This Day In History

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On March 9, 1916, Germany declared war on Portugal, who earlier that year honored its alliance with Great Britain by seizing German ships anchored in Lisbon's harbor.

When World War I began in 1914, Portugal was a fledgling democratic republic, and newly elected president Manuel JosÉ de Arriaga was anxious about the security of Portugal's colonial holdings in Angola and Mozambique but desperate to remain neutral in the war.

In order to secure international support for its authority in Africa, Portugal begrudgingly entered the war on the side of Britain and the Allies. Its participation was at first limited to naval support, but by February of 1917, Portugal had 50,000 men stationed on the Western Front.

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On this day in 1887, Groundhog Day, featuring a rodent meteorologist, is celebrated for the first time at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its hole on this day and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring.

Groundhog Day has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas Day, when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on this concept by selecting an animal--the hedgehog--as a means of predicting weather. Once they came to America, German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition, although they switched from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful in the Keystone State.

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Texan Colonel William Travis sends a desperate plea for help for the besieged defenders of the Alamo, ending the message with the famous last words, "Victory or Death."

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On this day in 1861, Texas becomes the seventh state to secede from the Union when a state convention votes 166 to 8 in favor of the measure. The Texans who voted to leave the Union did so over the objections of their governor, Sam Houston. A staunch Unionist, Houston's election in 1859 as governor seemed to indicate that Texas did not share the rising secessionist sentiments of the other Southern states. However, events swayed many Texans to the secessionist cause. John Brown's raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in October 1859 had raised the specter of a major slave insurrection, and the ascendant Republican Party made many Texans uneasy about continuing in the Union. After Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in November 1860, pressure mounted on Houston to call a convention so that Texas could consider secession. He did so reluctantly in January 1861, and sat in silence on February 1 as the convention voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession. Houston grumbled that Texans were "stilling the voice of reason," and he predicted an "ignoble defeat" for the South. Houston refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and was replaced in March 1861 by his lieutenant governor.
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On March 13, 1781, the German-born English astronomer William Hershel discovers Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun. Herschel's discovery of a new planet was the first to be made in modern times, and also the first to be made by use of a telescope, which allowed Herschel to distinguish Uranus as a planet, not a star, as previous astronomers believed.

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On this day in 1911, President Ronald Wilson Reagan is born in Tampico, Illinois.

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, served for two terms from 1981 to 1989. Known as The Great Communicator, he was the first actor to be elected president after two centuries of mainly lawyers and soldiers.

Born and raised in Illinois, Reagan took his first media job as a radio sports announcer in the Midwest. Buoyed by his on-air success, he journeyed to Hollywood and began acting in feature films in the 1930s. During World War II, he served as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, appearing in training and propaganda films. After the war, Reagan served as president of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1947 to 1952. At that time, he was a proponent of New Deal Democratic policies. He switched to the Republican Party in 1960.

Reagan delivered a rousing speech in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which in effect launched his political career. After two terms as governor of California, he made a bid for the Republican presidential ticket in 1976, losing to Vice President Gerald Ford. In 1980, he gained the nomination and beat out embattled Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter to become president, ushering in a new era of conservatism in American politics.

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On this day in 1732, George Washington is born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the second son from the second marriage of a colonial plantation owner.

An initially loyal British subject, Washington eventually led the Continental Army in the American Revolution and became known as the father of the United States.

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