Testament to Religious Liberty
On August 17, 1790, the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, presented a congratulatory address to President George Washington on the occasion of his visit to their city. Both the address, written by Moses Seixas, and Washington’s response appeared together in several newspapers. They encapsulate Washington’s clearest articulation of his belief in religious freedom and the first presidential affirmation of the free and equal status of Jewish-American citizens.
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
George Washington, letter to Moses Seixas, August 17, 1790
In 1654, the first group of Jews to arrive in the future U.S. settled in what is now New York. And as early as 1658, Jewish immigrants arrived in Newport seeking religious liberty. Throughout the colonial period, Jews continued to come to North America, settling mainly in seaport towns. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, these immigrants had established several thriving synagogues.
Many British North American colonists were Europeans who left their homes rather than compromise their religious convictions. Yet commitment to the survival of one’s own faith by no means automatically entailed a commitment to the right of others to believe differently. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people of diverse faiths sought to establish their own religious strongholds in America while variously persecuting or supporting the religious rights of those who believed differently. Their struggles prompted the Founding Fathers to reflect on the overarching need for religious tolerance and freedom.
Thomas Jefferson’s hotly debated Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, finally approved by the Virginia legislature in 1786, recognized absolute freedom of belief and set a precedent for separation of church and state that other states later replicated. Its adoption is best understood in the context of intense debate about the place of religion in a free society.
Freedom of religion is upheld by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Drafted by James Madison and adopted in 1791 with the nine other amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment asserts, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the Continental Congress had formally endorsed the principle even earlier. In 1776, it resolved to honor the
…wise policy of these states to extend the protection of their laws to all those who should settle among them of whatever nation or religion they might be, and to admit them to a participation of the benefits of civil and religious freedom.
Journals of Congress: Wednesday, August 14, 1776. [Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap?, 1776]. Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Library of Congress, “To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance,” Today in History. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/august-17
“Wrong-Way” Corrigan Earns His Name
Douglas Corrigan, the last of the early glory-seeking fliers, takes off from Floyd Bennett field in Brooklyn, New York, on a flight that would finally win him a place in aviation history.
Eleven years earlier, American Charles A. Lindbergh had become an international celebrity with his solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Corrigan was among the mechanics who had worked on Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis aircraft, but that mere footnote in the history of flight was not enough for the Texas-born aviator. In 1938, he bought a 1929 Curtiss Robin aircraft off a trash heap, rebuilt it, and modified it for long-distance flight. In July 1938, Corrigan piloted the single-engine plane nonstop from California to New York. Although the transcontinental flight was far from unprecedented, Corrigan received national attention simply because the press was amazed that his rattletrap aircraft had survived the journey.
Almost immediately after arriving in New York, he filed plans for a transatlantic flight, but aviation authorities deemed it a suicide flight, and he was promptly denied. Instead, they would allow Corrigan to fly back to the West Coast, and on July 17 he took off from Floyd Bennett field, ostentatiously pointed west. However, a few minutes later, he made a 180-degree turn and vanished into a cloudbank to the puzzlement of a few onlookers.
History.com, “Wrong-Way” Corrigan crosses the Atlantic”, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/wrong-way-corrigan-crosses-the-atlantic
Highest Recorded Tsunami
On the night of July 9, 1958, an earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in the Alaska Panhandle loosened about 40 million cubic yards (30.6 million cubic meters) of rock high above the northeastern shore of Lituya Bay. This mass of rock plunged from an altitude of approximately 3000 feet (914 meters) down into the waters of Gilbert Inlet (see map above). The impact generated a local tsunami that crashed against the southwest shoreline of Gilbert Inlet. The wave hit with such power that it swept completely over the spur of land that separates Gilbert Inlet from the main body of Lituya Bay. The wave then continued down the entire length of Lituya Bay, over La Chaussee Spit and into the Gulf of Alaska. The force of the wave removed all trees and vegetation from elevations as high as 1720 feet (524 meters) above sea level. Millions of trees were uprooted and swept away by the wave. This is the highest wave that has ever been known.
