Inheritance

Harry Truman understood the gravity of his duty right off. When FDR died in April, 1945, the newly installed Vice President got the word he was now president. And what a Herculean task he had before him. A world war to end, conferences abroad, shaping a new post-war world, and grappling with the human rights horrors in both Europe and in the Pacific. Add to all of that, he alone could order use of the newly completed Atomic Bomb.

On his White House desk, President Truman placed a sign, “The Buck Stops Here.” With that mission statement Harry Truman stepped up to his responsibilities despite the formidable challenges he faced.

Did Truman inherit the worst set of circumstances of any new president? Maybe? But it is open to debate.

America’s fourth President, James Madison, found himself  in one god-awful mess. His predecessor, Thomas Jefferson had tanked the US economy by closing American ports to all English and French trade. Those two powerful rivals had been at war a long time, and made a practice of interfering with America’s neutrality and transatlantic shipping. Despite Jefferson’s actions the issue of seizing US ships and kidnapping sailors never stopped. By 1812 President Madison asked for a declaration of war against England that, in the end accomplished nothing but a burned out White House and defaced Capitol.

Following the lackluster administrations of Franklin Pierce, then James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln stepped into a firestorm of crisis. Divisions over the institution of slavery had reached critical mass, and Lincoln’s election was enough for Southern States to cut ties with the North. So hated was Lincoln, that his name did not appear on the ballot below the Mason-Dixon. And the fiery trial of war commenced.

The Election of 1932 became a referendum on Herbert Hoover, and the Republican presidents who had served since 1920. Poor Hoover happened to be in the White House when the economic music stopped, and the economy bottomed out. And that was that for Hoover. His name remained a pejorative until his death. 

Franklin Roosevelt prevailed that 1932 election, in fact won in a landslide victory. Somehow Roosevelt maintained his confident smile though he, too, faced one hell of a national disaster. 

In his inaugural address the new President reassured the public saying fear was all we had to fear. FDR then ordered a banking “holiday,” coating the dismal reality of bank failures in less menacing terms-a holiday. From his first hundred days the new President directed a bewildered Congress to approve his “New Deal.” 

The coming of the Second World War shifted domestic policies to foreign threats as the world fell into autocratic disarray. FDR shifted his attention to the coming war. When President Roosevelt died suddenly, poor Harry Truman was in the hot seat. But that is where I want to end the history lesson.

If any new President has had a disaster to confront, it is Joe Biden. Without fanfare or showboating Biden, too, has stepped up to the difficulties testing our nation. 

Much like Truman and Lincoln before, 46 is grappling with a world in chaos, and a divided people at home. In another ironic twist, like Madison, Biden witnessed, a second violent desecration of the US Capitol.

To his credit, though his predecessor left a long trail of rubble, Biden understands the traditional role of Chief Executive, while clearly many Americans have forgotten, or worse, rejected. Biden is addressing the issues testing our country, not only for those who elected him, but those who did not. An American President can do no less.

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 completed her second play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Forgotten Cause

In 1938, old men aided by young volunteers, shuffled off of trains arriving from all points of the compass. For the most part these gents were in their early 90’s, and looked forward to comradeship and scheduled festivities. 

Organizers had planned three full days of tours, music, and ceremony, complete with a flyover and fireworks. The Battle of Gettysburg’s 75th commemoration had begun.

There had been an earlier anniversary event, in 1913, but this time visitors knew this gathering would be the last. Those in attendance understood, as did the elderly guests of honor, that those who hadn’t fallen on that Pennsylvania battlefield in 1863, would soon join the brethren who had. 

After this commemoration, the narrative would pass from eye witness accounts into America’s collective memory.  

No longer wielding rifles, many maneuvered the grounds pushed about in wheel chairs, walkers, and canes. Old men brandished ear trumpets to catch the orations of the many visiting dignitaries. The men listened as President Franklin Roosevelt delivered remarks dedicating the Eternal Light Memorial, located near the “Bloody Angle.” Battlefield tours transported veterans, and well-wishers from Cemetery Hill, to Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, the Devils Den, and finally the exposed fields of Picketts Charge.

