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

I Want My GOP

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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 nation. 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, but 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.” He was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to solve. And it was here, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded his party and his career.

The new Republican Party had formed six years earlier in Wisconsin, established on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party grew fast. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified party maintained that free labor was an integral component of free market capitalism. The presence of slavery in growing regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future economic 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 in the fire 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, exact language guaranteeing the extension of slavery in 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 move forward.

Southern Democrats moved on as well. In a separate Richmond, Virginia convention Southern Democrats nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

In Baltimore, Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local elections determining the western expansion of slavery. Bolting Democrats in Richmond went further adding an absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party.” I’m not sure what they stood for, but clearly it wasn’t support for Douglas or Breckinridge. Convening in Baltimore as well, in May of 1860, 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, so loudly 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 Democratic Party, and launched 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, social unrest, and racial strife. This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s splintering Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected the 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. Now its true that no party can be all things to all citizens, nor should hardened splinter groups run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to provide 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, a memoir. Available on Kindle

“Set their Feet on the Firm and Stable Earth”

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My mother has made it quite clear that she wants to live at home until the very end. Any member of our family daring to even think ‘assisted living’ can expect a reaming on the scale of a super nova. Mom has no reason to transplant elsewhere. She has her recliner, her adjustable mattress, her crossword puzzles, and her memories in that house. After 53 years under the same roof there is no other place–that home is the center of her universe.

Oddly enough her story somehow broaches the subject of why people do move—in this instance, the story of immigration to America.

The 19th Century American humor magazine, Puck once declared that “Princes’ don’t immigrate,” and that truth has found a lot of support in our historic record. Just a glimpse of current film footage along southern European borders powerfully demonstrate this 19th century truism. The vulnerable from Syria and other destabilized regions of the Middle East grapple with hate, fear and barbed wire to carry their families to safety.

Immigrants to American shores have all shared similar reasons to exchange the familiar, for the unknown. A brief look at America’s earliest settlers well illustrates this dynamic from 1620 to the present.

Some folks were pushed, some were pulled, but all European newcomers set foot on Atlantic shores because there was no reason to remain in the familiar.

Challenges to the Catholic Church provided the first steps toward the flow of populations to leave Great Britain. The Protestant Reformation essentially secularized the English Church, rejecting and replacing the Pope for the British sovereign as leader. Devout believers felt that King Henry’s English Reformation did not go far enough in ridding sacraments for deeper Biblical understanding. This faction became known as “Puritans,” those who wished to cleanse the English Church of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The religious struggle in the British Isles was long and complicated, but ultimately resulted in systematic Puritan persecution. Two phases of believers departed Great Britain as a consequence. First, were the Separatists led by William Bradford, who believed England was damned beyond redemption. This group settled first in Holland, then acquired funding for a journey on the Mayflower to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these folks as the Pilgrims.

Almost ten years later another group of mistreated reformers made landfall further north, closer to Boston. This wave of settlers, unlike the small trickle in Plymouth, came to Massachusetts Bay in a metaphoric deluge. Thousands upon thousands of Puritans departed England, driven out by an intolerant, albeit re-Catholicized crown. Called the Great Puritan Migration, refugees from religious bullying settled from Cape Cod, to the Caribbean.

The Quakers, or Society of Friends, made up another group pushed out of England. In a stratified culture of forced deference to one’s “betters,” this faith recognized the innate equality in all people. Quakers, for example, refused to swear oaths or ‘doft’ their hats in the presence of “gentlemen,” and that impudence made the sect an intolerable challenge to the status quo.

William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and found this punitive treatment of Quakers unjust. However, as a wall to wall adherent to peace and brotherhood, Penn used his childhood connections to the aristocracy to depart to America. King Charles II granted Penn a large tract of land in the New World, where Penn and his followers settled in the 1660’s. “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania set up shop establishing the settlement upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.

The father of President Andrew Jackson, Jackson Senior, stands as an excellent example representing another wave of humanity dispensable to the British Crown. Dubbed Scots-Irish, these were Scotsmen who resisted British hegemony and unification for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of rugged survivors, by the 1700’s, made their way to America. Not the most sociable bunch, these refugees found their path inland, eventually settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single minded this group transitioned from exiles to backcountry folk.

Now the settlers in Jamestown and Georgia offer a different explanation for permanent human migration.

The London Company of Virginia, a corporation, funded an expedition to Jamestown in 1607. Soldier of Fortune, Captain John Smith and his compatriots crossed the Atlantic to get rich. Inspired by the example of Spanish finds in Mexico, these English mercenaries were hopeful of finding golden cities of their own. Almost a disastrous failure, the Jamestown colony survived, not by precious metals, but from cultivating a Native crop . . . tobacco. Eventually arrivals outnumbered departures in the stabilizing Virginia settlement, and the addictive crop paid handsome dividends for London investors.

Georgia, the most southern colony came last, founded in 1732. The brain child of social reformer, James Oglethorpe, this colony of red clay became a dumping ground for victims of England’s byzantine criminal codes. Those of the lowest rungs of English society, from petty pickpockets to hardened felons found themselves “transported” to Oglethorpe’s colony for second chances, and out of the hair of English jailers.

On a side note, slavery explicitly was forbidden in the Georgia charter. And that raises the issue of the last group forced to American shores; African slaves. These unfortunate souls did not want to leave their homes in West Africa. Much like my mother, this group did not wish a new life in a new land. Economic demands brought about this “Middle Passage,” the despicable trade in human cargo, kidnapped for the New World. Force, brutality, and exploitation wrenched these people from their lands to serve those who for contrasting reasons came to live in America. The injustice of this “African Diaspora” still plagues an American society grappling to resolve this age-old injustice.

Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigration as an inherent evil and subverting occurrence. No one lightly pulls up roots. Leaving all that is familiar is an act of desperation, a painful and difficult human drama.

Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to lead.

Oh, and my 84-year old mother just remodeled the house, keeping her Eden fresh and new.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and the newly published River of January: Figure Eight.