Lituya Bay is an ice-scoured tidal inlet on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Alaska. It is about seven miles long (11.3 kilometers) and up to two miles wide (3.2 kilometers). It has a maximum depth of about 720 feet (219 meters), but a sill of only 32 feet (9.7 meters) in depth separates it from the Gulf of Alaska between La Chaussee Spit and Harbor Point.
The Fairweather Fault trends across the northeast end of the Bay and is responsible for the T-shape of the bay. Glacial scour has exploited the weak zone along the fault to produce a long linear trough known as the Fairweather Trench. The Lituya Glacier and North Crillon Glacier have scoured portions of the Fairweather Trench in the area of Lituya Bay. Gilbert Inlet and Crillon Inlet occupy the Fairweather Trench on the northeast end of Lituya Bay.
The rockfall of July 9, 1958 occurred on steep cliffs above the northeast shore of Gilbert Inlet. It is marked on the map above in red. The rocks fell from an elevation of about 3000 feet (914 meters). The impact of 40 million cubic yards (30.6 million cubic meters) of rock hitting the water produced a local tsunami that swept the entire length of the Lituya Bay and over the La Chaussee Spit. This wave stripped all vegetation and soil from along the edges of the bay. This damaged area is shown in yellow on the map above. The numbers are elevations (in feet) of the upper edge of the wave damage area and represent the approximate elevation of the wave as it traveled through the bay. Map redrawn from data included in United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 354-C.
Death of the Founding Fathers
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States, respectively, die on this day, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Both men had been central in the drafting of the historic document; Jefferson had authored it, and Adams, who was known as the “colossus of the debate,” served on the drafting committee and had argued eloquently for the declaration’s passage.
After July 4, 1776, Adams traveled to France as a diplomat, where he proved instrumental in winning French support for the Patriot cause, and Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he served as state governor during the dark days of the American Revolution. After the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, Adams was one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, and with Jefferson he returned to Europe to try to negotiate a U.S.-British trade treaty.
After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Adams was elected vice president to George Washington, and Jefferson was appointed secretary of state. During Washington’s administration, Jefferson, with his democratic ideals and concept of states’ rights, often came into conflict with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who supported a strong federal government and conservative property rights. Adams often arbitrated between Hamilton and his old friend Jefferson, though in politics he was generally allied with Hamilton.
In 1796, Adams defeated Jefferson in the presidential election, but the latter became vice president, because at that time the office was still filled by the candidate who finished second. As president, Adams’ main concern was America’s deteriorating relationship with France, and war was only averted because of his considerable diplomatic talents. In 1800, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans (the forerunner of the Democratic Party) defeated the Federalist party of Adams and Hamilton, and Adams retired to his estate in Quincy, Massachusetts.
As president, Jefferson reduced the power and expenditures of the central government but advocated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, which more than doubled the size of the United States. During his second administration, Jefferson faced renewed conflict with Great Britain, but he left office before the War of 1812 began. Jefferson retired to his estate in Monticello, Virginia, but he often advised his presidential successors and helped establish the University of Virginia. Jefferson also corresponded with John Adams to discuss politics, and these famous letters are regarded as masterpieces of the American enlightenment.
By remarkable coincidence, Jefferson and Adams died on the same day, Independence Day in 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” though his old friend and political adversary had died a few hours before.
History.com, “Death of the Founding Fathers”, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/death-of-the-founding-fathers
Congress Approves Federal Highway Act
On this day in 1956, the U.S. Congress approves the Federal Highway Act, which allocates more than $30 billion for the construction of some 41,000 miles of interstate highways; it will be the largest public construction project in U.S. history to that date.
