Many events live on in history for their greatness and significance. And some of those events, quite frankly, don't deserve all the fuss. When writing the book Busted! The 50 Most Overrated Things in History, I discovered a few such events. Here are five of my favorites.
1. The Signing of the Magna Carta
The legend goes that, after King John of England was forced to sign The Magna Carta ("Great Charter") in 1215, he (and his successors) could no longer ride roughshod over their subjects. Actually, The Magna Carta provided plenty of personal rights and freedoms, provided you were a noble. If you were one of the three-quarters of the population who were not wealthy, and toiled your life away for the landowners, it wasn't really much use. When the barons of England wrote the Magna Carta, they were not motivated by a sense of great injustice, but by their sense of outrage when King John tried to increase their rental fees. John's numerous acts of cruelty and murder might have been good reasons to take action, but in the end, it all came down to rent.
Fortunately, it later had a few tweaks. In 1369, Edward III replaced the words "no free man" with the language "no man, of whatever estate or condition he may be," and added that nobody could be imprisoned or executed without "due process or law."
Still, it wasn't a magic document that brought fairness to the world. Its great reputation is mainly the result of political propaganda. In Victorian Britain, it was used to justify Britannia's rule over a colonial empire, as it showed Britain as a model for other freedom-loving nations. (This presumably included India, whose subjects were nonetheless fighting to free themselves from the yoke of the British Empire.)
Incidentally, John did not sign The Magna Carta. In fact, he might have been illiterate. As a look at any of the "original" Charters (there are four of them) would reveal, he simply placed his Royal Seal upon it.
2. The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed eighty percent of the city, left 100,000 people homeless, and caused an estimated 10 million pounds of damage "“ but as far as "great" disasters go, it was actually pretty mild. The fire spread remarkably slowly, killed only a handful of people, and seems almost harmless compared to many lesser-known fires. London was swiftly rebuilt (even by modern building standards), and almost all the people who had lost their homes were re-housed within a few years. The fire probably saved thousands more people than it killed. What kind of disaster was that?
The Great Fire was started early in the morning of September 1, 1666, by an oven owned by Thomas Farynor, royal baker to King Charles II. When alerted of the fire on the first night, the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bludworth, took one look and retired back to his room. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that he protected his valuables by burying a large slab of cheese in his backyard. The fire burned for five days, destroying 13,000 homes and 87 churches, but allowing many of the people living in the area to calmly evacuate to a nearby town.
So how many people were killed in the fire? Believe it or not, there are only five recorded deaths, including two people who were right next to the oven and one man who died of smoke inhalation. (A few were later killed in the street violence, as people lost their senses). London's previous major fire, back in 1212, had left 3000 people dead "“ and you've probably never even heard of it, probably because London wasn't such a world-class, "happening" city back in the mediaeval world.
In fairness, the Great Fire destroyed two-thirds of London and left millions in a state of abject terror. But despite its reputation as one of the darkest, most terrifying moments in British history, it actually did more good than harm. By destroying the black rats and their breeding grounds, it brought to an end the Great Plague, which had already killed up to 100,000 people in the space of two years. In the end, the Great Fire of London was surely a textbook case in how not to destroy a city.
3. The Fourth of July, 1776
July 4, 1776, is known as the date when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. However, America's independence from Britain was a long process. July 4 was the date that Thomas Jefferson went to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with the first draft of the Declaration. Though Jefferson's wording was approved, only the president of Congress, John Hancock, actually signed it on that date. It wouldn't even become "official" for another five years.
So when should America celebrate its independence? It might as well be June 7, when Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a motion for a declaration. Or perhaps it should be July 2, when Congress approved a formal resolution calling for independence from England. "It ought to be solemnised with pomp and parade," wrote John Adams in a letter the next day, "with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations "“ from this time forward for everyone." (When a nineteenth-century scholar discovered this letter, he "corrected" the date to read "July 5" so that it wouldn't question everyone's patriotic assumptions.)
After Jefferson's draft was approved, copies were sent to the printers, and public proclamations of the draft had to be posted to the colonies. General George Washington's soldiers, camped in New York, didn't know about it until July 9. Other colonies didn't find out until August 10. Britain, which still assumed that it ruled America, didn't hear anything about this act of rebellion until August 30.
But what was the true Independence Day? On August 2, a parchment copy was finally brought to Congress, and was signed by 50 Congressmen who were present.
Though they still awaited a few signatures, the August 2 copy is often referred to as the "original" Declaration of Independence. Other signatures were added later, and the last signatory, Thomas McKean, didn't get round to adding his name until 1781.
