TIME History

Obama to Award Civil War Hero With Posthumous Medal of Honor

Alonzo Cushing
This undated photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society shows First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing AP

The young lieutenant died repelling Confederate forces during arguably the most decisive battle of the American Civil War

Alonzo Cushing, who died aged 22 during the American Civil War, will receive the nation’s highest military honor for conspicuous gallantry and unbridled valor as displayed on the killing fields of Gettysburg 151 years ago.

The White House announced this week that President Barack Obama approved the awarding of the Medal of Honor to the young first lieutenant, who “distinguished himself during combat operations against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863.”

Cushing’s death came during the battle’s climatic third day when Confederate General Robert E. Lee, against the wishes of his top lieutenant, hurled three infantry divisions against entrenched Union forces in an ill-fated thrust, later coined Pickett’s Charge.

The maneuver was arguably the greatest military blunder in the course of the Civil War and led to the gratuitous slaughter of thousands of young Virginians by the well-positioned bluebacks.

The defeat would serve as the beginning of the North’s reversal of the war’s tide following a string of brazen victories by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Cushing was killed in action as he manned the last remaining serviceable piece of field hardware from his unit’s battery. As Confederate forces lurched closer to his position, he refused to retreat and continued to fire into the enemy despite suffering multiple injuries.

“With the rebels within 100 yards of his position, Cushing was shot and killed during this heroic stand,” read a statement released by the U.S. Army. “His actions made it possible for the Union Army to successfully repulse the Confederate assault.”

Cushing was later buried with full military honors at his alma mater West Point.

Following the defeat at Gettysburg, the conflict, which began as a campaign to subdue rebellion but later evolved into a war of conquest and emancipation, would grind on for two more bloody years.

General Ulysses S. Grant took the fight to the South and Lee eventually surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.

TIME conflict

This 75-Year-Old Map Shows Europe ‘Ready for War’

A portrait of a world days away from combustion

The declarations had not yet come, but on Aug. 28, 1939, Europe already knew war was on its way. On that day, 75 years ago, the armies that would fight what became World War II had gathered.

Just how many soldiers that meant differed by nation, as TIME pointed out to its readers with the map below, which ran in the Sept. 4, 1939 issue. The annotated chart also provides evidence that, no matter how many men were under arms, there was no way for the continent to be entirely ready for what was to follow. In Poland, for example, President Ignacy Moscicki was said to have told Roosevelt that he was willing to negotiate with Germany. By the time Sept. 4 came around — the magazine arrived on stands before then— that willingness had already proved pointless.

On desktop, roll over the map to get a closer look. If you’re reading on a mobile device, click to zoom.

TIME

Stay tuned next week for further coverage of the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

TIME U.S.

Why Americans Celebrate the Burning of Washington

Washington Burns
The burning of Washington DC by British troops during the War of 1812. MPI—Getty Images

The narrative we remember is how we beat back the British, not how close our fledgling republic came to falling apart

This Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of one of the low points in early U.S. history. On August 24, 1814, at 1:00 p.m., with the temperatures hovering near 100 degrees, a British army headed by Major General Robert Ross, an accomplished field commander who had served with distinction as one of the Duke of Wellington’s lieutenants in the Peninsular War, attacked an American force at Bladensburg, Maryland, a few miles northwest of Washington. Although a detachment of U.S. Navy seamen and Marines under Commodore Joshua Barney took a heavy toll on the advancing British with artillery, the rest of the American force, mostly militia, was either overrun or outflanked and responded by fleeing—an episode remembered in wit and song as the “Bladensburg Races.”

With the road to Washington now open, the British rested for several hours in the stifling heat and then marched into the city around 8:00 p.m. By then, most of the residents had fled. Dolley Madison had sacrificed her personal property to remove White House treasures, including a large portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. The British could find no one to surrender the city and were fired on by snipers from a house. They never caught the snipers, but they responded by burning the house and the public buildings—the President’s Mansion (already sometimes called the White House); the Capitol (including the original Library of Congress), the buildings housing the State, Treasury and War departments; and the arsenal on Greenleaf’s Point. Before torching the White House, the British high command consumed some food and wine that had been laid out for President James Madison’s customary late afternoon dinner party.

It could have been a lot worse. Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who accompanied Ross into the capital, reportedly wanted to burn the entire city in retaliation for American depredations in Canada. But it was an army operation and Ross’ call, and he would have none of it. Local residents, including the editors of the Washington National Intelligencer, whose newspaper office was one of the few pieces of private property that was destroyed, later praised the British for their restraint.

