Infinity Clause

In the fall of 1789 recently inaugurated President, George Washington called for a National day of Thanksgiving. Under the previous frame of government, the unworkable Articles of Confederation, such proclamations had customarily been sent to the governors of each state. However, Washington abandoned that practice. As the first US President, Washington instead issued the proclamation to the American People.

This President deliberately bypassed state governments.

The new Constitution, practically wet with ink, had been intentionally addressed to “We The People,” and Washington aimed through his administration to join every citizen, regardless of state, to the national government. This proclamation, seemingly banal, clearly signaled a dramatic reset of power in the new Republic.

Two years prior, in Philadelphia, the framers turned attention to composing a Preamble, otherwise understood as a mission statement. Preambles were not unusual, each state government began with them, but in that hot, humid chamber of Constitution Hall work commenced to define America’s mission. Gouverneur Morris, a delegate from New York, most probably authored the statement, and it was Morris who set out the language.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The heart of these guiding principles begin with the phrase “The People,” followed by the active verb, “To Form.”

The Preamble rests upon this infinitive clause, implying America is a work in constant progress. This mission is a founding legacy fixed upon enduring bedrock.

Susan B Anthony sought justice voting in the Election of 1872. Arrested for casting her ballot, Anthony faced a Federal judge, and received a verdict of guilty. The 19th Amendment, ratified nearly fifty years later extended the vote to women. Hounded by settlers from the 17th Century onward, Native Americans sought survival and the tranquility to peacefully co-exist with whites. It’s ironic that indigenous Americans were not citizens until 1924.The United States in 1860, teetered on a knife point of dissolution. President, Abraham Lincoln, could not stand by and watch democracy die under the threat of secession. Preparing for the common defense Lincoln mobilized northern forces to defend the Union. From Jane Addam’s Hull House, a Chicago settlement center for immigrants, promoting the general welfare, to Dred Scott, and Homer Plessy’s struggle to reap the blessings of liberty, each generation stood tall in their historic moments.

To honor the principles of the document, and as heirs of Constitutional law, our charge, like those before, is weightier than our private comfort. We The People have no choice but to continue Gouverneur Morris, and President Washington’s wishes To Form A More Perfect Union.

Modern America’s mini tyrants must not prevail. Make your voice heard at the ballot box on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

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. Chumbley has written two historical plays, “Clay” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploring the roots of slavery and racism.

Catch Up

A radical change in imperial policy between Great Britain and her American Colonies marked the beginning of the Revolutionary Era.

Well before the American Revolution an amiable, and profitable arrangement existed between the Colonials and Parliament. This mutually profitable connection quickly terminated after the French and Indian War, 1754-1763. That conflict, though a victory for the British, had cost the Royal Treasury plenty, and the Crown abandoned friendly relations by coercing Americans to share in settling that war debt .

Parliament began by imposing a number of taxes, all designed to force Americans to pay up. The Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend Duties, among other measures, had been designed to force Americans to cover the royal debt. Once proud to be British, Colonials were shocked to realize the Crown viewed them as a source of revenue, and nothing more.

Colonials had a long running smuggling network, importing cheaper commodities from the French islands, thus evading British tariffs. Those caught and arrested found fast acquittal by colonial juries of their peers, as locals were also customers of the accused. In Boston, tensions soon turned to bloodshed, followed later with tea spilled into the Harbor. The Crown, not amused, soon forbade traditional trials, and transported accused Americans to military courts, in particular to Nova Scotia. Next, British Red Coats were deployed to the New England colonies to impose martial law, and Parliament decreed American’s had to house and feed their own oppressors.  

These matters were met with vehement dissent, Colonials protesting they had no representative in Parliament, and would not tolerate taxation without their consent. “No Taxation Without Representation” and “Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God,” rang throughout Colonial America.

Tensions ripened, finally coming to a bloody confrontation in April of 1775, and the rest we mostly remember from school. 

Tasked with scribing a Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson vented American grievances through his quill. Working alone, Jefferson defended the violent actions carried out by Americans, and took pains to explain the radicalism. . . . “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” And for six years the Continental Army persevered.

