Saturday, September 19, 2009


I don't know about you, but I am especially aware this year of famous public anniversaries. There is, after all, something rather special about the year 2009 in that it is the 200th anniversary of both the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin on the same day - February 12th! They are arguably the two most influential men of the 19th century (now there's a way to get an argument going - I mean who's your candidate for most influential person of the 19th century?), and they have exactly the same astrological sign! Hey, does anyone out there know what time they were born? Adam Gopnik has written a book about these two that I have been meaning to read. Perhaps he knows.

It is also the anniversary of the death of Franz Josef Haydn, that great musician who particularly distinguished himself as a composer of chamber music, a form to which I, for one, am especially drawn. One other person whom I think should be singled out is Tom Paine, who also died in 1809 and probably did more to bring about the American Revolution than any other single person, including Thomas Jefferson.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that sometimes doesn't get enough credit, but was, by far, the single most important influence on the civil rights cases that led to the great landmark Brown v. Board decision of 1954. Both Thurgood Marshall and the sadly forgotten Charles Hamilton Houston were the official heads of the NAACP's Legal Department and prosecuted all of the cases that led to Brown. Incidentally, the NAACP was founded in 1909 because it was the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. What would you call an event whose anniversary we are celebrating that took place to recognize an earlier anniversary?

Finally, 2009 is important for New Yorkers because 400 years ago Henry Hudson, an Englishman sailing his ship The Half Moon under a Dutch flag, navigated up the river that divides Manhattan from New Jersey and made possible the settlement of New York City by the Dutch some 15 years later. But when did it become known as the Hudson? According to Wikipedia, people in New York referred to the Hudson as the North River, which is what the Dutch called it, as late as the early 1900s. Does that surprise you as much as me? It raises the whole fascinating question of how and when places get their names, a topic that we don't have time to get into right now, but probably merits its own post.


  1. Nice mix of dates and times today, Third, with a good segue to good old NYC.
    As to influence, in a head to head match I have to go with Darwin. While Lincoln is, for me, a more inspiring character whose eloquence remains unmatched, Darwin changed our entire view of life on Earth and the power of his ideas continues to stimulate new understandings 200 years after his birth.
    BTW, a nod to Karl Marx (not necessarily in a good way) and Queen Victoria, the personification of Great Britain in her colonial splendor.

  2. Oh gosh, of course, Marx is an excellent choice, and Queen Victoria a surprising but very interesting one.