Strains between the North and South reached critical mass in the mid-19th Century, provoked by the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. A mere month later, on December 20th, 1860, the South Carolina legislature reacted by voting to secede from the Union. By Spring, 1861, the Confederate States of America solidified, and in April cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor, triggering fraternal war.
How in the world did the slave-holding planter class persuade the mass of their social inferiors, those they most held in contempt, to fight and die for this so-called “glorious cause?”
The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. People from the lower rungs aspired to rise in this tightly prescribed Southern caste system. Planters set the standard of ideal gentility, and few were permitted entry. A small middle class of land holding farmers and city merchants, aimed to climb as well; complete with acquiring their own slaves, and exert influence over others. Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed the broadest class of poor whites, those who precariously scratched out some kind of desperate existence from what was left.
Widespread contempt for this hardscrabble class was evident by pejoratives that are still around today. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, and later hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.
Back in that era, the incentive for most meant land ownership, with it a higher social standing, and ownership of a few slaves to call their own.
Generally speaking, the Old South distrusted the outside world; foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, suffragettes, or anyone who might upset the strict sectional code. The consequences for the region were profound. While the world moved forward, innovated, and modernized, southern society remained stuck, ruled by fossilized reactionaries, who were quick to defend the status quo.
Outside moral judgement over this antiquated society galvanized most in the South. Outraged and insulted, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend their system and interests, despite any real prospect of upward mobility, nor any mixing of social rank.
Dear modern GOPers, wherever you may reside, party leadership does not wish to serve you. Candidates want your money and your vote to serve themselves. They are happy to scapegoat whatever minority, or public institution, you wish. (Not to mention piling it on the poor for good measure). But you serve them, this dynamic is designed to move upward, delivering cash and power to the top.
In short, you’ve been played by your chosen betters.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available 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.)
If you feel like contacting your Republican Senators copy and paste this one. Tweak it for your own state and issues.
Donald Trump’s stubborn refusal to face the reality of his election loss is as dangerous an assault on our nation as 911, and much more damaging than Pearl Harbor.
This election fiasco flies in the face of American traditions. General Washington sacrificed much of his personal happiness to found our nation. As America’s first president, he placed our republic above any personal comfort, and Washington’s legacy bears that out. When his officers suggested he take the reins of power, the general declined and went home to Mt Vernon.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln preserved what Washington had begun, our Union. And though it cost him his life, the United States was Lincoln’s primary concern.
Both men, a founding father, and the savior of the Union, counted their interests as secondary, because America mattered more than any one man. Now, through a series of events, that responsibility has fallen to you. The GOP majority in the Senate can end this assault on our heritage, and you can make that happen.
Your forebears would be proud.
The Republican Party came into being on a noble, decent premise. It is the Party of Lincoln, not a lout from Queens.
*Please don’t patronize me with excuses.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.
Many of us have read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and/or watched the films. The author created a wondrous world of spells, incantations, and even included law and order via three unforgivable curses.
There are guardrails in this tale, and a bit of a messiah storyline. Harry willingly sacrifices himself, as had his parents and many others before. However, the “Boy Who Lived,” does, and returns to fight and vanquish wickedness.
Love, too, permeates the storyline, and the righteous power of good over evil.
But that’s not my take.
As a career History educator I came to a different conclusion; Harry Potter told me that failing to understand our shared past can be lethal. And that was the metaphor I preached to my History students.
Harry rises to the threat and defends all that is good and valuable in his world. If he didn’t, Harry could have been killed and his world destroyed.
It’s so apropos at this moment in our history to grasp our collective story as Americans.
Honest differences within the confines of our beliefs is one thing. Obliterating the tenants of democracy is quite another.
Americans cannot surrender our country to this would-be dictator, the things that have cost our people so dearly. Freezing soldiers at Valley Forge did not languish to enable DJT to trademark his brand to hotels, steaks or a failed university. The fallen at Gettysburg, and the suffering in Battle of the Bulge was not to pave the way for DJT to get us all killed from a ravaging plague. The girls who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the miners murdered in the Ludlow Massacre, or humiliated Civil Rights workers beaten at the Woolworth’s lunch counter was not for Donald Trump to validate racism and sexism and undo labor laws.
He doesn’t know our nation’s history, and as George Santayana warned us, we are condemned to sacrifice all over again.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.
Just My Imagination, Running Away With Me.
*Whitfield & Strong
The President fumed, crushing buttons on his cell phone, as if each tab detonated an explosion. On the big screen Wolf Blitzer, voice flat and controlled, droned on how the President continued to lag in the polls.
“Fake news,” he muttered out of habit, and switched the channel.
Perched on the edge of an upholstered armchair, he clutched his remote in one hand, and his cellphone in the other, seething at the unfairness of the coverage.The broadcast cut to a political commercial; a carefully spliced montage of his public faux pas, ending with an endorsement from his adversary.
“Ukraine,” he muttered, “Got to talk to Mitch and Kevin about a new Ukraine investigation.”
“You cannot coerce them, you know.” The voice came from behind. “The people. They cannot all be manipulated, much as you might try. Most are not fools, and any goodwill must be earned.”
Not accustomed to direct insolence, the President twisted around in his chair snapping, “Just who the hell are . . .,” then trailed off. A tall, painfully angular man stood near a richly paneled door. Attired in a long black coat with tails, the visitor sported whiskers along his jawline.
“And they will never all love you. Ever. Such is the raucous nature of American democracy.”
The apparition paused a long moment. “Sowing divisions through fear and vitriol is not governing, and you shall surely fail.” The visitor stepped closer as he spoke, prompting the President to spring out of his chair, phone and remote forgotten on the carpet.
“I recognize you . . .,” the President sputtered.
