Why We Try

2017 Women’s March

When I first began this essay it ripened to nearly five hundred words to share one idea. Why I am a life-long Democrat. 

The original essay discussed the New Deal, the creation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, and how strengthening Labor Unions evoked a sense of common purpose; how the economy boomed, and the middle class flourished.

Now all I want to impart is that Ronald Reagan was wrong. Big government is not the problem. Big government checked by regulations works remarkably well. 

I am a Democrat because with all its flaws, we stand equal in the eyes of Constitutional Law.* People made the Constitution, and we must preserve it. In general, States’ Rights is no more than a distraction perpetrated by selfish insiders who legislate their own interests. Residents are convinced through a wink and a nod, that the enemy (Big Government) must be defied, using catch phrases like “our values,” and “real conservative.”

In truth, the Federal Government can do more for all of us than any individual state, or any individual citizen can do for themselves. As I write, Idaho’s governor has asked for, and been granted federal funds for drought aid. Talk about biting the hand that feeds the State.

I am a Democrat because I’m inspired by the nobility of America’s past champions; the persistence of General George Washington, the compassion of Abraham Lincoln, the purpose of Alice Paul, and the articulate vision of Barack Obama. I am a Democrat because James Madison instructed us to create “A More Perfect Union.” Without that persistence, compassion, purpose, and vision America cannot continue as “the world’s last best hope,” as Lincoln also described us.

At bottom I am a Democrat because I know not one of us is perfect. We just keep trying. 

*Just heard the headline regarding the reversing of the Roe decision. Time to gather 4,600,00 of my best friends (2017 Women’s March) and organize.

Redundant

The last five years bear proof that voting is a precious right, made real through two centuries of courage, and bloody violence. The extension of the vote, the collective voice of our political will, did not expand without difficulty or sacrifice. 

In the early days of the Republic, the founders struggled to strike a balance between their own political interests, and those of the public. The founders considered citizens as too mercurial, too easily swayed, to be trusted with the vote. Only men of standing, knowledge, and property were qualified to cast ballots.

As populations moved westward, new states allowed all white males voting rights. Making use of “poll taxes,” farmers and tradesmen paid a fee to participate in elections. The money indicated that the voter had some means, and a stake in the community. Still, voting at that time was a boisterous affair, as men publicly announced their choices to officials. That practice, combined with hard liquor guaranteed election day ended with a bloody fight or two.

Political machines, like New York’s Tammany Hall, lined up voters like soldiers each election day. Bosses such as William Marcy “Boss” Tweed maintained power manipulating elections like clockwork, assuring outcomes before the votes were ever counted.

Women labored long and fruitlessly for the vote. Seeking rights of citizenship, women wanted not only the franchise, but the equal legal standing before the law. The forces of inertia and sexism held fast, believing ladies must stay home where they “belonged.” Politics was seen as too complex an issue for the female brain, as they were smaller, (I kid you not). More custom than written law, the practice of “coverture” considered the call for women’s suffrage as redundant. Women, as dependents, like their children, were legally “covered” by their husbands’ vote. He, as head of the family voted for the entire household.

Not until 1919, after a century of ridicule and abuse, did women earn the right to vote. And even then just barely. Once the 19th Amendment reached the Tennessee legislature for ratification, the bill passed by a single representative’s vote, making the state the 36th and last state to approve.

The path to black suffrage provides the most perilous story. Considered property in antebellum America, branded 3/5’s of a human being in the Constitution, these people faced impossible hurdles after the Civil War. While Union soldiers remained in the South as occupiers, black men voted, per the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. However, once the blue coats with their bayonets left, that moment of possibilities passed.

Black codes, a carryover from pre-war slave codes, and violence at the hands of homegrown terrorist (KKK, and the Knights of the White Camelia), a black man risked his life attempting to cast a ballot. After 1876, marking the end of Reconstruction, Southern society returned to “normal” with blacks clutching the lowest rung.

It took a World War to breathe life into the Civil Rights Movement. Even then white resistance pushed back against the movement. Through the courts, the NAACP argued that case law favored black suffrage. Falling back on the 14th and 15th Amendments, attorneys like Thurgood Marshall jousted against white supremacy at all levels of society. In 1964, Freedom Summer introduced a massive voter registration drive, garnering enough leverage to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Old school Redeemers, like today’s Senator Mitch McConnell watched and waited to gut the law after the election of President Obama. McConnell argued with a black president, no need remained for the ’65 Act.

So where does that leave black and brown Americans today? Outraged. States, largely in the South are once again purging black voters from precinct rosters. Why? Because white supremacists in the South still feel they must suppress those voters to maintain white power.

