rorschach”, a vigilante so-named for the ink-blot patterns on the mask’s strange fabric. His purpose: to punish the evil inherent in humanity while others stand by and watch.

original Rorschach ink-blot, 1920s
an original Rorschach ink-blot, 1920s

Like the ink-blot test from which the character Rorschach gets his name, people interpret Kitty Genovese’s murder in different ways.

The fictional Rorschach tells a psychiatrist:

“Almost forty neighbors heard screams. Nobody did anything. Nobody called cops. Some of them even watched. Do you understand? I knew what people were, then, behind all the evasions, all the self-deception…”

He writes in his journal:

“This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us.”

The very real Mary Ann Zielonko, Kitty Genovese’s girlfriend, took away something different from the tragedy. Forty years later she recalled:

“Kitty was the most wonderful person I’ve ever met. I still remember her face. I can see it in my mind… we were together for a year… One year exactly, to the day.

“…I remember I went bowling with a friend of ours and I came home… It was probably 11:30. I went to bed. And the next thing I remember is the police knocking on the door at 4 o’clock in the morning. So they took me to the emergency room, said, “You have to identify her.”

“…I just went home and I started drinking, because I couldn’t deal with this. And I drank for about six months, and I realized this is — what am I doing with my life? So I stopped drinking. I got an apartment, and I went back to school…

“I still have a lot of anger toward people because they could have saved her life… I mean, you look out the window and you see this happening and you don’t help… How do you live with yourself, knowing you didn’t do anything?

“That’s the biggest lesson to be learned from this: really love each other.

“We have to on this planet.”

Remembering Kitty Genovese; Weekend Edition © 2004 Sound Portraits Productions.

Kitty Genovese
Kitty Genovese

In an alternate reality we would celebrate Good Samaritan Involvement Day because it marked the day someone did something extraordinary for a total stranger. But as Rorschach could tell you, that’s not the world we get to live in.

Instead, March 13th reminds us that the human tendency to play it safe, to stay inside, to pull the blinds shut, is as strong as the instinct to help one another.

Even the original Good Samaritan himself was a fictional character. He was the comic book hero of his day, the mold of modern-day fictional heroes from Shane to Batman.

Jesus told the parable of the theoretical “Good Samaritan” to say, not that Samaritans were good (The Hebrews of his time disliked the Samaritans.) but that even a Samaritan had the potential to save you. And thus even a Samaritan deserved to be loved as a neighbor.

Blanche DuBois was wrong. We can’t depend on the kindness of strangers. But we can be that good neighbor.

California Arbor Day

California Arbor Week: March 7-14

Sequoia National Park

March 7 is Arbor Day in California. It’s the birthday of Luther Burbank, a Massachusetts native who moved out to California in the 1870s, and who used his Santa Rosa gardens for horticulture experiments for 50 years.

Though most states celebrate Arbor Day along with Nebraska on the last Friday in April, California trees definitely deserve their own day of celebration.

For starters, California claims the world’s oldest tree. On the slopes of California’s White Mountains in the Eastern Sierras, stands “Methuselah.” The Bristlecone Pine in Inyo National Forest is named for the Biblical grandfather of Noah. According to “Bishop Ussher’s Bible Chronology” the Biblical Methuselah was born in 3317 BC and died in the year of the flood, 2348 BC.

Assuming Ussher’s Chronology is correct, the tree Methuselah is actually older than the flood.  This Bristlecone Pine took root around 2760 BC.

It’s not uncommon for bristlecones in that forest to be over 4,000 years old. Nevada boasted an even older bristlecone named Prometheus that was cut down in 1964. Outside the region, few trees come even close.

The record for the largest tree and the “most massive individual living thing on Earth” also goes to California specimin. “General Sherman” is a  Sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park. A mere 2,500 years old, General Sherman is 275 feet tall, and its trunk has a circumference of over 100 feet, with a diameter of 35 feet. The trunk alone weighs an estimated 1400 tons, more than 15 blue whales.

