March Anniversaries | History | Smithsonian

March Anniversaries

Momentous or Merely Memorable

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50 Years Ago
Corps Values

In an executive order signed March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy founds the Peace Corps to supply aid and promote international understanding. Calling for volunteers—members receive basic living expenses but no salary—to teach, build schools, help eradicate malaria and improve agriculture, Kennedy predicts, “It will not be easy.” Kennedy brother-in-law Sargent Shriver heads the program, and in August, the first volunteers head to Ghana. By 2010, more than 200,000 corps members will have served in 139 countries.

80 Years Ago
Oh Say Can You Sing

On March 3, 1931, more than 100 years after Francis Scott Key wrote the words, Congress votes to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States. Key’s poem, memorializing the flag flown during the 1814 battle of Fort McHenry and set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” had been the anthem of the military for decades when some five million signers petitioned Congress to make it the nation’s as well. Despite arguments that the song is virtually unsingable, President Hoover signs the act that day.

140 Years Ago
Presumptuous Fellow

British-American journalist Henry Stanley sets out from Bagamoyo (in modern Tanzania) March 21, 1871, in search of explorer David Livingstone, whose expedition to find the source of the Nile has not been heard from in four years. Backed by the New York Herald, Stanley leads 192 men on an eight-month journey into Africa’s interior, confronting crocodiles and curious locals before finally greeting the ailing explorer, as he recounts, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” (Whether he really said it is not known.) His account is published in 1872. Livingstone dies in 1873, still looking for the Nile’s source.

150 Years Ago
Better Angels

With the capitol dome still unfinished behind him, Abraham Lincoln is sworn in as the nation’s 16th president on March 4, 1861. Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to black Americans and barring the government from banning slavery in its territories, administers the oath. Lincoln, addressing the secession of seven Southern states after his election, proclaims the Union perpetual and efforts to dissolve it unlawful. He promises to “preserve, protect and defend” it and appeals to the “better angels of our nature” for peace. But by April, the Civil War is on.

170 Years Ago
Amistad Verdict

Joseph Cinque and the more than 30 other surviving Africans jailed since 1839 for mutiny on the Cuban schooner Amistad are freed March 9, 1841, when the U.S. Supreme Court rules they had been illegally enslaved. It is a victory for abolitionists and for John Quincy Adams, who argues that President Van Buren has no right to return them to Cuba. The survivors return to Africa in 1842.

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