In 1787, the subsequent creation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution set an enduring national blueprint of settled law. The Framers designed a government derived from the people, meaning we all are equal, and guaranteed representation in shaping law.

That brings this story to today. 

The election of a president from an opposing party is not a radical, nor sudden change of policy. Rather, this cyclic American ritual is as normal as the singing the Star Spangled Banner before a game. American voters have chosen our leaders in this manner since George Washington’s name first appeared on the ballot. 

To all of you who attacked our Capitol, it’s well past time for you to catch up. Put away those symbols of rebellion; of coiled snakes, hangmen gallows, and Viking horns. The Revolution ended two and a half centuries ago. The story of America is well underway.

In point of fact, those January 6th insurrectionists themselves attempted a radical change in American tradition. In pursuit of violence and chaos, these terrorists attempted a savage disruption of our deepest democratic traditions. Now that is unAmerican. In point of fact, we all have political representatives, and a right to a jury of our peers, and nary a soldier is found lounging on the couch.

Grow up and stand down.  

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

Chumbley has also penned two plays, “Clay” exploring the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an examination of American slavery and racism.

chumbleg.blog

Custodians of Now

Gratitude underpins America’s oldest quasi-secular holiday,Thanksgiving. In the 21st Century it is rather easy to scoff at a quaint observance that predates the founding of the country, and today’s America is a bit too cynical, busy, and self involved for meaningful reflection.

Separatists in 1621 Plymouth had risked all to worship freely in the New World. Suffering starvation and disease, the Mayflower survivors managed a successful harvest with the essential aid of local Natives. In an outpouring of gratitude the newcomers organized a potluck of sorts, and invited their benefactors to pause, count their blessings, savoring both the moment and the food.

General Washington announced a day of Thanksgiving after the fortuitous American victory over the British at Saratoga, and again after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Moments of mutual gratitude implied a common bond, and an acknowledgment of common sacrifice. 

Later, in 1863, America, once again, faced a crisis of unity.

A grisly Civil War had raged for two years, when emboldened Confederate forces crossed north into Pennsylvania. Soldiers of the Blue and the Gray clashed at the crossroads town of Gettysburg. After a three-day struggle, the tide shifted in favor of the Union, and soon after Confederate troops retreated back into Virginia.

In the aftermath, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, and shortly after called for a national day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln set aside Thursday, November 26th for the observance, calling for contemplation and gratitude. Later, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law a permanent observance of Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November. 

Aside from roasted turkey, televised parades, football, relatives, and tryptophan-induced naps, this day is meant for reflection; a national respite from other distractions. As Americans we remember those who struggled through their American moment, and refresh our personal obligation to our communities, and to our nation. 

Whatever spirit guides our personal devotion, on this day we place ourselves second to something much greater-the United States of America. We recommit to our highest aspirations as a fortunate and free people; a people who respect what came before, and resolve to protect our democracy for the future.

This Thursday remember we are the custodians of now, and unity is not easy with such diverse and noisy citizens. Still the responsibility remains, carried forward from earlier generations. We Americans have an obligation to nurture solidarity over discord, amity over selfishness. 

All Americans can resolve to preserve this hard-won gift of democracy to those not yet born.   

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. She has also completed the play, “Wolf By The Ears,” a historic look on the advent of American Slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Cannon of Extremism

I often exit the FaceBook expressway because of the absurd misuse of the American past. And it’s not just history. Politics have abscessed into a free for all, and scientific/medical reality into FaceBook insanity. This verbal dysentery is loaded into into a cannon of extremism, where the unschooled righteously blast irrational conclusions. 

Case in point, an old friend of my husband’s posted, “Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither.” It’s Benjamin Franklin’s sentiment, but incomplete. Franklin wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” 

The quote is from a 1775 letter written by Dr. Franklin on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He addressed this (very long) correspondence to the Deputy Governor at the time, Robert Hunter Morris. Governor Morris had irritated the Assembly by demanding new militia for protecting western land from the Shawnee and Delaware Natives who, according to rumor were attacking settlers. To keep this episode simple, Morris wanted the lands of wealthy landowners protected, but the rest of the colony to cover the costs. Exempt were the Proprietary landowners who were earning rents from settlers, with a kickback percentage figured in for the deputy governor.

