Riding The Back Of The Tiger

At the start of the Kennedy administration, back in 1961, the story goes that JFK invited in a group of historians to the White House. The new president wanted to chat. What Kennedy asked these scholars was what elements insured a great presidency, and the answer from these learned gents was simple: a war.

Kennedy’s own war experiences in the South Pacific, and the ensuing menace of nuclear armageddon left JFK unconvinced. America’s situation on the world stage was just not as simple as war and peace. The lessons of  Nazi appeasement, especially by his own father, Joe Kennedy, compelled the new president to draw a hardline against Communism, and check its growth around the world. 

Caught in the eye of that dilemma; to appear tough, while preserving the lives of young Americans, Kennedy attempted a middle ground. Reluctant to fully commit US forces in Southeast Asia,  he also engaged in discreet negotiations with the Russians to settled the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a wounded veteran himself, JFK pursued a cautious and flexible foreign policy.

Not all presidencies have demonstrated such restraint.

President Madison succumbed to war cries after mediation with Great Britain looked to have collapsed, sparking the War of 1812. In reality the English had agreed to cease much of the abuse that brought about the war, before Madison’s declaration. Sadly news of accommodations from London did not arrive in time, and two futile years of warfare ensued. At the end of hostilities the United States made no measurable gains from the fight. The only red meat served came compliments of Andrew Jackson in his victory over the British in New Orleans. The war had been over two-weeks by the start of that battle. 

Most agree Madison is better remembered as the “Father of the Constitution,” than for his lackluster presidency.

“All of Mexico” resounded across young America in 1844. A toxic, but powerful combination of racism and hubris plunged America into another conflict-the Mexican American War. An unapologetic new president, James K. Polk, publicly stated in his campaign he would lead America into war, though he meant against Britain in his “54, 40, or Fight” slogan. Waged from 1846 to 1848  Polk ordered the invasion of Mexico, and defeat of the Mexican Army. 

A third war with the British never materialized, as the US opted to negotiate claims to Oregon. Though not gaining all of Mexico, America still claimed Texas to the Rio Grande, the southwest region known as the Mexican Cession, and all of California. In the aftermath of war, slave holders spilled westward in search of fertile new lands. In turn, national tensions escalated, both politically, and morally, erupting into Civil War by 1861. 

No other President extended American power, more than William McKinley, and no president was less eager to do so. As a young sergeant in the Civil War, McKinley had witnessed the truly  horrific bloodbath at Antietam Creek, surviving the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.  By the time of McKinley’s election in 1896, he faced a growing threat of a new war with Spain, this time over the Spanish possession of Cuba. Events careened out of control when a Navy gunboat, the USS Maine, sent by McKinley to protect American sugar interests, exploded in Havana Harbor in February, 1898. The disaster of The Maine forced the President’s hand, and he asked for a declaration of war from an enraged Congress. 

Though fought only from April to August, this conflict gave America island possessions from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. The United States had now officially entered the race to become an imperial power. This war extended fueling ports for the growing US Navy from across the Pacific, to the Caribbean. New markets and resources for American business opened up a fortune in profits. Filipinos, in particular, were left unhappy, switching from Spanish overlords to American authority. A bloody 3-year insurrection, fought in dank jungles, exploded, taking the lives of some 4,000 American combatants.

Sadly, in less than twenty years, the world-wide lust for colonies and riches brought America into the trenches of World War One. Decades-long rivalries for land and resources, particularly by Germany and Austro-Hungary, triggered a ruthless international competition that proved to history how industrialization could bleed young men. Not surprisingly this “war to end all wars” did not benefit Commander in Chief, Woodrow Wilson. In the end, the struggle killed him too.

As World War One ushered World War Two into being, World War Two led to the escalating tensions of the Cold War. First Truman in Korea, then Lyndon Johnson into Vietnam. Perhaps as stepchildren to Imperialism and the Cold War, GW Bush’s blunder into Iraq has assured his low position in history. 

The inescapable truth, Mr Trump, is that war does not make a presidency. With the exceptions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and to some degree, Harry Truman, war has sullied more administrations than enhanced. Blind militarism may titillate your base, but you’re a damn fool to believe you can cheat history. Wars take on a life of their own, and as President Kennedy cautioned, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

Gail Chumbley is the author the historic play, “Clay,” and the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Tyler Too?

