In 1919 Russian author Ilya Ehrenburg wrote a message to posterity:
The sons of our sons will marvel,
Paging the textbook:
“1914 … 1917 … 1919 …
How did they live? The poor devils!”
Children of a new age will read of battles,
Will learn the names of orators and generals,
The numbers of the killed,
And the dates.
They will not know how sweetly roses smelled above the trenches,
How martins chirped blithely between the cannon salvos,
How beautiful in those years was
Never, never did the sun laugh so brightly
As above a sacked town,
When people, crawling out of their cellars,
Wondered: is there still a sun?
Violent speeches thundered,
Strong armies perished,
But the soldiers learned what the scent of snowdrops is like
An hour before the attack.
People were led at dawn to be shot …
But they alone learned what an April morning can be.
The cupolas gleamed in the slanting rays,
And the wind pleaded: Wait! A minute! Another minute!
Kissing, they could not tear themselves from the mournful mouth,
And they could not unclasp the hands so tightly joined.
Love meant: I shall die! I shall die!
Love meant: Burn, fire, in the wind!
Love meant: O where are you, where?
They love as people can love only here, upon this rebellious and
In those years there were no orchards golden with fruit,
But only fleeting bloom, only a doomed May.
In those years there was no calling: “So long!”
But only a brief, reverberant “Farewell!”
Read about us and marvel!
You did not live in our time — be sorry!
We were guests of the earth for one evening only.
We loved, we destroyed, we lived in the hour of our death.
But overhead stood the eternal stars,
And under them we begot you.
In your eyes our longing still burns,
In your words our revolt reverberates yet
Far into the night, and into the ages, the ages, we have scattered
The sparks of our extinguished life.
On Jan. 30, 1835, as Andrew Jackson was departing a U.S. representative’s funeral service at the Capitol, troubled English house painter Richard Lawrence confronted him, drew a pistol from his pocket, pointed it at Jackson’s heart, and pulled the trigger.
“The explosion of the cap was so loud that many persons thought the pistol had fired,” said Sen. Thomas Benton, who heard it from the foot of the steps. It hadn’t — only the cap had exploded.
Realizing the misfire, Lawrence dropped the pistol and drew another of the same make and design from his pocket. He cocked it, aimed it at Jackson’s heart, and pulled the trigger. A second shot reverberated through the rotunda, but again only the cap had exploded. The crowd subdued Lawrence, who was later found to be insane.
The sergeant-at-arms at the Capitol recovered both pistols and found that they had been properly loaded. Meriwether Lewis Randolph found that they had contained “powder of the best quality, & the balls rammed tight,” but “the percussion caps exploded without igniting the powder.” Jack Donelson recapped the pistols and tested them to see if they would fire, and they did, perfectly.
An expert on small arms estimated the odds of two successive misfires of perfectly loaded pistols with high-quality powder at about 125,000 to 1. Benton wrote, “The circumstance made a deep impression upon the public feeling and irresistibly carried many mind to the belief in a superintending Providence, manifested in the extraordinary case of two pistols in succession — so well loaded, so coolly handled, and which afterwards fired with such readiness, force, and precision — missing fire, each in its turn, when leveled eight feet at the President’s heart.”
George Washington: “So much is expected, so many untoward circumstances may intervene, that I feel an insuperable diffidence in my own abilities.”
John Adams: “If I were to go over my life again, I would be a shoemaker rather than an American statesman.”
Thomas Jefferson called the presidency “a splendid misery.” He said, “To myself, personally, it brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends.”
John Quincy Adams called his term “the four most miserable years of my life.”
Andrew Jackson: “I can with truth say mine is a situation of dignified slavery.”
Buchanan to Lincoln: “”If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning [home], you are a happy man indeed.”
Lincoln: “You have heard about the man tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail? A man in the crowd asked how he liked it, and his reply was that if it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, he would rather have walked.”
Ulysses Grant: “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history.”
Rutherford B. Hayes, on leaving office: “The escape from bondage into freedom is grateful indeed to my feelings. … The burden, even with my constitutional cheerfulness, has not been a light one. Now I am glad to be a freed man.”
James Garfield: “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get in it?”
Grover Cleveland: “I believe I shall buy or rent a house near here, where I can go and be away from this cursed constant grind.”
