So Simple, So Basic

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Social media platforms I’ve read lately insist  public schools no longer teach this particular lesson or that particular subject. And since I was a career history teacher, I want folks to understand that that isn’t necessarily the whole story. If your kids aren’t getting what you believe is important, the problem doesn’t lie in the public classroom. But before I delve into the obstacles, I’d like to describe a slice of my history course.

For sophomores we began the year with the Age of Discovery. As part of this unit students mapped various Native Cultures, placing the Nootka in the Pacific Northwest, and the Seminole in the Florida peninsula. Southwestern natives lived in the desert, while the Onondaga hunted the forests of the Eastern Woodlands. From that beginning we shifted study to Europe, with the end of the Middle Ages. In the new emerging era, Columbus sailed to the Bahamas, and changed the world forever. By the end of the first semester, in December, America had defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and a new government waited to take shape until the second semester began in January.

We covered it all. And did the same for the rest of the material, closing the school year with the Confederate defeat at Appomattox Courthouse, and the trials of Reconstruction. And that was only the sophomore course.

The story of America grows longer everyday, and that’s a good thing. It means we’re still here to record the narrative.

The drawbacks this truth presents? Curriculum writers, in the interest of limited time, have had to decide what information stays and what is cut. For example, pre-Columbian America, described above, was jettisoned in order to add events that followed the Civil War. In short, where we once studied Native Americans in depth, we now focus on the post-Civil War Native genocide. What a message this decisions has leveled on our students!

When I was hired in the 1980’s our school district had one high school. Today there are five traditional secondary schools, and also a scattering of smaller alternatives. The district didn’t just grow, it exploded. To cope with this massive influx of students, administrators reworked our teaching schedule into what is called a 4X4 block. Under this more economical system, teachers were assigned 25% more students and lost 25% of instruction time. We became even more restricted in what we could reasonably cover in the history curriculum. (I called it drive-by history.)

On the heels of this massive overcrowding, came the legal mandates established by No Child Left Behind. Students were now required to take benchmark tests measuring what they had learned up to that grade level. Adult proctors would pull random kids out of class, typically in the middle of a lesson, often leaving only one or two students remaining in their desks. These exams ate up two weeks during the first semester, and another two weeks in the Spring.

If that wasn’t enough, politicians, and district leaders began to publicly demonstrate a great deal of favoritism toward the hard sciences, especially in computer technology. So considering the addition of new historic events, overcrowded classrooms, tighter schedules, and mandatory exams, the last thing history education needed was an inherent bias toward the hard sciences.

Public education was born in Colonial New England to promote communal literacy. Later, Thomas Jefferson, insisted education was the vital foundation for the longevity of our Republic. Immigrant children attended public schools to learn how to be Americans, and first generation sons and daughters relished the opportunity to assimilate. In short, enlightened citizenship has been the aim of public education, especially in American history courses. So basic, so simple.

If indeed, history classes provide the metaphoric glue that holds our nation together, we are all in big trouble. And the threats come from many sides. When our public schools are no longer a priority, open to all, we are essentially smothering our shared past.

Teachers cannot manufacture more time, nor meet individual needs in overcrowded classrooms. And both of these factors are essential for a subject that is struggling to teach Americans about America.

As Napoleon lay dying in 1821, he confessed his own power hungry mistakes, when he  whispered, “They expected me to be another (George) Washington.” Bonaparte understood the powerful lessons of America’s story.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two volume memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.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.

Mixed Emotions

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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 in the middle of my city. 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 dignity. So reserved and deliberate in his life and career, that he was one of a very few who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of Martha Washington, Mary Custis, Lee had American royalty added 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 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 men seeing him so. Eventually, after four years of fighting, running out of men and supplies, facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate General surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Meeting Lee for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck in the company of the celebrated General, blurting something about seeing Lee once in the Mexican War, years earlier.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged cries to arrest and jail Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve. And that’s in the hysterical aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s death. Robert E Lee remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that the General died and is buried.

Lee consciously moved on after the Civil War. He performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what little 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 politicizing his name and reputation.

This controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee. 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.

Words of Honor

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Union General, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in a 1901 interview for a Boston newspaper, shared his recollections of the Confederate Army’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.  Tasked by General Ulysses S. Grant with the formal 1865 surrender of Rebel arms and military gear, Chamberlain described that April day in remarkably vivid detail, despite the passage of over 30 years.

“At a distance of possibly twelve feet from our line, the Confederates halted and turned face towards us. Their lines were formed with the greatest care, with every officer in his appointed position, and thereupon began the formality of surrender.

“Bayonets were affixed to muskets, arms stacked, and cartridge boxes unslung and hung upon the stacks. Then, slowly and with a reluctance that was appealingly pathetic, the torn and tattered battleflags were either leaned against the stacks or laid upon the ground. The emotion of the conquered soldiery was really sad to witness. Some of the men who had carried and followed those ragged standards through the four long years of strife, rushed, regardless of all discipline, from the ranks, bent about their old flags, and pressed them to their lips with burning tears.

“And it can well be imagined, too, that there was no lack of emotion on our side, but the Union men were held steady in their lines, without the least show of demonstration by word or by motion. There was, though, a twitching of the muscles of their faces, and, be it said, their battle-bronzed cheeks were not altogether dry. Our men felt the import of the occasion, and realized fully how they would have been affected if defeat and surrender had been their lot after such a fearful struggle.
. . . “But, as I was saying, every token of armed hostility having been laid aside, and the men having given their words of honor that they would never serve again against the flag, they were free to go whither they would and as best they could. In the meantime our army had been supplying them with rations. On the next morning, however, the morning of the 13th, we could see the men, singly or in squads, making their way slowly into the distance, in whichever direction was nearest home, and by nightfall we were left there at Appomattox Courthouse lonesome and alone.”

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

Waves

 

 

Preaching in 1630, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop, declared the new Puritan settlement a godly utopia, “A City on a Hill.” Since that time Winthrop’s assurance of purpose and perfection has shaped the narrative that is American history. For over two centuries the United States pushed forward striving to make real those founding aspirations. Many Americans, either in groups or as individuals have fought the good fight to extend liberty for all: the most notable example being the abolition of slavery. Yet the path toward realizing the dream of heaven on earth has been many times interrupted with progress’s nemesis—armed warfare.

As Revolutionary War zeal subsided in the late 1700’s, a series of remote camp meetings sparked a movement called the Second Great Awakening. (Yes there was a First) The popularity of these rousing evangelical revivals lit an impassioned fire that called Americans, mostly Northerners to eradicate sin in the shiny new republic. Determined reformers such as Charles Grandison Finney, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton labored tirelessly to rid America of her shortcomings; drunkenness, degrading of women, punitive treatment of the mentally ill, racial inequality . . . in order for the country live up to its charge as a “called nation.”

Despite the diversity of causes and legions of faithful supporters, slavery alone came to dwarf all other movements and to ultimately divide the country. Early instances of violence in the effort to end slavery offered a taste of the violence to come in the Civil War; Abolitionist-editor, Elijah Lovejoy was shot dead in the doorway of his newspaper office, while another anti-slavery editor, William Lloyd Garrison found himself tarred and feathered repeatedly by those who hated his militancy. Zealot John Brown hacked to death five pro-slavers in an episode known as “Bleeding Kansas.” In these instances, “the writing on the wall” had truly been composed in blood.

When hostilities began in April, 1861 the energy of a nation fixated on the course of each battle, fear and resolve ebbing and flowing with each outcome. The shape of America’s future waited in the balance. Finally, after four ghastly years of bloody fighting, Southern hopes of an agrarian, slave-ocracy died, and as President Lincoln so eloquently phrased it, America found “a new birth of freedom.”

Left unaddressed were those other reforms, forgotten in the war. The mentally ill remained behind bars, incarcerated alongside dangerous criminals. Women were legally considered wards of their husbands, with no more standing than dependent children. Countless young children toiled endlessly in textile mills and coal mines, exploited by owners, deprived of any chance for an education. And the legions of former slaves faced a new form of slavery, Jim Crow and sharecropping.

