Rope of Sand

The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that exists only in the opportunistic vacuum of political rhetoric, wishful thinking, and hubris. If exploited as the only answer to problems, remember States’ Rights have never solved a thing. Not in this country. Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority hums along with state and local governments. This has been the way America has sustained itself for over two hundred years.

The American Civil War comes to mind as the most lethal challenge to centralized authority. But that conflict was certainly not the first.

Years before, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the states, designed a national government titled the Articles of Confederation.

Much like building a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 attempted to forge a national government to face the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 proved rather toothless in operation. The fatal flaw penned into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Every state mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce obedience, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress couldn’t even ratify this document until the end of the war.

The biggest sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. Clinging to previous royal charters, Virginia and New York, for example, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands could have helped offset the expenditures of war. Congress, nearly bankrupt, and with no real clout, could do little while soldiers suffered. Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from a scarcity of provisions grew so dire General Washington fretted that “the game was nearly up.”

All that while Congress drifted, wringing their hands, begging for loans, and printing worthless paper money.

Worse, states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with English occupiers, filling their personal coffers in British pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked increasingly dim, the states still stubbornly defended their own turf.

Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real clout, inevitable bloodshed quickly followed among the thirteen jealous, quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over negotiable currency nearly crippled the nascent country.

In that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. In reality, both men intended to completely abolish them as a last ditch effort. With the approval of General Washington, a new convention in fact assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied much of the ills of the struggling nation.

This lesson from the past remains relevant. We are better together than alone. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal cost of road construction, nor of fire fighting. Recent Covid-19 policies have proven the futility, and folly of every state for themselves.

This lesson is as relevant today as in 1787.

E Pluribus Unum

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Marking Time

2020.

Are the awful events of these last twelve months a once-off, bad patch of misfortune? Or is there a deeper explanation for the emergence of Trump, Covid, economic disaster, and civil unrest?

American History is steeped in a collection of pivotal moments, episodes that molded the nation’s continuing path. Can the events of 1776 stand alone as a turning point, or of 1865? 

A long metaphoric chain links one scenario to the next, marked by momentary decisions, government policies, or beliefs, that surface at one point in time, and voila, America’s story fleshes out to the future.

Add chance circumstances to the narrative and predictability flies out the window. 

Does 2020 stand alone as a singular event, or an inevitable outcome seeded somewhere in the past? Surely the march of history can be much like a chicken-egg proposition.

Mention 1776 and thoughts gravitate to the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the emergence of General George Washington. But that struggle for freedom actually began at the end of the French and Indian War. 

As for 1865, when the guns silenced at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E Lee’s surrender affirmed America as a nation-state. But thirty years earlier, President Andrew Jackson’s administration had sparked the eventual war over the issue of slavery. Thinly disguised as the doctrine of states’ rights, the intractable argument of slavery festered. The “Peculiar Institution” is, was, and always be the cause of that bloodbath. In point of fact the fury of one man, John C Calhoun, South Carolina Senator, and former vice president, lit the fuse of war thirty years before Fort Sumpter.

As to the folly of Trumpism, arguably the roots are deeply burrowed in America’s collective past. Author, and historian Bruce Catton, wrote about a “rowdyism” embedded in the American psyche. Though Catton used that term in the context of the Civil War, his sentiment still resonates in the 21st Century, i.e., Proud Boys, and the like. 

Closer to today, the Cold War seems to have honed much of the Far Right’s paranoia. The John Birch Society, for example, organized in the late 1950’s escalating anti-Communist agitation. Senator Joe McCarthy rode to fame on that same pall of fear, (with Roy Cohen at his elbow) only to fail when he went too far.

But the presidential election of 1964 seems to mark the most distinct shift toward the defiant opposition that fuels Trump-land.

