Quebec City 1939

The following is an excerpt from “River of January: Figure Eight, available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

Costumed in tall Hussar caps and military jackets resplendent with gold brocade, the skaters stood expectantly in their V-shape formation in the shadows. Helen, arms twined around the skaters beside her, shivered from a combination of excitement and the frigid draft wafting from the ice. Her ears thudded, inundated by the echoing din from the impatient audience. Much louder than a theater, she thought.

Vera Hruba—a Czech Olympian who was one of the three women headliners in the new production—was positioned at the apex of the V. When the last measures of the orchestra’s overture faded to a close, the house lights darkened and the expectant spectators fell silent. With a commanding flourish, the opening bars of a military march surged to all corners of the house. Spotlights swept over the glittering skate line as Helen pushed off with her left foot, in sync with the tempo. Following two more beats, Hruba burst from the crux of the and raced the circumference of the rink, spotlights holding tight to her revolutions. The audience roared their appreciation in waves of echoing applause. Helen’s first ice show had begun.

If rehearsals were any gauge, Helen was confident the show would be a success. The chorus line often lingered along the rail, chatting and stretching, as they waited for the director to call them onto the ice. “That’s Vivi-Anne Hulten. She’s Swedish,” Clara Wilkins whispered, leaning in, as she and Helen studied the soloist on the ice. “She’s been skating since she was ten,” Clara added, as Hulten executed a perfectly timed waltz jump. “Boy, that little Swedish meatball knows her footwork.” The girls standing nearby murmured in awed agreement.

Chestnut-haired Lois Dworshak sprinted past the attentive chorus line. Helen glanced again at her well-informed friend and Clara didn’t disappoint. “She, Lois there, is a bit of a prodigy. She skated a little as a kid in Minnesota, but hasn’t actually skated professionally all that long. She’s good too, huh?”

“Jeepers, you can say that again,” Helen muttered.

“But the real story in this cast is Vera Hruba.” This time, it was May Judels, the head line skater standing next to Eileen, who spoke up. All eyes shifted toward May. “Vera met Hitler, just like Sonja Henie did, at the Olympics in Berlin. She finished her freestyle routine and came in pretty high, I think. Vera didn’t medal or anything, but still skated a pretty good program.”

“So what happened?” asked another girl, Margo.

“Hitler says to her, ‘How would you like to skate for the swastika?’ And Vera—she doesn’t much like Germans—told him she’d rather skate on a swastika!” Heads turned in unison, watching as Vera completed a flying camel. “So”—May sighed—“to make a long story longer, Vera and her mother left Prague in ’37 as refugees. Then the Huns marched in, and Hitler made a public statement that Vera shouldn’t wear Czech costumes or skate to Czech folk songs. He said Czechoslovakia was gone, never to rise again. Vera responded, saying she’d always be a Czech and that Hitler could, in so many words, go fly a kite.”

“Their own little war . . . now that’s guts,” Helen said, her eyes returning to center ice. “Makes Henie seem like even more of an apple polisher.”

“A swastika polisher,” Margo corrected, as the director motioned the giggling chorus to center ice.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

Splendid Little War

1374687_orig.jpg

Precise beginnings to recognizable endings, that is how American wars are recorded and remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in sequential order from the opening salvos, to the tense calm of ceasefire. And this arrangement has worked well for classrooms, historical fiction, television documentaries, and films. Still this approach has its limits, failing to consider the intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the stage for the next war. Here is an example from the past that isn’t commonly recalled—The Spanish American War (1898).

The island of Cuba blazed in revolt. Throughout the 1890’s local freedom fighters, including Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez, struggled to end 400 years of Spanish conquest. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels monopolized banner headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst mobilized their own forces, dispatching droves of journalists to the war-torn island.

Reporters soon filed embellished, sensationalized stories, and circulation quickly boomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington sailed to Havana, promptly cabling his boss that he had found no war. Hearst famously, and cynically countered, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”

The resulting flood of salacious, skewed features gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t trouble these news editors, they were too busy raking in profits. American newspaperman also found assistance in the Cuban rebels themselves. Ensuring that America would intervene in the struggle, Cuban insurgents torched acres and acres of American-owned cane fields. Absentee-American sugar planters, losing revenues, railed for war, accosting McKinley to act. 

