My grandson. He inherits the promise that is America.
The military choir filed out of the Entrance Hall in a precise formation, trailed with a warm wave of applause. The President had enjoyed the evening performance, and bristled that no reporter had stayed to detail the concert for the public. “This is the kind of story real Americans would like to see on the news,” he complained, as he shook hands and chatted with departing well-wishers.
The grand chamber soon emptied and the White House staff swept in, quickly stacking chairs, breaking down risers, and disconnecting sound equipment. The President turned from the racket, and headed toward the white Doric columns separating the hall and staircase. And it was there, beside an alabaster column, that the President stumbled upon a most unexpected visitor.
Lounging against the smooth white marble leaned a tall, lanky gentleman dressed in an antiquated silk dressing gown, white hose, and embroidered slippers. The man cooly assessed the stunned President.
“Are you familiar with the story of John Peter Zenger” the intruder murmured in a soft drawl.
“Why are you still here? The entertainment left that way,” the President snapped, thumbing toward the side entrance.
“Zenger, a German immigrant, edited and printed a newspaper in New York,” the visitor continued, calmly shifting his position against the pillar. “Zenger had published an unflattering editorial of New York’s Colonial Governor, and the testy royal had the journalist jailed, charged with libel.”
The President, annoyed by the imposition, wanted to hurry up the stairs to his living quarters, but his legs remained stubbornly rooted in place.
“Well, that Zenger character deserved it, he barked, unable to control his tongue. “Reporters need to watch what they write, and who they offend—like me. I’m the President, and they say terrible things about me, all lies and more lies.”
The tall figure crossed his arms and looked evenly at the President. “A jury of Zenger’s peers acquitted him, opining that if truth was stated, there is no libel,” the stranger subtly smiled. “That particular case established freedom of the press in this country, a principle I later insisted appear in the Bill of Rights.”
“Do you understand how much I could accomplish if . . .”
The apparition spoke quietly over the President. “I, too criticized a president bent on stifling free expression” the visitor thoughtfully paused. “President John Adams supported passage of the Sedition Act in 1798 to silence critical voices such as mine.”
The oddly dressed gentleman began drifting through the pillars into the Entrance Hall, as if floating on a sudden breeze. Unwillingly, the President followed. “I’m particularly fond of this room,” the visitor whispered, “it was the only finished room in my time.”
“The press wants to destroy my administration,” this time the President spoke over his visitor. “With their unlimited snooping, the constant leaks, and the treasonous things they say about me on cable tv.”
The apparition appeared indifferent to the President’s complaints. “A particular writer, James Callender, cast enough aspersions upon Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Adams, that he found himself jailed under the Sedition Act. Once I moved into this House, I pardoned Callender, and hired him to again take up his poison pen.” The spirit seemed sadly amused, “when I refused to appoint Callender to a government post, his pen turned full force upon me, exposing my deepest, most safeguarded secret.”
“The Sedition Act. I like that,” the President beamed, indifferent to the visitor’s revelation. “What’s the matter with my lawyers. They never told me we have that law.”
Instantly the apparition jutted his face directly into the startled President’s. “You must not respond,” he breathed. “You must ignore what is written and reported regarding your administration. Never, never challenge the freedom of the press, to do so diminishes the office of chief executive, exposing you as petty and small.”
“But the Sedition Act says . . .” the President squeaked, unnerved.
“Is unconstitutional,” the visitor finished the sentence. “I, too, resented what appeared in the press, besmirching my personal life, and my family. However, I resolutely remained aloof to the reports. And so must you.”
The visitor began to sound weary, worn by the conversation. “I once stated that if I had to choose among the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment, I would preserve Freedom of the Press. With that liberty secure, all others are assured.
As the visitor finished his statement, he lifted his eyes to some mysterious point above, and vanished.
Dismayed by the experience, the President scrambled up the stairs.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.
The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that exists only in the opportunistic vacuum of political rhetoric, wishful thinking, and hubris. If exploited as the only answer to problems, remember States’ Rights have never solved a thing. Not in this country. Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority hums along with state and local governments. This has been the way America has sustained itself for over two hundred years.
The American Civil War comes to mind as the most lethal challenge to centralized authority. But that conflict was certainly not the first.
Years before, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the states, designed a national government titled the Articles of Confederation.
Much like building a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 attempted to forge a national government to face the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 proved rather toothless in operation. The fatal flaw penned into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Every state mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce obedience, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress couldn’t even ratify this document until the end of the war.
The biggest sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. Clinging to previous royal charters, Virginia and New York, for example, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands could have helped offset the expenditures of war. Congress, nearly bankrupt, and with no real clout, could do little while soldiers suffered. Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from a scarcity of provisions grew so dire General Washington fretted that “the game was nearly up.”
