17 September: On this day in history

What events happened on 17 September in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

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17 September 1382

In Székesfehérvár, Hungary, Louis the Great’s daughter Mary is crowned ‘King’ of Hungary, to the displeasure of some of her noblemen.

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17 September 1771

Scottish author Tobias Smollett died in Tuscany, Italy. Smollett’s experiences serving as a surgeon’s mate during the disastrous attempt to capture Cartagena from the Spanish helped inspire his 1748 novel The Adventures of Roderick Random.


17 September 1787: The US Constitution is signed

Thirty-nine men put pen to paper in Philadelphia

Four years after the end of its war with Great Britain, the new American republic was not a very happy place. Not only had the newly independent Thirteen Colonies run up enormous debts to pay for the war, but an agricultural depression had seen one rebellion erupt already.

For many veterans of the conflict, including General George Washington, the lesson was obvious: only a strong central government could prevent the republic from collapsing into anarchy. In May 1787 a constitutional convention met in Philadelphia to discuss the basis for the new government. Weeks of fierce argument followed, but by September they had a draft.

On 17 September, they were ready. Gathering in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall, the delegates listened to a patriotic address by Benjamin Franklin before taking it in turns to sign the new Constitution.

Of the 39 men who signed that day, almost all had seen action during the struggle against Britain, and many had been commanders in the rebel army. At 81, Franklin was the oldest; by contrast, 26-year-old Jonathan Dayton was young enough to have been his grandson. Theirs was really only a symbolic gesture, since the document still needed to be ratified by the states. But symbols matter: there could hardly have been a more powerful sign of their commitment to a common cause.

Not everybody approved of the new United States Constitution. Some delegates, who hated the thought of centralised federal authority, saw it as a betrayal of liberty, while New York’s Alexander Hamilton, who wanted a much stronger government led by a president elected for life, even called it a “frail and worthless fabric”. Most of them saw it as a practical expedient that would not last very long. Few imagined that it would endure for more than 200 years.


17 September 1849: Harriet Tubman makes a bid for freedom

After a successful escape (at the second attempt) she returns to rescue more slaves

“Three Hundred Dollars Reward,” began the advertisement in the Cambridge Democrat, published in a small town in rural Maryland. “Ran away from the subscriber on Monday the 17th, three negroes, named as follows: Harry, aged about 19 years …; Ben, aged about 25 years …; Minty, aged about 27 years, is of a chestnut color, fine looking and about 5 feet high.”

The woman who placed that advert was Eliza Ann Brodess, and today she is completely forgotten. But almost every American schoolchild has heard of her former slave Minty, better known as Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery, made more than a dozen missions to rescue other slaves, worked with the radical abolitionist John Brown and even spied for the North during the American Civil War.

Born into slavery, Minty – later known as Harriet Tubman – eventually escaped. She went on to rescue many other slaves, and became a renowned abolitionist and activist.

When her master Edward Brodess died in 1849, his widow began to sell his slaves, breaking up their families. So on Monday 17 September, Harriet and her brothers decided to take their futures into their own hands. They were supposed to be working at a neighbouring plantation, so as a result, Mrs Brodess did not initially realise that they had run away. Harriet’s brothers soon became frightened and turned back, and at first she chose – or was forced – to go back with them. But having tasted freedom once already, Harriet had had enough of life as a slave. And by the end of October she had escaped again, this time for good.


17 September 1862

In the bloodiest one-day battle of the American Civil War a Federal army under George B McClellan and a Confederate force under Robert E Lee clashed at Antietam near Sharpsburg. Some 23,000 soldiers were declared killed, wounded or missing.


17 September 1944: Allies embark on a doomed mission at Arnhem

Operation Market Garden fails to secure a route over the Rhine

For John Frost, 17 September 1944 was a day of electric anticipation, grim determination and intense excitement. As commander of the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, Frost had been given one of the key tasks in Operation Market Garden, the Allies’ daring plan to land airborne troops in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, seize nine key bridges and punch their way to the Rhine before the Germans realised what had hit them.

Frost’s job was to seize the crucial pontoon, railway and road bridge in the centre of Arnhem. He never doubted that he could do it. On the morning of the 17th, he told his batman to pack his beloved golf clubs. Then it was time to prepare for the jump.

At first, everything went according to plan. Early that afternoon, Frost landed safely, used his hunting horn to rally his men and headed for the south side of the road bridge. There, he and his men established their base. One platoon tried to move across the bridge, but they were engaged by the German defenders and beaten back. Frost’s men used a flamethrower to repel their enemies, but the fact remained that they were now stuck.

And worse was to follow. By the following morning, the Germans had sent in SS reinforcements, leaving Frost and his men effectively surrounded. His great hope was that he would soon be relieved by the bulk of the Allied main force, but no such force materialised. He was on his own.

For the next two days, Frost and his men held out, despite punishing German bombardment and a growing realisation that no help was going to arrive. On the early afternoon of the 20th, he was hit in the legs by a German bomb. A few hours later, as the Germans inched ever closer, a fire broke out in Frost’s makeshift headquarters. He had no choice but to ask for a ceasefire. The battle for Arnhem was over.

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17 September 1916

Workers blend a mountain of tea before it is dispatched to trenches on the western front, via the Port of London. The delivery of food and drink to soldiers during the First World War involved a complicated system of trains, motor vehicles, horse-drawn limbers (two-wheeled vehicles designed to pull field guns) and handcarts. A network of base supply depots along the French coast was used to store the huge quantities of provisions required to feed British forces.

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