And He Stood Up

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This post is a reprint from a few years ago. They young men mentioned are now other places in their careers. Their names are used with permission.

Asked by my old high school, I had the privilege of speaking to young people on the eve of Veterans Day. My remarks appear below.

Thank You for inviting me today—It’s good to be back at Eagle High.

On October 23rd, a few weeks ago, U.S. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler of Oklahoma was fatally wounded in a rescue mission freeing Isis-held hostages in Iraq. He died after rushing into a firefight to support the allied Kurdish soldiers he had trained and advised. Secretary of Defense, Asthon Carter, later described the chaotic events that cost this soldier’s his life.

“As the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for U.S. … forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight. However, when a firefight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation . . . he ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up. All the indications are that it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission a success.”

The death of Master Sergeant Wheeler spared the lives of 70 Isis prisoners scheduled for mass execution the following morning.

Wheeler ran to the sound of the guns. Now I can’t speak for our service men and women, and when I was asked to give this talk, I had to confer with those who have made that solemn commitment. My questions were misleadingly simple . . . why did you choose a military career? What persuaded you to risk yourself for potentially dangerous service?
I wanted to try and understand that burning force of purpose, of unquestioned focus to duty, detach from self preservation for the welfare of others. I wondered how personal fear could be swallowed when, as Secretary Carter explained, “Wheeler involved himself in the firefight.” Where does this nobility of character draw from? Where do these individuals come from—the few that can’t sit on the sideline when duty calls them from their homes?

The answer, strikingly enough, is right here, in this auditorium. Home. Here. No, not someone else from somewhere else. Here. And people, that is where America has always found It’s defenders, from every town and city.

A number of Eagle students have, from many graduating classes, chosen the disciplined military life. Once wiggly kids who, warming the same seats you now occupy, resisting, as you most surely are, the urge to check your cell phones, daydream about the newest version of Halo, or wonder if Bogus Basin ski hill will open before Thanksgiving. They were kids just like you.
Now I don’t pretend to know the name of every Eagle Mustang who has volunteered for service, but I’d like to mention a few.

After earning a college degree as a civilian, 2004 EHS graduate Captain Greg Benjamin was commissioned an Infantry Officer, sending him north to Ft. Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. From this first posting, Greg has served, so far, two Central Asian tours, first in southern, then in eastern Afghanistan. He wants you to know that he loves the training opportunities he’s experienced so far–Ranger School, Airborne, and Air Assault Schools, and leadership training. When I asked Greg, now married with small children why he chose to place himself in harm’s way, he replied, “I want to take the fight to our country’s enemies, leading America’s finest young men and women in combat and training. And change the lives of people in some of the worst places on the planet.”

Captain Joe Peterson, EHS class of 2005, made his decision after high school too. “I had a number of teammates from Eagle’s Lacrosse team one year ahead of me go to a service academy . . . and this kicked-off my thought process in a serious manner. I’d always held the belief of service, but this made the choice tangible for me . . . I received an invitation to visit the University of San Francisco and their ROTC department. I decided to accept.” Joey was posted in installations ranging from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Ft. Lewis, Washington, across the Pacific to South Korea, and Central Asia as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan overseeing all aircraft and artillery surrounding that area. Reflecting for this talk Joe added, “It was trying at times, but . . . I am proud of my service and it added a value and perspective to my life . . . it has opened doors that are unbelievable.”

Second year West Point Cadet, Colt Sterk described his heartfelt desire to be part of something he termed, “Larger than myself.” Cadet Sterk, EHS class of 2013 explained, “When I was 14 I was given the honor of presenting a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, (in Arlington Cemetery). The nameless soldier in that tomb willingly lay down his life for me, a stranger. I felt a debt of gratitude. Since then I’ve always felt I was called to serve. A senior cadet told me when I was a freshman, ‘Colt in everything you do leave a footprint.’ By that he meant make an impact even if it’s only a little bit. Is it hard? Absolutely. But I know it’s where I’m meant to be.” Colton wants you to know that he visited Israel last summer for ten days studying the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and the implications in that region for the United States, and for the US Army. This semester Colt is attending the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado on cadet exchange—jumping out of airplanes, and on gliding tactics. He just earned his jump wings after completing the requisite five jumps.