There, at the stone fence, gray old men in blue, and others in gray and butternut, shook hands at the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. The original climax of a fateful third day offensive, signaling the eventual doom of the the Confederacy.

Ironically, left uninvited were the scores of African Americans who had harbored such hope for new lives after emancipation. Unfortunately, Reconstruction had ended with little to show for progress or Civil Rights. Instead Freedmen found a new enslavement, recognizable in every aspect, but iron chains.

Forty Acres and a Mule had never materialized, as promised by victorious Union commanders. Now relegated to tenant farming, Freedmen struggled in the same conditions as before, but now as sharecroppers. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty, black farmers found insufficient harvests debited into the next season, and then the next, in an endless cycle of debt peonage. 

The Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy V Ferguson legalized segregation by insisting any negative correlation attached to feelings of inferiority lived only in the minds of Blacks. Separate water fountains, parks, transportation, and schools worked just fine for the elderly veterans from the North and South.

The moral force of the Civil War had died as thoroughly as the nearly 7-million who perished upon the scattered battlefields.Those veterans who reunited in 1938 Pennsylvania found white identity and brotherhood far outranked any new birth of freedom envisioned by President Lincoln 75 years earlier.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Ms Chumbley recently completed her second stage play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Die was Cast

The threat of disunion appeared long before either the Civil War, or the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The architects laying the chaotic cornerstone? President John Adams, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.

David McCullough in his celebrated biography, John Adams, portrayed this Founding Father as a brilliant man, and that is true. However, his self righteous streak succeeded in undercutting his talent and better judgement. As the second president of the United States, John Adams, proved to be a prickly, and thin-skinned chief executive. A dour Yankee, Adams could not tolerate public criticism, and as many later presidents, came to view the press as an adversary—enemies of the government.

In a rage over newspapers excoriating his administration, Adams shepherded the Sedition Act through Congress in 1798. Opposition editors soon found themselves in the President’s cross hairs, and some were actually jailed. The Alien Act, also passed in 1798, aimed to delay new voters, by lengthening time for naturalization, as immigrants were certain to vote against Adams and his Federalist Party. (Hmm. The press, immigrants, and voting rights. Imagine that).

Jefferson, (still Adams’ Vice President), promptly took action to counter Adams’ wrong-headed legislation.

Launching a full out, but anonymous denunciation of the Adams Administration, Vice President Jefferson published tracts vilifying Adams, and emphasized the sovereignty of the states guaranteed under 10th Amendment.

Returning from France, where he had served as American ambassador, Jefferson had been appalled by the powerful Federal Constitution created in his absence. As a ‘natural aristocrat,’ and slave master, Jefferson was unwilling to cede power to any higher authority than himself, and his fellow patricians. Instead the “Sage of Monticello,” asserted the right of states not to obey laws they didn’t like.

Two state legislatures agreed to debate Jefferson’s counter measures, Virginia and Kentucky. Penned secretly by Jefferson, and Madison, these resolutions insisted the states were the final arbiters of what was legally binding. A new term emerged from this controversy—Nullification.

The die was cast, the seeds of disunion sown. In the years following, nullification intensified, fertilized particularly in 1832 by John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina Senator. That that state became the first to secede in 1861, sparking the US Civil War, is no coincidence.

The traitors who invaded the halls of Congress last January took their cue from Jefferson, as if they, too battled the evils of John Adams. Scapegoating the media, immigrants and the Federal government has left a long, bloody stain on American history. As I write, the States of Georgia, and Texas among others, are attempting to limit voting rights once again. Texas has also taken a nullifying stance, limiting a woman’s right to her own body, despite Federal protections.                        

No government has a self-destruct button, none. John Adam’s pique, and Thomas Jefferson’s reaction stamped an incompatibility that still, today, inflames American politics. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Smiling in Their Graves

As the fog of war lifted and an uncertain peace settled over the defeated Confederacy, anxiety grew among the vanquished as to what lay ahead. Abandoned plantations withered in disarray, and a popular idea gathered momentum it should go to the newly freed. “Forty Acres and a Mule,” became an expectation that, in the end never materialized. Instead Southern landholders who had fled, slowly returned to reclaim their estates and continue their lives. 