Vietnam, in 1964 had not blown up yet. JFK had been murdered the previous fall, and his Vice President, turned successor, Lyndon Johnson was the choice of a grieving Democratic Party. The GOP fielded four major candidates in the primaries: three moderates and the ultra conservative, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Senator Goldwater gained the nomination that summer with help from two men, conservative writer Richard Viguerie and actor Ronald Reagan.

Viguerie broke political ground through his use of direct mailing, and target advertising (what today is right wing news outlets). Reagan, once a New Deal Democrat, crossed the political divide and denounced big government in “The Speech,” delivered on behalf of Senator Goldwater. These two men believed Conservatism, and Laissez Faire Capitalism had been wrongly cast aside for liberal (lower d) democratic causes. 

Their efforts struck a cord with legions of white Americans who felt the same resentment. The Liberal Media and Big Government from the Roosevelt years were Socialistic and anti-capitalistic. No urban problem, or racial strife or poverty appeared in their culdesacs or country clubs. And taxes to support Federal programs squandered and wasted personal wealth.

So many other issues shaped the modern New Right. Communism, the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and progressive politics alienated the wealthy class. 

But here’s the rub. Ultra conservative ideology is unworkable, an ideal that awards only a small, exclusive few, (today’s 1%). So 2020, and 2016 both have roots running deep in the core of the American experience. 

2020 isn’t about this moment, not really.  

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. Also the stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears” (the second in progress.)

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Clarity of Desperation

With only days until Christmas 1776, General Washington found his army melting away. Since July of that year the Continental Army had been chased from Long Island, through Manhattan, and across the Hudson into New Jersey. 

Earlier, in August, Washington had been flanked by British forces and the untrained Patriot army turned tail and ran. So furious was Washington at their conduct, he threatened to lead another assault himself, against far superior, professional troops. 

Amongst King Georges’ regulars were legions of Hessians, hired guns, from the German kingdom of Hesse-Kassel. These mercenaries were particularly brutal, taking a psychological toll on the all-volunteer Army with their skilled use of glinting, charging, bayonets. 

Leaving camp fires burning, Washington directed Colonel John Glover, a New England mariner to gather enough vessels to ferry his surviving soldiers across to Manhattan, and then onward to New Jersey. To exude confidence, Washington waited until the last boat to cross the East River.

Battling through Manhattan, his army ferried west again, via the Hudson, with Colonel Glover’s expertise. Eventually the dash to safety near Trenton, succeeded.

Demoralized, and outgunned, the Continental Army appeared doomed and despondent. The general consensus among all was the war was hopeless, a lost cause, the Patriots ardor over. 

By winter, Washington’s command seemed to be unraveling. Little food, too few supplies, or support came from the local population. At the same time the Brits, flush with currency, settled into cozy New York accommodations. 

With circumstances conspiring against him-the weather, scarcity, and outgunned by enemy Hessians quartered in nearby Trenton, Washington had to act. The General faced a critical moment. To his cousin, (and Mount Vernon’s caretaker) Washington confessed his anguish. 

. . .your immagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine—Our only dependance now, is upon the Speedy Inlistment of a New Army; if this fails us, I think the game will be pretty well up . . .

Out of desperation Washington expressed to his cousin what he termed as the “clarity of despair.” The General had to do something.

First he sent feelers out to bring in an operative who sold provisions to the nearby Hessians. John Honeyman came into camp and apprised Washington on the disposition of King George’s contracted killers. The General learned from Honeyman these Germans were settled in for a Christmas celebration, assured that the Americans were all but defeated.. 

In his second order, Washington commanded Colonel Glover to, once again, requisition every boat the Marblehead seafarer could find. Between Honeyman’s report and vessels secured, his men were mobilized for a Christmas morning assault on Trenton. 

Once again, Glover pulled off a miracle amphibious operation. And once again, General Washington was the last man on the last boat. In two files the disheveled Continental Army marched, braving more than just the weather. His forces arrived to the New Jersey capital by first light. 

The hungover Hessians were completely routed in the surprise assault, providing the Patriot cause with desperately needed victory. The army again breathed life. 

