Vision

Along Highway 55, northwest of McCall, Idaho, is a stretch of road winding through breathtaking mountains.The terrain tinges a powdery blue, set against the white ribbon of lingering snow, and the Payette River flowing beside. This route isn’t fast, but the scenery more than compensates for the slow pace. 

After a steep descent the highway straightens revealing a number of cabins and trailers. Trump signs abound, (not unusual) along with flags emblazoned with Don’t Tread On Me or, the black, blue and, white version of the Stars and Stripes. In particular, this one double wide sits near the road, and passing that place always catches my eye. Cemented between the shoulder and gravel driveway stands a mailbox bearing the Confederate flag.

The irony of that particular symbol of defiance is, well, the actual Confederate mail system had completely broken down by the end of the Civil War. Any Rebel delivery between battle front and home was spotty, at best. In contrast, the Northern mail system saw remarkable advances. In light of the vast numbers of Union dead, the public listing of the deceased grew impossible. Affected families were allowed to endure the devastating news in private from their mailboxes.

That decorated mailbox along the highway strikes me as a metaphor for extreme politics. The US postal system or, any other federally funded service simply wouldn’t exist.

For example, the bridge those residents must cross to get to Boise is connected by a span built by agencies of FDR’s New Deal. The forest fires that seasonally threaten that little enclave, are fought through funds from the Department of the Interior. 

More national programs underscore the absurdity of that little loaf of painted aluminum. Flood control, WIC nutrition,Title 1 education funds, Medicare and Medicaid, all making life better for that little rural residence. 

The South lost the Civil War because the people and their leaders lacked both organization and vision. All these “dissatisfied countrymen” to use Lincoln’s words understood only grievance and fury. No sense of unity, even under the threat of defeat could, for example, force Georgia to send troops to General Lee in Virginia. 

The politics of simmering outrage is aimless and fruitless. Leaders who promote incendiary hogwash for their short-term gain leave followers riled, and dangerous, as the opportunists move on. 

Like on January 6, 2021.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author. Her works include “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Richer Than Myth

We all closed our eyes and directed to imagine a stage play. The lights dim to darkness and the curtains open revealing a maid busy at a fireplace feather dusting the mantel.

I dutifully shut my eyes envisioning white marble and busts of philosophers as the servant did her thing.The instructor asked us to further imagine the play’s star dramatically entering from the wings. She asked what would we do as an audience? Clap of course, because the story is about to begin.

Right?

And that dear reader is the model history educators have employed for eons. America was just waiting for white folks to appear, so the story could begin. The implication is that nothing of significance had yet happened. Just the maid dusting the mantel.

To accept that John Wayne or James Arness won the west is but a myth for films and television. American history in noway resembles an episode of The Waltons. The reality of the narrative, stripping away the fiction is much richer when including the whole story.

Mining and ranching customs in America are largely of Spanish origin. Standard size horses spread northward from Mexico as escapees from Hernan Cortes and other conquistadors. The rendezvous system came to be under the French, and their Huron fur-trading partners. From totems, to kivas, to longhouses indigenous people developed distinct cultures. New World foods like corn and potatoes conquered Europe, and African exploitation introduced American traditions in music, food and language.

In short, the story of America didn’t start with Plymouth Rock, nor Jamestown. It isn’t sunbonnet madonnas, bravely trudging west, or white hatted heroes saving the day.

No clear lines separate villains from heroes. If the myth makes you feel good, watch “Lonesome Dove,” or “The Alamo.” Keep in mind both are works of fiction. If it’s accuracy you’re after, crack a history book, or catch a Ken Burns documentary.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

No Fooling

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, 1964

“. . .the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Short run, or long run, popular beliefs seem to come and go. An idea that gains traction in one generation is frequently cast off with time and fresher understanding. The quality that sustains ideas must rest upon a moral high ground; an affirming principle.

Hear me out.

On April 12, 1861, the opening shots of Civil War thundered over Charleston Harbor. The South Carolina legislature had already voted to secede from the Union, and President Lincoln cautioned their action. Assuring Southerners he had no intention of interfering in state matters (slavery), Lincoln warned that rebellion was his business, and that fateful step rested solely in Southern hands. The President kept his word. 

However, once shots were fired on Fort Sumter, the Union rapidly mobilized. 

His policy had been a sound one. The Union prepared to defend the Constitution as South Carolina’s aggression had provoked righteous outrage. 