Now that is redundant.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley also penned two history plays, “Clay” and “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Worst White Man

This is an image from a college history text. The visual illustrates Southern society in years prior to the Civil War. There are plenty of inferences to derive from this chart; the most revealing being how little America has changed.

Although the election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked a high note in the story of America, our coming of age, so to speak, the violent reaction has exposed an old low.

In the aftermath of the Obama years, ugly ghosts have been summoned and let loose. Specifically, as in the years prior to the Civil War, the Southern aristocracy has, once again, activated yeoman, and lower class whites to fight their battles. How? Reinforcing the idea that a black president was one too many for today’s white aristocracy.

The depth of modern racism honestly feels surprising, proving that America actually hasn’t grown at all. In fact, a new civil war is underway, unleashing a fresh wave of fury from the most dangerous creature of all–an armed underclass white man. Planter society still reigns, and has incited those who believed they’ve been shortchanged by a complex, and changing country.

The link tying the 1860’s to the 21st Century? Convincing poor whites that the worst white man is still a better president than the best black man. (And I don’t mean Joe Biden.)

This needed to be said, so I said it.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Joe In 170 Words

This is a letter of support recently send to newspapers across Idaho. With Kamala Harris named as Biden’s running mate today, it is clear good government awaits America in 2021.

Joe Biden has my enthusiastic support for president. Joe is humble, compassionate, and has dedicated his career to America. His experience in foreign affairs will fortify our country against unfriendly powers; those foes across the sea who would like to see the US collapse from within. 

Domestically, the VicePresident honors our legacy of rights, balanced with the courage to tell us when we must reach out for the common good. 

Biden’s experiences reflect our own. We have also lost loved ones, lived paycheck to paycheck, and most importantly he understands that America is about people, not just about racking up wealth. There is a proportion in Joe Biden’s character, and he listens in order to understand the difficult situations we all face. 

As our first President, George Washington knew he was no orator, nor a writer. But he was honest like Joe, and knew himself. Washington surrounded himself with the brightest; Hamilton, Jefferson, Henry Knox, and others, setting the nation we have today into motion. 

Joe Biden will restore it.

Gail Chumbley,

Garden Valley

Symmetry

This reactionary-looking fellow is Marylander Roger Brooks Taney, an Andrew Jackson appointee to the Supreme Court. History remembers Justice Taney as the author of the Court’s most infamous ruling in Scott V Sandford (1857).  

Taney had frequently telegraphed his views on slavery and American citizenship, insisting that blacks had no rights white men were bound to respect. Even before his nomination to the bench, a free black had requested documents for overseas travel that Roger Taney, as then US Attorney General, instantly rejected. Taney conceded his legal views long before dawning judicial robes; blacks were not citizens, and never could be. Travel documents for this man of color were denied.

Another important element in this story concerns the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Settled eight years prior to the Jackson Administration, this legislation directed that with the exception of the new state itself, slavery would be forbidden above Missouri’s southern border. Most Americans hoped that this Missouri Compromise Line would endure forever, clearly delineating for posterity new slave states from free.

However, with westward migration and the advent of Roger Taney, that hope flickered and died, speeding up the advent of Civil War.

By the time the Scott case reached the Federal docket, violence and bloodshed had erupted west of Missouri, out on the Kansas prairie. Emigrants recently arrived from northern and southern states, were to vote upon the fate of slavery in the new state’s constitution. A volatile mix of invading, pro-slavery Missouri Ruffians attacked Free-State Jayhawkers near Lawrence, sparking deadly violence across the region. Unrepentant slaveholders demanded their 5th Amendment property rights (meaning slaves) were allowed any place slaveholders settled. At the same time, equally fervent opponents of slavery contended the “peculiar institution” would remain contained where it existed, never to pollute new territories, or America’s future.

Justice Taney took umbrage at these incessant attacks on slavery, and at those Northern rabble rousers who would not respect the law. When the Scott case entered deliberations it appears Taney intended to settle the question for all time, silencing forever those interfering, and self-righteous Yankees. When the Court issued its ruling in 1857, Justice Taney’s opinion rang out with authority, and finality.

  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 dispute, Justice Taney had, in fact, only stoked a more massive inferno.

Indeed war exploded within four years of Taney’s decision, blazing on for another bloody four years. In the aftermath, in an interesting turn of symmetry, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, reversed all of Taney’s arguments, provision by provision. 

  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 meal inauguration day, and when the moment came for the swearing in, President Obama selected the same Bible as touched by Abraham Lincoln’s right hand.

In a last twist of symmetry that Bible belonged to Justice Roger B Taney.

 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com