Sherman isn’t the tallest tree in the world though, not even close. That record belongs to a redwood on the California coast called “Hyperion.” At 379 feet tall, Hyperion is five stories taller than the Statue of Liberty, and 9 feet taller than “Stratosphere Giant”, another California Coastal Redwood, previously thought to be the world’s tallest tree.

The new record-holder is apparently under the government’s “arboreal witness protection program.” Its exact location has not been disclosed to the public for fear that increased tourism could damage the forest’s fragile ecosystem.

Can’t imagine why…


Texas Week: Alamo Day

Independence Day: March 2
Alamo Day: March 6


Not all states can boast their own Independence Day.  On March 2, fifty-four representatives at the Convention of 1836 seceded from Mexico by declaring that:

the people of Texas do now constitute a free, Sovereign, and independent republic, and are fully invested with all the rights and attributes which properly belong to independent nations; and, conscious of the rectitude of our intentions, we fearlessly and confidently commit the issue to the decision of the Supreme arbiter of the destinies of nations.

The document was drawn up literally overnight.

Why the rush? As the delegates met, a battle raged on in San Antonio.

About 189 Texians had barricaded themselves inside a former mission. Outside “the Alamo,” as it was called, 2000 Mexican troops under Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna surrounded them. The Texians refused to surrender, and held out for two weeks.

On March 6 Santa Anna’s forces stormed the fortress. The Texians fought to the last man. Among the dead were Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett.  Santa Anna spared the life of a slave and a Mexican who claimed to be held prisoner; he also granted the surviving women and their children safe passage and provisions.

The battle, intended to crush the revolution, had the opposite effect. “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry of the new Republic, and six weeks later, on April 21, 1836 General Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at the historic Battle of San Jacinto.

Texas remained independent for just under a decade. It became the 28th state in 1845; Texas’s annexation precipitated the Mexican-American War.

Ironically, the most cherished landmark in Texas was almost razed just prior to the battle. Sam Houston had asked Governor Henry Smith for permission to

“remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers, the sooner I can be authorized the better it will be for the country.”

James Neill and Jim Bowie however saw the strategic importance in holding the fort and wrote the Governor:

“Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy.”

Neill left on February 17 to gather supplies and volunteers, unaware the battle would begin in just a week. Bowie held true to his word.

+  +  +

E.D.a.Holiday @ the Alamo, 2001

Just to be clear, the Texas Legislature wants you to know that Texas Week is NOT a holiday. Even though it is.

To ensure employers that workers wouldn’t use it as an excuse for time off, the proclamation also declared:

…under no condition, is Texas Week to be looked upon as a week of holidays; but on the other hand and quite to the contrary, it is hereby alleged that during Texas Week every citizen of this State is encouraged to work, insofar as he is able, and to do his work a bit better than he does it during other weeks of the year.”

Texas Week Civil Statute, Title 106, Article 6144a

The Battle of the Alamo

Texas Declaration of Independence

March Forth!

That’s no typo. For most of U.S. history, March 4th was one of the most important dates of the year…at least every four years. From George Washington’s second term to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, March 4th was Inauguration Day.

Washington didn’t make it in time to his first inauguration in 1789…he mozied in on April 30 that year, but for every presidential election thereafter up through FDR in 1933, the inauguration took place on March 4. (Or March 5.)

The 20th Amendment changed all that. In 1933, Congress sought to reduce the four-month “lame duck” period—the time that lapsed between the November election and the day the old President stepped aside—so it changed Inauguration Day to January 20.

The U.S. is not the first country to change its inauguration day from March to January.

In Ancient Rome, March was the month that newly-elected officials took office up until the 2nd century BC. The original “spring cleaning” of government if you will.

In Rome’s case, however, the change was made in order to respond to a rebellion in Iberia that coincided with the Senate’s winter break.

Henceforth the Roman civic calendar began in January rather than March, which is why January 1 marks the New Year.