Kindred Spirit?

Sen Henry Clay portrait (left of door.)

The word from a Kentucky acquaintance is Mitch McConnell fancies himself a Henry Clay scholar. That probably means little to most, but Senator Clay (1777-1852) nearly single-handedly held the US together, postponing Civil War for over 40 years.

With a name that epitomizes progress and compromise, it feels odd Mitch McConnell proclaims a kindred spirit in Senator Clay. This earlier Kentucky Senator bent over backwards to protect and promote the vitality of our young nation. 

Clay rolled up his sleeves and cultivated coalitions among his fellow law makers to keep the nation from fracturing. He orchestrated the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850; all of which threatened the Union. In fact, the Civil War erupted after Clay’s death as no other Senator demonstrated the talent and determination to keep Congress talking.

In the interest of full disclosure, yes, Henry Clay owned slaves. And yes, he believed in gradual emancipation as slavery proved antithetical to economic progress. His commitment to the survival of America drove his efforts, and Clay worked with political factions, even those he opposed.

McConnell does nothing. The now Minority Leader takes pride in doing nothing. Invoking Senator Clay is nothing more than cover for a vain and foolish politician to self-promote. Clay was no stubborn old fool who dug in his heels waiting to become obsolete. 

Henry Clay served his country, McConnell serves himself.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Hysteria and Martyrs

I didn’t care what my students thought. Their opinions were no business of mine. That they knew how to express those ideas, using factual information, was my business.

To introduce point of view, and critical thinking a quick textbook analysis did the trick. In groups (I assigned) students researched various history texts to spot biases in the presentation of historic facts. 

Over the years, a collection of comped survey books had accumulated on my classroom shelf. I used them for my own preparation, but decided to teach the same techniques to the kids. The task was pretty simple. All groups were asked to look up the two same topics: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. They noted the title of the text, the authors, the publication date, and any particular word choices used to explain or describe each episode.

This was the first day of school, mind you, and holy cow the results rocked these 15-year-olds orderly world.

When each group reported their conclusions, skewed viewpoints abounded. In other words the same facts drew decidedly different conclusions.

One book blamed the Witch Trials on tensions stemming from continuous Native attacks. Another blamed simmering resentment over social class, inheritance disputes, and property ownership. Moldy grain was to blame according to the Prentice Hall book. The good people living north of Boston were tripping on ergot fungus, a hallucinogen spreading on damp wheat baked into bread.

Nearly all texts made use of the terms “fear,” and “hysteria.”

The John Brown case provided even more interesting results. If the book had been published before 2001, Brown generally came off a saint. If after, the language use grew more sinister. In pre-911 America, fighting slavery had a righteous, noble language, that justified the violence. Something to the effect that, in the name of the mighty Jehovah, Brown martyred himself to strike a blow against evil. By contrast, books published after the collapse of the Twin Towers dismiss Brown’s means as unfortunate, though slavery was still bad.

By the end of this exercise students often seemed flummoxed asking “who can we believe?” 

“Yourself, of course, and your analysis skills,” I always replied.

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

For more explanation on this lesson email at gailchumbley@gmail.com

An America To Believe In

Religion in politics presumes all citizens essentially hold to the same beliefs. This premise also maintains that religious conformity assures civic virtue, and good order. However, in practice theocracies actually run counter to effective government, as invoking God in public debate stymies the free exchange of ideas. Without the “free market of ideas,” nothing advances, resulting in national decline.   

The Constitution’s framers did not lightly pen any Article, Section, or Clause in their work, nor in the later Bill of Rights. James Madison, in particular, analyzed other government systems, both past and current to his time. What he and other’s found was politics combined with religion sows inevitable public conflict; damaging both political and religious institutions. Madison’s purposeful language in drafting the First Amendment signaled the United States would not make that same mistake. 

This legal tradition stemmed from the lessons of Colonial New England. Puritan dissenters, such as Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson publicly rejected mandatory church compliance. Williams, later exiled to Rhode Island, defended his convictions writing,

Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.