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The aged Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in the rain. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either work with him, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for the Whigs to make. The party had gelled during the Jackson administration, promoting financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern nation-state. Foremost among this group was the Whig Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to choose their 1840 candidate, Clay failed to gain the  nomination, and declined the second spot in a regrettable moment of pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the protection of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency.  From there, events quickly unraveled.

If the Whig Party hoped to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the death of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising Phoenix. And that party still exists today, if they don’t squander their good name on the shoals of Trumpism. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle and at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

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

Symmetry

This reactionary-looking fellow is Marylander Roger Brooks Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson to the Supreme Court in 1835. History recalls 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 was 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.

  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 controversy, 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. 

  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 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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

 

A Reasonable Man

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The Senator visualized a clear future for America; a nation of groomed roadways, busy canals, sturdy bridges, and mighty iron railways. He believed the country, in order to mature into a truly great nation, required the best in structural innovation. But this practical statesman faced an insurmountable barrier impeding his work–Andrew Jackson.

Henry Clay first arrived in Washington City as a green Kentucky Congressman in 1803. Serving in the House for three years, Clay eventually moved over to the Senate, appointed by the Kentucky legislature to fill an unexpected vacancy.

Early in his career Clay made his share of blunders. A fierce booster for war in 1812, Clay worked with other young ‘ War Hawks,’ who favored this second fight against Great Britain. However, by the end of that conflict Clay realized this repeat-war against England had generated nothing of real value for the young Republic.

Fully embracing his epiphany, the young Senator turned his efforts to building America from within. Clay devised a long-range program of development he called The American System. Components of his plan were three-fold: a strong protective tariff to nurture America’s fledgling industrial base, a Second Bank of the United States to administer federal funds, that in turn would underwrite his ‘internal improvements,” projects. For Henry Clay this three-tiered proposal would provide the solid foundation a mighty nation-state needed to prosper. And the Senator enthusiastically advanced his crusade as if a secular faith.

Henry Clay’s progressive program found considerable support among his fellow legislators, so much so, The American System seemed on the brink success. 

Unfortunately for Clay a dashing war hero rose to challenged his vision. Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, the victor of New Orleans, conquerer of Spanish Florida, and vanquisher of the Creek Nation, had set his sights on becoming president.

In the beginning Clay thought little of the uneducated, volatile militiaman, believing voters would not take this rustic brawler seriously. But Clay misread public sentiment. Jackson’s popularity soared among all classes, particularly among poor whites. Jackson successfully won not only a first term, but enjoyed reelection four years later. Most ominous for Henry Clay, this formidable president did not like him, not one little bit.

Very quickly Congressional appetite for public works had shifted dramatically.  Jacksonian supporters had filled the House, and to a lesser degree, the Senate, leaving Clay hard pressed to pass any of his program. In fact, Jackson made fast work on Clay’s earlier successes by killing the Second Bank of the US, and vetoed countless internal improvement projects. The only portion of the American System Jackson defended was the Tariff, and only because a separate Jackson enemy threatened to refuse collecting in his state.

Henry Clay found himself fighting for every economic belief he championed. The mercurial man in the Presidential Mansion (White House) thwarted Clay at every turn. 

The intractable issue of slavery soon dwarfed all other political and economic conflicts. Clay, a slave owner who believed in gradual emancipation, found Jacksonian enemies in both the North and South; Northerners because he was a slave owner, and Southerners because he believed in emancipation. The man couldn’t win.

Over Clay’s decades of public service, he forged three major Union-saving compromises. An ardent patriot, this Senator believed men of good will could solve all problems for the greater good of the nation. First Senator Clay crafted the Missouri Compromise, followed later by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. His last, his most difficult ordeal,  the Compromise of 1850, giving America California. 

Sadly, Senator Henry Clay did not live to see his American System a reality. But there is a silver lining to this tale. Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Clayite saw passage of the Pacific Railways Act, the Morrill Act, and a National Banking Act. These three laws built the Transcontinental Railroad, Land Grant Universities in the west, and funding the Union war effort.

Oh, and Clay’s desire to emancipate slaves became real in 1863.