Colby Hyde, EHS Class, 2010 shared a different response. He said, “We are fortunate in this country that military service is not an obligation. We are unfortunate, however, in that we do not often appreciate the sacrifice of those who volunteer on our behalf. Eventually I realized that I didn’t want to be comfortable. Comfort leads to boredom and ignorance, I thought, and life is too short to accept either of those. When someone suggested applying to West Point, I could not resist. I applied, was accepted, and have never left. My life now is not comfortable by any means, and I know the hardships are yet to come. That said, I am more satisfied with my life than I ever was before. I have taken part in New York City memorials for fallen 9/11 responders, and traveled with active duty units to the deserts of Death Valley to help them prepare for combat in Afghanistan. I have traveled across Southern China, can speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese.

I am thankful for everyone who has served me along the way, from my parents to my teachers, and I only hope I can return the favor in the years to come.” At the end of his letter, Colby added, “I have not done anything for our country yet, but I promise I will. Cadet Colby Hyde graduates from the Military Academy at West Point in 2016.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Now I am not here to tell anyone to enlist in military service. Truly, the life of a soldier, marine, or sailor isn’t suited for everybody. At this point in your life you should be dreaming about double diamond ski runs, video games, and Harry Potter marathons with your best friends. And also, to be frank with you, that depth of courage and commitment to duty blooms in the hearts of only an extraordinary few.

What I do want you to reflect upon when you exit this auditorium is that Captain Greg Benjamin, Captain Joey Peterson, Second year Cadet, Colton Sterk, and third year Cadet, Colby Hyde, and many, many other Eagle High School alum have solemnly sworn to protect you. And consider as well, that this oath assures these few will run toward the sound of danger–for us—just as Master Sergeant Josh Wheeler of Oklahoma.

We have remained the land of the free, because we are also the home of the brave.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.

So Simple, So Basic

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Social media platforms I’ve read lately insist  public schools no longer teach this particular lesson or that particular subject. And since I was a career history teacher, I want folks to understand that that isn’t necessarily the whole story. If your kids aren’t getting what you believe is important, the problem doesn’t lie in the public classroom. But before I delve into the obstacles, I’d like to describe a slice of my history course.

For sophomores we began the year with the Age of Discovery. As part of this unit students mapped various Native Cultures, placing the Nootka in the Pacific Northwest, and the Seminole in the Florida peninsula. Southwestern natives lived in the desert, while the Onondaga hunted the forests of the Eastern Woodlands. From that beginning we shifted study to Europe, with the end of the Middle Ages. In the new emerging era, Columbus sailed to the Bahamas, and changed the world forever. By the end of the first semester, in December, America had defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and a new government waited to take shape until the second semester began in January.

We covered it all. And did the same for the rest of the material, closing the school year with the Confederate defeat at Appomattox Courthouse, and the trials of Reconstruction. And that was only the sophomore course.

The story of America grows longer everyday, and that’s a good thing. It means we’re still here to record the narrative.

The drawbacks this truth presents? Curriculum writers, in the interest of limited time, have had to decide what information stays and what is cut. For example, pre-Columbian America, described above, was jettisoned in order to add events that followed the Civil War. In short, where we once studied Native Americans in depth, we now focus on the post-Civil War Native genocide. What a message this decisions has leveled on our students!

When I was hired in the 1980’s our school district had one high school. Today there are five traditional secondary schools, and also a scattering of smaller alternatives. The district didn’t just grow, it exploded. To cope with this massive influx of students, administrators reworked our teaching schedule into what is called a 4X4 block. Under this more economical system, teachers were assigned 25% more students and lost 25% of instruction time. We became even more restricted in what we could reasonably cover in the history curriculum. (I called it drive-by history.)

On the heels of this massive overcrowding, came the legal mandates established by No Child Left Behind. Students were now required to take benchmark tests measuring what they had learned up to that grade level. Adult proctors would pull random kids out of class, typically in the middle of a lesson, often leaving only one or two students remaining in their desks. These exams ate up two weeks during the first semester, and another two weeks in the Spring.

If that wasn’t enough, politicians, and district leaders began to publicly demonstrate a great deal of favoritism toward the hard sciences, especially in computer technology. So considering the addition of new historic events, overcrowded classrooms, tighter schedules, and mandatory exams, the last thing history education needed was an inherent bias toward the hard sciences.

