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 continues 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 may try. Most are not fools, and any goodwill must be earned by deed.”

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 white paneled door. Attired in a long black coat with tails, the visitor sported jawline whiskers, mid-19th style. 

“And they will never all love you. Ever. Such is the raucous nature of American democracy. Sowing divisions through fear and vitriol is not governing, and you shall fail.” The visitor stepped closer as he spoke, prompting the President to leap out of his chair, his phone and remote dropping to 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 midwestern 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 challenged 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 find our deepest strength.”

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 war, peace, depressions, and 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 peer 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.

Civics And Civility

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” 14th Amendment 1868

This apparently is news to a number of Americans.

In 1857 the Supreme Court held that blacks were not American citizens, only property. This controversial ruling sparked a storm of dissent, and accelerated the coming of Civil War.

During that conflict, President Lincoln tasked his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, to investigate what exactly constituted national citizenship in other countries. From his research Secretary Seward concluded that citizenship came simply from being born in a given nation. Period. And the 14th Amendment, three years after the war chiseled that principle into law.

This current inhabitant in the White House doesn’t know the first thing about America, and shares his deficiencies freely. His effort to cast eligibility doubts regarding Senator Harris, is just another shovel-full.

If he wishes to describe Senator Kamala Harris as an anchor baby, then I am one, as well. A few generations ago my people immigrated to the midwest for a better shot at life. In fact, if what this ignoramus insists is true, then we all make up the United States of Anchor Babies.

Vote no matter what.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books 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 perpetrators of the Civil War, racism, and other misleading accusations. Are the two guilty of sleeping through their history classes, or purposefully spreading propaganda to others who also snoozed? 

The Democratic Party evolved from Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the US Constitution. Jefferson had been abroad during the Constitutional Convention and quickly made his objections known. A planter and slave master, this “natural aristocrat” resisted any form of government that deferred to an overarching central government. America’s third president envisioned a Republic of “farmers,” like himself, running their own fiefdoms across the continent. 

Jefferson rejected any higher authority than himself, the master of Monticello, and favored a small, disinterested government that coordinated foreign affairs, and trade. Nothing much more. He proposed that men like himself could better govern localities than any distant entity.  

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, but never wavered from the belief that local government served democracy best. First, as Antifederalists, opposing the Constitution, to Jeffersonian-Republicans, opposing Hamilton’s Federalists, to Democratic-Republicans, then simply Democrats, determined to curb centralized economic, and other domestic programs; all defined by local control and states’ rights.

The late 20th Century’s Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War brought about yet another rebranding. Ronald Reagan’s election moved the solid south from Democrats to Republicans. Reagan’s assertion that big government wasn’t the solution, but the problem, suited former southern Democrats just fine. Less government, less in taxes, with more local control. A relaxation in economic regulation, and shrinking funds for domestic policies 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 moniker 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

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

He Wrote for the Ages

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For starters, I am not a fan of Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the more I know of this founding father, the less I like him. The Sage of Monticello routinely had young male slaves beaten for no better reason than custom, and lay the foundation for secession in 1798 with his Kentucky Resolution.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish hero of the Revolutionary War, once offered to liquidate land holdings in the Northwest Territory to pay Jefferson to free some of his slaves, and Jefferson declined. Disillusioned, Kosciuszko condemned Jefferson as a fraud for once insisting “all men were created equal,” and not practicing that “truth.”

However, the reality remains that Jefferson did indeed, pen those words, and generations of Jeffersonian disciples have insisted those words are enough to maintain his venerated place in American history.

And I agree. His adulators are correct. Jefferson’s words are enough. His phrasing, painstakingly composed in 1776 has ignited the world on the ultimate quest to actualize Jefferson’s “unalienable” assertions. 

Abraham Lincoln took Jefferson’s sentiment to heart, and his devotion moved Lincoln to action. The foundation of the Republican Party rested partly upon removing artificial impediments restraining upward mobility, and Lincoln believed slavery such an obstacle, the most malignant bar to individual betterment. (Duh). In 1859 he stated in a speech, “We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better.” And Lincoln made it his aim to realize that betterment, first with Emancipation, then the 13th Amendment.

There could be no better description for America than a people steadily discarding artificial barriers. Women, Native Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Latino Americans: all of us freed to reach our highest potential. Annoying bigotry places a drag on the process, but justice still manages to surge steadily on, inspired by the words of the Declaration of Independence–Jefferson’s words. 

In reality, Jefferson had meant to argue white wealthy Colonials were of equal standing to Great Britain’s landed aristocracy. Despite his original intent, the promise of those words have outlived that specific moment. 

Understandably, Thaddeus Kosciuszko gave up in the face of Jefferson’s outrageous duplicity. And this generation of fanatics desperately promote Jefferson’s original racism. But, kids, we have inherited an obligation to continue this journey, not only for ourselves but to light the way for our children’s children.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the World War Two-era memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle, and hard copies at http://www.river-of-january.com

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

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

Mixed Emotions

This is a reprint of an earlier post.

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It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic where I live and work. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.

Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest order. So reserved and deliberate in his career was Lee, that he is one of the few cadets who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of George and Martha Washington, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Lee added stature to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful).

When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his leadership qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.

On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip, but he also wasn’t perfect, despite his army’s thinking him so. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.

After speaking with General Grant, in a letter addressed to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .

But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and assassin John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that exhausted Lee died in 1870, and was  buried.

Robert E. Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted. Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.

This current controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee at all. It’s about America in 2017.