The British occupied the city for about 24 hours before leaving. A much humbled U.S. government returned, with officials scrambling for suitable office space. Congress was forced to meet in the cramped Patent Office, and President Madison had to settle for the Octagon House, which still survives as a Washington landmark. Locals did not soon forget the humiliation. One wag wrote on the walls of the Capitol, now a scorched hulk, “George Washington founded this city after a seven years’ wars with England—James Madison lost it after a two years’ war.”

This was undoubtedly the nadir for the United States in the War of 1812, a conflict largely forgotten today that America initiated to uphold neutral rights on the high seas. The young republic could hardly challenge the Mistress of the Seas on her own element and had sought instead to apply pressure by conquering Canada. But this had proved far beyond its limited means. The first year of the war had been especially disappointing. The U.S.S. Constitution had earned its nickname—“Old Ironsides”—with a pair of surprising victories over British warships, but otherwise there wasn’t much to cheer about. And by 1814, the British, who were no longer distracted by the Napoleonic Wars, had the new nation on the ropes.

Fortunately, the Washington debacle was followed three weeks later by some good news. The defeat of a British naval squadron on Lake Champlain compelled a large British army to withdraw and thus spared upstate New York from occupation. And the successful defense of Fort McHenry saved Baltimore and inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” an instantly popular song that Congress named the national anthem in 1931. The huge flag that inspired Key has long been on display at the Smithsonian and remains one of our most treasured relics from the war.

The British responded to these setbacks by letting the United States off the hook and agreeing to a peace treaty that simply restored the status quo ante bellum. The treaty did not mention neutral rights, but neither did it require the United States to sacrifice any rights or territory.

Five weeks before the U.S. ratification of the treaty ended the war on February 16, 1815, there was an even more spectacular development: Andrew Jackson’s lopsided victory over the British at New Orleans on January 8. This triumph had no impact on the peace settlement, but it had a profound and lasting effect on the way that Americans remembered the war and, in the process, shaped the emerging national identity.

Americans forgot the causes of the war. They forgot how close the fledgling republic had come to military defeat, economic ruin, national bankruptcy and even disunion. Instead, they remembered how they had repeatedly beaten back British invasions and defeated “the conquerors of the conquerors of Europe.” For a new nation in need of inspiring symbols, Andrew Jackson, the Battle of New Orleans, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Fort McHenry flag and “Old Ironsides” offered a good start.

Don Hickey is an award-winning author and a professor of history at Wayne State College in Nebraska. A longtime student of the War of 1812, he is best known for The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Bicentennial edition, 2012).

TIME History

Sunday Is the 200th Anniversary of the Burning of the White House

Capture and Burning of the city of Washington, 1815. White House
Capture and Burning of the city of Washington, 1814. Heritage Images/Getty Images

It’s an anniversary few seem to want to mark, except the victor

Look around Washington D.C. this summer and you’ll find parades, speeches and shows to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 100th anniversary of World War I. Heck, there are even exhibits honoring the 25th anniversary of Prague’s Velvet Revolution and the fact the 50 years ago the Beatles first invaded America, to much teenage frenzy.

But what you won’t find are a lot of mentions about the War of 1812’s bicentennial. “Wait,” you may ask, “if it was the War of 1812, why would we celebrate it in 1814?”

“Although it seems rather morbid to celebrate the burning of Washington in the summer of 1814, it was the turning point of the war,” says Leslie Jones, public programs manager at the White House Historical Association, one of a dozen organizations organizing events marking the anniversary. “It was the force that pushed the American side to really come out and push for the victory that culminated in the battle of New Orleans with Andrew Jackson a few months later.”

Perhaps we don’t celebrate The War of 1812 because we started it to get back Canada, which we wound up losing for a second time, along with most of the buildings in the brand new capital. But the War of 1812 is worth commemorating: it cemented America’s identity as nation and it gave us Francis Scott Key’s ode to the Battle of Fort McHenry — also known as the Star Spangled Banner.

“This is an area of history that is so not well known by the broader American public,” says Karen Daly, executive director of Dumbarton House, a historic Washington property that is now a museum. “I find when people visit Dumbarton House, an incredible number of Americans don’t even know this event even happened. They tend to jump from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. This area of history is glossed over in our schooling. And yet, this is what gave us our national anthem and it is very much the event that cemented the union and the democracy. It’s an incredible piece of our history.”