Public education was born in Colonial New England to promote communal literacy. Later, Thomas Jefferson, insisted education was the vital foundation for the longevity of our Republic. Immigrant children attended public schools to learn how to be Americans, and first generation sons and daughters relished the opportunity to assimilate. In short, enlightened citizenship has been the aim of public education, especially in American history courses. So basic, so simple.

If indeed, history classes provide the metaphoric glue that holds our nation together, we are all in big trouble. And the threats come from many sides. When our public schools are no longer a priority, open to all, we are essentially smothering our shared past.

Teachers cannot manufacture more time, nor meet individual needs in overcrowded classrooms. And both of these factors are essential for a subject that is struggling to teach Americans about America.

As Napoleon lay dying in 1821, he confessed his own power hungry mistakes, when he  whispered, “They expected me to be another (George) Washington.” Bonaparte understood the powerful lessons of America’s story.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two volume memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com

Beloved #392

 

“So buddy, I was wondering if you have any plans tonight,” Fred Murphy said as the Mariner throttled to the Alameda dock. “It’s nice to head over to San Francisco when the opportunity presents.”

“What did you have in mind, Murph?” asked Chum.

“Is that a yes? Because there is this place pilots really like—but it’s a kind of a surprise, and you’re gonna have to trust me.”

“You, Fred? Trust you? Should I pack my service revolver?”

“Just trust me, Chum.” Murphy smiled.

That evening, a yellow taxi crawled up the steep incline of Telegraph Hill in the drizzling rain—Coit Tower front and center in the foreground. From his vantage point in the cab, Chum studied the illuminated monument—the raindrops and the wipers making it an abstract, streaky blur one moment, a defined structure the next. Their cabbie downshifted, doubling horsepower for the uphill climb to a line of apartment buildings stacked along Montgomery Street. The taxi stopped at a plain stucco building, the simple design a contrast from the adjoining buildings with ornate wrought iron balconies. Murphy paid the cab fare.

“This doesn’t look like much of a nightclub, Fred,” Chum remarked.

“Trust, remember? Besides, this is the best place in the Bay Area for fellas like us, pal. You just wait—she’s gonna love you.”

“You know I’m married, Fred.”

“Ha! Funny, Chum. So am I.”

The men ducked under the stoop and Fred gave a quick knock on the door. After a moment, a small Asian woman opened the door. She’s smaller than Bertha, Chum thought. The maid maybe?

“Lieutenant Murphy! Welcome back, welcome back,” The woman’s smile transformed in warm recognition. “You have escorted someone new to meet me, I see. Is he as skilled as you, my dear lieutenant?” Chum felt his jaw drop. Murphy laughed.

“Hello, Mother.” Murphy stooped and pecked the woman’s cheek.

Under her wire-framed spectacles, “Mother” shifted her appraising eyes back to Chum. “Welcome to my home, Lieutenant. And you are . . . ?”

Still unsure about why he was there, Chum stumbled over his answer. “Chumbley, ma’am. Lieu . . . Lieutenant Montgomery Chumbley. But please call me Chum.”

“Delighted to meet you, Lieutenant Chum. I can see that Fred did not prepare you for this visit.” Mother’s eyes returned to Murphy, conveying a light reprimand. To Chum she said, “I am Doctor Margaret Chung, but as you have already witnessed, all my sons refer to me as ‘Mother.’ Lieutenant Murphy has brought you here tonight to not simply meet a nice Chinese lady, but—I would guess—for your formal adoption into my family. Please come in, come in.” Dr. Chung gestured down a long, cluttered hall, and the two pilots complied.

Presented with such a confusion of artifacts, it was hard to know where to look first. Framed glossies of smiling aircrews, salvaged pieces from Nakajimas and Zeros—propellers, pieces of fuselages, wings—graffiti-strewn flags bearing the distinctive rising sun, spent torpedo casings, Hellcat and Corsair unit insignias, and hundreds of news clippings and snapshots of smiling pilots . . . her walls a chaotic collage of air war memorabilia. Dr. Chung studied Chum’s incredulous face as he absorbed the massive collection, visibly pleased with his reaction.

“Please find a seat, gentlemen, and allow me to explain my haphazard museum to our guest,” Dr. Chung said. Chum slumped into a stuffed wingback chair, his eyes still sweeping the memorabilia. “As you already know, Lieutenant Chum, China is presently suffering under the cruel occupation of the Japanese Empire. You need look no further than the barbarism that took place in the city of Nanking to understand my natural revulsion.”

Chum nodded. He had seen newsreels of the butchery in that city.

