September 24, 1789: The First Supreme Court

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-first-supreme-court

The Judiciary Act of 1789 is passed by Congress and signed by President George Washington, establishing the Supreme Court of the United States as a tribunal made up of six justices who were to serve on the court until death or retirement. That day, President Washington nominated John Jay to preside as chief justice, and John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson to be associate justices. On September 26, all six appointments were confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The U.S. Supreme Court was established by Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution granted the Supreme Court ultimate jurisdiction over all laws, especially those in which their constitutionality was at issue. The high court was also designated to oversee cases concerning treaties of the United States, foreign diplomats, admiralty practice, and maritime jurisdiction. On February 1, 1790, the first session of the U.S. Supreme Court was held in New York City’s Royal Exchange Building.

The U.S. Supreme Court grew into the most important judicial body in the world in terms of its central place in the American political order. According to the Constitution, the size of the court is set by Congress, and the number of justices varied during the 19th century before stabilizing in 1869 at nine. In times of constitutional crisis, the nation’s highest court has always played a definitive role in resolving, for better or worse, the great issues of the time.

September 23, 1875: Billy the Kid arrested for first time

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/billy-the-kid-arrested-for-first-time

On this day in 1875, Billy the Kid is arrested for the first time after stealing a basket of laundry. He later broke out of jail and roamed the American West, eventually earning a reputation as an outlaw and murderer and a rap sheet that allegedly included 21 murders.

The exact details of Billy the Kid’s birth are unknown, other than his name, William Henry McCarty. He was probably born sometime between 1859 and 1861, in Indiana or New York. As a child, he had no relationship with his father and moved around with his family, living in Indiana, Kansas, Colorado and Silver City, New Mexico. His mother died in 1874 and Billy the Kid—who went by a variety of names throughout his life, including Kid Antrim and William Bonney—turned to crime soon afterward.

McCarty did a stint as a horse thief in Arizona before returning to New Mexico, where he hooked up with a gang of gunslingers and cattle rustlers involved in the notorious Lincoln County War between rival rancher and merchant factions in Lincoln County in 1878. Afterward, Billy the Kid, who had a slender build, prominent crooked front teeth and a love of singing, went on the lam and continued his outlaw’s life, stealing cattle and horses, gambling and killing people. His crimes earned him a bounty on his head and he was eventually captured and indicted for killing a sheriff during the Lincoln County War. Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang for his crime; however, a short time later, he managed another jail break, murdering two deputies in the process. Billy the Kid’s freedom was brief, as Sheriff Pat Garrett caught up with the desperado at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on July 14, 1881, and fatally shot him.

Although his life was short, Billy the Kid’s legend grew following his death. Today he is a famous symbol of the Old West, along with such men as Kit Carson, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, and his story has been mythologized and romanticized in numerous films, books, TV shows and songs. Each year, tourists visit the town of Fort Sumner, located about 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque, to see the Billy the Kid Museum and gravesite.

September 22, 1862: Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/lincoln-issues-emancipation-proclamation

On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issues a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which sets a date for the freedom of more than 3 million black slaves in the United States and recasts the Civil War as a fight against slavery.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration as America’s 16th president, he maintained that the war was about restoring the Union and not about slavery. He avoided issuing an anti-slavery proclamation immediately, despite the urgings of abolitionists and radical Republicans, as well as his personal belief that slavery was morally repugnant. Instead, Lincoln chose to move cautiously until he could gain wide support from the public for such a measure.

In July 1862, Lincoln informed his cabinet that he would issue an emancipation proclamation but that it would exempt the so-called border states, which had slaveholders but remained loyal to the Union. His cabinet persuaded him not to make the announcement until after a Union victory. Lincoln’s opportunity came following the Union win at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. On September 22, the president announced that slaves in areas still in rebellion within 100 days would be free.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebel states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The proclamation also called for the recruitment and establishment of black military units among the Union forces. An estimated 180,000 African Americans went on to serve in the army, while another 18,000 served in the navy.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, backing the Confederacy was seen as favoring slavery. It became impossible for anti-slavery nations such as Great Britain and France, who had been friendly to the Confederacy, to get involved on behalf of the South. The proclamation also unified and strengthened Lincoln’s party, the Republicans, helping them stay in power for the next two decades.

The proclamation was a presidential order and not a law passed by Congress, so Lincoln then pushed for an antislavery amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ensure its permanence. With the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was eliminated throughout America (although blacks would face another century of struggle before they truly began to gain equal rights).

Lincoln’s handwritten draft of the final Emancipation Proclamation was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Today, the original official version of the document is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

September 21, 1780: Benedict Arnold commits treason

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/benedict-arnold-commits-treason

On this day in 1780, during the American Revolution, American General Benedict Arnold meets with British Major John Andre to discuss handing over West Point to the British, in return for the promise of a large sum of money and a high position in the British army. The plot was foiled and Arnold, a former American hero, became synonymous with the word “traitor.”

Arnold was born into a well-respected family in Norwich, Connecticut, on January 14, 1741. He apprenticed with an apothecary and was a member of the militia during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). He later became a successful trader and joined the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War broke out between Great Britain and its 13 American colonies in 1775. When the war ended in 1783, the colonies had won their independence from Britain and formed a new nation, the United States.

During the war, Benedict Arnold proved himself a brave and skillful leader, helping Ethan Allen’s troops capture Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and then participating in the unsuccessful attack on British Quebec later that year, which earned him a promotion to brigadier general. Arnold distinguished himself in campaigns at Lake Champlain, Ridgefield and Saratoga, and gained the support of George Washington. However, Arnold had enemies within the military and in 1777, five men of lesser rank were promoted over him. Over the course of the next few years, Arnold married for a second time and he and his new wife lived a lavish lifestyle in Philadelphia, accumulating substantial debt. The debt and the resentment Arnold felt over not being promoted faster were motivating factors in his choice to become a turncoat.

In 1780, Arnold was given command of West Point, an American fort on the Hudson River in New York (and future home of the U.S. military academy, established in 1802). Arnold contacted Sir Henry Clinton, head of the British forces, and proposed handing over West Point and his men. On September 21 of that year, Arnold met with Major John Andre and made his traitorous pact. However, the conspiracy was uncovered and Andre was captured and executed. Arnold, the former American patriot, fled to the enemy side and went on to lead British troops in Virginia and Connecticut. He later moved to England, though he never received all of what he’d been promised by the British. He died in London on June 14, 1801.

September 20, 1973: King triumphs in Battle of Sexes

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/king-triumphs-in-battle-of-sexes

On this day in 1973, in a highly publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, top women’s player Billie Jean King, 29, beats Bobby Riggs, 55, a former No. 1 ranked men’s player. Riggs (1918-1995), a self-proclaimed male chauvinist, had boasted that women were inferior, that they couldn’t handle the pressure of the game and that even at his age he could beat any female player. The match was a huge media event, witnessed in person by over 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome and by another 50 million TV viewers worldwide. King made a Cleopatra-style entrance on a gold litter carried by men dressed as ancient slaves, while Riggs arrived in a rickshaw pulled by female models. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell called the match, in which King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. King’s achievement not only helped legitimize women’s professional tennis and female athletes, but it was seen as a victory for women’s rights in general.

King was born Billie Jean Moffitt on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. Growing up, she was a star softball player before her parents encouraged her to try tennis, which was considered more ladylike. She excelled at the sport and in 1961, at age 17, during her first outing to Wimbledon, she won the women’s doubles title. King would rack up a total of 20 Wimbledon victories, in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, over the course of her trailblazing career. In 1971, she became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in a single season. However, significant pay disparities still existed between men and women athletes and King lobbied hard for change. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tennis tournament to hand out the same amount of prize money to winners of both sexes.

In 1972, King became the first woman to be chosen Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” and in 1973, she became the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association. King also established a sports foundation and magazine for women and a team tennis league. In 1974, as a coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms, one of the teams in the league, she became the first woman to head up a professional co-ed team.

The “mother of modern sports” retired from tennis with 39 Grand Slam career titles. She remained active as a coach, commentator and advocate for women’s sports and other causes. In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, was renamed in King’s honor. During the dedication ceremony, tennis great John McEnroe called King “the single most important person in the history of women’s sports.”

September 19, 1957: Nevada is site of first-ever underground nuclear explosion

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/nevada-is-site-of-first-ever-underground-nuclear-explosion

On this day in 1957, the United States detonates a 1.7 kiloton nuclear weapon in an underground tunnel at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), a 1,375 square mile research center located 65 miles north of Las Vegas. The test, known as Rainier, was the first fully contained underground detonation and produced no radioactive fallout. A modified W-25 warhead weighing 218 pounds and measuring 25.7 inches in diameter and 17.4 inches in length was used for the test. Rainier was part of a series of 29 nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons safety tests known as Operation Plumbbob that were conducted at the NTS between May 28, 1957, and October 7, 1957.

In December 1941, the U.S. government committed to building the world’s first nuclear weapon when President Franklin Roosevelt authorized $2 billion in funding for what came to be known as the Manhattan Project. The first nuclear weapon test took place on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity site near Alamogordo, New Mexico. A few weeks later, on August 6, 1945, with the U.S. at war against Japan, President Harry Truman authorized the dropping of an atomic bomb named Little Boy over Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, on August 9, a nuclear bomb called Fat Man was dropped over Nagasaki. Two hundred thousand people, according to some estimates, were killed in the attacks on the two cities and on August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers.

1957’s Operation Plumbbob took place at a time when the U.S. was engaged in a Cold War and nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. In 1963, the U.S. signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, underwater and outer space. A total of 928 tests took place at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992, when the U.S. conducted its last underground nuclear test. In 1996, the U.S signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear detonations in all environments.

September 18, 1793: Capitol cornerstone is laid

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/capitol-cornerstone-is-laid

On this day in 1793, George Washington lays the cornerstone to the United States Capitol building, the home of the legislative branch of American government. The building would take nearly a century to complete, as architects came and went, the British set fire to it and it was called into use during the Civil War. Today, the Capitol building, with its famous cast-iron dome and important collection of American art, is part of the Capitol Complex, which includes six Congressional office buildings and three Library of Congress buildings, all developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As a young nation, the United States had no permanent capital, and Congress met in eight different cities, including Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia, before 1791. In 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which gave President Washington the power to select a permanent home for the federal government. The following year, he chose what would become the District of Columbia from land provided by Maryland. Washington picked three commissioners to oversee the capital city’s development and they in turn chose French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to come up with the design. However, L’Enfant clashed with the commissioners and was fired in 1792. A design competition was then held, with a Scotsman named William Thornton submitting the winning entry for the Capitol building. In September 1793, Washington laid the Capitol’s cornerstone and the lengthy construction process, which would involve a line of project managers and architects, got under way.

In 1800, Congress moved into the Capitol’s north wing. In 1807, the House of Representatives moved into the building’s south wing, which was finished in 1811. During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington, D.C., and set fire to the Capitol on August 24, 1814. A rainstorm saved the building from total destruction. Congress met in nearby temporary quarters from 1815 to 1819. In the early 1850s, work began to expand the Capitol to accommodate the growing number of Congressmen. In 1861, construction was temporarily halted while the Capitol was used by Union troops as a hospital and barracks. Following the war, expansions and modern upgrades to the building continued into the next century.

Today, the Capitol, which is visited by 3 million to 5 million people each year, has 540 rooms and covers a ground area of about four acres.

September 17, 1862: Battle of Antietam

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/battle-of-antietam

Beginning early on the morning of this day in 1862, Confederate and Union troops in the Civil War clash near Maryland’s Antietam Creek in the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.

The Battle of Antietam marked the culmination of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the Northern states. Guiding his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River in early September 1862, the great general daringly divided his men, sending half of them, under the command of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, to capture the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry.

President Abraham Lincoln put Major General George B. McClellan in charge of the Union troops responsible for defending Washington, D.C., against Lee’s invasion. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac clashed first with Lee’s men on September 14, with the Confederates forced to retreat after being blocked at the passes of South Mountain. Though Lee considered turning back toward Virginia, news of Jackson’s capture of Harper’s Ferry reached him on September 15. That victory convinced him to stay and make a stand near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Over the course of September 15 and 16, the Confederate and Union armies gathered on opposite sides of Antietam Creek. On the Confederate side, Jackson commanded the left flank with General James Longstreet at the head of the center and right. McClellan’s strategy was to attack the enemy left, then the right, and finally, when either of those movements met with success, to move forward in the center.

When fighting began in the foggy dawn hours of September 17, this strategy broke down into a series of uncoordinated advances by Union soldiers under the command of Generals Joseph Hooker, Joseph Mansfield and Edwin Sumner. As savage and bloody combat continued for eight hours across the region, the Confederates were pushed back but not beaten, despite sustaining some 15,000 casualties. At the same time, Union General Ambrose Burnside opened an attack on the Confederate right, capturing the bridge that now bears his name around 1 p.m. Burnside’s break to reorganize his men allowed Confederate reinforcements to arrive, turning back the Union advance there as well.

By the time the sun went down, both armies still held their ground, despite staggering combined casualties–nearly 23,000 of the 100,000 soldiers engaged, including almost 4,000 dead. McClellan’s center never moved forward, leaving a large number of Union troops that did not participate in the battle. On the morning of September 18, both sides gathered their wounded and buried their dead. That night, Lee turned his forces back to Virginia. His retreat gave President Lincoln the moment he had been waiting for to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a historic document that turned the Union effort in the Civil War into a fight for the abolition of slavery.

September 16, 1932: Gandhi begins fast in protest of caste separation

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/gandhi-begins-fast-in-protest-of-caste-separation

On this day in 1932, in his cell at Yerovda Jail near Bombay, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi begins a hunger strike in protest of the British government’s decision to separate India’s electoral system by caste.

A leader in the Indian campaign for home rule, Gandhi worked all his life to spread his own brand of passive resistance across India and the world. By 1920, his concept of Satyagraha (or “insistence upon truth”) had made Gandhi an enormously influential figure for millions of followers. Jailed by the British government from 1922-24, he withdrew from political action for a time during the 1920s but in 1930 returned with a new civil disobedience campaign. This landed Gandhi in prison again, but only briefly, as the British made concessions to his demands and invited him to represent the Indian National Congress Party at a round-table conference in London.

After his return to India in January 1932, Gandhi wasted no time beginning another civil disobedience campaign, for which he was jailed yet again. Eight months later, Gandhi announced he was beginning a “fast unto death” in order to protest British support of a new Indian constitution, which gave the country’s lowest classes–known as “untouchables”–their own separate political representation for a period of 70 years. Gandhi believed this would permanently and unfairly divide India’s social classes. A member of the more powerful Vaisya, or merchant caste, Gandhi nonetheless advocated the emancipation of the untouchables, whom he called Harijans, or “Children of God.”

“This is a god-given opportunity that has come to me,” Gandhi said from his prison cell at Yerovda, “to offer my life as a final sacrifice to the downtrodden.” Though other public figures in India–including Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambdekar, the official political representative of the untouchables–had questioned Gandhi’s true commitment to the lower classes, his six-day fast ended after the British government accepted the principal terms of a settlement between higher caste Indians and the untouchables that reversed the separation decision.

As India slowly moved towards independence, Gandhi’s influence only grew. He continued to resort to the hunger strike as a method of resistance, knowing the British government would not be able to withstand the pressure of the public’s concern for the man they called Mahatma, or “Great Soul.” On January 12, 1948, Gandhi undertook his last successful fast in New Delhi, to persuade Hindus and Muslims in that city to work toward peace. On January 30, less than two weeks after breaking that fast, he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on his way to an evening prayer meeting.