The moral of the story transcends time: America stalls when irrational politics displaces thoughtful, reasonable policies and the legislators who promote them.

Note-I have co-authored a new play celebrating the life of this remarkable, essential American simply titled “Clay.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both are available on Kindle, or in hard copy at www.river-of-january.com

You can contact Gail for questions or enquiries at gailchumbley@gmail.com

Aftermath

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The Constitution was slightly over twelve years old. The rules on presidential elections read precisely on paper, and in 1800 the front runner, Thomas Jefferson looked to enter the White House with ease. However, though designed by the best minds of that era, the flaws built into the Electoral College failed to deliver Jefferson his expected victory. Something had gone terribly awry triggering America’s first electoral crisis. 

New York Republican, Aaron Burr was chosen as Jefferson’s running mate. The thinking was to balance the ticket with a Virginian at the top, and a New Yorker in the second spot drawing Northern votes. Thus the stage was set for a painless triumph over the faltering Federalist Party. However, when the electoral votes were tallied as prescribed by Article 2, the running mates unexpectedly tied for the top spot.

The fault lay in the statute itself, by failing to anticipate such a scenario. Jefferson soon grew furious as Burr passively declined to concede the office, and the tie was forced to the House of Representatives for resolution. In the end the stalemate broke when Alexander Hamilton intervened, persuading the hold-over Federalist majority to choose Jefferson as the lesser of the two evils. (One of the grievances leading to the later duel with Burr). But why?

This was personal. New Yorkers both, Hamilton and Burr had come to detest one another, Though no political friend of Jefferson, Hamilton recognized a fellow patriot, despite deeply held differences. Burr, however was only interested in Burr. Hamilton’s intent was to protect the new nation, and block a scoundrel from assuming the highest office in the land.

Jefferson was sworn into office, and later, in 1804, the Constitution was modified with the Twelfth Amendment, rectifying the design flaws in the original document. 

Twenty years later, in 1824, another impasse materialized that touched off national outrage for decades. The shifting winds of political change found a champion in the person of General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans. Old Hickory had built his reputation as a ruthless Indian fighter, slave holder, and conqueror of Spanish Florida. His feats were celebrated throughout the growing nation, and Jackson’s prospects for election seemed assured. But again, events proved otherwise.

When the Electoral Vote was counted Andrew Jackson had received 99 votes. New England’s John Quincy Adams, son of the Second President, had secured 84 electoral votes. William Crawford of Georgia, though quite ill, earned 41 votes, and lastly, the former Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, 37. The magic number in 1824 to claim victory was 130 votes, so the race was once more, referred to the House of Representatives. Still, Jackson clearly had been the choice of the people.

When John Quincy Adams was unexpectedly named President the public outcry was deafening. In defiance of the people, Henry Clay, the former Speaker used his considerable influence to place Quincy Adams in the White House. When Clay became Adams nominee for Secretary of State, cries of “Corrupt Bargain” blazed across the nation. A furious Andrew Jackson at once began his bid for the presidency in 1828.

Quincy and Clay were stunned. They took actions they believed were best for the nation. They saw the capricious Jackson as a danger to democracy, a man who demonstrated the tendencies of a despot. Still Adams was politically wounded, and the Administration did little of substance in the four years left to them. As for Henry Clay, he never fully restored his reputation.

Other questionable elections repeated through the years. In 1876 with the election of Ruther”fraud” B Hayes, and again in 2000 with the Bush V Gore “hanging chad” debacle.

Today America is dealing with another administration struggling for legitimacy.

The Election of 2016 has left the American public uncertain that  their votes actually count. Russian interference, through social media, and electronic hacking was an exculpatory factor in the outcome. Sinister and new in electoral history, cyber espionage has given America a Chief Executive markedly sensitive to the dark subversion undermining his victory. 

Losing the popular vote by over 3 million ballots, the new president claims those votes were cast illegally, and demanded voting rolls from the states be turned over to a government committee for analysis. Nothing significant came of that effort, and questions continue to swirl around this fishy election cycle. 

Somewhere in the chaos the Russian government has reaped what it apparently wanted: domestic turmoil. A long-standing enemy of the United States, the former Soviet Union aims to re-elevate its international stature. What better way could objectives be met, than by hijacking an American election, causing enough confusion to find a sort of sweet revenge.