Dr. Chung’s eyes reflected both tragedy and determination. “I have made it my mission to raise not only awareness but also funds for the suffering people of China. It is men like you, our skilled pilots, who are striking most directly against the foe, and that kind of bravery has made you one of my dearest sons.”

Dr. Chung dropped her gaze and reached over to an end table, picking up a leather-bound ledger. She shuffled through the pages, passing inscribed signatures, finally chancing on a blank space. Holding her fountain pen, Mother began scribbling into the register. “There—done.” She glanced at Chum. “You, Lieutenant Chum, are now officially a member of the Fair Haired Bastards. Ah, let me see”—Dr. Chung silently calculated—“you are son number three hundred and ninety-two.”

She extracted a small card from a drawer in the end table and carefully filled in the blank lines. Finished, the surgeon rose and, with a handshake, presented the card to her new visitor. Chum read:

This is to certify that

Montgomery Chumbley

Is a member of Dr. Margaret Chung’s Fair Haired Bastard’s Club, San Francisco

                                                                                         Margaret J. Chung MD

Her intense eyes softened, her smile gentled. “Remain safe in those dangerous skies, Lieutenant Chum. I don’t want to lose any more of my sons.”

Chum glimpsed over to his co-pilot, then back to his exceptional hostess, grappling for something to say. “Thank you, ma’am. This is an unexpected honor, and I will do my best to defeat our enemy.”

At that, Dr. Chung beamed, offering the boys a beer. More relaxed, the doctor inquired about their aircraft, their primary duties, and what they had seen of the fighting.

“Doctor Chung, ma’am,” Chum said, still inspecting the cluttered walls. “I just have to ask. Who is Fair Haired Number One?

“Ah.” She nodded, producing a wry smile. “An excellent pilot, and he’s from this area—from San Francisco. You may know him, Lieutenant Chum. His name is Lieutenant Bancroft, Stevens Bancroft.”

Of course he is. Chum threw his head back and laughed. “Oh yes, I know him, ma’am.

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River of January: Figure Eight is available on Amazon.com and at www.river-of-january.com

That Kid in Class

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This piece comes from a former student, Second Lieutenant. Cyrus Cappo, USA, West Point Class of 2017.
It is your right to be outraged, or offended, or annoyed by the anthem protests going on around the country today. And in these days of unprecedented access to the megaphone of social media it is your privilege to voice that outrage to estranged family members and friends from high school and coworkers and anyone else you happen to be Facebook friends with.
“It shows disrespect to the troops!” you might say through gritted teeth while furiously pounding on keys, your heart rate steadily increasing to unsafe levels about men who play sports silently and peacefully protesting their race’s treatment as second-class citizens and a President who reserves more fury for them than actual white supremacists and anti-semites. It would be your right to take such a bold and well-thought out stance, maybe even adding that this “the snowflakes have gone too far, I can’t even be safe from the tyranny of this PC culture watching a football game!”
But maybe, you my hypothetical example, could consider that standing for a flag that means many different things to many people isn’t actually what it takes to support your troops. And shockingly, neither is decorating for the Fourth of July, or sporting neat little patriotic bumper stickers and t-shirts, or even shaking a soldier’s hand to thank him or her for their service.
Bear with me, because I know this is a bit of a stretch, but just maybe supporting the troops means voting for politicians who don’t support never-ending wars without any clear objective, and that actually increase the rate of radicalization and terrorism at the low low cost of over 7000 American lives and the even lower cost of millions of middle eastern civilian lives, while simultaneously destabilizing multiple countries that allow for organizations like ISIS to gain power and a dictator like Assad to gas his own populace. That would be something I could be convinced to be outraged about. Maybe you could donate some of your time and money to organizations that are trying to prevent 22 veterans a day from killing themselves due to PTSD and the complete glut of financial and medical support that veterans receive, or if you own a business, you could even go out of your way to hire a veteran so they don’t become homeless as a thanks for their years of service. Maybe you could write a letter to a soldier who is deployed in the name of protecting, um, something something freedom, or send him or her a care package to make a day that could be their last a little less bleak.
But yikes, that would be hard and inconvenient and require some introspection and research and pure, unadulterated thought, and who has time for that, am I right? Much easier to voice outrage about football players exercising their right to protest, and using their platform of privilege to try and make the country a little bit more equal for all of us. Thank you for your tremendous sacrifice of not watching football this weekend, our country is better for it. Don’t forget to put the flag up and plan your cookout for Veterans Day, I look forward to seeing you the next time you shake my hand to thank me for my service.
Feel free to do any proofreading, this was written in bed and out of total frustration haha, I’m glad you liked it.
Cheers,
Cyrus

September 1, 1939

Seventy-eight years ago today, the Second World War began. This excerpt is that fateful day for American pilot, Mont Chumbley–subject of the memoir, “River of January: Figure Eight.”