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

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 the series was that early life for all four men presented serious challenges. Complications in health, family tragedies, and economic circumstances appear to have shaped the temperaments and the world view of these future presidents.

It was how each overcame difficulties and setbacks, and how that endurance came to influence each of their presidencies.

This is a brief synopsis of what I found.

Behind the image mythologized in “The Life of George Washington, by writer, “Parson” Weems, obscures the reality of a more nuanced, and complex Virginia child. 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, or assured public standing. In Tidewater Virginia, society strictly followed the rules of primogeniture, where only the eldest male inherited, and young Washington could claim nothing, aside from the family name. His father, Augustine Washington had two sons from a 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 lost the formal English education his older brothers had enjoyed. That particular shortcoming forever marked George, leaving him self conscious and guarded through his early life.

To find his way, the youth conducted himself with quiet poise; it was a conscience effort designed to enter the upper echelons of society. Over time, with constant practice, Washington successfully hid his insecurities behind a restrained, and formal persona. So proficient at playing the gentleman, Washington, in fact, became one.

The Revolutionary War that Washington later tenaciously served, 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 months before, leaving Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, and his two older brothers destitute.

At thirteen Andrew, along with his brother Robert, joined the Patriot ranks as runners, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Redcoats. While a captive an officer of the Crown ordered young Andrew to polish his boots, and the boy refused. Young Jackson claimed 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, creating a lifelong Anglophobe. (In January, 1815, 48-year old 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 of his Scots-Irish family. His brother Robert had succumbed to camp fever from his time as prisoner, followed by his mother three weeks later. For the rest of his long life, Andrew Jackson lashed out, perceiving any criticism as a challenge to his honor and 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, Kentucky, near the settlement of Hodgenville. 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, deprivation and tragic personal losses seemed to permeate Lincoln’s young life, and as he grew Abraham grappled with serious bouts of melancholy.

Exhibiting a quick and curious mind, he struggled to educate himself on the frontier. Largely self-taught, Lincoln grasped the rudiments of reading and spelling, but his father saw schooling as idling away time better suited to work. 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 the village of 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 most. Upward mobility was America’s greatest gift, and young Lincoln pursued it with relish.

From his first gasping moments Theodore Roosevelt struggled simply 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 lift him from his bed, bundle him into an open carriage for a long ride through the moist Manhattan night. 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, 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 experiment called America.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

New Birth of Freedom

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We all know the story.

On a mild April night, President and Mary Lincoln attended the final performance of the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, by all accounts was in a light, blissful mood. A week earlier Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and except for some dust ups, the Civil War had ceased. We also know that John Wilkes Booth, and fellow conspirators plotted to kill, not only the President, but the whole order of presidential succession; Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, etc . . . but only Booth followed through with that night’s violence.

Andrew Johnson took office in a whirlwind of shifting circumstances. In the year up to President Lincoln’s death a notable power struggle had taken shape between the President and Congress. America had never before endured a civil war, and the path to reunion had never been trod. As President, Lincoln believed the power to restore the Union lay in the executive branch—through presidential pardon. But an emerging faction in the Republican Party, called the Radicals saw the issue differently. These men operated from the premise that the Confederate States had indeed left the Union—committed political suicide at secession—and had to petition Congress for readmission. (Congress approves statehood). And this new president, Andrew Johnson, was determined to follow through with Lincoln’s policies.

Unfortunately, Johnson was by temperament, nothing like Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln had a capacity to understand the views of his opponents, and utilize humor and political savvy, Johnson could not. Of prickly character, Andrew Johnson entered the White House possessed by deeply-held rancor against both the South’s Planter Class, and newly freed blacks. This new Chief Executive intended to restore the Union through the use of pardons, then govern through his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson had no use for Radical Republicans, nor their extreme pieces of legislation. Every bill passed through the House and Senate found a veto waiting at Johnson’s desk, including the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and the adoption of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress promptly overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Reconstruction began with a vicious power struggle. And much of the tumult came from Andrew Johnson’s inability to grasp the transformation Civil War had brought to America. While the new president aimed to keep government limited, the Radicals and their supporters knew the bloody struggle had to mean something more—America had fundamentally changed. Nearly 700,000 dead, the emancipation of slavery, the murder of Father Abraham, and a “New birth of Freedom” had heralded an earthquake of change.

But Johnson was blind to this reality, seeing only an overreaching Congress, (Tenure of Office Act) and Constitutional amendments that had gone too far. And so it was a rigid and stubborn Andrew Johnson who eventually found himself impeached by a fed-up House of Representatives. Johnson holding on to his broken presidency by a single Senate vote.

 

There have been other eras in America’s past that fomented rapid changes. The Revolution to the Constitutional period, the First World War into American isolation, the Vietnam War stirring up protest and social change. All concluding with reactionary presidencies. No less occurred with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

2008 to 2016 witnessed social change of a new order. Administered by America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, liberty reached further, bringing about change where once-closeted American’s hid. Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in Obergefell V Hodges. The trans community found their champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner. Health care became available to those caught in relentless poverty and preexisting conditions. Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.” And though he didn’t take the Right’s guns, President Obama did successfully direct the mission to nab Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted man.

So when former students began sending horrified texts to me, their old history teacher on election night, 2016, I gave the only explanation history provided. The Obama years introduced change to America that reactionaries could not stomach. (And yes, racism is certainly a large part of the equation).

So now we deal with a Donald Trump presidency. But, Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge and accept what has transpired in the last eight years. The thing about expanding the ‘blessings of liberty,’ is no one is willing to give them back. When push comes to shove, the new president may find himself facing the fate of Andrew Johnson.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.