Deals have been brokered since the beginning of the Republic, but the players have been competing American interests. We may squabble our political beliefs among ourselves, but that is the messy nature of freedom. Now the arrangements appear to be negotiated by foreign players. This foreign interference cannot be repeated, we have future American generations to protect. 

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

Available on Kindle

Before They Were Men

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“It’s hard to remember that they were men before they were legends, and children before they were men..” Bill Moyers, A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. 

For Presidents Day I’ve been putting together a lecture series for my local library. These talks surround the childhoods and later experiences, of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The thinking behind each, was that early life for all four men presented serious challenges. Complications in health, painful family tragedies, and economic circumstances seemed to shape the world view of these future presidents. It was how each overcame these difficulties, and how that endurance came to influence their presidencies that is the focus of the series.

This is a brief synopsis of what I found.

Behind the image mythologized in “The Life of George Washington, by writer, “Parson” Weems, lived a reality of a more nuanced, and complex Virginia boy. Born on February 22, 1732 in Pope’s Creek, George Washington came into the world as the first son of a planter, but from a second marriage. His position in the family line left him without any claim to his father’s estate. In a strictly ordered society that followed the rules of primogeniture, only the eldest son inherited, and young Washington could claim nothing, aside from the Washington surname. His father, Augustine Washington had two sons from his first marriage, and Lawrence, the eldest, stood to inherit all.

Augustine in fact died in 1743, when George was only eleven years old,  the boy not only lost his father, but also learned he wouldn’t have the formal English education his older brothers had enjoyed. That particular shortcoming marked George permanently, leaving him self conscious and guarded through his early life.

So he pretended. Over time, with practice, Washington clothed his persona in dignified, and formal conduct. Carrying himself with decorum effected his natural behavior, and, in the the end defined his life.

The Revolutionary War that Washington valiantly won, also cost young Andrew Jackson his family. Born on the frontier, in a region paralleling North and South Carolina, young Andrew arrived into the world without his father. Jackson Sr had died prior to his birth, leaving Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, and his two older brothers in poverty.

At thirteen Andrew, along with his brother Robert joined the Patriot ranks, were eventually caught, and imprisoned by the British. When a red-coated officer ordered young Andrew to polish his boots, the boy declined, protesting that he was a “prisoner of war, and demanded to be treated as such.” The officer replied by whipping his sword across Jackson’s insolent head and forearms, and a diehard Anglophobe was born. (In early 1815, Colonel Andrew Jackson meted out his revenge on the Brits at the Battle of New Orleans).

The end of the Revolution found young Andrew alone-the only survivor in his family. His brother Robert had succumbed to camp fever from imprisonment, followed by his mother three weeks later. For the rest of his long life, Andrew Jackson lashed out at life, perceiving any disagreement as a challenge to his authority. He governed with the desperate instincts of a survivor.

Of a mild, more genial temperament, Abraham Lincoln came to being in the wilds of Sinking Springs, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a hard scrabbling farmer, while his loving mother Nancy Hanks, lived only until Abe reached the age of nine. Hard work and ever-present death seemed to permeate Lincoln’s young life, and as he grew Abraham grappled with bouts of melancholy.

Exhibiting a quick and curious mind, he struggled to learn on the frontier, finally grasping the rudiments of reading and spelling. But his father saw reading as not accomplishing any chores and young Lincoln had to find tricks to do both, such as clearing trees then reading the primer he kept handy.

His step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston reported that Abe would cipher numbers on a board in char, then scrape away the equation with a knife to solve another.

By young adulthood Lincoln left his father’s farm, and relocated to central Illinois, and made a life in New Salem. Over time Lincoln grew remarkably self-educated, studied law and passed the Illinois bar in 1836.

Of all the resentments he felt toward his father, it was Thomas’s clear lack of ambition and self improvement that nettled the son the most. Upward mobility was America’s greatest gift, and young Lincoln pursued it with relish.