So tonight as you enjoy the warmth of the season, remember those who came before. For Christmas they marched through the inky, icy cold, missing their families, yet committed to the long game of founding a nation. 

Despite this current, disastrous administration, and especially this last lamentable year, our game is certainly not up. America can and will move forward. We have done this before. Much like General Washington our desperation makes our choices clear.  

Merry Christmas.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Gail has recently completed a stage play, “Clay,” on the life of Henry Clay.

Set Their Feet On The Firm And Stable Earth

“Princes’ don’t immigrate” opined the 19th Century American magazine, Puck. The topic in question concerned the waves of immigrants flooding onto both American coastlines. Newcomers hailing from Asia and Southern Europe had alarmed Nativists who viewed the influx as nothing more than riffraff, and a threat to good order. Unfortunately that view of the desperate still endures today.

News footage over the last few years has chronicled the plight of the desperate amassing along southern tiers of Europe and the US. Victims of repressive governments, criminal factions and crippling poverty risk violence, refugee camps, and even cages to escape oppression .

The earliest immigrants to American shores shared similar pressures to escape the familiar to face the unknown. A brief look at colonial examples illustrate this timeless dynamic.

16th and 17th Century England targeted some groups in much the same manner, pushing out nonconformists, while other Brits were pulled by the lure of new beginnings. But all newcomers from Britain set sail because staying was not an option.

Religious challenges to the Catholic Church set the stage for the flood of refugees who ultimately escaped England. As the Protestant Reformation blazed from the Continent to the British Isles, the transformation to the English Church commenced. In the 1535 English Reformation, King Henry VIII replaced the Pope as head of the Church. Henry’s motivation came from a range of objectives, concerning money, and succession.

Social unrest followed the schism with Rome, eventually to stabilize under Elizabeth I. Yet factions of true believers felt that Henry’s interpretation of reform too closely resembled Catholicism, and had not gone far enough in simple devotion to God. The largest faction, intent on deeper reforms, earned the name “Puritans.”

The religious struggle in the British Isles was long, bloody, and complicated, ultimately resulting in systematic persecution of Puritans.

Two phases of reformed believers departed Great Britain. First, was a small sect of Separatists led by William Bradford. These Protestants believed England damned beyond redemption, and washed their hands entirely of the mother country. This group settled first in Holland, then solicited funding for a journey to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these folks as Pilgrims. (Happy Thanksgiving.)

Nearly a decade later another, larger faction made landfall near Boston, and subsequently southward to the sugar islands of the Caribbean. This wave, the Great Puritan Migration, unlike the trickle to Plymouth, poured by the thousands seeking sanctuary in the New World. These Puritans had suffered terribly, repressed and harassed by an intolerant Anglican Church.

The Society of Friends, or Quakers, made up another group hounded out of England. Britain’s enforcement of titled aristocracy and required class deference ran counter to this group’s simple belief in the divine equality of all people. Quakers, for example, refused to fight for the crown, nor swear oaths, and refused to ‘doft’ their hats in the presence of their “betters.” That impudence made the sect an intolerable challenge to the status quo.

William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and found this punitive treatment of Quakers unjust. After a series of internal struggles, King Charles II ridded England of this group by granting Penn a large tract of land in the New World. Settling in the 1660’s. “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania set up shop establishing the colony upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.

The father of President Andrew Jackson, Jackson Senior, stands as an excellent example representing another wave of humanity troublesome to the British Crown. Dubbed Scots-Irish, these were Scotsmen who had resisted British hegemony for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of pugnacious survivors, made their way to America. Not the most sociable, or friendly bunch, these refugees found their path inland, settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single minded this group transitioned from British exiles to backcountry folk.

