Benito Juarez

March 21

March 21, the birth of spring, is also the birth of Mexico’s greatest leader, Benito Juarez.

On this day in 1806 Benito was born to poor Amerindian peasants in the mountains of Oaxaca. His parents died when he was three and Benito spent his youth working the corn fields and shepherding local flocks.

At age 12 he left the mountain village for the city of Oaxaca to live with a sister and work as a servant. There he learned Spanish (he spoke only Zapotec, and was illiterate) and thanks to the help of a Franciscan monk he befriended, gained entrance to a seminary school. He chose to go to law school rather than become a priest.

He worked as a lawyer from 1834 to 1842, as a judge for the next five years, and by 1847 he was Governor of Oaxaxa. However, in 1853 he spoke up against the corrupt government of dictator Santa Anna, and was forced to go into exile in the United States. There the former lawyer, judge and governor worked at a cigar factory in New Orleans.

When General Santa Anna finally resigned in 1855, Juarez was welcomed back to Mexico. The new government sought to abolish the military government and create a new federalist constitution. Juarez, who had helped to draft a plan for a liberal Mexican democracy during his exile, was selected as the country’s Chief Justice under the new liberal President Comonfort.

The honeymoon was short. Conservatives angered by the country’s new democratic direction launched a coup with the support of the military and the clergy. The Mexican War of the Reform was a time of schismatic rule. At first Comonfort tried to negotiate with conservatives, led by General Zuloaga. He agreed to dissolve the Congress and place Juarez and other liberal leaders in jail. However, when it became clear the conservatives were not going to stop short of anything but complete militaristic control of the country, Comonfort reinstated Congress, freed Juarez and other political prisoners, and resigned. Juarez became, by default, the interim president of Mexico. Since Zuloaga’s forces controlled Mexico City, Juarez moved his government to the state of Guanajuato (meaning “place of frogs”).

Juarez’s legitimacy was aided by the power struggle between Zuloaga and two other generals, each of whom took turns arresting and deposing one another and assuming military control. When the dust cleared, liberal forces marched back into Mexico City and regained the capital. Juarez became undisputed President in 1861.

Faced with a bankrupt economy, Juarez declared a moratorium on European debts. Spain, England and France responded by seizing the port of Veracruz. Juarez struck an agreement with Spain and England to repay Mexico’s loans, but France had other plans. They intended to establish a puppet dictatorship under Maximilian I.

Again Juarez took his government into exile, this time to the state of Chihuahua. Juarez could not get support from the United States, which was in the middle of its own Civil War.

Juarez sought, and got, support from Mexican-Americans in California (recently Mexico) and after the U.S. Civil War, Lincoln and other generals unofficially supported the Juarez government with weapons and men.

Maximilian was overthrown and executed in 1867, at which time Juarez became undisputed president for his fifth and last term. He would die while in office at the age of 66.

“It is given to men, sometimes, to attack the rights of others, to seize their goods, to threaten the lives of those who defend their nation, to make the highest virtues seem crimes, and to give their own vices the luster of true virtue. But there is one thing that cannot be influenced either by falsification or betrayal, namely the tremendous verdict of history. It is she who will judge us.

Benito Juarez to Emperor Maximilian

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.

George Washington’s Birthday?

Actual birthday: February 22?
Observed: 3rd Monday in February

George Washington’s birthday is observed on the third Monday in February. Since the third Monday falls between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, many people celebrate it as Presidents’ Day. But the federal holiday’s name was never officially changed. It is still ‘Washington’s Birthday Observed’ even if it is commonly referred to as ‘Presidents Day’ by state legislatures and mattress stores alike.

(Flags George served)
Union Jack 1700s 1776 US flag US Flag 1777
(1700s Union Jack; early 1776 colonial flag; 1777 U.S. flag)

Thing is, George was actually born on February 11th, not February 22nd.

In 1732, British colonies still used a form of the Julian Calendar. Under the British system the calendar year ended on March 24 and the new one began on March 25. Thus March 24, 1732 would be followed by March 25, 1733.* (A modern equivalent would be if the U.S. calendar followed the tax year—if April 15 marked the end of 2008 and April 16 marked the start of 2009.)

Why anyone got rid of this ingenious system God only knows.

Anyway, Britain’s decree to adopt the Gregorian calendar on March 25, 1752, changed two things:

First, 11 days had to be axed from the calendar.** I don’t know who had a grudge against September, but that month was chosen to do the deed. Thus, the date “September 2, 1752” was followed by September 14, 1752.

Did this mean if your birthday fell on September 3rd you didn’t get a year older? No, most folks just reassigned their birthdays or other days of note to the corresponding Gregorian date. So September 3rd became September 14.

George Washington, 1772, by C. Wilson Peale

From the time of the switch onward, Washington chose to observe his birthday on February 22 rather than February 11. In fact, February 22 was celebrated as Washington’s birthday by Americans even when he was alive.

Also, 1752 became the shortest year ever in the British calendar. At just 9 months, it began on March 25 and ended December 31. Thus Washington’s 20th birthday on February 22, 1753 was exactly 365 days after his 19th birthday on February 11, 1751.

If you’re not confused yet, go here.