From his first gasping moments Theodore Roosevelt struggled merely to breathe. A child of rank, privilege and wealth, he suffered from debilitating, acute asthma.  His parents, Theodore Sr and Mitty Bullock Roosevelt, stood helplessly over his sick bed, fearing that their little boy wouldn’t survive childhood. Later TR recalled how his father would carry him from his bed, bundle him into an open carriage for a ride through the moist Manhattan darkness. Small for his age, and nearly blind, young Teedee as he was called, began an exercise regime in a gym, built by his father on the second floor of their palatial home on East 20th Street in New York. Over time, using a pommel horse, the rings, and a boxing speed bag to build up his little frame, Theodore Jr visibly grew.

As for his eyes, a hunting trip finally proved to his family that he just couldn’t see. With new glasses, a self made physique and a dogged determination, Theodore Roosevelt brought his indefatigable zest and energy into his presidency.

Today is Presidents Day, 2018, and there is great value in remembering those who have served in this experiment in democracy. All four of these presidents left a distinctive signature of governance, schooled by earlier experience. And all, even Andy Jackson, governed in the spirit of service, believing they could make a contribution to this boisterous, ever-evolving nation.

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

The Running Joke

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Each year, by spring break, my history classes had completed their study of the Kennedy years, 1961-1963. We discussed the glamor, the space program, civil rights, his charisma and humor with the press, and most importantly, JFK’s intense struggle with Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. In a provocative challenge to America, Khrushchev ordered the building of the Berlin Wall, and construction of nuclear missile sites in Cuba. This second and more direct challenge led to the 1962 Missile Crisis. At the end of deconstructing Kennedy’s delicate decision-making and the negotiations that peacefully ended the 13 day crisis, I often joked, “aren’t you glad Andrew Jackson wasn’t president?” That line always earned a good laugh from the kids.

But really it isn’t funny. Not any more. Let me explain.

America’s seventh president was a mercurial character. He loved blindly and hated passionately. If convinced his honor had been challenged, the man dueled—sometimes with pistols, sometimes with knives. It all depended on how he felt. The provocation behind most of these confrontations concerned Jackson’s wife, Rachel, who had, unknowingly, years earlier, married Jackson before her divorce from her abusive, first husband had completed.

In one deadly episode, Jackson challenged Charles Dickinson, a noted marksman, to a duel for speaking Rachel’s name in a tavern. In preparation, the future president selected an oversized cape to wear to the dueling grounds. Jackson intended to disguise the precise location of his heart, knowing Dickinson would take deadly aim on his upper left chest. And the ploy worked. Though Jackson did take a slug in his left shoulder, he remained on his feet, successfully shooting and killing his adversary.

In another instance, Jackson determined that Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, was his greatest enemy. A Cincinnati newspaper had published the old account of Rachel’s adulterous past, during the hotly contested election of 1828. As it happened, the Ohio newspaper editor who published the story was a good friend of Clay’s. Making matters worse, Rachel read the story of her checkered past—the shock apparently killing the woman who should have been First Lady. For the rest of his days, Jackson opposed Clay at every legislative turn, coolly remarking later that one of his regrets was not shooting Senator Clay.

Reelected in 1832, Andrew Jackson went on to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, the central financial institution of the young country. Clay had supported this bank, which was enough reason for Jackson to see to its destruction. The President promptly vetoed a renewal charter on the bank, removing Federal funds at once. Jackson then turned around and deposited the money into pet banks, local private, unregulated concerns across the country. Mismanaged by these small firms, the country fell into one the longest, deepest depressions in American history—the Panic of 1837. An astounded Senate formally censured President Jackson for this reckless deed, condemning Jackson’s conduct. Later, still enormously popular in the expanding west, and rural South, Jackson orchestrated a complete purge of this censure from the Congressional Record. His bitter enemies began referring to him as “King Andrew the First.”

In another, darker moment, Congress, a bastion of Jacksonians, passed the 1832 Indian Removal Act, aiding of the State of Georgia to rid themselves of the Cherokee nation. Gold had been found on Indian lands, and the acreage attracted white farmers. When the Supreme Court ruled that the Indians could remain on their lands, Jackson didn’t bat an eye. He ordered the US Army to force, not just the Cherokee, but other tribes onto the “Trail of Tears.” When asked about his bald defiance of the Court’s decision, Jackson remarked, “It’s (Chief Justice John) Marshall’s decision, let him enforce it.”