Franklin essentially called Morris out for an egregious conflict of interest, and the Assembly wasn’t financing graft. This was, by the way, four months after Lexington and Concord, and relations between colonials and redcoats tense.

What this misquoted post implied on FaceBook, defended refusing the Covid vaccine. So apparently it’s virtuous somehow to be a cyber Paul Revere spouting Franklin, calling for vaccine resistance in a pandemic. 

The irony of playing fast and loose with the past, is presuming Dr. Franklin would agree with this nonsense. Every founder did what they did for the gravest of reasons; not some oppositional hype to reject public health interests, in bumper-sticker brevity. 

The irony of the post lay with the man. By faith, Franklin counted himself a Deist–that God was the creator of a precise universe; to discover that precision is to find God. In pursuit of those truths, Franklin took on the life of an empirical, data-driven scientist. (Remember his kite-electricity experiment?)

“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves,” is another quote that ought to be repeated on FaceBook and everywhere else. When his child, Francis Folger Franklin died of small pox at age four, Dr. Franklin made an enlightened decision—he inoculated himself and his family from that deadly disease. And an inoculation was no easy nor guaranteed procedure. But as a man of science, he had the sense to take a reasonable path.

Remembering Dr. Franklin means to further our understanding of this moment in time, and follow his example of open minded curiosity, and trust in empirical solutions. Today, that task has been muddied by the misguided, destabilizing all that is good in our America.

Franklin worked hard to make the United States an opened-minded conduit of democracy, not of electronically delivered bedlam.

As Dr. Franklin reminded us, (And I mean us) “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.” And this gem, “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.”

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

Divisions

Balkanize: Division of a place or country into several small political units, often unfriendly to one another.

America’s founders meant education to flourish, as a vital part of our country’s longevity. 

Designed to advance literacy, American public schools also curbed the rougher aspects of an expanding country. Since the earliest days of the Republic, centers of learning not only taught content, but other lessons like cooperation, and self control. Ultimately schools have instilled in all of us a shared baseline of behavior, supported by foundational facts necessary to find consensus.  

Today, technology and social media have endangered our ability to reach common ground. The distracting noise of extremists, splintering, and Balkanizing our nation threatens American institutions. Elections, government agencies, city and state government, and yes, schools are all targeted. Navigating through a culturally diverse society is inevitably stormy, and a closed American mind isn’t helpful.

Public education has traditionally been one of the ligaments that bind us all together as one people. Years ago a president encouraged us to ask “what (we) can do for (our) country,” but that’s over. Today it’s “Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it!”

Patriotism and literacy evolved together hand in hand. In 1787 Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, passed an Ordinance for settling western land. This law devised a survey system, to organize states around the Great Lakes region. This is important because sales of one plat of the survey, (you guessed it,) funded public schools. 

Thomas Jefferson affirmed the practice by insisting, ”Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

President Lincoln, a figure who deeply lamented his own lack of formal education, pushed to establish land grant universities across the growing nation. The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, in particular, financed colleges through Federal funding.These universities today are located in every state of the Union. 

America’s erosion of unity is tied directly to the erosion of public education. Our kids are increasingly sequestered into alternative settings; online, magnet, charter, home, and private schools. Missing is the opportunity to experience democracy at its most basic. Students grow familiar with each other, softening our own edges, renewing the energy and optimism of the nation’s promise. 

We are all taxpayers, but your local public school isn’t supposed to be Burger King, where every citizen can have it “their way.” We have a system that, regardless of money, race, ability, and social class, all have a seat at the table of democracy.

Gail Chumbley is a history instructor and author. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Richer Than Myth

We all closed our eyes and directed to imagine a stage play. The lights dim to darkness and the curtains open revealing a maid busy at a fireplace feather dusting the mantel.

I dutifully shut my eyes envisioning white marble and busts of philosophers as the servant did her thing.The instructor asked us to further imagine the play’s star dramatically entering from the wings. She asked what would we do as an audience? Clap of course, because the story is about to begin.

