Winter stops by for a visit each year.
Dead leaves cluster around. They know what is
coming. They listen to some silent song.
At a bend in the Missouri, up where
it’s clear, teal and mallards lower
their wings and come gliding in.
A cottonwood grove gets ready. Limbs
reach out. They touch and shiver.
These nights are going to get cold.
Stars will sharpen and glitter. They make
their strange signs in a rigid pattern
above hollow trees and burrows and houses—
The great story weaves closer and closer, millions of
touches, wide spaces lying out in the open,
huddles of brush and grass, all the little lives.
“Over in Montana” by William Stafford from Even In Quiet Places. © Confluence Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It was on this day in 1791 that the Bill of Rights was ratified by the newly formed United States of America. From the beginning, American politicians fought about how much power the central government should have. Some believed that the Constitution did not do enough to protect individual liberties, and worried that the Constitution would allow the central government to oppress the people. During the Constitutional Convention, several states only agreed to ratify the Constitution with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added to guarantee basic rights to American citizens.
The most vocal supporter of a Bill of Rights was George Mason, who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Thomas Jefferson used it as an inspiration for the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison used it as a model for the Bill of Rights. Madison ran for Congress (and won) with the promise that he would support a Bill of Rights. Four days after Washington’s inauguration, Madison began the work of reading through the Constitution and noting all the places he thought it should be changed. These changes were presented as a list of 19 amendments. Madison used non-negotiable language. For example, where the states rights documents said that the government “ought not” to interfere with freedom of the press, Madison wrote that it “shall not.” Of Madison’s 19 amendments, the House approved 17, and the Senate 12. By the time they were ratified by all the states, the amendments were down to 10. One of the two amendments that didn’t make the final cut was never ratified, but the second — an amendment about congressional salaries — was ratified in 1992. The 10 amendments that became the Bill of Rights guarantee the freedom of the press, right to bear arms, freedom of religion, the right to trial by jury, and other basic rights.
In a 1788 letter to Jefferson about the Bill of Rights, Madison wrote: “It is a melancholy reflection that liberty should be equally exposed to danger whether the Government have too much or too little power, and that the line which defines these extremes should be so inaccurately defined by experience.”
It’s the birthday of civil engineer Gustave Eiffel, born in Dijon, France (1832). He was an early pioneer in using metal to construct bridges. In 1879, he was tapped to replace the chief engineer for the Statue of Liberty. Eiffel designed the skeleton that supported the Statue of Liberty’s copper skin. He and his crew built the entire thing in France to test its structural integrity, then dismantled it again, sending it on its way to its permanent home in New York Harbor.
He went on to build the Eiffel Tower for the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. At 1,000 feet, it was the tallest structure in the world at the time, and Eiffel decided to leave the metal scaffolding exposed because he thought the tower would be more stable if the wind could blow through it. Many people at the time thought it was ugly, but it still holds up to the wind. In 1999, Paris was hit by a windstorm that knocked down more than 100,000 trees. The Eiffel Tower only swayed nine centimeters. Not only is it stable, but it is also remarkably efficient in terms of materials; if melted down, the metal structure of the tower would only fill its base to a depth of two inches. Eiffel gave his name to the famous landmark, but it was his work on the tower itself that gave him his nickname: “the magician of iron.”
It’s the birthday of Edna O’Brien (books by this author), born in County Clare, Ireland (1930). She was always interested in writing, but her family distrusted anything literary; to please them, she studied pharmacy in Dublin, and earned her license in 1950. She met her future husband at the Dublin chemist’s shop where she went to work, and they moved to London in 1954. Shortly after they arrived, she went to a lecture given by Arthur Mizener on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. “You must remember that I had no literary education, but a fervid religious one,” she told The Paris Review in 1984. “So I went to the lecture and it was like a thunderbolt — Saul of Tarsus on his horse! Mizener read out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t believe it — this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical. I can say that the two things came together then: my being ready for the revelation and my urgency to write.”
Her first novel, The Country Girls, took her only three weeks to write and was published in 1960. It was promptly and ceremoniously burned by her parish priest, with O’Brien’s mother’s blessing. The book, its two sequels, and six of her other books were all banned in Ireland.
She published a collection of short stories, Saints and Sinners, in 2011. And a memoir, Country Girl, came out the following year.
It’s the birthday of Nero, born in Antium, near Rome, in the year 37 A.D. His father died when Nero was two years old. His mother, Agrippina, had a falling out with her brother — who happened to be the Emperor Caligula — and was exiled shortly after her husband’s death. Caligula seized Nero’s inheritance and then sent him off to live with an aunt. When Caligula, his wife, and their baby daughter were murdered in 41 with no clear heir, Caligula’s uncle Claudius became emperor. When Claudius married Nero’s mother and adopted Nero, the boy suddenly found himself next in line to rule the Roman Empire. Four years later, Claudius died under mysterious circumstances, probably poisoned by Nero’s ambitious mother, and the 17-year-old Nero became emperor.
He fancied himself a poet and a musician, and often gave public performances, playing his lyre and singing. He admired Greek culture, and established several theaters and gymnasiums. He also put on a huge festival, the Neronia, which featured music, poetry, gymnastics, and horsemanship. He was obsessed with being popular among the people, and many of his policies benefited the lower classes. But he was also ruthless, ordering the death of anyone who displeased him or got in his way — beginning with his scheming mother and his first wife, because he didn’t trust them.
In 64, Rome burned. It’s not clear whether it was a case of arson or just an accidental fire, which wasn’t unusual. The story of Nero fiddling while the city collapsed around him was just a rumor that grew into legend. There were no fiddles in Rome at that time, for one thing, and he most likely wasn’t even in the city when the fire broke out. When he heard of the fire, he returned to the city to organize a massive relief effort. After the fire, Nero took the opportunity to rebuild Rome — at great expense — in the Greek style, and people began to whisper that he had started the fire just to have an excuse to make the city over the way that he wanted it. When he heard the rumors, Nero shifted the blame to early Christians, to take the heat off himself.
As his reign went on, he made enemies in a wide variety of groups. He became more and more delusional, and scandalized people by appearing in theatrical productions; it was bad enough that he took the stage at all, but he didn’t even play legendary heroes. One legate said, “I have seen him on stage playing pregnant women and slaves about to be executed.” Revolts began cropping up all over the empire, and the Senate finally condemned Nero to a slave’s death of crucifixion. Nero fled the city, and then stabbed himself in the throat rather than face the humiliating execution.