As the last US President to have experienced battle, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into another armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. Jingoists like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded immediate action.

Still McKinley hesitated, understanding, what the young could not. A veteran of the Civil War, the President grasped the real cost of war, measured in blood, treasure, and humanity. Nonetheless, following the sinking of the US gunboat “Maine,” moored in Havana harbor, the President relented, and the Spanish American War began.

In the years that followed, the President’s worst fears were more than realized.

Characterized as a “Splendid Little War,” this conflict, contested at the dawn of the 20th Century, reaped endless bounty for mainland business interests.

The US annexed: Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Guam, and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific.

To many, this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The pace of American factories to produce goods far outstripped domestic consumption. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and in turn secured further demand. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t move quickly Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.

However, expansionist quickly faced an unexpected moral and legal dilemma. Were the native people living in these newly-American owned possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow mainland custom, and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy provided no guideline, as islanders were in the majority, not residing in small, isolated pockets. 

The Supreme Court soon obliged and settled this legal predicament. In a series of Court opinions beginning in 1901, the Insular Cases established a principle that despite America’s authority over island people, they could expect no civil protections. Essentially the Court ruled that “Rights don’t Follow the Flag.” 

In the aftermath, Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, decorum prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be set free–too much had been expended in the conflict, and Cuba was too valuable.

In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a US military installation at Guantanamo Bay, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment, authorizing extended American control of Cuban affairs.

In the far Pacific, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands, rather than granting Filipino independence. This decision backfired triggering a bloody, colonial uprising. American Marines hunted resolute guerrilla insurgents in sweltering Filipino jungles; both sides perpetrating horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). American businessmen had designs on nearby China, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels. 

The US soon plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business and political interests demanded an equal share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded into another bloody revolt, the Boxer Rebellion.

Young Chinese outraged by foreign exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, opium addiction, and western missionaries insisting on ‘saving’ the Chinese became too much. In the three year struggle 100,000 perished, foreign and Chinese.

In the end, there is no end. The hunger for colonies quickened into a global frenzy. An international arms race ensued, navies competing to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever low fruit remained. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and to Africa.

By 1914 the strain of fierce rivalry reached critical mass, engulfing first Europe, and then America into the horror of the First World War.

Beginnings and ends work in placing historic events, but with war there is only an endless sweeping pendulum.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

Peer Review #2

Strutting through the broad, reflecting doors, beneath the black and gold insignia of his building, the President acknowledged well wishers, reporters, and staff. Happy to be back in New York, he looked forward to his familiar apartment and comfortable bed. The President felt it a hardship to live in such an old structure in Washington, though the prestige made it tolerable.

He aimed directly to the elevator, his closest aids and Secret Service agents in tow. The Chief Executive marched into the lift, with a triumphant gait, gracing photographers with a last thumbs up, as the gilt doors sealed.

Soon enough, the elevator car slowed to a silent halt, the opening doors revealing an opulent penthouse. His entourage emptied first into the golden rooms, Secret Service staff sweeping for any dangers that might threaten the Commander in Chief. After the officers cleared the master bedroom, the President loosened his tie, slipped off his suit jacket and kicked off his designer shoes. Exhaling onto his grand bed, a sudden movement caught his eye.  

A tall man, of regal bearing stood by the window, surveying Midtown from on high. Attired in a blue uniform, trimmed with buff lapels and cuffs, the man’s hair looked powdery white, and was bound in a queue at the nape of his neck. 

Stunned, gasping at this extraordinary vision, the President froze, too astonished and frightened to speak.

“I’m very fond of New York,” the officer began. “During the War for Independence I remained in the vicinity waiting to reclaim it from British occupiers.” He glanced at the frightened man, now burrowing under his bedclothes. “As Chief Executive, I served both terms of office here in New York.”

The President could hear his heart pounding, and idly worried about his blood pressure.