Right?

And that dear reader is the model history educators have employed for eons. America was just waiting for white folks to appear, so the story could begin. The implication is that nothing of significance had yet happened. Just the maid dusting the mantel.

To accept that John Wayne or James Arness won the west is but a myth for films and television. American history in noway resembles an episode of The Waltons. The reality of the narrative, stripping away the fiction is much richer when including the whole story.

Mining and ranching customs in America are largely of Spanish origin. Standard size horses spread northward from Mexico as escapees from Hernan Cortes and other conquistadors. The rendezvous system came to be under the French, and their Huron fur-trading partners. From totems, to kivas, to longhouses indigenous people developed distinct cultures. New World foods like corn and potatoes conquered Europe, and African exploitation introduced American traditions in music, food and language.

In short, the story of America didn’t start with Plymouth Rock, nor Jamestown. It isn’t sunbonnet madonnas, bravely trudging west, or white hatted heroes saving the day.

No clear lines separate villains from heroes. If the myth makes you feel good, watch “Lonesome Dove,” or “The Alamo.” Keep in mind both are works of fiction. If it’s accuracy you’re after, crack a history book, or catch a Ken Burns documentary.

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

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

Deathwatch

A new plan had been designed to shift political power from 13 squabbling fiefdoms, to one central government representing the people.

Statesman, James Madison fully intended his new national blueprint to quiet interstate turf wars. Until 1787 no central mediator had existed, and the constant turmoil looked to nearly finished off the fledgling nation. Madison’s remedy, his Virginia Plan would count population, and without fear or favor, allocate direct representation. However, once his proposal was disclosed to his peers, the forces of inertia nearly derailed the Constitutional Convention.

This is the short version of details:

America, though victorious over the British in the recent war, was falling apart. No money, no credit, no court system, and European enemies on a deathwatch of sorts.

Internal disputes wreaked havoc among citizens, as each former colony hustled to press state interests over national. This upheaval grew especially violent in Western Massachusetts when musket shots were exchanged in a tax uprising.

In September, 1786 only a handful of delegates reported to a Maryland convention summoned to deal with the mess. But with only a handful of states reporting, attendees couldn’t vote on any binding measure–too few were present.

Distressed by intensifying disorder, and no real authority to act, James Madison and his colleague, Alexander Hamilton agreed the time had come for a new framework of government. The two, a Virginian, and New Yorker called for another convention; one that promised to address the failing system. (See “Rope of Sand” on this blog site).

Arranged for May, 1787, in Philadelphia, Hamilton and Madison attracted participants by promising General Washington himself, would attend.  However, Washington declined at first, that is until the gunshots in Massachusetts changed his tune. He, along with fifty four other men gathered, and the process began.

In the run-up to the Philadelphia Convention, James Madison kept busy. Though this gathering had been advertised as tweaking the existing system, Madison’s plan actually abolished it, in favor of his new Virginia Plan

He and his allies clearly understood the historic risk they were taking.

In a panic, the states with fewer people balked at losing influence. A William Paterson of New Jersey, moved for recess to craft a counter plan, one that would preserve state interests against Madison’s people-based plan. 

Called the New Jersey Plan, this model would establish a one-chamber legislative branch, each state equally represented. 

Then more hell broke loose.

In another recess a middle ground was devised by Connecticut delegate, Roger Sherman. 

Called the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise, a solution emerged. Sherman brokered a lower house by representation, and the upper house of two Senators from each state. That calmed the small states, relieved they would not be diminished by population-heavy states.

There are so many more details to the development of the Constitution, but this agreement signified a start. 

That kind of goodwill and commitment to duty has sustained the United States through rough times. Granted, flaws remained regarding slavery, the slave trade, women’s rights, and Native American policy. Still, this ballast was enough to move the ship of state forward. 

Today the national GOP promotes chaos and gridlock as somehow virtuous, while our adversaries still maintain America’s deathwatch.

Perhaps 1787 produced a better caliber of political leadership, Americans who served the common good.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com