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Los Angeles

1939

On a sunny morning at the first of September, Chum arrived in the town of Winslow, Arizona, bumping down the landing strip at the airfield. Taxiing off to the side of the field, he observed a crowd collecting close to the control tower. Curious, he rolled to a stop, switched off the Waco, and hopped down. “What’s cooking?” he asked no one in particular.

A boy in greasy dungarees and black high-tops chirped up excitedly. “The Germans invaded Poland, mister. And England and France have declared war!” The boy beamed proudly, satisfied with reporting such important news.

Astonished, Chum stared blankly at the kid—countless considerations flooding his thoughts. Poor Helen. She’s been worried about what would happen. She loved France. I’ll probably be hearing from the reserves. We’re not in yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

While various scenarios dominated his thoughts, Chum refueled his plane. He then carried on with his flight plan, eventually touching down in Albuquerque—his destination. With his Waco S Series plane tethered to the ground, the pilot beelined to the small airport office, anxious for any news. The day had grown hot, but Chum barely noticed. He needed water, but the news came first. Approaching a low, dark building, he heard a voice booming from a radio:

At dawn, with no provocation or declaration of hostilities, the German army has invaded Polish territory, ruthlessly violating the country’s national integrity. Intensive bombing attacks are at this moment raining death and destruction over the cities of Poznan, Wroclaw, and Danzig resulting in considerable casualties among innocent civilians . . .

“Hey, Coop,” Chum called, hailing the manager. “What’s all this about marching Germans?”

“Been waiting on you, Chum,” the man called Coop replied, turning down the news broadcast. “Got a cable here for you from Troy. And that breaking news is all too true, pal.” Coop gestured toward the radio with his thumb.

Mumbling thanks, Chum unsealed the telegram, tuning out the now-muted announcer. He read:

Finish Albuquerque demo. Then to Troy. Big meeting. Perry

“They want you back at the nest, I’d wager,” the manager said with a knowing expression.

“Yes. Yes they do. All hands on deck, as the saying goes.” Chum tried to smile.

“Jerry’s hit Poland hard,” Coop continued. “First their heavy bombers, then the tanks, then the army marching in. Poor Poles. They don’t stand a chance. Radio announcer called the attack blitzkrieg.”

The word didn’t click. “What’s a blitzkrieg?”

Coop replied in a dark voice, “Lightning war.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and at Amazon.com.

 

 

The American Gentry

 

Note: My students used to ask how the planter aristocracy convinced poor whites to fight in the Civil War. I think the answer lies in the power and position that the underclass envied and hoped to emulate.

Please permit me to reintroduce these four figures from America’s antebellum period.

Thomas Jefferson, best recognized as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the U.S., and the man behind the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803.

Andrew Jackson, the celebrated hero of the Battle of New Orleans, noted Indian fighter, and seventh president of the U.S.

John C. Calhoun; Congressman, turned Senator, from South Carolina, who served two separate administrations as Vice President.

Jefferson Davis, a former soldier in the Mexican War, one-time Secretary of War, and later President of the Confederate States of America.

All four of these men avidly pursued political careers, embraced the social norms of their era, and all hailed from the Old South.

Ironically if one found the courage to ask their occupation, none would have mentioned politics. Instead, to a man, all would have replied, “I am a farmer.”

To modern ears that curt answer feels a bit disingenuous and profoundly understated. However, in the early nineteenth century, exercising dominion over large tracts of land, and cultivating crops as far as the eye could see, was considered the most noble and honorable of pursuits. In keeping with carefully practiced manners, one politely, and tactfully left unmentioned, the reality that hidden among the hogsheads of tobacco, the bales of cotton, and bags of rice, there germinated a mightier harvest of exaggerated superiority, violent racism, and self deception.