Teddy Roosevelt, to the incoming Taft: “Ha ha! You are making up your Cabinet. I in a lighthearted way have spent the morning testing the rifles for my African trip. Life has its compensations.”
Taft: “I’ll be damned if I am not getting tired of this. It seems to be the profession of a president simply to hear other people talk.”
Taft to Wilson: “I’m glad to be going — this is the lonesomest place in the world.”
Woodrow Wilson: “I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible.”
Warren G. Harding: “This White House is a prison. I can’t get away from the men who dog my footsteps. I am in jail.”
Herbert Hoover: “A few hair shirts are part of the wardrobe of every man. The President differs from other men in that he has a much more extensive wardrobe.”
Harry Truman: “Being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.”
Bill Clinton: “Being a president is a lot like running a cemetery: There are a lot of people under you, but nobody’s listening.”
John Wilkes Booth attended Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
He told a friend, “What an excellent chance I had to kill the president, if I had wished!”
From the Daily Telegraph obituary of British Army major Digby Tatham-Warter (1917–1993):
Digby Tatham-Warter, the former company commander, 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, who has died aged 75, was celebrated for leading a bayonet charge at Arnhem in September 1944, sporting an old bowler hat and a tattered umbrella.
During the long, bitter conflict Tatham-Warter strolled around nonchalantly during the heaviest fire. The padre (Fr Egan) recalled that, while he was trying to make his way to visit some wounded in the cellars and had taken temporary shelter from enemy fire, Tatham-Warter came up to him, and said: ‘Don’t worry about the bullets: I’ve got an umbrella.’
Having escorted the padre under his brolly, Tatham-Warter continued visiting the men who were holding the perimeter defences. ‘That thing won’t do you much good,’ commented one of his fellow officers, to which Tatham-Warter replied: ‘But what if it rains?’
This is the official White House photograph of Bill Clinton. It was taken on Jan. 1, 1993. But Clinton wasn’t inaugurated until Jan. 20. Can this be said, then, to be a photo of President Bill Clinton?
To get an answer to this cosmic question, a reporter called the chairman of the New York University philosophy department, Roy Sorensen. Sorensen said yes.
“Think of it this way,” he said. “A photograph of Clinton does not need to be a photograph of the full spatial extent of his body. Just a representative part of his body will do. The same applies for temporal parts; a photograph of one stage of Clinton is a photograph of Clinton. Even a baby picture of Clinton is a picture of President Clinton.”
(From Sorensen’s A Brief History of the Paradox, 2005.)
Herbert Hoover weighed 200 pounds when he entered the White House in 1929. He couldn’t spare time for golf or tennis, so physician Joel Boone invented a game called Hooverball that could give him a strenuous workout in the minimum time.
On a tennis-like court, two teams of three players throw a 6-pound medicine ball back and forth over an 8-foot net. Sports Illustrated noted, “This cannot be accomplished graciously.” Rules:
- The ball is served from the back line.
- The ball must be caught in the air and immediately thrown back from the point where it was caught. It cannot be carried or passed.
- Points are scored when a team fails to catch the ball, fails to throw it across the net, or throws the ball out of bounds.
- A ball caught in the front half of one team’s court must be thrown to the back half of the opponents’ court. If it doesn’t reach the back court, the opponents score a point.
- Scoring is exactly like tennis. The serve rotates among one team’s members until a game is won, then passes to the other team.
- A ball that hits the line is good.
- A player who catches the ball out of bounds can return to the court before throwing it back.
- A ball that hits the net but passes over is a live ball.
- Teams can make substitutions when the ball is dead.
Hoover played with his friends at 7 a.m. every day, even in snow. The regulars included the president, Boone, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, and journalists such as Mark Sullivan and William Hard. Talking shop was forbidden, and after the game they gathered on the White House lawn for juice and coffee.
“The regimen worked well for the president,” writes biographer Glen Jeansonn. “By the end of the term he had firmed up and slimmed down to 179 pounds. … Hoover looked forward to the games and the camaradarie, although he did not like rising quite so early. But the games were energizing and he began each day refreshed and relaxed.”
The Hoover Presidential Foundation, which co-hosts a national championship each year, has a complete set of rules.
James Madison wrote George Washington’s first inaugural address.
Then he wrote the House’s reply to the address.
Then he wrote Washington’s reply to the reply.