As the first Catholic-Presidential candidate, John F Kennedy later echoed,

. . .it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

And that was the point. American citizens can freely worship, or not-that is the essence of our liberty. Law cannot dictate conscience, as our thoughts are as unique as our finger prints.

Despite the secular legacy of American law, religious prerequisites still surface in one era or another. In the earliest years of the Republic a fervor of evangelism blazed, recognized today as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning around 1800, and lasting until the Civil War, endless, exhausting revivals across the country grew routine. Loosely paralleling “The Age of Jackson,” a political leavening with evangelicalism made for an interesting amalgam, a blend of both the sacred and secular . .  .individual choice. 

As democracy advanced inland as swift as any camp revival, voting rights increasingly extended to the lower classes. White farmers and tradesmen were permitted, in exchange for a poll tax, to cast votes. Working class men could not only choose to follow their vision of Jesus, but back political favorites, with the same evangelical passion. 

Another unexpected outcome of the Second Great Awakening came in the form of countless spinoffs. Rural isolation cultivated a veritable Golden Corral of new religions. William Miller, of upstate New York, forecast the return of Christ as imminent. He, and his followers believed Jesus would reappear sometime between 1843-1844. After the dates passed, with no rapture, the church regrouped becoming today’s Seventh Day Adventists.

Methodists dispatched “circuit riders” into America’s eastern interior. Men like Peter Cartwright, the epitome of a woodland “stump speaker,” could preach the Word of God, while beating the hell out of any heckler. Presbyterians split a couple of times before the Civil War. First, regarding whether or not untrained missionaries could lead revivals, or only seminary trained ministers. This controversy tore believers apart.

The final schism among churches came from the controversy over slavery. And that time bomb came through Biblical interpretation as well. In the North believers felt their duty was to take action against such a grave sin. Southerners, however countered that God made no mistakes. In fact, it was God himself who appointed masters, and placed the slaves beneath them. Rather a handy absolution.

Wisdom, indeed, abounded inside the chamber of Constitution Hall. Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and other lights hoped to avoid religious mistakes from the past, and took measures avoid the danger.

Perhaps the best advice on separation came from Justice William O Douglas in the court’s ruling, Engel V Vitale, 1962.

“once government finances a religious exercise it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.”

Dictating conscience is a fools errand, and a liberated conscience is the promise of America.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

You’ve Been Played

Strains between the North and South reached critical mass in the mid-19th Century, provoked by the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. A mere month later, on December 20th, 1860, the South Carolina legislature reacted by voting to secede from the Union. By Spring, 1861, the Confederate States of America solidified, and in April cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor, triggering fraternal war. 

How in the world did the slave-holding planter class persuade the mass of their social inferiors, those they most held in contempt, to fight and die for this so-called “glorious cause?”

The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. People from the lower rungs aspired to rise in this tightly prescribed Southern caste system. Planters set the standard of ideal gentility, and few were permitted entry. A small middle class of land holding farmers and city merchants, aimed to climb as well; complete with acquiring their own slaves, and exert influence over others. Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed the broadest class of poor whites, those who precariously scratched out some kind of desperate existence from what was left.

Widespread contempt for this hardscrabble class was evident by pejoratives that are still around today. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, and later hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.   

Back in that era, the incentive for most meant land ownership, with it a higher social standing, and ownership of a few slaves to call their own. 

Generally speaking, the Old South distrusted the outside world; foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, suffragettes, or anyone who might upset the strict sectional code. The consequences for the region were profound. While the world moved forward, innovated, and modernized, southern society remained stuck, ruled by fossilized reactionaries, who were quick to defend the status quo.

Outside moral judgement over this antiquated society galvanized most in the South. Outraged and insulted, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend their system and interests, despite any real prospect of upward mobility, nor any mixing of social rank.

Dear modern GOPers, wherever you may reside, party leadership does not wish to serve you. Candidates want your money and your vote to serve themselves. They are happy to scapegoat whatever minority, or public institution, you wish. (Not to mention piling it on the poor for good measure). But you serve them, this dynamic is designed to move upward, delivering cash and power to the top.

In short, you’ve been played by your chosen betters.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Crime Against America

From NBC News.

The man in the portrait is mid-19th Century Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.