All that while Congress drifted, wringing their hands, begging for loans, and printing worthless paper money.
Worse, states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with English occupiers, filling their personal coffers in British pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked increasingly dim, the states still stubbornly defended their own turf.
Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real clout, inevitable bloodshed quickly followed among the thirteen jealous, quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over negotiable currency nearly crippled the nascent country.
In that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. In reality, both men intended to completely abolish them as a last ditch effort. With the approval of General Washington, a new convention in fact assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied much of the ills of the struggling nation.
This lesson from the past remains relevant. We are better together than alone. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal cost of road construction, nor of fire fighting. Recent Covid-19 policies have proven the futility, and folly of every state for themselves.
This lesson is as relevant today as in 1787.
E Pluribus Unum
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle or at http://www.river-of-january.com.
The man in the portrait is mid-19th Century Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
A fierce opponent of slavey, Sumner delivered a scathing speech titled, “The Crime Against Kansas,” denouncing the proposed addition of a new slave state from Nebraska Territory. After his two-day denunciation of the “peculiar institution” the Senator was beaten in the Senate chamber, nearly to death, by a defender of slavery.
This symbol of slavery, waved by a domestic terrorist is especially repulsive.
And this Judas has no idea.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available at http://www.river-of-january.com, or on Kindle.
Are the awful events of these last twelve months a once-off, bad patch of misfortune? Or is there a deeper explanation for the emergence of Trump, Covid, economic disaster, and civil unrest?
American History is steeped in a collection of pivotal moments, episodes that molded the nation’s continuing path. Can the events of 1776 stand alone as a turning point, or of 1865?
A long metaphoric chain links one scenario to the next, marked by momentary decisions, government policies, or beliefs, that surface at one point in time, and voila, America’s story fleshes out to the future.
Add chance circumstances to the narrative and predictability flies out the window.
Does 2020 stand alone as a singular event, or an inevitable outcome seeded somewhere in the past? Surely the march of history can be much like a chicken-egg proposition.
Mention 1776 and thoughts gravitate to the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the emergence of General George Washington. But that struggle for freedom actually began at the end of the French and Indian War.
As for 1865, when the guns silenced at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E Lee’s surrender affirmed America as a nation-state. But thirty years earlier, President Andrew Jackson’s administration had sparked the eventual war over the issue of slavery. Thinly disguised as the doctrine of states’ rights, the intractable argument of slavery festered. The “Peculiar Institution” is, was, and always be the cause of that bloodbath. In point of fact the fury of one man, John C Calhoun, South Carolina Senator, and former vice president, lit the fuse of war thirty years before Fort Sumpter.
As to the folly of Trumpism, arguably the roots are deeply burrowed in America’s collective past. Author, and historian Bruce Catton, wrote about a “rowdyism” embedded in the American psyche. Though Catton used that term in the context of the Civil War, his sentiment still resonates in the 21st Century, i.e., Proud Boys, and the like.
Closer to today, the Cold War seems to have honed much of the Far Right’s paranoia. The John Birch Society, for example, organized in the late 1950’s escalating anti-Communist agitation. Senator Joe McCarthy rode to fame on that same pall of fear, (with Roy Cohen at his elbow) only to fail when he went too far.
But the presidential election of 1964 seems to mark the most distinct shift toward the defiant opposition that fuels Trump-land.
Vietnam, in 1964 had not blown up yet. JFK had been murdered the previous fall, and his Vice President, turned successor, Lyndon Johnson was the choice of a grieving Democratic Party. The GOP fielded four major candidates in the primaries: three moderates and the ultra conservative, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Senator Goldwater gained the nomination that summer with help from two men, conservative writer Richard Viguerie and actor Ronald Reagan.
Viguerie broke political ground through his use of direct mailing, and target advertising (what today is right wing news outlets). Reagan, once a New Deal Democrat, crossed the political divide and denounced big government in “The Speech,” delivered on behalf of Senator Goldwater. These two men believed Conservatism, and Laissez Faire Capitalism had been wrongly cast aside for liberal (lower d) democratic causes.
Their efforts struck a cord with legions of white Americans who felt the same resentment. The Liberal Media and Big Government from the Roosevelt years were Socialistic and anti-capitalistic. No urban problem, or racial strife or poverty appeared in their culdesacs or country clubs. And taxes to support Federal programs squandered and wasted personal wealth.
So many other issues shaped the modern New Right. Communism, the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and progressive politics alienated the wealthy class.
But here’s the rub. Ultra conservative ideology is unworkable, an ideal that awards only a small, exclusive few, (today’s 1%). So 2020, and 2016 both have roots running deep in the core of the American experience.
2020 isn’t about this moment, not really.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. Also the stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears” (the second in progress.)