The truth was these politicians were all slave masters; Lords of the Lash, who derived a living “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” (as Lincoln so eloquently described). These four also minimized the financial underpinnings which afforded each man’s elevated social standing; for any talk of the dark brutality behind their “greatness,” was simply not discussed in genteel society. Each cavalier capably hijacked, and effectively distorted  American virtues, such as the ideals of freedom and the social contract to suit their own ends.

No central power held any authority over their personal affairs and conduct.

The maestro of this sophistry was Thomas Jefferson. Proffered as the “Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson brilliantly articulated a vision of America where all lived freely, untouched by the outside world, upon private acres of liberty, immune from any overreaching government. Occasionally those noble scions of property did assemble together to establish necessary laws on general issues; infrastructure, property disputes . . . common needs beyond plantation boundaries. For Jefferson, his fellow planters were “natural aristocrats,” the only power qualified to decide what mattered most. Only this paternal elite knew best what constituted the common good for lesser members of the community.

After the regrettable passage of a clearly unconstitutional law, the Sedition Act in 1798, Jefferson jumped into action against the Adams administration, authoring a tract titled the “Kentucky Resolution.” This position statement, submitted to the Kentucky Legislature, introduced the concept of ‘nullifying’ Federal law. The idea was simple. If a majority of delegates, assembled in special convention, renounced this Federal statute, the law was rendered null and void within the state.

For the first time, in one pivotal moment, Jefferson’s insidious principle found its way into the fabric of American politics, but found no traction in surrounding states . . . at least not yet.

Away from public scrutiny, Master Tom held sway over some 600 slaves, and fathered six children by his deceased wife’s half-sister—a slave—Sally Hemings. According to plantation records meticulously scribed by “the Sage,” himself, regular whippings, especially of young male slaves were scheduled, performed, and unquestioned. Jefferson understood slave labor required obedience, and obedience was assured only through violence. Apologists have argued that Jefferson felt troubled by such practices, and attempted to lay blame in the nation’s colonial past. Yet, he did nothing meaningful to end this tortuous practice, even when he could. Emancipation would have simply been his ruin.

And it is that legacy of deception–Jefferson’s cries for personal liberty versus the cries of the enslaved–that shaped his politics. The human nightmare Master Tom inflicted on his people laboring upon his lands was nobody’s business but his—and Jefferson’s aristocratic peers shared that same view.

Andrew Jackson interestingly enough didn’t care for Thomas Jefferson. As a young Congressman, then Senator from Tennessee, Jackson realized he couldn’t remain seated through all that talking and rules of procedure required in law making. Jefferson, in return, thought the brash young man a tad impetuous and well, nuts. But both planters did share in the same world view, “What happens on my plantation stays on my plantation.” Jackson too, was a ferocious master who answered to no law, but his own. A merchant in both horse and slave trading, Jackson dueled any who questioned his honor, supervised cotton production on his fiefdom (The Hermitage) and eradicated indigenous peoples on lands Jackson saw as better suited for more cotton production.

To Jackson’s credit he did not attempt any pretense of civic virtue, or learned philosophy.

When elected in 1828, President Jackson exercised a different style. “Old Hickory” governed very efficiently without any of the political nonsense of protocol or formality.

Even Supreme Court reverses proved no obstacle. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation, et al, could remain on their ancestral lands in Georgia. Unimpressed by the judicial decision, Jackson cynically carried on ordering the military to remove the tribes from the state. The President knew the land in question was broad, and fertile; perfect for plantation crops. Plus gold discoveries in the same region put paid to the inevitable, accelerating a massive forced death march known as the Trail of Tears.

In another episode, Jackson, finding himself formally censured by the Senate (for vetoing the re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States) used his considerable influence to have that rebuke expunged from the Congressional Record. His overly exaggerated sense of honor demanded that Jackson demand that this official insult be eradicated.

In a candid moment Jackson later confessed his only regrets as president was not hanging the Senator behind the censure.

Jackson injected a petty impetuosity to national politics unrivaled until today’s shenanigans. And though Jackson’s enemies christened him “King Andrew I,” his unilateral style did not derive from any monarchical notions. Rather, the President’s conduct came from his background. Jackson was accustomed to being obeyed—he was Master Andrew, a member of the planter class.

