5 The Texas City Disaster (1947)
You’re much more likely to have heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which led to the growth of unions in the early 20th century. However the Texas City Disaster actually had an even larger loss of life. In April 1947, the SS Grandcamp was docked in port in Texas City holding 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. When a small fire started, it quickly sparked a chain of fires and explosions. 581 people were killed and only one member of the Texas City fire department survived. The event gained importance beyond the catastrophic loss of life however, when a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 8,485 victims against the federal government. The Federal Tort Claims Act was still new and this was the first time that a claim had ever been brought against the government of the United States. Granted, the court dismissed it but it still holds the record of being the first and the law did eventually grant the victims compensation from the government.
4 Boston Molasses Disaster (1919)
Before we begin, let’s remember that this event killed twenty-one people because I promise that that knowledge will be the only thing that can possibly keep you from laughing. In 1919, molasses was the primary household sweetener and was fermented to produce ethyl alcohol which was used in manufacturing. That’s why the Purity Distilling Company in Boston had a 2,300,000 gallon tank full of it in the north end of Boston. Shoddy building and changing temperatures combined one day in January to collapse the giant storage tank and send an eight foot wave of molasses crashing down the street at up to thirty-five miles per hour. If you’ve never cooked with molasses, I’ll tell you that that is thick, heavy stuff. And going at that speed, that much molasses was enough to send people flying into buildings, knock houses off their foundations and snap girders holding up the elevated train. People and animals were caught in the sticky substance and drowned and would be found days later glazed in molasses so thick that the corpses were difficult to identify. It took a team of more than three hundred people about two weeks to clean the streets and urban legend says that in certain weather the neighborhood still has a sweet smell. But besides being arguably the oddest tragedy in American history, it also led to increased government oversight of businesses and industry and some of the first class action suits in Massachusetts.
3 The Mexican-American War (1846-1848)
Americans love frontiers. We always have and I’d like to think we always will. And that’s why so many Americans were moving into the open land in Texas soon after Mexico won its Independence from Spain. It got to the point where English speakers outnumbered the Spanish speakers and weren’t willing to cooperate with Mexican law. When Mexico tried to enforce it, the Texans rebelled, declared their own republic and agreed to annexation by the United States. But Mexico still believed that most of Texas was their territory, and so we fought over it. The U.S. came out of the war with control of Texas, New Mexico and Southern California and Mexico came out of it with a border at the Rio Grande and a lot fewer Americans.
2 Marbury v. Madison (1803)
This was sneaky, realistic, brilliant and far-seeing all at once. We’ll start at the beginning to catch you up: John Adams was president but was about to be replaced by Thomas Jefferson, a political opponent. At the last minute, Adams managed to get a whole group of judges and justices of the peace appointed including one of his political supporters, William Marbury. But Marbury’s commission wasn’t delivered before Adams was out of office. That meant that it was up to the new secretary of state, James Madison. But why would Madison and Jefferson want to promote their political rival to a position of power? So Marbury went to court. The case came before the new head of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall, who ruled that although Marbury needed to get his appointment, the law that gave the court power to do so was itself unconstitutional. The honorable John Marshall was well aware that this case could easily decide the power that the judicial branch would hold. But he also knew that he didn’t really have any way to force Madison to deliver the appointment. So if he tried to make Madison give in, the court would never be taken seriously. So instead, he created a ruling that he could enforce and set the precedent for judicial review at the same time.
1 The Whiskey Rebellion (1791)
Really, everyone’s intentions were good. Alexander Hamilton just wanted to raise federal taxes to help states pay off their war debt. The farmers of western Pennsylvania just wanted to be consistent with the ideals of the American Revolution. But it all may have gotten just a bit out of hand. Hamilton had gotten a new tax placed on farmers who used whiskey as a means of exchange instead of the grain they were growing itself. But when the federal government tried to collect the tax, the distillers decided this was an unfair tax and amounted to taxation without representation, and we certainly couldn’t have that. And so in western Pennsylvania, groups began to harass and attack tax collectors, which amounted to rebellion against the government and its laws. Then they started talking about seceding and so George Washington gathered a militia and went to take down the rebellion. By the time he got there, it was over. Nonetheless, there were some first and lasts for America. It was the first time the federal government would use military force to enforce the law, the first time a military draft was called and the last time a sitting president would lead troops in the field. They just don’t make them like that anymore.