Outside of Freedman Bureau schools, and temporary bluecoated occupiers, no meaningful assistance for Freedmen materialized.

At the same time, three categories of defeated Southerners turned their attention to meeting the new reality. Military leaders, like Robert E Lee, and James Longstreet accepted defeat, and encouraged fellow veterans to follow suit. In fact, Longstreet, an old army friend of Ulysses Grant, cooperated with the Republican occupiers, earning the pejorative of “Scalawag,” a Confederate who collaborated with the enemy.

Outraged citizens who could not accept defeat were called “Fire Eaters.” Foremost among these was Jefferson Davis, incarcerated president of the Confederacy, Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, who lost her ancestral home in Arlington, where Union forces buried their dead, and politician Edmund Ruffin. So enraged was Ruffin that when news of the defeat at Appomattox Courthouse reached him, Ruffin blew his brains out. 

Redeemers made up the balance of Southern Whites who were dangerously patient. These community leaders played their cards carefully, drifting into the Fire Eater lane at times, and back to deadly quiet redemption. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a great example of men who waited. Founding the Ku Klux Klan soon after the war ended, nightriders terrorized freedmen, discouraging blacks from enjoying their new guarantees as citizens. Other terms fit well into this particular era. Share Cropping, and the Crop Lien System invisibly chained blacks to the land that still bound them. Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws sentenced laborers to the same bondage as before Fort Sumter. No serving on juries, no testifying against whites, Poll Taxes and Literacy Tests limited access to the ballot box. As Federal oversight declined over time, the Redeemers reasserted direct control.

Case law does remain on the books to protect minority voters but without vigilance and resolve remain fragile. These people, these Redeemers are still dangerously patient, and can shift to Fire Eater on a dime. In light of January 6, these zealots have demonstrated they still are quite lethal.  

By crafting misleading, banal language in new voting laws, the modern GOP has taken a page from that old Reconstruction playbook. Ironically, it was the Republican Party who protected Freedmen after the Civil War, but now play the part of oppressor, inserting bad legislation to cut off Federal influence. 

The old Redeemers must surely be smiling in their graves.

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Final Straw

The September 11th attacks in 2001 got our school year off to a strange start. There was, of course, the horror, and a lot of unplanned discussion about the Middle East. The course I taught covered Early American History through Reconstruction, and I couldn’t afford to take a lot of time to debrief. Nonetheless, the events of that day provided useful lessons that surfaced later in the year. 

By the following Spring the curriculum arrived to the series of calamities that led to the Civil War. The last compromises crumbled, and blood had spilled at Harpers Ferry. The story then turned to John Brown, God’s Avenging Angel, determined to slay slavery. 

Brown is a complicated figure, believing he had been chosen by the Great Jehovah, to draw the sword of mighty justice.

And a debatable issue offered itself.

The link to Brown and 911 suspect, a French-Moroccan terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, centered on jail time. Moussaoui’s trial was underway and came up in class discussion.

John Brown had been captured in Harpers Ferry, after a standoff with Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee. Intending to spark a slave insurrection, Brown and his raiders, including his sons had occupied the Federal arsenal in that river town. But once the military arrived the old man subsequently surrendered. 

As Brown awaited trial in Charles Town Virginia, the Governor, Henry Wise permitted reporters from Northern papers to interview Old Brown. To the press, Brown passionately defended his cause, insisting it was the work of righteousness. Newspaper readers throughout the North responded with support and compassion, gathering disciples for the cause of freedom.

However, in the South, the old man’s name was reviled. Viewed as a criminal below the Mason-Dixon, Brown was vilified as evil incarnate, hell bent on inciting slaves to murder their masters. Military training increased across the South, in preparation to defend their “peculiar institution.”

John Brown’s raid is often seen as one of the final straws, aside from Lincoln’s election the next year, leading to secession and a force of arms.

Prior to of horror of 911, Zacarias Moussaoui was detained in Minnesota. His immigration status apparently had irregularities, and his flight school enrollment tripped some security wires. At his trial, Moussaoui put on a noisy show, acting as his own attorney, and pitching frequent temper tantrums in the courtroom for all to see, including journalists. Initially the accused insisted he was innocent, then later confessed. Quite the circus.