Virginia, the earliest claimed colony, came to existence with a two-fold aim; establish an outpost against Spanish and French claims in North America, and seek profits. At first a decidedly male society, tobacco cultivation earned adventurers and their patrons great wealth, and drained excess malcontents from religious wars and dynastic struggles. Ships navigated the James and York Rivers carrying full cargoes of indentured servants, to clear the poverty and oppression of English cities.

James Oglethorpe, a social reformer, aspired to found a place for criminals to begin anew. The Crown and Parliament liked the experiment, for it cleared those same cities of jailbirds. *

Lord Baltimore was granted a haven for English Catholics when that faith fell under the ever swinging pendulum of acceptability. Maryland had been established for religious toleration, though that was short lived.

All of this transport held the same mission-flush a metaphoric toilet of undesirables from Great Britain. The solution to the issue of socially unacceptable people, the dregs, if you will, was to send them to the New World.

Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigration as an inherent evil and subverting occurrence. No one lightly pulls up roots. Leaving all that is familiar is an act of desperation, a painful and difficult human drama.

Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to govern.

*The original charter for Georgia outlawed slavery. The Middle Passage is the glaring exception of those wishing to emigrate.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Englishman’s Foot

“The Spaniard might prove as cruel as the savages of America, and the famine and pestilence as sore here (Holland) as there, and their liberty less to look out for remedy.” William Bradford, On Plymouth Plantation

The story is a familiar one. Dissenters of the Church of England, disciples of reformer John Calvin, departed for Holland, washing their hands of English apostasy. After a time among the Dutch, these expatriates watched in horror as their children came of age in the secular world of the Continent. Alarmed, William Bradford and other Separatist leaders determined to leave Holland as well, to take their chances in the New World. 

Bradford, later explained this decision in On Plymouth Plantation, deciding it was better to lose their offspring to the tomahawk than to lose their mortal souls to God. 

You know the next part of this story. 

Pilgrims, The Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Samoset, Squanto, Corn, Thanksgiving, shoe buckles, etc . . .

But this story concerns those already inhabiting the New World, the indigenous peoples of America. In truth, white men had been poking around the shores of early America well before the Mayflower sailed. Explorers, trappers, and fishermen had already encountered native people, trading goods, microbes, cultural practices, and language. Some indigenous folk spoke a bit of English, or French they had acquired from European adventurers.

In 1621, the Pokanoket peoples of the Wampanoag Confederacy observed the arrival of the Pilgrims to Massachusetts Bay. Their sachem, or leader, Massasoit, made the decision to cautiously receive these newcomers, rather than force them back to the sea. Dispatching an emissary, the English-speaking native, Samoset, Massasoit hoped to learn the intentions of the outsiders. His own people weakened, especially by small pox, and intermittent warfare, shaped the decision to pursue an alliance with these gun-toting English settlers; in particular the Narragansett of nearby Rhode Island. Massasoit’s peaceful reception led to an uneasy pact that permitted the Separatists to survive their “starving time” and thrive.

After Massasoit’s death in 1661, and the death his son, King Alexander, King Philip, the second son, became the new sachem of the Wampanoag.

Philip’s time as sachem witnessed a massive expansion of British New England. Ships from East Anglia seemed to arrive daily emptying thousands of settlers to the Bay Colony. Plymouth Separatists were followed by a massive influx of Puritan dissenters under John Winthrop. Consequently Massachusetts Bay Colony steadily encroached upon Indian-held lands, increasing deforestation, diminishing game, and forcing native people further inland. Philip’s compliance with English suppression reached a breaking point by 1675, and he determined to take the action his father avoided-pushing the English back into the sea, or die trying.

Eventually Philip was murdered by an informer, a converted fellow native, known as John Alderman. Philip’s corpse was mutilated, his torso drawn and quartered, and his head posted on a pike in Plymouth for good measure. His head remained on display for decades. 

In the end, and it was the end, Philip’s wife and son were sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

Englishman’s Foot is a non-native plant introduced by English settlers to the New World. The plant grew from the manure of roaming cattle. Englishman’s Foot proliferated in New England, and named by the native people.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

En