Custodians of Now

Gratitude underpins America’s oldest quasi-secular holiday,Thanksgiving. In the 21st Century it is rather easy to scoff at a quaint observance that predates the founding of the country, and today’s America is a bit too cynical, busy, and self involved for meaningful reflection.

Separatists in 1621 Plymouth had risked all to worship freely in the New World. Suffering starvation and disease, the Mayflower survivors managed a successful harvest with the essential aid of local Natives. In an outpouring of gratitude the newcomers organized a potluck of sorts, and invited their benefactors to pause, count their blessings, savoring both the moment and the food.

General Washington announced a day of Thanksgiving after the fortuitous American victory over the British at Saratoga, and again after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Moments of mutual gratitude implied a common bond, and an acknowledgment of common sacrifice. 

Later, in 1863, America, once again, faced a crisis of unity.

A grisly Civil War had raged for two years, when emboldened Confederate forces crossed north into Pennsylvania. Soldiers of the Blue and the Gray clashed at the crossroads town of Gettysburg. After a three-day struggle, the tide shifted in favor of the Union, and soon after Confederate troops retreated back into Virginia.

In the aftermath, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, and shortly after called for a national day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln set aside Thursday, November 26th for the observance, calling for contemplation and gratitude. Later, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law a permanent observance of Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November. 

Aside from roasted turkey, televised parades, football, relatives, and tryptophan-induced naps, this day is meant for reflection; a national respite from other distractions. As Americans we remember those who struggled through their American moment, and refresh our personal obligation to our communities, and to our nation. 

Whatever spirit guides our personal devotion, on this day we place ourselves second to something much greater-the United States of America. We recommit to our highest aspirations as a fortunate and free people; a people who respect what came before, and resolve to protect our democracy for the future.

This Thursday remember we are the custodians of now, and unity is not easy with such diverse and noisy citizens. Still the responsibility remains, carried forward from earlier generations. We Americans have an obligation to nurture solidarity over discord, amity over selfishness. 

All Americans can resolve to preserve this hard-won gift of democracy to those not yet born.   

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. She has also completed the play, “Wolf By The Ears,” a historic look on the advent of American Slavery.


After World War One, the general feeling in America had shifted toward reactionary. The lofty ideals that brought America into the “War to End all Wars,” had vanished. Most Americans believed entering had been a colossal mistake, one never to repeat. Additional fear emerged from those war years, in the wake of 1917’s Russian Revolution. The Tsar had been murdered, and Bolshevism appeared a threat to American capitalism. 

Immigration, and revolutionary politics melded together solidifying an isolated, and intolerant America. 

Deep suspicion of foreigners, most poor and radical, reminded white, Protestant citizens of what they didn’t want. Nativist Americans did not welcome these newcomers, and isolationism settled across the county, governing public sentiment for two decades.

In this atmosphere a crime was committed. 

South of Boston, in 1920, two employees of a shoe factory were robbed and murdered. Soon after two Italian immigrants, self professed radicals were arrested. Their names were Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. 

Public sentiment weighed heavily against the pair, and a fair trial appeared unreachable. Once underway, guilt or innocence became irrelevant, the burden of proof centered on who these men were, not anything they had done. The Judge, Webster Thayer presided, and made clear right away he believed the two were guilty. For example, on a weekend train to a Boston golf course, Judge Thayer publicly  announced to all listening, both men were going to be executed. 

The trial took on a Star Chamber quality, riddled with doctored evidence, and perjury. 

Both defendants protested their innocence, but to no avail. Judge Thayer had made up his mind. Sacco and Vanzetti would die for who they were; Italian, radical, and Roman Catholic.

In 1927, seven years after the robbery and murder, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair.

By 1977 gun experts concluded that Vanzetti may have indeed been involved in the crime, but certainly not Sacco. Even so, both men did not receive a fair trial, and that stigma has become forever linked to the case.

Judge Bruce Schroeder, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, is currently presiding over the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Similarities to Sacco & Vanzetti are striking in that the judge, again makes no pretense of impartiality. 

This time the judge favors the defendant, and is making little effort to hide it. Those that Rittenhouse killed were shot protesting social injustice, but Judge Schroeder has instructed the jury not to consider the deceased as “victims.”

Politics today are running as hot as 100 years ago. The political discord is just as racially and politically fueled as when those two Italian immigrants were arrested in 1920. 

So little seems to have changed after a century. Though the whole Rittenhouse trial is visibly tainted and the world is again watching, Crabby Judge Schroeder, as with Judge Thayer, shows no awareness that this trial is inherently unfair. 

So the spectacle repeats, much as a 100 years ago; justice denied due to racism, hubris, fear, and intolerance. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Gail has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” on the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” a narrative of slavery.

Insulting The Past

The first time counter-factual history appeared in my teaching career happened at the beginning. The topic concerned the creation of the Constitution, and the era of the Early Republic. I introduced the three branches, and separation of powers, representation, census, and that type of basic information. Definitely the bare bones of civics. During that lesson I explained how Electors were determined, and role the Electoral College played in choosing the president. End of lesson. The following day the topic moved to ratification and the addition of the Bill of Rights. From out of nowhere a hand shot up, and an upset student blurted, “My dad says you’re a liar!”

Yep, a liar. 

That was my baptism into challenges to historic fact. That initial chill of censorship stopped me in my tracks. After that, the dangerous thought of editing the historic record to suit local politics never strayed far from my thoughts. It was the beginning of a concern that lasted throughout my career.

Fast forward 30 years to my winter years of history education, and another, similar event, repeated.

The topic was the Reagan Revolution, and the events surrounding those years. 

Students learned about the Evil Empire, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall,” Perestroika, Glasnost, Reaganomics, Laffer Curve, Trickle Down, or “Voodoo” Economics,” and Just Say No!  

In other foreign policy issues, Central America and the Middle East, stood out, particularly in El Salvador and Lebanon, involving mass murder in San Salvador, and kidnapping of westerners in Beirut. Finally, an explosion that killed 200 Marines marked Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon. 

The unit ended with Iran-Contra, and the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988.

The calls came the following day. “How could I teach such nonsense in a public school! My student came home and shared her notes, textbook and graphs. This is not right, Ronald Reagan is the beloved champion of conservatism!”

The principal called me in and wanted to know what caused the dust-up. Flustered, I didn’t know where to start. Quickly I explained the general outline of the unit, and, well, he didn’t have the time to listen to the factual details. And he shouldn’t have. He hired me to do that job.

The episode sort of blew over, though that parent did call me at home a number of times over that summer. Weird behavior for sure, like the dad couldn’t let it go. 

The past is a powerful harbinger that future presidents and policies have real-life repercussions. Truth matters. And in all honesty, I didn’t care what my students believed, they merely had to support those beliefs with evidence. But some patrons didn’t want those facts taught.

The matter became philosophical; either educators prepare kids for the path, or parents attempt to prepare that path for their kids.

Parents re-interpreting America’s stories to suit their political present, then foisting it on schools, does nothing less than insult those who came before, and highjacking America’s future. 

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. Chumbley has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration into American slavery.