“Notwithstanding the conviction I am under of the labour which is imposed upon you by Public Individuals as well as public bodies,” Washington apologized, “yet, as you have began, so I would wish you to finish, the good work in a short reply to the … House … that there may be an accordance in this business.”
“We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us,” Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson. “Our successors will have an easier task.”
By coincidence, the first and last British soldiers to be killed in action during World War I lie in graves that face one another.
British Army private John Parr was shot while on a reconnaissance patrol in Belgium on Aug. 21, 1914, 17 days after Britain declared war.
Private George Edwin Ellison was killed on patrol on the outskirts of Mons on Nov. 11, 1918, 90 minutes before the armistice came into effect.
Both are buried in the St. Symphorien military cemetery southeast of Mons, which was lost to the Germans at the start of the war and regained at the very end.
Smallpox ravaged the New World for centuries after the Spanish conquest. In 1797 Edward Jenner showed that exposure to the cowpox virus could protect one against the disease, but the problem remained how to transport cowpox across the sea. In 1802 Charles IV of Spain announced a bold plan — 22 orphaned children would be sent by ship; after the first child was inoculated, his skin would exude fluid that could be passed to the next child. By passing the live virus from arm to arm, the children formed a transmission chain that could transport the vaccine in an era before refrigeration and other modern technology was available.
It worked. Over the next 10 years Spain spread the vaccine throughout the New World and to the Philippines, Macao, and China. Oklahoma State University historian Michael M. Smith writes, “These twenty-two innocents formed the most vital element of the most ambitious medical enterprise any government had ever undertaken.” Jenner himself wrote, “I don’t imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”
A charming little scene from mathematical history — in 1615 Gresham College geometry professor Henry Briggs rode the 300 miles from London to Edinburgh to meet John Napier, the discoverer of logarithms. A contemporary witnessed their meeting:
He brings Mr. Briggs up into My Lord’s chamber, where almost one quarter of an hour was spent, each beholding the other with admiration, before one word was spoke: at last Mr. Briggs began. ‘My Lord, I have undertaken this long journey purposely to see your person, and to know by what engine of wit or ingenuity you came first to think of this most excellent help unto Astronomy, viz. the Logarithms: but my Lord, being by you found out, I wonder nobody else found it before, when now being known it appears so easy.’
Their friendship was fast but short-lived: The first tables were published in 1614, and Napier died in 1617, perhaps due to overwork. In his last writings he notes that “owing to our bodily weakness we leave the actual computation of the new canon to others skilled in this kind of work, more particularly to that very learned scholar, my dear friend, Henry Briggs, public Professor of Geometry in London.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother died in the same house on the same day, Valentine’s Day 1884. His wife had just given birth to their daughter Alice, and the pregnancy had hidden her kidney disease. He held her for two hours, had to be torn away to see his mother die of typhoid fever, then returned to his wife, who died in his arms.
In his diary he drew a large X and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” Then he fled west to grieve in private.
In 1941, New Jersey pacifist Theodore Kaufman self-published Germany Must Perish!, a 104-page booklet advocating the sterilization of the German people and the distribution of their lands. Kaufman was almost a complete nonentity — few shared his views, and the book received few sales or notices. But it made him a giant in Germany, where it became a mainstay of nationalist propaganda, stoking the very fires that Kaufman had hoped to extinguish.
In his diary on Aug. 3, 1941, Joseph Goebbels wrote, “He really could not have done it better and more advantageously for us if he had written the book to order. I will have this book distributed in millions of copies in Germany, above all on the front, and will write a preface and afterword myself. It will be most instructive for every German man and for every German woman to see what would happen to the German people if, as in November 1918, a sign of weakness were given.”
Hitler approved, and soon the propaganda ministry had produced a brochure presenting and commenting on Kaufman’s book. “Above all,” Goebbels wrote, “this brochure will finally and definitively do away with the last remnants of a still-existing softness. In reading this brochure, even the stupidest idiot can figure out what threatens us if we become weak.”
American journalist Howard K. Smith witnessed these effects firsthand in Germany. “No man has ever done so irresponsible a disservice to the cause his nation is fighting and suffering for than [Theodore] Kaufmann,” he wrote. “His half-baked brochure provided the Nazis with one of the best light artillery pieces they have, for, used as the Nazis used it, it served to bolster up that terror which forces Germans who dislike the Nazis to support, fight and die to keep Nazism alive.”
