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

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