“I, too, struggled with temptation,” the officer continued. In my youth I pined for the advantages of the wealth that surrounded me.” The apparition glanced at the President. “Land, military rank, social standing, . . . these were the empty ambitions I embraced as valuable.”

The President began to feel his heart rate slow, the adrenaline somewhat dissipating, and found the courage to speak. “Ho, . . . how did you get in here?” 

But the soldier did not reply, turning again toward the view of Manhattan. 

“Over time, particularly once the war commenced, I discovered my assumptions slowly crumbling. The sacrifices endured by the fine men in my command taught me that there were more important ideals than fleeting treasure,” the specter sighed, emotion enforcing his revelation. “You must realize,” the officer turned again toward the President, eyes blazing with conviction, “all a man truly possesses is reputation. In the end, that is all that matters!” 

Dread again filled the President, clutching tightly his golden comforter, but finding no comfort. He wished the apparition gone, praying with all his might that a staffer would hear and rescue him.

“You must understand,” the visitor continued, “I, too, struggled to master my avarice and envy. It was through a determined practice of self-restraint, a mastering of my baser desires, that I learned to be of service to more than myself.” The soldier paused a moment, studying the frightened man grasping his bedding. “Did you know that Article Two in the Constitution was written for me?” 

Hearing this, the President forgot his fear for a moment. 

“For you?” he managed to murmur. 

“When I relinquished my command after the war, and returned to my home in Virginia, Congress judged my character upright. In truth I was weary, lonely for my family, and yearning for a peaceful life,” the General smiled sadly. “However, when I gave up power I earned honor, trust—a good name—and contentment.”

“Why are you bothering me? You should leave,” the President moaned, wishing he had flown instead to Florida. But his visitor seemed not to hear. 

“When the Constitutional Convention set to work, only one day was devoted to defining the role of president. One day,” the visitor repeated. “You see, the delegates wanted no more of arbitrary rule, believing only those of good character would occupy the office.” The apparition looked directly at the President,”

“Please go,” the President whimpered. “I’ll call my men . . .”

The General interrupted, “they are not yours, Sir. And therein lies the problem, and the purpose of my visit.” The soldier frowned deeply. “These deputies work for the American people, as do you, sir. The presidency is a position of service and trust.” He paused. “We have all noted your general deficiency in this aspect.”

“We all?” gasped the President, concerned with his pumping heart.

The General approached the vast bed, the President shrinking deeper with each step. “The President is entrusted with formidable powers, that must not be mishandled. In this you have fallen short.”

“As I am remembered in the annals of America for quiet dignity and fidelity to country, you will only be recalled as a moneychanger who profited from foreigners and plutocrats.”

A knock at the bedroom door startled the cocooned President, breaking the spell. His elaborate, golden bedroom was empty.

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

I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

th

A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight a two-part memoir. Available on Kindle

Peer Review #1

Guards manned the numerous doorways along the wide hallway, as clusters of tourists gradually progressed through the storied, color-coded rooms. Upstairs the President listened to the public commotion with satisfaction, not for the house, not for the job, which, in truth, had become tiresome, but for the knowledge he could drop down and set all their bourgeois hearts aflutter. 

After a moment, he made his decision, slipping down an interior stair case, planning to surprise a group lingering inside the regal, oval-shaped Blue Room. While his hands automatically smoothed his hair, the President emerged, sidling up beside a class of fidgety school children restlessly whispering and snapping cell phone pictures.

“And who are you?,” the president teased with pleasure, anticipating their rambunctious joy.  The president half closed his eyes, and paused, waiting for the gratifying response to erupt.

But he heard nothing.

Bemused, the President opened one eye, then the other. The chatty children paid him no mind, in fact were moving away, following their guide out into the hallway.

“Wait,” he found himself calling. “It’s me, the President. I’m here.”

He repeated, “The President of the United States is here.”

But the children didn’t hear, deserting him in the Blue Room, his hair acceptably smooth.

He didn’t understand and he thought very hard, searching for a rational explanation for the children’s indifference to his surprise appearance. Very soon it occurred to the President that the room had remained empty, no visitor had entered, though streams passed by the doorway. 