A fierce opponent of slavey, Sumner delivered a scathing speech titled, “The Crime Against Kansas,” denouncing the proposed addition of a new slave state from Nebraska Territory. After his two-day denunciation of the “peculiar institution” the Senator was beaten in the Senate chamber, nearly to death, by a defender of slavery.

This symbol of slavery, waved by a domestic terrorist is especially repulsive.

And this Judas has no idea.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Steal This Letter

If you feel like contacting your Republican Senators copy and paste this one. Tweak it for your own state and issues.

Senator,

Donald Trump’s stubborn refusal to face the reality of his election loss is as dangerous an assault on our nation as 911, and much more damaging than Pearl Harbor.

This election fiasco flies in the face of American traditions. General Washington sacrificed much of his personal happiness to found our nation. As America’s first president, he placed our republic above any personal comfort, and Washington’s legacy bears that out. When his officers suggested he take the reins of power, the general declined and went home to Mt Vernon.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln preserved what Washington had begun, our Union. And though it cost him his life, the United States was Lincoln’s primary concern.

Both men, a founding father, and the savior of the Union, counted their interests as secondary, because America mattered more than any one man. Now, through a series of events, that responsibility has fallen to you. The GOP majority in the Senate can end this assault on our heritage, and you can make that happen. 

Your forebears would be proud.

The Republican Party came into being on a noble, decent premise. It is the Party of Lincoln, not a lout from Queens.

*Please don’t patronize me with excuses.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Unforgivable Curse

Many of us have read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and/or watched the films. The author created a wondrous world of spells, incantations, and even included law and order via three unforgivable curses. 

There are guardrails in this tale, and a bit of a messiah storyline. Harry willingly sacrifices himself, as had his parents and many others before. However, the “Boy Who Lived,” does, and returns to fight and vanquish wickedness. 

Love, too, permeates the storyline, and the righteous power of good over evil. 

But that’s not my take.

As a career History educator I came to a different conclusion; Harry Potter told me that failing to understand our shared past can be lethal. And that was the metaphor I preached to my History students.

Harry rises to the threat and defends all that is good and valuable in his world. If he didn’t, Harry could have been killed and his world destroyed.

It’s so apropos at this moment in our history to grasp our collective story as Americans.

Honest differences within the confines of our beliefs is one thing. Obliterating the tenants of democracy is quite another. 

Americans cannot surrender our country to this would-be dictator, the things that have cost our people so dearly. Freezing soldiers at Valley Forge did not languish to enable DJT to trademark his brand to hotels, steaks or a failed university. The fallen at Gettysburg, and the suffering in Battle of the Bulge was not to pave the way for DJT to get us all killed from a ravaging plague. The girls who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the miners murdered in the Ludlow Massacre, or humiliated Civil Rights workers beaten at the Woolworth’s lunch counter was not for Donald Trump to validate racism and sexism and undo labor laws. 

He doesn’t know our nation’s history, and as George Santayana warned us, we are condemned to sacrifice all over again. 

Vote. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #4

Just My Imagination, Running Away With Me.

*Whitfield & Strong

The President fumed, crushing buttons on his cell phone, as if each tab detonated an explosion. On the big screen Wolf Blitzer, voice flat and controlled, droned on how the President continued to lag in the polls. 

“Fake news,” he muttered out of habit, and switched the channel.

Perched on the edge of an upholstered armchair, he clutched his remote in one hand, and his cellphone in the other, seething at the unfairness of the coverage.The broadcast cut to a political commercial; a carefully spliced montage of his public faux pas, ending with an endorsement from his adversary. 

“Ukraine,” he muttered, “Got to talk to Mitch and Kevin about a new Ukraine investigation.” 

“You cannot coerce them, you know.” The voice came from behind. “The people. They cannot all be manipulated, much as you might try. Most are not fools, and any goodwill must be earned.”

Not accustomed to direct insolence, the President twisted around in his chair snapping, “Just who the hell are . . .,” then trailed off. A tall, painfully angular man stood near a richly paneled door. Attired in a long black coat with tails, the visitor sported whiskers along his jawline.