You won’t likely see Michelle Obama reenacting Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from the burning White House this weekend. But Aug. 24, the actual day of the 200th anniversary of the burning of the White House and the Capitol, will be celebrated in Washington with a 5k run at the Historic Congressional Cemetery, a family festival in Georgetown and a beer festival at Yards Park. And there’s one group that’s really celebrating: the British Embassy, tongue just a little in cheek, will be holding a “White House BBQ . . . on the 200th anniversary of a rather unfortunate event in UK/US relations . . .”

TIME LGBT

Smithsonian Expands Collection of LGBT Artifacts

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
The facade of Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is lit up at dusk on June 4, 2013. John Greim—LightRocket /Getty Image

A donation from the TV show Will and Grace kicks off a wider effort to document the history of sexual orientation

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History announced Tuesday a significant expansion to its collection of artifacts documenting the history of America’s sexual minorities.

The expanded collection includes a donation of studio props from the television series Will and Grace, which debuted in 1998 with one of the first openly gay characters on primetime television. It also includes diplomatic passports from the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, David Huebner, and his husband, Duane McWaine, and a racquet that formerly belonged to transgender tennis player Renee Richards, who challenged a league-wide ban on transgendered players.

The museum said in a statement that the recent acquisitions mark a “long tradition of documenting the full breadth of the American experience and what it means to be an American. The LGBT narrative is an important part of that American story, and the Smithsonian has been documenting and collecting related objects for many years.”

 

TIME Gadgets

First Smartphone Turns 20: Fun Facts About Simon

Simon Smartphone
An original IBM Simon Personal Communicator is placed next to an Apple iPhone 4S at the Science Museum on August 15, 2014 in London, England Rob Stothard / Getty Images

A tip of the hat to Simon, long referenced as the first smartphone. It went on sale to the public on August 16, 1994 and packed a touchscreen, email capability and more, paving the way for our modern-day wondergadgets.

Here’s a look at some of Simon’s history.

IBM and BellSouth first showed Simon off in late 1992.

It was code-named “Angler” and was unveiled at the fall COMDEX convention in Vegas, but wouldn’t be available to purchase by consumers until August 16, 1994. In 1995, the great Computer Chronicles TV show led its “Year of the Portable” episode with Simon.

Here’s the brief segment:

“I am totally computer-functional!”

The phone had no web browser — heck, computers were just getting decent browsers back then — but email access was a big selling point. It could send faxes, too, which is a technology people haven’t been able to completely kill off yet despite decades of trying.

It was big and expensive, but not insanely so.

By today’s standards, of course, Simon was clunky and outrageously priced. But for a do-it-all gizmo in the mid-’90s, its $1,100 price tag should elicit a mere shrug from most of us nowadays. And if you signed a two-year contract with BellSouth, you could get it for $900; that subsidized price eventually dropped to $600.

The phone itself measured 8 inches long by 2.5 inches wide by 1.5 inches thick, and weighed two ounces north of a pound. That’d be pretty clunky today, but we’re talking about the ’90s here. Everyone was wearing Hammer pants and Zubaz, so pocket space wasn’t much of an issue, right? As you can see in the above photo — where it’s placed next to an iPhone 4S — it’s big but not monstrous.

It had a touchscreen and apps.

Touchscreens weren’t exactly nonexistent back in the early ’90s, but they weren’t super common, either. Simon is believed to be the first commercially available phone with a touchscreen, though earlier PDA devices had showcased various portable touchscreen technologies. Simon’s interface could be navigated with an included stylus, and somewhat less easily with a finger.

These were the early days of mobile touchscreens, mind you. Take a look at Simon’s interface in this fascinating TekGadg video from 2011:

Best line: “I don’t think it does multi-touch, Winston.” That parting jab at Android was uncalled for, fellas.

There was no app store, of course, but the phone came preloaded with several apps. You can take a look at Simon’s user manual, which is not only chock full of wonderfully nostalgic technobabble from back in the day, but also lists the following apps:

  • Address Book
  • Calculator
  • Calendar
  • Fax
  • Filer
  • Mail
  • Note Pad
  • Sketch Pad
  • Time
  • To Do

These things weren’t called “apps” back then. They were generally referred to as “features” found in the “Mobile Office” section of the phone. Here’s a look at the alarm clock:

Email was no picnic to set up, either. It used Lotus’ cc:Mail offering, which required you to dial in to a computer running cc:Mail software that housed all your messages — the “post office,” as it were. How would you set up this post office? You wouldn’t: According to Simon’s manual, “You don’t have to worry about how to set up a post office, because your E-mail administrator or service does that.”

