The first ruler of a unified Chinese empire and father of the Great Wall, Emperor Shihuangdi commissioned a twenty-square-mile mausoleum, which took around 700,000 laborers more than thirty-five years to complete. Inside, there were about eight thousand terracotta soldiers, seventy burial sites, a zoo, and weapons triggered to go off in case of robbers. The chief craftsmen, it is believed, were also buried there to prevent them from betraying construction secrets.
In The Third Man, Orson Welles’ character Harry Lime says, “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Graham Greene, who co-wrote the script with director Carol Reed, said that it was “the best line of the film”—and that Welles wrote it. Welles recalled, “When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks—they all come from the Schwarzwald in Bavaria!”
For the 1968 DNC in Chicago, Esquire sent Terry Southern, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs to cover it. A “hard-hitting little press team,” Southern wrote, that, later joined by Allen Ginsberg, “had one hell of a time actually getting admitted to the hall, despite proper credentials. Burroughs and I, of course, are veritable paragons of fashion and decorum—but Ginsberg and Genet, it must be admitted, are pretty weird-looking guys.”
“It is truly a larger investigation than was conducted against the after-inquiry of the JFK assassination,” declared John W. Dean III to H.R. Haldeman and President Richard Nixon hours after seven men had been indicted in connection with the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. “Isn’t that ridiculous,” Haldeman said, “this silly-ass damn thing.” To which Nixon replied, “Yeah, for Christ’s sake, Goldwater put it in context when he said, ‘Well, everybody bugs everybody else. You know that.’”
Gone to Greece to fight for the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule, Lord Byron, who financed a fighting force, noted in his journal on September 28, 1823, that he “did not come to join a faction but a nation—and to deal with honest men” and was dismayed to find that “they are such d——d liars; there never was such an incapacity for veracity shown since Eve lived in Paradise.” Nevertheless, he died there on April 19, 1824, after contracting a fever.
The verb ostracize derives from the Greek word ostracon, a potsherd on which each citizen wrote the name of one well-known citizen whom they wished to banish from the polis. The first published use of the word in English dates from 1649, in a poetic elegy to young Lord Hastings, a Royalist supporter of Charles I: “Therefore the Democratic stars did rise,/And all that worth from hence did ostracize.” The author was Andrew Marvell, who, not long after, served in Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth government along with the secretary for foreign tongues, John Milton.
For publishing an editorial critical of John Adams’ Federalist administration in 1798, Vermont congressman Matthew Lyon became the first U.S. citizen tried under the Sedition Act. He was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in federal jail. He ran his reelection campaign from prison, winning by a two-to-one margin. He resumed his post upon release.
“Today is my eighteenth birthday!” Alexandrina Victoria wrote in her journal on May 24, 1837. Less than a month later, she was awoken at six o’clock and informed she was queen of the United Kingdom. “I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced,” she noted that day, “but I am sure that very few have more real goodwill and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.” Her reign, at 65 years and 216 days, is the second longest of the British monarchy.
Ezra Pound began his radio broadcasts for Benito Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture on January 21, 1941. Familiar with his friend’s admiration for fascism and his vocal anti-Semitism, William Carlos Williams wrote him on November 26 of that year, asking, “Can’t you see that every word you utter reveals to any intelligent and well-informed man that you know nothing at all?…You’re a wonder. Barnum missed something when he missed you.” Postal delivery to Italy was halted in December; the letter was returned to its sender. The U.S. Department of Justice indicted Pound for treason on July 26, 1943.
A riot erupted in Constantinople in 532 that forced Justinian and his advisers to consider fleeing. Procopius wrote in History of the Wars that the emperor’s wife, Theodora—the only time in the work in which she speaks—told her husband, “If now it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty.” On hand, she noted, were money and boats. “For myself,” she went on, “I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial shroud.” Justinian stayed, put down the revolt, and in the ashes of the city’s old church built the still-standing Hagia Sophia.
It is said that while campaigning in southern Louisiana, Huey Long was told that many voters were Catholic. “When I was a boy,” he began speeches, “I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would hitch the old horse up again, and I would take my Baptist parents to church.” A colleague later said, “I didn’t know you had any Catholic grandparents.” To which he replied, “Don’t be a damned fool. We didn’t even have a horse.”
“That 150 lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1821, in his autobiography, referring to the inefficiency of Congress. Woodrow Wilson judged the House of Representatives in his doctoral thesis, published in 1885 as his first book, “a disintegrate mass of jarring elements.” Mark Twain wrote, twelve years later, “It can probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”