“And they will never all love you. Ever. Such is the raucous nature of American democracy.”

The apparition paused a long moment. “Sowing divisions through fear and vitriol is not governing, and you shall surely fail.” The visitor stepped closer as he spoke, prompting the President to spring out of his chair, phone and remote forgotten on the carpet. 

“I recognize you . . .,” the President sputtered.

“We, all of us, sought this office fueled with purpose and ambition,” the visitor continued in a prairie twang. “However, once under oath, the campaign is over. A president faces the duty of serving all Americans, a challenge in the best of circumstances.

From the flickering screen a news anchor admonished, “Aides have confirmed that the President knew of the virus as early as February.” 

“It’s those hacks,” the President stabbed his finger accusingly at the big screen. The press is out to. . .”

His visitor laughed without humor. “Criticism of elected officials is as natural as the sun rising, and as perpetual. ‘Baboon’ was the nicest insult slung my way . . .by a serving general, no less. Then he up and ran against me in 1864.” The visitor chuckled lightly. “Still, the truth is we are all better with free speech than without. In our differing views we discover our deepest truths.”

By now the President began tuning out much of what the visitor was saying, his irritation making him bold. “You need to leave,” he snapped. “I have a busy schedule.” 

Unruffled, the unwelcome guest studied the President intently. “In my time an entire section of the nation disputed the results of my election.”

“You lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral?” The President couldn’t help but ask.

“Indeed. Eleven southern states chose the battlefield over a peaceful transfer of power.” 

“What did you do?” 

“I defended the Republic.”

His visitor continued sadly. “However the butcher’s bill for this unity came dearly; 700,000 American lives.” The visitor heaved a weary sigh. “And that delicate balance has endured through all national crises, preserved only through considerable effort and executive leadership. A unity you undermine at every opportunity. ” 

“Wrong, wrong, wrong. My supporters all love me. You should see the crowds at my rallies.”

“And the rest of America?” The visitor peered intently at the President. “Remember sir, we are friends, not enemies. We must not be enemies.” His voice quietly trailed off in an echo, and he was gone.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

New Name Same Party

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On Twitter, Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Congressman Louis Gohmert, R-Texas have been been busy disseminating political fiction.

Both have tweeted on the Democratic Party as the perpetrators of the Civil War, racism, and other misleading accusations.

Were these two guilty of sleeping through their history classes, or purposefully spreading propaganda to other former classroom snoozers? 

The Democratic Party evolved from Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the US Constitution. Jefferson had been abroad during the Constitutional Convention and upon his return quickly made his objections known. A planter and slave master, this “natural aristocrat” resisted any higher form of government that checked his own authority.

Jefferson rejected the notion that a distant power knew better than he, the master of Monticello. He favored a small, disinterested government that coordinated foreign affairs, trade, and not much more. Men such as himself could better govern localities than any distant political power.

As America’s third president, Jefferson envisioned a Republic of “farmers,” like himself, running their own fiefdoms across the continent. (That is until he bought Louisiana, where he stretched the Constitution plenty).

That’s about it. That was the essence of the 18th, and early 19th Century philosophy supporting the Democratic Party. Oh, and the party shuffled names over that time, as well, though never wavering from the belief that local government served democracy best.

First, called Antifederalists, for opposing the Constitution, then Jeffersonian-Republicans, opposing Hamilton’s Federalists. Later, after the War of 1812, the name became Democratic-Republicans, then simply Democrats under Andrew Jackson. Still the philosophy endured; curb centralized economic, and other domestic investments and maintain local control.

The late 20th Century’s Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War brought about yet another rebranding of the party. Ronald Reagan’s election moved the Solid South from Democratic to Republican.

Reagan’s famously asserted that big government wasn’t the solution, but the problem. And that suited former southern Democrats just fine. Less government, less in taxes, and more local control. Relaxing economic regulations, and starving domestic programs rounded out the 1980 agenda. 

When Ted Cruz and Louis Gohmert spout off on the villainy of the Democratic Party, don’t be fooled. Remember that these sons of the South embrace the same old Jeffersonian ideology today, neatly packaged under the now-eroding GOP.  

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