A century later President Lyndon Johnson attempted to orchestrate a similar scenario in Southeast Asia. In August of 1964, the American people were told North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired upon two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. There was no real evidence of the incident, apart from heavy weather and the distracting fog of war. From that event the United States began feeding ground troops to hold the line against Communism. Officially dated from 1959 until 1975, the Vietnam War expended 58,000 young men, and countless Vietnamese nationals.

Today Vietnam is a Communist country. Johnson’s gung-ho attempt backfired because his policy had been built on a lie. 

Likewise, George W Bush squandered world-wide goodwill after the attack on 911. With America in mourning from the terrorist assault on our soil, this president redirected righteous ire to the nation of Iraq. Afghanistan, where the actual culprits were hiding out, came later. 

In the end, nothing of value came from that lie, except uncorking anarchy in Iraq.

This last January another massive presidential lie duped hundreds into thinking an election had been stolen. No proof of the deception existed, because nothing sneaky happened. To the contrary, abundant truth refuted the the claim. 

A self-absorbed swindler convinced hundreds of followers to act upon his interests. Citizens mobilized themselves and attacked our nation’s Capitol. No proof, no moral high ground, no affirmation of our democratic system, just puppets exploited by a very sick man.

Mr Lincoln understood the power of truth.

Kindred Spirit?

Sen Henry Clay portrait (left of door.)

The word from a Kentucky acquaintance is Mitch McConnell fancies himself a Henry Clay scholar. That probably means little to most, but Senator Clay (1777-1852) nearly single-handedly held the US together, postponing Civil War for over 40 years.

With a name that epitomizes progress and compromise, it feels odd Mitch McConnell proclaims a kindred spirit in Senator Clay. This earlier Kentucky Senator bent over backwards to protect and promote the vitality of our young nation. 

Clay rolled up his sleeves and cultivated coalitions among his fellow law makers to keep the nation from fracturing. He orchestrated the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850; all of which threatened the Union. In fact, the Civil War erupted after Clay’s death as no other Senator demonstrated the talent and determination to keep Congress talking.

In the interest of full disclosure, yes, Henry Clay owned slaves. And yes, he believed in gradual emancipation as slavery proved antithetical to economic progress. His commitment to the survival of America drove his efforts, and Clay worked with political factions, even those he opposed.

McConnell does nothing. The now Minority Leader takes pride in doing nothing. Invoking Senator Clay is nothing more than cover for a vain and foolish politician to self-promote. Clay was no stubborn old fool who dug in his heels waiting to become obsolete. 

Henry Clay served his country, McConnell serves himself.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” and the stage play, “Clay.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Hysteria and Martyrs

I didn’t care what my students thought. Their opinions were no business of mine. That they knew how to express those ideas, using factual information, was my business.

To introduce point of view, and critical thinking a quick textbook analysis did the trick. In groups (I assigned) students researched various history texts to spot biases in the presentation of historic facts. 

Over the years, a collection of comped survey books had accumulated on my classroom shelf. I used them for my own preparation, but decided to teach the same techniques to the kids. The task was pretty simple. All groups were asked to look up the two same topics: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. They noted the title of the text, the authors, the publication date, and any particular word choices used to explain or describe each episode.

This was the first day of school, mind you, and holy cow the results rocked these 15-year-olds orderly world.

When each group reported their conclusions, skewed viewpoints abounded. In other words the same facts drew decidedly different conclusions.

One book blamed the Witch Trials on tensions stemming from continuous Native attacks. Another blamed simmering resentment over social class, inheritance disputes, and property ownership. Moldy grain was to blame according to the Prentice Hall book. The good people living north of Boston were tripping on ergot fungus, a hallucinogen spreading on damp wheat baked into bread.

Nearly all texts made use of the terms “fear,” and “hysteria.”

The John Brown case provided even more interesting results. If the book had been published before 2001, Brown generally came off a saint. If after, the language use grew more sinister. In pre-911 America, fighting slavery had a righteous, noble language, that justified the violence. Something to the effect that, in the name of the mighty Jehovah, Brown martyred himself to strike a blow against evil. By contrast, books published after the collapse of the Twin Towers dismiss Brown’s means as unfortunate, though slavery was still bad.

By the end of this exercise students often seemed flummoxed asking “who can we believe?” 

“Yourself, of course, and your analysis skills,” I always replied.

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

For more explanation on this lesson email at gailchumbley@gmail.com