It had predictive typing.

The feature was called the “PredictaKey” keyboard and, according to the user manual, “always shows the six most-likely letters that you need, depending on the characters you’ve just typed.

BellSouth had apparently also been working with Apple to develop a cellular connection for the Newton PDA at the time.

An early profile of Simon alludes to a BellSouth-Apple partnership for Apple’s Newton PDA wherein BellSouth was “working with Apple to integrate cellular into the device.” The piece quoted BellSouth’s then-product-manager Rich Guidotti assuaging concerns that the two devices would compete:

BellSouth’s work with Apple is not affected by the new Simon, Guidotti said. Referring to the Newton as an electronic organizer and the Simon as a personal communicator, Guidotti added: “No one product fits everyone’s needs.”

A cellular connection for the Newton wouldn’t materialize from the BellSouth-Apple partnership, however. Built-in cellular features for the Newton were apparently nixed altogether.

Simon made an appearance in The Net.

The movie, according to Frank Costanza, is “called The Net, with that girl from The Bus.”

You could plug it into a regular phone jack.

Though Simon was targeted at deep-pocketed business people, cell service was still spotty and expensive back in the mid-’90s. An optional cable allowed Simon’s owner to plug it into a standard phone jack (remember those?) to make calls via more reliable and less expensive land-line systems.

Simon lived fast and died young.

Despite its features, IBM and BellSouth didn’t exactly have a hit on their hands. Simon spent a mere six months on the market, with around 50,000 units sold. Businessweek’s profile of the device cites Simon’s weak battery — it lasted around an hour — and the cool factor of svelter and svelter flip phones as contributing to Simon’s demise. It sounds like IBM and BellSouth kind of lost interest in the project as well, with IBM in the middle of downsizing endeavors and BellSouth pumping resources into bolstering its cell network.

Simon, we hardly knew ye. But your ghost lingers on in our modern-day communicators.

Further Reading

Microsoft’s Bill Buxton has a great info page with links to a bunch of old Simon-related material. Check out Businessweek and Wikipedia for related material as well.

TIME Cambodia

Aging Khmer Rouge Leaders Found Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity

CAMBODIA-UN-TRIAL
Cambodian and international journalists watch a live video feed showing former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother No. 2" Nuon Chea, left, and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan in the courtroom during their trial at the ECCC in Phnom Penh on Aug. 7, 2014. Tang Chhin Sothy—AFP/Getty Images

But victims feel that justice has not been served

More than three decades after Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge wiped out a quarter of the country’s population, two key architects of the regime have been found guilty of crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed court.

“Brother No. 2” Nuon Chea, 88, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million of his compatriots. His 83-year-old co-defendant, Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former head of state, also received a life sentence.

Both were guilty of “extermination encompassing murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity,” chief judge Nil Nonn told the hearing.

There was no discernible reaction from either defendant, both of whom are extremely frail and have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

“The sentences that were imposed reflect the gravity of the crimes of which the accused were convicted,” international co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian said at a press conference after the verdict.

From seizing power in 1975, until its routing by the invading Vietnamese in 1979, the Khmer Rouge inflicted one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Merely being literate or wearing eyeglasses marked one out as counterrevolutionary intellectual, to be subject to torture and gruesome death.

Those not killed were likely to perish from overwork, starvation, disease and neglect. All urban centers were emptied and the population forced to toil in the fields in pursuit of leader Pol Pot’s Year Zero agrarian utopia. These forced evacuations formed a major aspect of the prosecution case.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), hybrid benches applying elements of both Cambodian and international law, were launched in 2006 to mete out justice. But allegations of corruption and absolutions given to senior Khmer Rouge figures now enjoying positions of authority have dogged progress.

Until Thursday’s verdict, only one conviction — that of Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre Comrade Duch, the former chief of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh — had been achieved, at a cost of some $200 million.

Moreover, it is unlikely that any more Khmer Rouge figures will stand trial. Pol Pot himself died in a jungle hideout while on the run in 1998, while the identities of five other possible defendants have not been officially released (even if they have been widely circulated). There is also considerable reluctance within the government of Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, to pursue prosecutions.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, however, must both now prepare for a second trial, this time on the specific charge of genocide, which is due to start later this year. Khieu Samphan has admitted that mass killings took place but denies any responsibility, while Nuon Chea blames the invading Vietnamese forces for killing his countrymen.