During and following the conviction of the terrorist, Moussaoui demanded the judge permit him access to the press. The French terrorist had his side of the story, and he wanted to air his grievances on a national and international platform.

The judge said no. And Moussaoui today is a lifer, quietly incarcerated at Super Max in Florence, Colorado, and barely a footnote in history.

The significance of this complicated, and controversial comparison? Surely the Civil War would have transpired regardless of Brown; slavery was inconsistent in a nation that professed liberty.

But that fifteen minutes of notoriety can produce real dangerous blowback.  

In light of the events on January 6th, thank the Lord DJT is grounded from social media.

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

A Rare Topic

Watching a news host and guest discuss the topic of America’s Reconstruction era, my ears perked up, so rare is this topic presented. 

First of all, Reconstruction was the difficult period following the Civil War. The battles had ended, and the victorious president dead at the hands of an assassin. A new Battle Royale between Congress and the new President, Andrew Johnson, erupted over who would direct the aftermath. 

The thrust of the cable conversation centered on how important this time period remains, and that schools need to teach it. Much like Flo in the insurance ads, I started yelling at the television that I did cover that period, dammit. We all did in my department.

President Lincoln, before his death, had considered the role of newly freed persons as a moral imperative. Subsequent to the Emancipation, he had pushed for passage of the 13th Amendment, as dramatized in the film, “Lincoln.” Throughout the last months of the war Lincoln had revealed his vision of Reconstruction. Based on the 1860 election records, when 10 percent in the rebellious states swore a loyalty oath, each state could reform their constitutions recognizing the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln believed he possessed the power to pardon, and he would make full use of that Constitutional power. 

Legally speaking, President Lincoln viewed secession as an attempt to leave the Union, and that attempt had failed. The Chief Executive would pardon the ring leaders, and move on to rebuild the nation. But his political opponents, the Radical Republicans, under the leadership of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Senator Charles Sumner, saw the situation differently. 

For these abolitionists punishment was the order of the day. The 1864 Wade-Davis Bill mandated 50% + of 1860 rosters take that loyalty oath. To Stevens, Sumner and the like, these Rebel states had committed political suicide. Only after that majority swore the oath, including recognition of the 13th Amendment, would Congress consider readmitting each, as if new states. 

A political fight was brewing as to which branch held the reins to mend the nation, and deal with the lot of Freedmen.

The short answer is Lincoln’s death derailed any compromise. The Radicals held the day, and Southern whites would suffer. And Andrew Johnson was no match for an angry, determined Congress. In 1867 Federal forces occupied the South in political districts. Soon after, the Legislative Branch attempted to impeach the hapless new president. 

Though the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to the newly freed, and the 15th guaranteed the vote, northern opinion drifted into apathy. Enforcing the rights of Freedmen lost popularity, and dropped from the headlines.

The Old South reasserted traditional apartheid rules.

The cost for the newly freed? Desperate people wandered back to the old master. With no protection, lynching became common as domestic terrorists spread fear. Rights of citizenship went unenforced, with sharecropping and the crop lien system replacing legal bondage. 

Perpetual debt chained workers to the land as effectively as if slavery remained legal. 

Poll taxes, vagrancy laws, and literacy tests tyrannized the newly freed, as did threats of violence from the Klan, and the Knights of the White Camelia.

In 1876, Republican Rutherford B Hayes barely won the presidency in a tight election. His campaign officials cut a deal with three Southern electoral delegations. Florida, (of course) South Carolina, and Louisiana. These states agreed to direct their electors to vote Republican, and in return the Hayes people promised to withdraw the bluecoats. Free Blacks were abandoned.

All in all, the promise of liberty lay in ashes.

When the moment arrived for equal justice, the cause died due to lack of interest.

The cable host and his guest were right.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Bloody Shirt

Principled soldiers of conscience, the victorious army knew they had served well, defending the Constitution to the last full measure.

May of 1865 witnessed Washington’s Grand Review of the Union Army. Smartly uniformed soldiers filed past crowds, in a river of Union blue. The guns had silenced a mere month earlier at Appomattox, Virginia; the Republic preserved.

