This Day in History: The Ides of March

Camuccini, Death of Julius Caesar
Vincenzo Camuccini, The Death of Julius Caesar (1798) - Wikimedia

CAESAR: The ides of March are come.

SOOTHSAYER: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.

Happy March 15th, everyone! But especially my friend Brook, who celebrates his birthday on the ides of March, and my brother Jon and his wife Michelle, marking their 10th anniversary today. All of which has me thinking that perhaps we’ve let one mere assassination define the day for too long…

Presenting: the best things to happen on the ides of March!

March 15, 1783 – George Washington talks his officers out of a coup d’état

Well, maybe… With the Revolutionary War nearly over, most of the Continental Army camped about sixty miles from New York City, in Newburgh. Some of its officers decided that they were unhappy with the pension offered them by Congress and threatened not to disband at war’s end. It’s not entirely clear what the leaders of this clique intended, but as their frustration grew and the conspiracy deepened, Washington interceded, delivering what’s come to be known as the “Newburgh Address” to his officers. After reassuring them that Congress would treat them well, he issued a stern warning:

…let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.

Unable to read a letter from Congress, he took out his new reading glasses and confessed, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

At which point everyone cried. Then 200 years later I did the same thing when my brother and I watched Barry Bostwick reenact this moment while playing the title role in the rather soapy miniseries George Washington.

March 12, 1912: Lightnin’ Hopkins is born

Or Sam John Hopkins, to his parents in Centerville, Texas. But thanks to the influence of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sam became Lightnin’, one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.

By the way… According to this chart, my “blues name” would be pretty awesome: Sticky Bones Jones.

March 15, 1956: My Fair Lady premiered on Broadway

Starring Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, the musical ran for over 2000 performances, spawned a cast album that topped the charts, and (with the unfortunate substitution of Audrey Hepburn for Andrews) was filmed in 1964.

It was also converted, by yours truly, into a rather elaborate, musical theatrical piece of Frasier fan fiction in which Niles tried to tutor Daphne. (This during a few weeks in the fall of 2001 when I became desperate to put off completing my dissertation.) Fortunately, this seems to have disappeared into the mists of pre-Google history… And if it hasn’t, don’t let me know.

March 15, 1965 – Lyndon B. Johnson addresses Congress about civil rights

LBJ, MLK, and others
1964 meeting between LBJ, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders - Wikimedia

Speaking the week after a violent attack disrupted a planned civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the president urged Congress to enact what became known as the Voting Rights Act. Most famously, he quoted the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” in broadening his appeal to cover several themes central to his “Great Society”:

…even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome….

A century has passed–more than 100 years–since equality was promised, and yet the Negro is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise, and the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come, and I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come, and when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated? How many white families have lived in stark poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we wasted energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

And so I say to all of you here and to all in the nation tonight that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all–all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor.

And these enemies too–poverty, disease and ignorance–we shall overcome.

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