Nuon Chea’s international defense lawyer, Victor Koppe, described his client as in “very good spirits” on the morning before Thursday’s verdict, and eager to contest the new charges. “He’s very much looking forward to the second trial because, from our perspective, that is much more interesting, as we’ll be able to speak about the role of Vietnam in that period and many other issues,” Koppe said by phone.

For victims, though, there is a sense of justice being lost. Dara Duong was 4 years old when the Khmer Rouge seized power and murdered his father, grandparents, uncle and aunt.

“We wonder why they took so long” he says, about the efforts to hold the perpetrators to account. “We are not satisfied with this process.”

TIME White House

What Richard Nixon’s Impeachment Looked Like

TIME Aug. 5, 1974 Cover
DENNIS BRACK / BLACK STAR—TIME

As Obama impeachment chatter continues, Nixon's resignation hits its 40th anniversary

Read more about Nixon’s resignation in TIME’s archives.

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon resigning from the U.S. presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up. The anniversary comes just as a handful of Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, threaten to impeach President Barack Obama. “Impeachment is a message that has to be sent to our president that we’re not going to put up with this lawlessness,” Palin said in early July.

But the current situation is still a far cry from what went on 40 years ago. Today, even the President’s opposition in the House admits that there’s no serious impeachment effort underway. (The House did vote to support Speaker John Boehner’s lawsuit against Obama, but that’s not about impeachment.) For Nixon, however, the House Judiciary Committee went through with it, passing one article of impeachment against Nixon on July 27, 1974. The issue would have then moved to the full House of Representatives, where it had been likely to pass and continue on to the Senate, which had the power to remove Nixon from office. None of that happened, of course. Nixon resigned before it could.

In recognition of a political decision that rocked the country 40 years ago — and that other one currently attempting to rock the Democratic fundraising arm — here are six quotations from TIME’s 1974 coverage that show what an impeachment process looks like:

“People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”

Nixon said these words in a press conference several months before resigning, in November 1973, as inquiries into the Watergate Scandal continued to pick up speed.

“For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct…But Watergate is our shame.”

The House Judiciary Committee that determined Nixon’s impeachment as the recommended course of action reached a vote of 27 to 11. Six Republican Congressman joined 21 Democrats to approve the motion. Among them was Virginia Republican Rep. M. Caldwell Butler, who said this quote. Butler helped Nixon on his reelection and stated that, after he announced he would vote for the President’s impeachment, he cried.

“I felt that if we didn’t impeach, we’d just ingrain and stamp in our highest office a standard of conduct that’s just unacceptable.”

Alabama Democrat Walter Flowers, who said these words, struggled with deciding whether he would vote in favor of Nixon’s impeachment. He came from an overwhelmingly pro-Nixon district. Other members of the committee were, like Flowers, hesitant to impeach but feared the precedent that could be set by not doing so. “I have been faced with the terrible responsibility of assessing the conduct of a President that I voted for, believed to be the best man to lead this country,” said Maine Republican Rep. William Cohen. “But a President who in the process by actor acquiescence allowed the rule of law and the Constitution to slip under the boots of indifference and arrogance and abuse.”

“There was just too much evidence.”

Republican Rep. Lawrence Hogan of Maryland said that he made his decision to impeach while driving home one night, as the weight of the evidence against President Nixon finally hit him. “After reading the transcripts, it was sobering: the number of untruths, the deception and the immoral attitudes,” Hogan said. “By any standard of proof demanded, we had to bind him over for trial and removal by the Senate.” In the public eye, the Maryland Congressman offered a sterner view of the situation. “The evidence convinces me that my President has lied repeatedly,” Hogan said at a press conference, “deceiving public officials and the American people.”

“This is the most important thing I shall ever do in my whole life, and I know it.”

Republican Rep. Charles Sandman of New Jersey understood the importance of the task at hand, which makes it even more interesting that he was one of Nixon’s staunchest supporters through the Watergate scandal. As one explanation for opposing all articles of impeachment, Sandman recalled the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, which he called “one of the darkest moments in the Government of this great nation.” Sandman added, “I do not propose to be any part of a second blotch on the history of this great nation.” Sandman, like Nixon’s other defenders, paid dearly for their support of the administration after the White House tapes were released on Aug. 5, revealing the President’s demands to cease Watergate investigations. Sandman was defeated in his re-election campaign of 1974 and never served in Congress again.

“I think it could perhaps be one of our brightest days.”