Among the pressing questions involved in passing highway legislation were where exactly the highways should be built, and how much of the cost should be carried by the federal government versus the individual states. Several competing bills went through Congress before 1956, including plans spearheaded by the retired general and engineer Lucius D. Clay; Senator Albert Gore Sr.; and Rep. George H. Fallon, who called his program the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways,” thus linking the construction of highways with the preservation of a strong national defense.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower had first realized the value of a national system of roads after participating in the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental motor convoy in 1919; during World War II, he had admired Germany’s autobahn network. In January 1956, Eisenhower called in his State of the Union address (as he had in 1954) for a “modern, interstate highway system.” Later that month, Fallon introduced a revised version of his bill as the Federal Highway Act of 1956. It provided for a 65,000-km national system of interstate and defense highways to be built over 13 years, with the federal government paying for 90 percent, or $24.8 billion. To raise funds for the project, Congress would increase the gas tax from two to three cents per gallon and impose a series of other highway user tax changes. On June 26, 1956, the Senate approved the final version of the bill by a vote of 89 to 1; Senator Russell Long, who opposed the gas tax increase, cast the single “no” vote. That same day, the House approved the bill by a voice vote, and three days later, Eisenhower signed it into law.
Highway construction began almost immediately, employing tens of thousands of workers and billions of tons of gravel and asphalt. The system fueled a surge in the interstate trucking industry, which soon pushed aside the railroads to gain the lion’s share of the domestic shipping market. Interstate highway construction also fostered the growth of roadside businesses such as restaurants (often fast-food chains), hotels and amusement parks. By the 1960s, an estimated one in seven Americans was employed directly or indirectly by the automobile industry, and America had become a nation of drivers.
Legislation has extended the Interstate Highway Revenue Act three times, and it is remembered by many historians as Eisenhower’s greatest domestic achievement. On the other side of the coin, critics of the system have pointed to its less positive effects, including the loss of productive farmland and the demise of small businesses and towns in more isolated parts of the country.
History.com, “Congress approves Federal Highway Act”, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/congress-approves-federal-highway-act
Cyrus McCormick Patents a Better Reaper
Cyrus Hall McCormick was born in Virginia in 1809; his father, Robert, was something of a tinkerer himself. Early mechanical reapers appeared in England around 1800, and inventors in Europe and the United States continued to explore new possibilities. Robert McCormick experimented with a reaper and gave it to his son, Cyrus, in 1831. After making improvements, the younger McCormick patented his new reaper in 1834. Although Cyrus McCormick left the farm machine business for a few years, his reaper, which would come to transform agriculture in the Trans-Appalachian West, hit the market in 1840. Between his own workshop in Virginia and some contractors in Cincinnati, Ohio, McCormick turned out 150 reapers in 1845. McCormick realized that a factory in the Midwest could significantly increase sales, so in 1847 he and a partner built a factory in Chicago. They manufactured 500 mechanical reapers there in 1848.
It is important to realize that Cyrus McCormick was not the only inventor of the new reaper. In fact, Obed Hussey patented his first reaper a year before McCormick and remained his main competitor for years. There were other competitors as well, making McCormick’s patents difficult to protect. McCormick repeatedly went to court to protect a variety of patents. Despite these legal obstacles, by 1850 McCormick had produced more than 1,600 reapers and had captured 50 percent of the American market. During the 1850s, while the number of reapers he produced increased as a result of continuous demand, his market share declined. By 1865 McCormick possessed only 5 percent of the reaper market. Indeed, new competitors were inventing and producing better machines more rapidly. Still, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company continued to compete in the last half of the nineteenth century. When Cyrus died in 1884, his son Cyrus Jr. took charge of the business. In 1902 the McCormicks and other large producers of mechanical reapers merged to create a giant firm known as International Harvester.
Vast changes in Western agriculture followed the development of the McCormick reaper and other new machines. Since the number of acres a farmer could harvest rose dramatically, farms in the West became increasingly larger. As with all technological change, some Americans were hurt by these developments. Poorer farming families often found they could not compete with wealthier commercial farmers. Less reliance on human hands pushed many agricultural laborers into the nation’s urban factories. The ecological consequences eventually included soil erosion and the transformation of the American prairies into areas of comparatively little biodiversity. Before 1860 such concerns were not yet apparent to many Americans, and the nation instead celebrated the rise of seemingly efficient large-scale farming.
McCormick, Cyrus (1809–1884). (1997). In American Eras (Vol. 6, pp. 111-112). Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2536601172/GVRL?u=lcpls&sid=GVRL&xid=064cde71