He remained unnoticed and alone.

It was at that moment that he heard a voice, quite near, and quite annoyed. 

“Am I to understand you are a New Yorker?” 

The President wheeled around toward the sound. Before him, no more than an arm’s length away stood a mustachioed gentleman, wearing pinz nez spectacles across the bridge of his nose, and sporting a shining top hat. The man’s eyes blazed behind the thick round lenses, and the astonished President detected a trickle of cold sweat trace down the back of his thick neck. He had no words.

“I say, are you, or are you not, a New Yorker?” The stern man inquired in a nasally, patrician voice.

“Ahem. How did you get in here,” the President demanded. “Where are my guards?”

“Supercilious pup,” the man in the top hat shouted. “They tell me that YOU are from New York, and are president! A common side show huckster, President.”

The President, though frightened and confused, replied reflexively, “I’m in real estate. I made my fortune in New York real estate.” Only the muffled din of passing tourists kept the President from panic.

“Real Estate!” The man in spectacles scornfully shouted. “I’d say you are another scoundrel from the wealthy criminal class. Swindlers like you are a dime a dozen in New York City. I made a career of exposing rascals like you.” 

The man, attired in a three-piece suit, a watch fob draping his ample waist, bore a deep scowl. “But you found your way into this office of trust. Intolerable.”

Though bewildered, the President, unaccustomed to such personal insults, felt his pique rising. “I was elected President by the largest margin in American Hist . . .”

“Poppycock,” the specter interrupted. “It is my understanding the decision rested upon a mere tilt in the Electoral system, and that foreigners interfered to make certain of your victory.” 

The strange visitor moved closer. “I’d say that you are a compromised puppet of outsiders, and give not one damn for the American people.”

At this point the President had heard enough, and tried to move his legs. He wanted very much to escape the Blue Room, and this disquieting figure who seemed scornfully unimpressed by his importance. 

“i have things to do, you need to go,” the President announced, trying to sound more assured than he felt.

The apparition narrowed his intense eyes, and took another step toward the unnerved President. 

“I claim more authority to this House and Office than your mercenary greed could ever comprehend. You belong with Tweed, Plunkitt, Fisk, Conkling, and the rest of New York’s good-for-nothings. You have brought dishonor to the Presidency, with your womanizing, graft, and unsavory business connections.” The fierce apparition fixed an intense, menacing gaze. “You do not belong here, with your procession of lackeys and opportunists. Shame and chagrin will mark your place in the history of this great residence.”

Suddenly the sound of foot traffic grew louder, and when the President again glanced toward his unwelcome visitor, he found him gone, the Blue Room empty.

Alarmed by what he had experienced, the President escaped up the stairs to the second floor.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-volume memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle.

Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com

A Fine Day


Washington at the Second Continental Congress

An anxious boy, George Washington began life in the formal, orderly Virginia Tidewater. Born the first son of a second marriage, young Washington looked up to his older half brothers blessed with solid social standing and a full inheritance. In particular, George held dear, brother Lawrence, an English educated captain in the British Navy. Lawrence exemplified George’s ideal of the perfect English gentleman, and the younger man suppressed, (poorly) an ardent hunger to be a gentleman, too.

Self-conscious, young George flailed around for a vocation. He first trained as a surveyor, platting out western lands in service to the wealthy, then studying military science and joining the Virginia militia. Tall and strong, with a talent for numbers and tactics, Washington performed well in both pursuits.

Dispatched by the Royal Governor of Virginia into the hinterlands of the Ohio Valley Washington ignited the French and Indian War, by clashing with French forces near, what is today, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Promised rank by a British General, Washington looked to realize his most fervent wish—to become a bonafide English gentleman. However, the general was killed, and Washington blamed for the disasters on the frontier. Humiliated by the experience, Washington returned home.

In the years after Britain’s final victory over the French, Washington inherited Mt Vernon after the loss of his beloved Lawrence, then married widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. With his grand house and wealthy bride, Washington’s status in the Tidewater rose considerably. Still ambitious, Washington ran for office, serving first in the House of Burgesses then as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. 