But while it was fine to talk about independence, it doesn't work until you can convince your former rulers to agree. Happily, just as one future President (Jefferson) was doing a fine job in the Declaration-writing field, another (Washington) was doing equally well on the military front, leading the American armies against the British Redcoats in the American Revolution.
Even though the Founding Fathers had signed the Declaration, the Revolution continued for another seven years before King George and his U.S. counterparts signed the Definitive Treaty of Peace, finally granting America some real independence from England. This was on September 3, 1783. So the true Independence Day is"¦ the Third of September!
4. The Great Crash of 1929
The Great Depression of the 1930s is said to have begun with the Wall Street Crash of "Black Thursday" "“ October 24, 1929. In fact, the Crash had little to do with the Depression, though it had the same causes: among them, an unstable US economy, high tariff barriers (meant to help farmers and manufacturers, but instead ruining the export industry), tax cuts for the rich, and a collapse in commodity prices.
Yet investors behaved like they were in boom times. Even the banks were speculating with their clients' money "“ and just in case these banks weren't living dangerously enough, they lent heavily to the struggling farmers, even with the land value in freefall. This combination of disasters wiped out millions of dollars in people's savings. As nobody had any money, it was easier to find a bargain during the Depression, as manufacturers tried to rid themselves of their surplus goods. Hence, it was more difficult for anyone to make a profit.
As investors (and most other people) know, the market rises and falls on a regular basis. Back in 1929, investors were not so aware of this. The American stock market peaked in August, and during September the prices began to drop. The problem was that 1.5 million Americans were still dabbling in the stock market. In a panic, they started selling their shares. A record 12 million shares were put up for sale on "Black Thursday," but this was superseded by another record "“ 16 million shares "“ only five days later.
For all the panic, the so-called "Crash" of 1929 wasn't quite as dramatic as it sounds. The Dow Jones went up and down like a yo-yo before the market finally collapsed in 1932. By then, the Great Depression was well and truly under way.
Wall Street's worst-ever crash would actually happen 58 years later, on October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones industrial average dropped more than 500 points, losing 22.6 percent of its value. That's almost double the 12.82 percent decline on October 28, 1929. Yet while it wasn't exactly good news, it didn't lead to the Great Depression II.
More recently, the 777-point decline of September 28, 2008, was called a "record," but if you talk percentages (which is the fairest way to do it), it was less than seven percent. Not quite as bad as 1929, but nothing compared to 1987.
The Woodstock pop festival is near the top of many people's "I wish I was there" lists "“ four days of peace, love and togetherness, as 500,000 people flocked to a 600-acre dairy farm to witness a free, one-of-a-kind concert by some of the greatest rock artists of the time. Or so you might have read. Actually, the whole thing was arranged as a money-making venture. (Some performers, including Janis Joplin and The Who, refused to perform on Saturday night if they weren't paid in advance.) The tickets were pricey, which is why so many people opted to save money by breaking in. To make it easier for gatecrashers, it was so badly organized that the ticket booths never made it to the entrance. By the time the security team came in, it was already out of control. Naturally, Woodstock lost millions "“ meaning that, as far as its organizers were concerned, it was a terrible failure.
The journey to heaven, as we all know, can be arduous. Ditto the journey to Woodstock, with a traffic jam so long that many of the first-day acts were stranded, leaving the first performer, folk singer Richie Havens, to perform for nearly three hours (including seven encores), before his replacements were flown in by U.S. Army helicopter. "If it wasn't for the U.S. Army, Woodstock might not have happened," recalled Havens. "We were never anti-soldier. We were just against the war."
The true magic of Woodstock, however, was that you could completely ignore the music and still have a terrible time. "For those who found themselves there it was nothing short of a disaster area," wrote columnist James Campion in 1999. Martin Scorsese (assistant director on the documentary, Woodstock) has often described it as surviving war, with bad acid, bad weather, bad well water and creeping sickness.
Woodstock also had more casualties than the Great Fire of London. Of Woodstock's 5,162 medical cases (including 797 documented instances of drug abuse), two died of a heroin overdoses. Another concert-goer was crushed by a clean-up tractor in his sleep. The medical director, Dr William Abruzzi, said that there were also eight miscarriages in the Woodstock medical tent, adding to a total of 11 deaths.
Mark Juddery is a Australian writer and historian. His latest book, Busted! The 50 Most Overrated Things in History, is published by Random House.
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