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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com
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.
Religion in politics presumes all citizens essentially hold to the same beliefs. This premise also maintains that religious conformity assures civic virtue, and good order. However, in practice theocracies actually run counter to effective government, as invoking God in public debate stymies the free exchange of ideas. Without the “free market of ideas,” nothing advances, resulting in national decline.
The Constitution’s framers did not lightly pen any Article, Section, or Clause in their work, nor in the later Bill of Rights. James Madison, in particular, analyzed other government systems, both past and current to his time. What he and other’s found was politics combined with religion sows inevitable public conflict; damaging both political and religious institutions. Madison’s purposeful language in drafting the First Amendment signaled the United States would not make that same mistake.
This legal tradition stemmed from the lessons of Colonial New England. Puritan dissenters, such as Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson publicly rejected mandatory church compliance. Williams, later exiled to Rhode Island, defended his convictions writing,
Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.
As the first Catholic-Presidential candidate, John F Kennedy later echoed,
. . .it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.
And that was the point. American citizens can freely worship, or not-that is the essence of our liberty. Law cannot dictate conscience, as our thoughts are as unique as our finger prints.
Despite the secular legacy of American law, religious prerequisites still surface in one era or another. In the earliest years of the Republic a fervor of evangelism blazed, recognized today as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning around 1800, and lasting until the Civil War, endless, exhausting revivals across the country grew routine. Loosely paralleling “The Age of Jackson,” a political leavening with evangelicalism made for an interesting amalgam, a blend of both the sacred and secular . . .individual choice.
As democracy advanced inland as swift as any camp revival, voting rights increasingly extended to the lower classes. White farmers and tradesmen were permitted, in exchange for a poll tax, to cast votes. Working class men could not only choose to follow their vision of Jesus, but back political favorites, with the same evangelical passion.
Another unexpected outcome of the Second Great Awakening came in the form of countless spinoffs. Rural isolation cultivated a veritable Golden Corral of new religions. William Miller, of upstate New York, forecast the return of Christ as imminent. He, and his followers believed Jesus would reappear sometime between 1843-1844. After the dates passed, with no rapture, the church regrouped becoming today’s Seventh Day Adventists.
Methodists dispatched “circuit riders” into America’s eastern interior. Men like Peter Cartwright, the epitome of a woodland “stump speaker,” could preach the Word of God, while beating the hell out of any heckler. Presbyterians split a couple of times before the Civil War. First, regarding whether or not untrained missionaries could lead revivals, or only seminary trained ministers. This controversy tore believers apart.
The final schism among churches came from the controversy over slavery. And that time bomb came through Biblical interpretation as well. In the North believers felt their duty was to take action against such a grave sin. Southerners, however countered that God made no mistakes. In fact, it was God himself who appointed masters, and placed the slaves beneath them. Rather a handy absolution.
Wisdom, indeed, abounded inside the chamber of Constitution Hall. Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and other lights hoped to avoid religious mistakes from the past, and took measures avoid the danger.
Perhaps the best advice on separation came from Justice William O Douglas in the court’s ruling, Engel V Vitale, 1962.
“once government finances a religious exercise it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.”
Dictating conscience is a fools errand, and a liberated conscience is the promise of America.
Gail Chumbley is a history educator, blogger, and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available on Kindle.
The creed of States’ Rights is all smoke and mirrors; a cover for the selfish interests of local napoleons, and the politicians they bankroll. When claimed as the only answer to the country’s problems, beware, States’ Rights never solved a thing.
Not in America.
Ours is a one of a kind, federal system of concurrent powers. Centralized authority layers and folds, meshing with state and local governments.This dynamic has functioned for over two hundred years and the bonds are subtle and sometimes conflicting. The most lethal confrontation between state and federal powers clashed in the Civil War, 1861-65. But that particular catastrophe was certainly not the first.
During the Revolution, state delegations, in an attempt to unify the embattled nation, drafted a national blueprint called the Articles of Confederation. Attending representatives squabbled endlessly to defend their own local interests, rejecting any language that bound state autonomy. So jealous were the original Thirteen of one another, political leaders dragged ratification out, while barely a step ahead of pursuing Redcoats. The Continental Congress dashed across Pennsylvania, into Maryland, and back, still resistant to real, national authority.
John Dickinson of Delaware, drafted some elements into this fledgling plan, but his model wasn’t helpful. General Washington still had to beg Congress for recruits and soldier pay, and Congress, in turn, had to beg States to fill those needs. One bright note is Congress did agree to dispatch diplomats, like Franklin and Adams, who continued the begging game across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile States such as New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, happily traded with coin-rich Brits, filling their personal coffers, while ignoring the needs of the war effort. The prospects of an American victory grew grim, as each state dug in, defending their own turf. In fact, the Confederation Congress was so toothless, the document itself failed ratification until a month before Yorktown.
Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real prestige, inevitable bloodshed quickly ensued among these thirteen quarreling kingdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over currency, nearly ended the budding union. At that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. Both men, in reality, intended to dump them for a different, stronger plan. