January 17, 1977: Moratorium on Capital Punishment Ends in U.S.

On this day in 1977, a moratorium on capital punishment ended in the United States with execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah.

Gary GilmoreOn this day in 1977, a moratorium on capital punishment ended in the United States with execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah.

Two cases brought to the Supreme Court in 1968 put capital punishment laws into question. In U.S. v. Jackson, the Court ruled that allowing a death sentence to only come from a jury recommendation was unconstitutional because it encouraged defendants to plead guilty to waive their right to trial.  In Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Court ruled that a juror’s reservations on the death penalty were not enough to prevent sitting on a jury in a capital case; it could only happen if the juror’s attitude would prevent him or her from making an impartial decision.

Then in 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that giving the jury complete sentencing discretion for capital punishment in any case was “cruel and unusual” and thus violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  This effectively voided the death penalty in 40 states ad commuted the sentences of 629 death row inmates.

But in 1976, the Court ruled that capital punishment was constitutional, approving new death penalty laws in Florida, Georgia and Texas that included sentencing guidelines, bifurcated trials, and automatic appellate review.

The first person to be executed was Gilmore, who was convicted of two murders in 1976. He received national attention, not only for the fact that his death would be the first in ten years, but also for demanding that his sentence be carried out.

January 13, 1942: Henry Ford Patents Plastic Car

On this day in 1942, Henry Ford patented a plastic-bodied automobile. The vehicle, known as the “Soybean Car” because the vegetable was part of the plastic’s composition, was a thousand pounds lighter than a typical steel car.

Soybean Car

On this day in 1942, Henry Ford patented a plastic-bodied automobile. The vehicle, known as the “Soybean Car” because the vegetable was part of the plastic’s composition, was a thousand pounds lighter than a typical steel car.

According to the Benson Ford Research Center, Ford had several reasons for creating the car, a major one being of shortage of metal thanks to World War II. The auto pioneer also believed that plastic panels would make the car safer than steel ones and that it would be able to roll over without being crushed.

Ford had unveiled that car on August 13, 1941, at “Dearborn Days,” a community festival in Dearborn, Mich. The frame of the car was made of steel tubes with 14 plastic panels attached to it. Reports vary on the chemical make-up of the plastic. While it is confirmed that soybeans were part of it, one report also said that the formula included wheat and hemp as well (the car has also been referred to as the “Hemp Car”).

The Soybean car was shown again at the Michigan State Fair later in 1941, but its swan song would be the issuance of the patent. When the U.S. entered World War II, auto production was suspended. As a result, Ford abandoned the project and when the war ended, the company focused its energy on the recovery effort.

January 8, 1835: National Debt Has a Balance of Zero

On this day in 1835, the U.S. national debt had a balance of zero for the first and only time in history.

On this day in 1835, the U.S. national debt had a balance of zero for the first and only time in history. Due in part to efforts by President Andrew Jackson’s administration to rein in spending, the U.S. paid off a debt that it had been accumulating since the Revolutionary War.

Unfortunately, our country’s period of financial peace did not last long and within five years the national debt was steadily rising again.  The national debt is now more than $16 trillion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Public Debt to the Penny Report. Given the lack of leadership we saw just last week, it’s highly unlikely that it will ever have a balance of zero ever again.

January 6, 1853: Franklin Pierce’s Son Killed in Train Accident

Franklin PierceOn this day in 1853, a train carrying President-elect Franklin Pierce, his wife Jane and their son Benjamin derailed and toppled off an embankment near Andover, MA. Franklin and Jane suffered minor injuries, but 11-year-old Bennie was killed in the accident.

The train had been carrying the New Hampshirite Pierces to Washington for the inauguration and the death of his last son would have him enter the White House on March 4 grief-stricken and nervously exhausted. Their first son, Franklin Pierce, Jr. died at birth and their second, Frank Robert Pierce, died when he was four years from epidemic typhus.

Jane would write letters to her son throughout her time in the White House. The excerpt from this heart-breaking letter housed with President Pierce’s papers in the New Hampshire Historical Society is one of many that she wrote.

“oh had you but been within reach of your dear father – in a moment changed my dear boy bright form into a lifeless one insensible to your parents’ agony – But you spirit yourself, my dear one – was not your redeeming savior ready to receive you? Your sweet little brother? Your dear Uncle Lawrence? – but you are beyond my knowledge at once – Ah, I trust in joy, but I would fain have kept you here – I know not how to go on without you – you were my comfort dear – far more than you thought.”

It’s impossible to imagine how President Pierce even coped with this tragedy or how it may have truly impacted his presidency, but two changes are apparent. First, he became the only U.S. president to choose to affirm the oath of office rather than swear. A 1985 New York Times letter to the editor by Thomas Vinciguerra states that President Pierce did this because he believed that the death of his son was punishment for his sins and did not use a Bible for the inauguration.

The second is that in 1856, President Pierce became the first president to have a decorated Christmas tree placed in the White House in an attempt to cheer up Jane who was still mourning the death of Bennie. The tradition has remained uninterrupted to this day.

 

January 5, 1972: Nixon Announces Space Shuttle Program

On this day in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed legislation authorizing $5.5 million for the development of the space shuttle in San Clemente, CA.

President_Nixon_and_James_Fletcher_Discuss_the_Space_Shuttle_-_GPN-2002-000109

On this day in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed legislation authorizing $5.5 million for the development of the space shuttle in San Clemente, CA. In his announcement, President Nixon stated:

“in moving out from our present beach-head in the sky to achieve a real working presence in space – because the Space Shuttle will give us routine access to space by sharply reducing costs in dollars and preparation time. The new system will differ radically from all existing booster systems, in that most of this new system will be recovered and used again and again – up to 100 times. The resulting economies may bring operating costs down as low as one-tenth of those present launch vehicles.”

It didn’t completely work out that way. As Jeffrey Kluger’s 2011 Time commentary on the last shuttle launch discussed, it ended up costing $500 million and required months of maintenance in between flights. Of the five shuttles, Discovery made the most flights (38 flights in 28 years). And of course, both Challenger and Columbia and their crews perished in flight.

However, while the shuttle was not the reusable vehicle that NASA and President Nixon envisioned, the shuttle made giant leaps in space exploration possible. As Kluger also noted:

“These shuttles built the International Space Station, carried the Magellan, Ulysses and Galileo probes aloft and sent them on their ways to Venus, the sun and Jupiter respectively. They lofted the Hubble Space telescope too — easily the most productive scientific instrument ever built — and made occasional servicing runs to it, with astronauts conducting surgically precise repair work on the $1.5 billion instrument in the impossibly challenging environment of space.”

Seeing the shuttle’s use and our nation’s fascination with it in the 1980s and 90s makes it hard to imagine the notion that we could still be using the one-use Apollo rockets in this day and age. Hopefully, history will show that the shuttle ultimately served us well.

January 3, 1861: Delaware Votes Not to Secede

On this day in 1861, the Delaware legislature voted not to secede from the Union, becoming the first slave-holding state to do so prior to the Civil War.

On this day in 1861, the Delaware legislature voted not to secede from the Union, becoming the first slave-holding state to do so prior to the Civil War.

After South Carolina voted to secede just two weeks earlier, a commissioner from Mississippi addressed both the Delaware House and Senate regarding leaving the Union. By that time, Delaware had all but abolished slavery, the “but” being 1,800 African-Americans still living under slavery in the state.

According to The New York Times, the commissioner “addressed both Houses in a strong Southern speech, taking ground in favor of South Carolina and secession, and inviting Delaware to join in a Southern Confederacy. He claimed the right of the Southern States to secede, and said that if they were not allowed to do so, war was inevitable.”

The legislature rejected the idea of secession and passed the following resolution:

Resolved, That having extended to Hon. H. DICKENSON, Commissioner from Mississippi, the courtesy due him as a representative of a sovereign State of the Confederacy, as well as to the State he represents, we deem it proper and due to ourselves and the people of Delaware to express our unqualified disapproval of the remedy for the existing difficulties suggested by the resolutions of the Legislature of Mississippi.

Six days later, Mississippi voted to secede from the Union and nine more states followed suit. However, three other slave states, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, joined Delaware in remaining with the Union.