Kaufman protested, weakly, that German anti-Semitism had existed long before his book appeared. But the boost to propaganda was undeniable. “Few Americans have ever heard of a prominent fellow-citizen named Kaufmann,” wrote The Nation in November 1942. “In Germany every child has known of him for a long time. Germans are so well informed about Mr. Kaufmann that the mere mention of his name recalls what he stands for. In one of his recent articles Dr. Goebbels wrote, ‘Thanks to the Jew Kaufmann, we Germans know only too well what to expect in case of defeat.'”
From a letter from George Patton to his son, written on D-Day:
At 0700 this morning the BBC announced that the German radio had just come out with an announcement of the landing of Allied paratroops and of large numbers of assault craft near shore. So that is it. …
All men are timid on entering any fight whether it is the first fight or the last fight all of us are timid. Cowards are those who let their timidity get the better of their manhood. You will never do that because of your blood lines on both sides. I think I have told you the story of Marshal Touraine who fought under Louis XIV. On the morning of one of his last battles — he had been fighting for forty years — he was mounting his horse when a young ADC who had just come from the court and had never missed a meal or heard a hostile shot said: ‘M. de Touraine it amazes me that a man of your supposed courage should permit his knees to tremble as he walks out to mount.’ Touraine replied: ‘My lord duke I admit that my knees do tremble but should they know where I shall this day take them they would shake even more.’ That is it. Your knees may shake but they will always take you toward the enemy.
In 1944, as the Allies were preparing to invade France, British Intelligence sought a way to confuse the Germans as to their plans. They hired Meyrick Clifton James (right), an Australian-born lieutenant in the Army Pay Corps who bore a striking resemblance to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who would be commanding the Allied ground troops during the invasion. David Niven, then a colonel in the Army Film Unit, invited James to London under cover as a journalist, and James set about studying the general’s speech patterns and mannerisms. Then he was conspicuously dispatched, as Monty, to Gibraltar and then to Algiers, watched by avid German spies.
It seemed to work. The plot went through “from start to finish without a hitch,” MI5 reported, “and we knew that the main feature of its story had reached the Germans.” The real Monty led the successful landings at Normandy while James recovered from the ordeal in a safe house in Cairo. “He was under terrible pressure and strain,” reported the wife of an intelligence officer detailed to look after him. “Coming out of that part was very difficult for him.” But he had some consolation: Under army rules, he would receive the equivalent of a general’s pay for every day he had impersonated Monty.
On May 29, 1856, Abraham Lincoln spoke “like a giant enraged” for 90 minutes before a crowd of a thousand people at a political convention in Bloomington, Ill. Strangely, no one knows what he said. According to legend his oratory held the audience so spellbound that no one thought to record a word of it; more likely it was such a passionate denouncement of slavery that his political advisers thought it wisest to suppress it. But it electrified the audience, and the convention led to the establishment of the state Republican party.
“What actually did Lincoln say that evening in May, 1856, that made such a stupendous impact … and in ninety minutes transformed Lincoln from a circuit-riding Illinois lawyer and office-seeker into a national leader?” asks Elwell Crissey in Lincoln’s Lost Speech (1967). “Here we encounter a fascinating enigma in American history.”
Ulysses Grant, by contrast, had a “perfect speech” that he used on several occasions beginning in 1865. From Grant: A Biography (1982), by William S. McFeely:
In the afternoon there was a dinner at which tediously predictable worthies of New York — John A. Dix, Horace Greeley, and a divine or two — gave speeches. At the close of the tributes, Grant rose and, as he had done in St. Louis more than a year earlier, gave the speech which was to become his trademark. The New York Times report included the response of his audience: ‘I rise only to say I do not intend to say anything. [Laughter] I thank you for your kind words and your hearty welcome. [Applause].’
In October 1780, a month after Benedict Arnold defected to the British, this acrostic appeared in American newspapers:
B orn for a curse to virtue and mankind,
E arth’s broadest realm ne’er knew so black a mind.
N ight’s sable veil your crimes can never hide,
E ach one so great, ‘twould glut historic tide.
D efunct, your cursed memory will live
I n all the glare that infamy can give.
C urses of ages will attend your name,
T raitors alone will glory in your shame.
A lmighty vengeance sternly waits to roll
R ivers of sulphur on your treacherous soul:
N ature looks shuddering back with conscious dread
O n such a tarnished blot as she has made.