Reform again gathered momentum in the late 19th Century. Aiming once more for that ‘city’ aspiration, the Progressive movement took shape, carried on by a new generation of the faithful, imbued with a sense of social justice to confront the many wrongs left unaddressed from an earlier time, and new issues related to urban growth. Notables from this post bellum movement include; Jane Addams, one of the founders of American Social Work, writer Upton Sinclair and his shocking expose’ The Jungle a condemnation of the meat industry, and John Dewey who normalized public education with coherent curriculum’s and compulsory school attendance. Dewey believed, as had the founders of America, that the nation relied upon and deserved an educated electorate to safeguard the promise of America into the future.

This movement found a great deal of success in improving the country and the lives of its citizens. Building safety reform came on the heels of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. The Jungle brought about the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration, while political reforms included the secret ballot, limiting “Bossism,” and other forms of political corruption.

Then, in 1914 Europe went to war. By 1916 Progressive President, Woodrow Wilson committed America to join in, asking for a declaration against Germany, sending American soldiers into the trenches. And once again, when the guns silenced progressive reforms disappeared as if they had not existed. On the imaginary road to “Normalcy,” the wealthy and powerful misused the country as a personal piggy bank, plundering and cheating with no legal check.

After a decade long litany of economic abuses tanked the Stock Market in 1929, the nation once again turned toward progress, this time on an unparalleled scale. The advent of Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, to the White House marked a revitalization of reshaping America to benefit all Americans. The New Deal remembered for its alphabet agencies, aimed to recover the devastated economy and ward off future abuses that had nearly destroyed the well being of the Republic.

America’s entrance into World War Two bucked the pattern of a reactionary pushback. FDR remained at the helm, until Harry Truman took the reins of government, continuing the tradition of affirming change. GOP President Dwight David Eisenhower kept a moderate hand on the tiller, particularly in the realm of Civil Rights, enforcing the Brown V. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools.

But with JFK’s murder, the wheels once again came off social progress. As much as LBJ tried to give America all he could; The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Highways Beautification Act, Head Start, Medicaid, and many more pieces of his Great Society legislation, Vietnam eroded all the good.

That endless nightmare of a stalemate in Southeast Asia worked at cross purposes for bettering society. The daily body count, student protests, war atrocities, such as the My Lai massacre, or the shock of the TET Offensive in 1968 sapped America’s desire to do anything but find a way out of the jungle.

Promoting the general welfare came nearly to a complete halt by 1980. The advent of the Reagan Revolution, and subsequent downsizing of the federal government left the vulnerable largely on their own. School lunch programs were cut, the mentally ill let out on the streets of America, while the armament industry threw the nation into deep deficits.

On this Memorial weekend it might be good to consider the potential of America when at peace. Trapped today in an endless cycle of war, this nation struggles to find her soul, to embrace together the light of our national promise. Two military presidents, our first, General George Washington and our thirty fourth, General Dwight D. Eisenhower pleaded with America in their farewell remarks to avoid war as the worst use of our best abilities. Both men, forged in the adversity of difficult wars, recognized the wasteful distraction and deadly allure of war. Washington cautioned against “entangling alliances, and Eisenhower “the military-industrial complex.”

Ultimately, those who know war grasps what is truly lost. Every weapon produced in a munitions factory most certainly casts a wrench into the wheels of human progress. Winthrop meant his reference from the book of Matthew to inspire an example to the world. Forcing Americanism by the barrel of a gun is born to failure, achieving nothing lasting but resentment abroad, and stagnating injustice at home.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January, also available on Kindle.

Lay Down His Burdens

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April 14, 1865 fell on Good Friday. It had been five days since General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, and a good, Good Friday for President Lincoln. In high spirits, the President escorted his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln to Ford’s Theater for the final curtain of the comedy, “Our American Cousin,” starring Laura Keene. From his seat in the presidential viewing box, Lincoln was murdered at point blank range by an assassin sneaking from behind.

This famous scenario provides quite the ironic twist considering the high opinion Lincoln held for actors and plays. In a cruel irony, President Lincoln sought refuge from his storm of troubles in Washington theaters, a setting where he could lay down his burdens.