A brilliant sun glinted off polished bayonets, and the parade route decorated with miles of silk banners, tattered company colors and patriotic bunting. Rejoicing greeted the passing soldiers in shouts and fluttering handkerchiefs. Flower petals rained down in a fragrant carpet of gratitude. 

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

One year later, near Springfield, Illinois, a group of veterans established a fraternal association, the Grand Army of the Republic. The idea caught fire nationally as other veterans founded their own local chapters; a place men could remember, share, and grieve for lost friends. Soon these war horses got busy extending their service to those they had defended.

First, survivors lent aid to disabled fellow veterans, assistance to widows and their dependents, and orphan homes. Soon preserving battle sites added to the group’s outreach. Before long members began seeking electoral office to further serve the nation.

A story has it General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman, grew extremely agitated while speechifying, and produced a torn, and bloody shirt he claimed came from the battlefield. Soon the practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking war credentials, became customary for candidates. The saying “vote the way you shot,” launched the careers of numerous politicians. 

Presidents from Ulysses Grant, (1868-1876) through William McKinley (1896-1901) had faced the rebels on the battlefield.*

War memorials and monuments mushroomed, funded with GAR donations. Reunions, benevolent societies, veterans homes, and hospitals kept local chapters busy. In fact, much of GAR efforts were eventually assumed by the Federal Government, particularly pensions for those who had served.

Over time survivors of the Civil War dwindled in number. However, the organization soldiered on until 1956 when it finally faded. Loosely related, though more a coincidence, our last five star general was serving as president when the GAR closed its doors. President Dwight David Eisenhower, who kept a farm in Gettysburg, happened to occupy the White House.

This brotherhood, this Grand Army of the Republic, rose to defend our democracy in the mid-19th Century. This model of valor, and sacrifice shaped the character of the military for years to come. 

But one truth is quite clear, no officer ever advocated for a coup, and there was not one sucker or loser in their ranks.

In 2021 we can do no less.

*Chester Arthur served in the New York Militia, Grover Cleveland did not serve.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, author and playwright. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Divisions

Balkanize: Division of a place or country into several small political units, often unfriendly to one another.

America’s founders meant education to flourish, as a vital part of our country’s longevity. 

Designed to advance literacy, American public schools also curbed the rougher aspects of an expanding country. Since the earliest days of the Republic, centers of learning not only taught content, but other lessons like cooperation, and self control. Ultimately schools have instilled in all of us a shared baseline of behavior, supported by foundational facts necessary to find consensus.  

Today, technology and social media have endangered our ability to reach common ground. The distracting noise of extremists, splintering, and Balkanizing our nation threatens American institutions. Elections, government agencies, city and state government, and yes, schools are all targeted. Navigating through a culturally diverse society is inevitably stormy, and a closed American mind isn’t helpful.

Public education has traditionally been one of the ligaments that bind us all together as one people. Years ago a president encouraged us to ask “what (we) can do for (our) country,” but that’s over. Today it’s “Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it!”

Patriotism and literacy evolved together hand in hand. In 1787 Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, passed an Ordinance for settling western land. This law devised a survey system, to organize states around the Great Lakes region. This is important because sales of one plat of the survey, (you guessed it,) funded public schools. 

Thomas Jefferson affirmed the practice by insisting, ”Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

President Lincoln, a figure who deeply lamented his own lack of formal education, pushed to establish land grant universities across the growing nation. The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, in particular, financed colleges through Federal funding.These universities today are located in every state of the Union. 

America’s erosion of unity is tied directly to the erosion of public education. Our kids are increasingly sequestered into alternative settings; online, magnet, charter, home, and private schools. Missing is the opportunity to experience democracy at its most basic. Students grow familiar with each other, softening our own edges, renewing the energy and optimism of the nation’s promise. 

We are all taxpayers, but your local public school isn’t supposed to be Burger King, where every citizen can have it “their way.” We have a system that, regardless of money, race, ability, and social class, all have a seat at the table of democracy.

Gail Chumbley is a history instructor and author. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com