L et hell receive you, riveted in chains,
D oomed to the hottest focus of its flames.
Arnold’s perfidy so blackened his name that he’s strangely absent even from his own memorials. A monument (above) at the site of the Battle of Saratoga depicts only a boot, to reflect the leg wound that ended Arnold’s fighting career. His name appears nowhere in the inscription:
In memory of
the “most brilliant soldier” of the
who was desperately wounded
on this spot the sally port of
BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT
7th October, 1777
winning for his countrymen
the decisive battle of the
and for himself the rank of
A second monument at Saratoga includes four niches: Three contain statues of Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, and Daniel Morgan, but the fourth niche is empty.
And West Point displays a commemorative plaque for every general who served in the revolution. One plaque bears a rank and a date (“Major General / Born 1740″), but no name.
Life was so hard in Puritan New England that children who were abducted by Native Americans often refused to come back. Eunice Williams, abducted in 1704 at age 7, refused to leave the Kahnawake Mohawks despite her father’s pleas — he found she had forgotten the English language and adopted Indian clothing and hairstyle. “She is obstinately resolved to live and dye here,” he wrote, “and will not so much as give me one pleasant look.” The Mohawks were much more indulgent to children than the colonists, and women were counted equal to men and played an integral role in society and politics. Eunice married a Mohawk and lived with him for half a century.
A returned captive named Titus King reported that many young captives responded similarly: “In Six months time they Forsake Father & mother, Forgit thir own Land, Refuess to Speak there own toungue & Seeminly be Holley Swallowed up with the Indians.” In 1753 Ben Franklin wrote:
When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble there is no perswading him ever to return. … When white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.
A 14-year-old named James McCullough, who lived with the Indians for eight years, had to be brought back in fetters, his legs tied under his horse’s belly and his arms tied behind his back. Even so he escaped and returned to his Indian family. Children “redeemed” by the English often “cried as if they should die when they were presented to us.” The Indians freed children of the work obligations they faced in the colonies — boys hunted, caught fish, and gathered nuts; and girls cultivated corn but had no master “to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased.”
(From Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, 2004.)
In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.
The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:
There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Which they kept up day and night,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.
The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.
Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”
When the Civil War ended, thousands of Confederates chose to leave the United States entirely and settle in Brazil. “Shall any Southerner be blamed, if he seeks a land where the night of vengeance has not come, that his day may not be one of threatening?” asked Ballard S. Dunn in Brazil, the Home for Southerners (1866). “Why should he? For, as surely as that these four years of disastrous war have left most of those who have been true to themselves and their ancestors penniless, homeless, despoiled, and bereaved, so surely the future, with its cumbrous disabilities, and fearful forebodings, promises nothing better than poverty and humiliation.”
About 10,000 Southerners made the trip to Brazil, where most settled in the state of São Paulo. Today their descendants form an ethic subgroup. In the city of Americana, the 300-member Fraternity of American Descendants holds an annual festival with Confederate flags, uniforms, and music, and a local cemetery holds the remains of W.S. Wise, the great-uncle of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
Thomas Jefferson looks on nervously while Lyndon Johnson “confers” with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.). At 6’4″, Johnson tied Abraham Lincoln as the tallest U.S. president, and he used his physical presence to advance his agenda, cornering his targets in out-of-the-way places and leaning “so close to you,” one staffer recalled, “that your eyeglasses bumped.” In their 1966 book The Exercise of Power, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak dubbed this The Treatment:
The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.
LBJ denied this. “I’d have to be some sort of acrobatic genius to carry it off,” he told an interviewer, “and the senator in question, well, he’d have to be pretty weak and pretty meek to be simply standing there like a paralyzed idiot.”
From a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son Kermit, Oct. 2, 1903:
There! You will think this a dreadfully preaching letter! I suppose I have a natural tendency to preach just at present because I am overwhelmed with my work. I enjoy being President, and I like to do the work and have my hand on the lever. But it is very worrying and puzzling, and I have to make up my mind to accept every kind of attack and misrepresentation. It is a great comfort to me to read the life and letters of Abraham Lincoln. I am more and more impressed every day, not only with the man’s wonderful power and sagacity, but with his literally endless patience, and at the same time unflinching resolution.
Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Maj. John Cartwright, June 5, 1824
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.
— G.K. Chesterton
In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?
Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”
But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”
The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”
The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.