Before Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina soured into a states’ right’s militant, his political outlook had been national in scope. With unusual clarity, young Representative Calhoun once confessed that slavery was a “necessary evil,” vital to South Carolina’s prosperity. Over time he married a wealthy Charleston cousin, elevating his standing and political authority in Southern society. Calhoun began renovations on Fort Hill, a plantation in the uplands of South Carolina, which, with his new wife, cemented his bona fides as a member the ruling class. This ambitious politician had truly arrived, assuming the role of gentleman, influential political figure, and a prominent slave master. Much like Monticello, Fort Hill was an ever-expanding operation, endlessly improved using the same teams of slaves that tended his fields.

However, in a series of unforeseen reverses beginning in 1828, Calhoun’s political prospects declined.

This self-made politician-planter coveted the highest office in the land. Calhoun had served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and viewed his ascendency to the White House a natural next step. Yet circumstances played out beyond his control. These events aren’t exactly pertinent to this essay, but look them up. Interesting stuff.

Bitter, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and returned to Fort Hill an angry man. His stance on slavery changed as well, leaving him vitriolic and defensive. Under increasing pressure from growing abolitionist criticism, Calhoun, speaking now for the entire South, adamantly insisted the institution was not evil, after all, but instead a ‘positive good.’

When a high import tariff was passed by Congress, Calhoun defiantly announced South Carolina would not collect this “Tariff of Abominations.” Moreover, the angry former Vice President organized a state convention to nullify (remember Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution?) the Federal law. With Calhoun’s newly minted militancy, the former Vice President defiantly stood his ground.

President Jackson did not suffer Calhoun’s impertinent challenge lightly. A another slave master, he bluntly threatened Calhoun in terms both “gentlemen” understood—the president personally guaranteed Calhoun’s thrashing. Fortunately this particular crisis was averted by cooler heads in Washington, postponing the curse of fraternal bloodshed for a later generation.

But the question of states’ rights, local control, and the sovereignty of the master class merely continued to boil. Nullification bloomed into full secession by 1861 after decades of discord. No longer did the planter class tolerate insults or challenges to their natural preeminence and power. South Carolina, (The deceased Calhoun’s home state) became the first of the eleven to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Delegates attending the state convention did not wait for the final electoral college results, to reject the victory of nationalist Abraham Lincoln as president. So enraged were these aristocratic lords, that Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot in most southern precincts.

I’ve added Confederate President Jefferson Davis to this piece because of his later role in perpetuating the genteel myth of the Southern aristocracy. After battles and bullets finally settled the supremacy of the Federal government, Davis, released from jail began a writing career. He penned first, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, followed later by A Short History of the Confederate States of America. In both of these works, Davis revisited the events leading to secession, briefly described in this essay.

Rehashing Constitutional debates from the Philadelphia convention, Davis insisted that the States existed before the Union, thus could leave whenever the Feds no longer acted on their behalf. Reiterating this view in both volumes, the defeated Secessionist defended the South’s righteous justification in standing up to tyranny. Davis repeatedly echoed the virtues of States’ Rights, nullification, and local political control. Sadly for our nation’s history, Jefferson Davis had not only the last word, but also the lasting spin on the creating the fictional myth of “The Lost Cause.” Oh, and this is significant—Jefferson Davis was a planter as well, the master of “Brierfield,” a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi before the onset of war.

For this student of history, the bandying about of terms like “States Rights,” “nullification,” and “secession,” coupled with an unending vilification of the Federal Government gives me pause. This fanciful yarn was only concocted as an appealing cover for a legacy of hubris, power, greed, hate, racial exploitation, and violence.

This essay closes with no examination of the State’s Rights’ issue in the Twenty-first Century. Modern history most certainly has much to lend, especially regarding the Civil Rights Movement. The point of this effort, rather, is to shed light on an enduring political influence. This lot is not only vibrantly alive, but has left a tradition of chaos, intransigence, and gridlock. And this crowd has no intention to cooperate or compromise.

And I must confess when Representative Joe Wilson, a defoliant-resistant sprout from South Carolina shouted, “You Lie,” to President Obama, on the occasion of his first State of the Union address, my Nationalist-leaning blood froze. Though no longer permitted to inflict public whippings, or issue challenges to duels; the outraged indignation of America’s antebellum period roared across the House Chamber. On that cold, historic, January night in 2009, the master’s voice thundered once again.

Gail Chumbey is the author of River of January.

Thanks for Noticing

“River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight” have garnered some recognition. Find out why today. Click this link www.river-of-january.com, and order your own copies, personally signed by the author.

Award winning history instructor, Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January and Figure Eight.