Under increasingly punitive British rule, Washington and many others grew resentful of discriminatory treatment. By the time of the Second Continental Congress, Washington attended in a uniform of buff and blue, telegraphing his availability to lead, if necessary, on the field of battle.

It was during the Revolutionary War, particularly at the battle Princeton, that Washington transformed, became something different, someone better. As his troops flushed redcoats out of the New Jersey town, he is said to have exclaimed, “It is a fine day for a fox hunt, my boys.” In that moment George Washington discovered a cause greater than any gentleman could attain, something worth dying for. Majesty did not reside in Royal favor or rank. Rather nobility lay in an idea—that a people could do something grand, and never before attempted—freely govern themselves. Washington grasped that outside trappings meant nothing, if unaccompanied by noble principles. 

Those who assess General Washington with shallow, superficial values have missed the meaning of the man’s life and distinction. It’s a pity that those who seem to know the price of everything understand the value of nothing. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Symmetry

Roger B Taney

This reactionary-looking fellow is Marylander Roger Brooks Taney, a Jackson appointee to the Supreme Court. Justice Taney is best remembered for his dreadful ruling Scott V Sandford in 1857.  

Taney had consistently telegraphed his views on slavery by repeatedly insisting that blacks had no rights white people were bound to respect. Before his appointment to the bench, a free black had requested documents for overseas travel that Roger Taney as Attorney General disregarded quickly. He reiterated his position that blacks were not citizens, nor ever could be, and the request was denied.

Another important event in this story concerns the Missouri Compromise, passed much earlier in 1820. This legislation had directed that, except for the new state of Missouri, slavery could only exist south of Missouri, ostensibly to the Pacific Ocean. Most Americans hoped that this Missouri Compromise Line would hold forever, clearly defining in perpetuity, slave from free territory. However, time and Roger Taney soon made that a forlorn hope.

By the time the Scott case reached the Federal docket, violence and blood had burned across the Kansas prairie. Kansas settlers were slated to vote upon the fate of slavery in their state constitution, but invading pro-slavery Missouri Ruffians attacked Free-state Jayhawkers sparking a mini Civil War across the region. Unrepentant slaveholders demanded their 5th Amendment property rights, meaning their slaves were allowed in any region in the country. At the same time, equally fervent opponents of slavery contended the “peculiar institution” would remain where it existed, never to pollute new territories, or America’s future.

Justice Taney took umbrage at these incessant attacks on slavery, and at those Northern rabble rousers who would not respect the law. When the Scott case entered deliberations, it appears Taney intended to settle the question for all time, and silence those meddling, self righteous Yankees. When the Court issued its ruling in 1857, Justice Taney’s opinion rang out with authority, clarity, and finality.

  1. Despite Dred Scott residing in free territory for a time, he was still a slave.
  2. As a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen and had no standing in court.

With those two main points established, Taney could have stopped, but the Chief Justice had some venom to add.

3) Congress had exceeded its authority in legislating the Missouri Compromise in 1820, rendering it unconstitutional. Slavery could not be restricted by boundary lines or by popular vote. Property was protected by law.

Believing he had settled the crisis, Justice Taney had, in fact, only stoked a far more massive fire.

Indeed war erupted within four years of Taney’s decision, blazing for another bloody four years. In the aftermath, in an interesting turn of symmetry, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, reversed all of Taney’s arguments, provision by provision. 

  1. By virtue of birth in the United States, one was a citizen. 
  2. As a citizen a person was due all rights and immunities, with equal protection under the law. 

This amendment reads as if the Scott Decision acted as a template for reversal.

Fast forward to 2008. 

In a conscious effort to mirror the events of fellow Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural, Barack Obama’s installation as chief executive deliberately followed the 1861 sequence. The Obamas rode the same train route, breakfasted on the same food inauguration day, and when the moment came for the swearing in, President Obama selected the same Bible as touched by Abraham Lincoln’s right hand.

In a last twist of symmetry the Bible belonged to Justice Roger B Taney.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle. Hard copies can be ordered at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com