New York Democrat Charles Rangel, who continues to serve in the House of Representatives, took an optimistic outlook on the impeachment proceedings. He viewed them as living proof of the Constitution’s soundness. “Some say this is a sad day in America’s history,” Rangel said. “I think it could perhaps be one of our brightest days. It could be really a test of the strength of our Constitution, because what I think it means to most Americans is that when this or any other President violates his sacred oath of office, the people are not left helpless.”

If polls from that time can serve as an indication, the House Judiciary Committee did act on the wishes of the American people. Even before the release of the incriminating White House tapes, a Harris poll showed that 53% of Americans supported the impeachment of Nixon, who held an approval rating of 24% at that point. In comparison, a July CNN poll found that 65% of Americans oppose an impeachment of Obama.

Read more about Nixon’s resignation in TIME’s archives.

TIME Congress

No More Hearings, No More Bills, Congress Is Headed Out for Summer

The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington.
The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington. Brendan Hoffman—Getty Images

Here's why Congress calls it quits every August

Updated on August 4, 2014 at 2 p.m.

Every August, the city of Washington, D.C. virtually shuts down. Beginning late Friday night, Congress has left town for five weeks, and there will be no hearings in session. Some may be wondering why exactly Congress is packing up and heading out of town.

The straight answer? It’s the law. In 1970, Congress enacted a mandatory five-week break for itself beginning the first week of August and extending past Labor Day weekend, all as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act. When the law passed, there were many younger lawmakers with children coming into Congress who wanted a more predictable legislative schedule and designated vacation times.

Over the years, legislative sessions had gotten longer and longer. From 1789 up through the 1930s, Congress convened in December and stayed in session for only five or six months. In fact, until the 20th century, the position was not full time and lawmakers could work other jobs in the half of the year they weren’t in session — a member also trained as a butcher could, theoretically make laws and sausage. By the 1950s, sessions were extending well into July, and by the 1960s Congress wasn’t adjourning until autumn. Sessions hit a record length in 1963 when Senate convened in January and adjourned in December — at that point, three-day weekends were the members’ only breaks.

So, largely under the leadership of Sen. Gale McGee who championed the idea of August recess as a way to “modernize Congress,” junior members lobbied senior members to install a recess in the schedule. The first official August recess began on August 6, 1971.

But just because it’s called a recess doesn’t mean Congressional leaders are taking a break. “Business still goes on,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “There’s just no action on the floor during that period.”

Especially because this is an election year, many members will be campaigning, visiting offices and town halls in their home states and holding town meetings. Offices will stay open to receive mail and calls from constituents. Members who aren’t up for reelection might enjoy family time or a vacation, or they can take on a Congressional delegation, Ritchie said. Really, it’s entirely up to the member to decide what he or she wants to do during August recess.

However, should lawmakers decide they want to wrap up some work before vacationing, they have the option to do so. Members can push the August recess back by passing an extension resolution. There have also been instances where Congress has had to return mid-recess. In 2004, Congress came back to hold hearings in light of the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. In 2005, Congress returned to pass legislation to aid Hurricane Katrina victims. This year, the start of the recess was delayed slightly on Friday, as lawmakers worked on changes to two immigration bills.

“There are a lot of people who think they shouldn’t take time off. Some think the more time they’re away the better,” Ritchie said. “Every needs some vacation, though.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that it was published after Congressional passage of recent highway funding and immigration bills.

TIME History

15 Years Later: Remembering JFK Jr.

JFK Jr. TIME Cover
The cover of TIME's July 26, 1999 issue: "John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. 1960-1999" Ken Regan—TIME

The son of the 35th president was 38-years-old when his plane was lost at sea

Fifteen years ago Wednesday, a shocked nation grieved as the Kennedy family lost another one of their own. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., 38, died in a plane crash with his wife and sister-in-law on July 16, 1999.

“He was lost on that troubled night, but we will always wake for him, so that his time, which was not doubled but cut in half, will live forever in our memory and in our beguiled and broken hearts,” then-Sen. Ted Kennedy said in a eulogy for his nephew, an American icon turned magazine editor. Kennedy outlived his nephew by 10 years, passing away in 2009 after nearly a half-century in the U.S. Senate.

In that same eulogy, Kennedy praised the “lifelong mutual admiration society” shared between JFK Jr. and his sister Caroline, who now serves as the United State ambassador to Japan.

Kennedy was often asked whether he would further the political legacy of his father, who died when his son was only two years old. JFK Jr. once said of his father, “He inspired a lot of hope and created a sense of possibility, and then the possibility was cut short and never realized.”

Read TIME’s special 1999 cover story marking JFK Jr.’s death here.

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