From his earliest days in the White House, Lincoln avidly sought out the Capitol’s many stages. An enthusiast, he fell into the dangerous habit of sneaking out of the mansion, without his wife, without any protection detail, determined to take in any new production advertised in Washington papers. Members in various audiences, who spied the President playing hooky, reported that Lincoln watched these plays transfixed, as absorbed as if he was alone rather than seated in a crowd. Apparently his determination in attending Washington City theaters seemed to eclipse even concern for his own safety and in a city ripe with rebel sympathizers looking to inflict harm on the President.

What could impel a Chief Executive to take such risks in wartime, when many wished him ill? Why would Lincoln place himself in such peril?

Neither a drinking man, nor much interested in other vices, the President instead relished stories, either written or dramatized, where he found the distraction and solace he so desperately needed. A prolific story-teller himself, Lincoln appreciated a well turned tale, either in the books he voraciously consumed, or the yarns regaled on a late night near a warm wood stove. This president hungered for diversions to ease his troubled mind weighted by his intractable problems.

And Lincoln’s burdens, both personal and those of the presidency reached far beyond terrible. A protracted and bloody Civil War, the pain-in-the-neck generals who consistently failed in their duty, his difficult wife, Mary, the tragic loss of two young sons, and an unending flow of reverses from irascible members of Congress. That a well-crafted drama or comedy seemed to salve Mr. Lincoln’s soul must have made the temptation of escaping the White House irresistible, and a nightmare for those Pennsylvania troopers assigned to protect him.

Wilkes Booth knew Lincoln would attend the closing night at Ford’s Theater. The owner of Ford’s Theater had advertised that fact earlier in the day. Booth had, in fact, visited the site to prepare for his ‘greatest’ performance. The narrative in the actor’s deranged thoughts, screamed vengeance and duty to the lost cause of the Confederacy.

But I would like to offer another perspective on those same last moments in President Lincoln’s life.

The narrative Lincoln likely played touched more upon hope and delight. Slavery that April night, existed no more in America, and the battlefields had grown quiet. Much work lay ahead for the nation, but Lincoln knew he would attend to those matters as they emerged. For that one night the President did what he loved most—attended a theatrical production, and even better for his rising spirits, a comedy.

At the moment Booth pulled that derringer’s trigger, Lincoln was laughing. The whole audience, in fact, had erupted in guffaws, at an expertly delivered punch line. Perhaps that is how we ought to frame the horrific murder of our greatest commander in chief. While the murderer fumed in hate and revenge, Lincoln over flowed with concentrated joy, reveling in all that was good.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, also available on Kindle

Duty Faithfully Performed

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April 9th, today marks the 151st anniversary of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, ending the Civil War.

Lee didn’t want to to do it. He remarked to his aides that he’d rather ride his horse, Traveler, into a meadow and be shot by the Yankees, than surrender. But the General didn’t relinquish his burden that way, instead he did his duty.

Even General Grant sat in awe of his most worthy foe. Poor Grant seemed to have felt his social inferiority even in the midst of his greatest military victory. Grant informed Lee he had seen him once in the Mexican War, almost stalling, avoiding the business at hand. The Ohio-born Grant came from humble beginnings becoming one of the most unlikely warrior-heroes in history. Graciousness and duty impelled the Union Commander to receive General Lee with quiet, somber respect.

I would bet that though all participants ardently desired peace, no one exactly wanted to be in that room on that April 9th. The war had cost too much, more than any nation should have to bear. So many losses, so much blood; the cream of the Confederate command only memories to the bowed Lee. Grant, musing the thousands he ordered into the murderous fire of Rebel cannon and shot. The deadly dance, just ended, between two worthy foes, from the Wilderness, to Cold Harbor, to Yellow Tavern, to Petersburg, and finally to the quiet crossroads of Appomattox, and peace.

These two generals, and the loyal armies they commanded had set aside all personal concerns, steeled themselves and did their duty, in Lee’s words, faithfully.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January  Also available on Kindle.