Inside Jackson’s world, people belonged in neat categories. As master of his plantation, the Hermitage, near Nashville, blacks were property. As a “gentleman” women were helpless ornaments, and in General Jackson’s eyes, natives were fair game, to be removed or exterminated. (See the Red Stick War.) And this president believed he represented the will of the American people, no judicial or governmental restritions concerned him.

So the joke regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 resonated with my high school juniors. JFK’s skillful handling of that perilous moment would certainly have turned out far differently in the hands of hotheaded, autocratic, Andrew Jackson.

But today the joke isn’t so funny. Once again America is saddled with an impulsive strongman who’s hunger for power rails against legal limits. Moreover, this new Commander in Chief shows little understanding of America’s legal tradition–of basic high school civics. In fairness, some Americans like his brand of knee-jerk improvisation, same as in the day of Jackson. But the  facade doesn’t resonate with the rest of us–his antics aren’t leadership. Much like Andrew Jackson, this current president carries himself as a wannabe monarch.

Most of us have been raised to avoid talking politics with friends and family as rude. But this is no ordinary moment in America. While we smile and chat about the weather Native Americans are once again harmed by an order signed by an indifferent President. His all-white, largely male cabinet has quickly dispensed with programs that aid women and African-Americans, marginalizing gender and race issues as unimportant. His administration’s malice toward American-Muslims and silence regarding violence toward Jewish-Americans is disturbing. The worst treatment, treatment Jackson would recognize, has been reserved for immigrants, especially those from south of the border, or escaping war zones in the Middle East.

This writer believes that in a reversal of chronology, Jackson may have launched those nuclear warheads in 1963. His behavior from an earlier time leaves little doubt. The pertinent question this morality tale raises is this; what could this petulant president, with little impulse control do in the turmoil of a similar crisis?

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

Justice as a Force

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President Andrew Jackson has stopped spinning in his grave. Finally. He hated paper money with all the fiber in his being, and now thankfully for him, no longer tacitly endorses its use. Jackson was a sound money man and believed gold the only genuine medium of exchange . . . weigh-able, bite-able gold; good ole “cash on the barrel-head.” In fact, the President believed so passionately in the principle of gold bullion that he banned any use of paper money for any transaction whatsoever. This same policy, in the end, torpedoed the US economy and triggered the Panic of 1837.

That financial disaster held on for over five chilly years.

But the day has arrived, America has finally heard Jackson’s cries of anguish from the great beyond, and removed his likeness from that raggedy heresy of ersatz value. Still, one has to wonder. What would General Jackson make of runaway slave, Harriet Tubman taking his place on legal tender?

Ms. Tubman, as a woman, and as a slave, lived invisibly in Jackson’s world. The only notice a planter like Jackson would have made was Tubman’s incorrigible practice of stealing another master’s property. For a man of deep passions, of violent loves and hates, her offense would have pissed this president off, and sent him into a dangerous rage. In his world of master and slave, her offenses allowed no mercy, no reprieve.

As for Tubman? She understood a truth that Jackson could never, ever have comprehended—that justice was a force that bore no designation to color, gender, or appraised value. A mighty truth reigned far above the limited aspirations of General Andrew Jackson, killer of banks, Natives, and the hopes of the hundreds he held in bondage.

Tubman’s idea of honorable behavior had nothing to do with white men firing pistols on dueling grounds, and that white social conventions which condemned her to servitude were wholesome and noble. The human condition, as Tubman understood the meaning, held a deeper significance, an importance that required a profounder appreciation. The world of plantations, race hatred, whip wielding overseers, and economic injustice held no real sway, and certainly possessed no honor.

Jackson’s opinions truly hued in only black and white, and that outlook wasn’t limited to skin color. Abstract ideas like ‘humanity’ didn’t resonate in his mind, too ethereal for a man who loved gold coins. Banks were bad, women were ornaments, Indians were fair game, and blacks were slaves. That simple. Of course at the same time, this limited world view gave a figure with Tubman’s vision the edge. If a man of Jackson’s time and station caught a glimpse inside the real thoughts of his “family” members living over in the slave quarters, his mind would have been blown.

So it is with some satisfaction that Harriet Tubman replaces Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. But not only because she’s a woman, nor only because she’s black. The star she followed may have literally sparkled in the northern sky, but every footstep she trod signified progress on the road to realizing the immeasurable value in us all.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January