“We, all of us, sought this office fueled with purpose and ambition,” the visitor continued in a prairie twang. “However, once under oath, the campaign is over. A president faces the duty of serving all Americans, a challenge in the best of circumstances.
From the flickering screen a news anchor admonished, “Aides have confirmed that the President knew of the virus as early as February.”
“It’s those hacks,” the President stabbed his finger accusingly at the big screen. The press is out to. . .”
His visitor laughed without humor. “Criticism of elected officials is as natural as the sun rising, and as perpetual. ‘Baboon’ was the nicest insult slung my way . . .by a serving general, no less. Then he up and ran against me in 1864.” The visitor chuckled lightly. “Still, the truth is we are all better with free speech than without. In our differing views we discover our deepest truths.”
By now the President began tuning out much of what the visitor was saying, his irritation making him bold. “You need to leave,” he snapped. “I have a busy schedule.”
Unruffled, the unwelcome guest studied the President intently. “In my time an entire section of the nation disputed the results of my election.”
“You lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral?” The President couldn’t help but ask.
“Indeed. Eleven southern states chose the battlefield over a peaceful transfer of power.”
“What did you do?”
“I defended the Republic.”
His visitor continued sadly. “However the butcher’s bill for this unity came dearly; 700,000 American lives.” The visitor heaved a weary sigh. “And that delicate balance has endured through all national crises, preserved only through considerable effort and executive leadership. A unity you undermine at every opportunity. ”
“Wrong, wrong, wrong. My supporters all love me. You should see the crowds at my rallies.”
“And the rest of America?” The visitor peered intently at the President. “Remember sir, we are friends, not enemies. We must not be enemies.” His voice quietly trailed off in an echo, and he was gone.
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.
Marines manned numerous doorways along the wide hallway, as clusters of tourists wandered through colorful 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, stepping into the Blue Room.
As his hands automatically fluffed his hair, the President sidled up beside a class of wiggly school children snapping cell phone pictures.
“And where are you from?,” the president teased with pleasure, anticipating an excited response. He half closed his eyes, and paused, waiting for the gratifying answer.
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 into the hallway.
“Wait,” he found himself calling. “It’s me, your President. I’m here.”
He repeated, “The President of the United States.”
But the children didn’t hear. He remained alone in the Blue Room, his hair acceptably coiffed.
No further tourists entered, though dozens drifted past the doorway. He didn’t understand and he thought very hard, seeking a rational explanation.
It was at that moment that he heard a voice, quite close, 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, sporting a shiny 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.
“I say, are you, or are you not, a New Yorker?” The stern man spoke in a nasally, patrician voice.
“Ahh. How did you get in here,” the President stammered. “Where is my secret service protection?”
“Supercilious pup,” the man in the top hat snapped. “They tell me that YOU are from New York, and are president! A common side show huckster, President.”
The President, though alarmed, 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 just another scoundrel from the wealthy criminal class. In New York, swindlers like you are a dime a dozen. 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. “And 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 outsiders interfered to make certain of your victory.”
The strange visitor moved closer. “I’d say that you are a compromised pawn of foreign meddlers, and give not one damn for the American people.”
At this point the President had heard enough, and attempted to move his legs. He wanted very much to escape the Blue Room, but his feet remained rooted.
“I have important things to do, you need to go,” the President’s voice trembled, trying to sound more confident than he felt.
The apparition narrowed his intense eyes, and took another step toward the unnerved President.
“I claim more authority to this revered 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. Dishonor has followed you to the Presidency, what, with your womanizing, graft, and unsavory business connections.” The fierce apparition fixed an intense, menacing gaze. “You do not belong here, nor your parade of lackeys and opportunists.
The buzz of foot traffic grew louder, and when the President again glanced toward his unwelcome visitor, he found him gone, the Blue Room empty.
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
This reactionary-looking fellow is Marylander Roger Brooks Taney, an Andrew Jackson appointee to the Supreme Court. History remembers Justice Taney as the author of the Court’s most infamous ruling in Scott V Sandford (1857).
Taney had frequently telegraphed his views on slavery and American citizenship, insisting that blacks had no rights white men were bound to respect. Even before his nomination to the bench, a free black had requested documents for overseas travel that Roger Taney, as then US Attorney General, instantly rejected. Taney conceded his legal views long before dawning judicial robes; blacks were not citizens, and never could be. Travel documents for this man of color were denied.
Another important element in this story concerns the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Settled eight years prior to the Jackson Administration, this legislation directed that with the exception of the new state itself, slavery would be forbidden above Missouri’s southern border. Most Americans hoped that this Missouri Compromise Line would endure forever, clearly delineating for posterity new slave states from free.
However, with westward migration and the advent of Roger Taney, that hope flickered and died, speeding up the advent of Civil War.
By the time the Scott case reached the Federal docket, violence and bloodshed had erupted west of Missouri, out on the Kansas prairie. Emigrants recently arrived from northern and southern states, were to vote upon the fate of slavery in the new state’s constitution. A volatile mix of invading, pro-slavery Missouri Ruffians attacked Free-State Jayhawkers near Lawrence, sparking deadly violence across the region. Unrepentant slaveholders demanded their 5th Amendment property rights (meaning slaves) were allowed any place slaveholders settled. At the same time, equally fervent opponents of slavery contended the “peculiar institution” would remain contained 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, silencing forever those interfering, and self-righteous Yankees. When the Court issued its ruling in 1857, Justice Taney’s opinion rang out with authority, and finality.
- Despite Dred Scott residing in free territory for a time, he was still a slave.
- 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 dispute, Justice Taney had, in fact, only stoked a more massive inferno.
Indeed war exploded within four years of Taney’s decision, blazing on 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.
- By virtue of birth in the United States, one was a citizen.
- 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 meal 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 that 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.