*[For millennia the beginning of Spring (what we’d consider February or March in the Northern Hemisphere) was considered the beginning of the year. The Roman calendar we use today was an exception rather than the norm. And in fact, even Romans considered March the first month of the new year up until 153 BC. It took centuries for that change to take hold in rural agrarian society.]

**[Astronomers under Julius Caesar suggested that inserting an extra day (leap day) in the calendar once every four years would make up for the fact that the solar year was actually 365.25 days, not 365. That calculation was slightly off, but only by less than a day per century. After fifteen centuries the disparity was too great to ignore. So Pope Gregory instituted a new calendar, removing three leap days every four centuries. But to make up for lost time—or gained time depending on how you look at it—countries adopting the Gregorian calendar had to skip 11 to 13 days on their calendars.]

George Washington: Unanimous my Animous

George Washington: unanimous my animous

Observed: Third Monday in February
Actual Birthday: February 22


Was George Washington elected unanimously?

The tallies of the first presidential election in 1789, submitted by electors of 10 of the 13 United States of America, were as follows:

  • George Washington: 69 votes
  • John Adams: 34 votes
  • John Jay: 9 votes
  • Robert Harrison: 6 votes
  • John Rutledge: 6 votes
  • John Hancock:4 votes<
  • George Clinton: 3 votes
  • Samuel Huntington: 2 votes
  • John Milton: 2 votes
  • James Armstrong: 1 vote
  • Edward Telfair: 1 vote
  • Benjamin Lincoln: 1 vote

[Source: The Papers of George Washington: the Electoral Count for the Presidential Election of 1789]
So you see John Adams had 1 short of half as many votes as Washington. Why do we say Washington was elected unanimously?

Originally the Constitution asked state delegates to submit two names for President. The idea being the person with the most votes would become President and the one with the second most votes would be Vice-President.

Every single one of the 69 delegates across the 10 participating states voted for George Washington as one of their two choices. The remaining 69 votes were split among 11 other prospects as shown above. John Adams was unique among the 11 others in that he acquired votes not just from his own state (Massachusetts) and its neighbors but as far south as Virginia.

Inauguration of Washington, by Elorriaga
Inauguration of Washington, by Ramon de Elorriaga

On April 30, 1789 George Washington was inaugurated President. The ceremony took place on a Federal Hall balcony overlooking Wall Street in New York City, the nation’s first capital. Ironically, New York was the one state that had ratified the Constitution but had not voted for Washington. Or anyone else. New York legislators had failed to pass an Election Act in time to select delegates to participate in the election.

North Carolina didn’t ratify the Constitution until November 1789, 7 months into Washington’s Presidency. Rhode Island ratified it the following year.

Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Inauguration
Rhode Island ratifies Constitution
This Day in History: Washington unanimously elected by Electoral College
NY Times Article on Elorriaga’s Painting: The Inauguration in Oil, April 21, 1889

Lincoln’s Birthday

February 12

If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?

Abraham Lincoln

Young Abe Lincoln

There are only two Americans remembered with a federal holiday: George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s right, Abe Lincoln, considered by many to be America’s greatest President, didn’t make the cut.

It’s true that many states celebrate ‘Presidents Day’ in honor of both Washington and Lincoln, while others celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday separately.

But on the national level ‘Presidents Day’ was never officially adopted. There were movements in Congress to create a new holiday on Lincoln’s birthday, or, since it was only 10 days before Washington’s birthday, celebrating the two on a single ‘Presidents’ Day. However the change never took effect. Though the date was changed, and the holiday is commonly called ‘Presidents Day,’ by the media and public, the Monday federal holiday is still officially “Washington’s Birthday.”

Here we have one of the earliest writing samples of Abraham Lincoln, when he was a young child:

Abraham Lincoln is my nam
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read

Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen
he will be good but god knows When

My favorite Lincoln story stems from his Illinois lawyer days when he was defending a client by the name of Melissa Goings in the town of Metamora.

The 70 year-old Goings was accused of killing her husband, a well-to-do farmer, though she claimed she acted in self-defense. Her husband was known to be abusive and drink heavily. In her statement Mrs. Goings said she had wrested loose as he choked her, and struck him in the head with a stick of firewood, fracturing his skull. He died three days later. His last words were, “I expect she has killed me. If I get over it, I will have revenge.”

Even though Mrs. Goings’ story was consistent, awareness of domestic violence was not as broad as it is now, and Lincoln knew there was a good chance of her conviction.

Melissa posted her own $1000 bail. However, on the day of her trial she had a short conference with Lincoln, her lawyer, after which she walked out of the courthouse and was never seen again.

The court bailiff was angry with Lincoln. Unable to locate Mrs. Going, he accused Lincoln of “running off” the defendant. Lincoln denied the charge. “I did not run her off,” Lincoln insisted, “She wanted to know where she could get a good drink of water, and I told her there was mighty good water in Tennessee.” (Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years)



George Washington’s Christmas Gift

December 23

Washington resigns as General

On this day in 1783, the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United States who had achieved independence from Britain, the world’s strongest superpower, voluntarily surrendered his sword and his title to the Continental Congress in Annapolis, Maryland. He returned to his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, expecting to live a quiet farm life.

His plans were derailed a few years later when he was elected to serve as President of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Maryland to Unveil Washington’s Resignation Speech
George Washington’s Resignation Speech – 7MB file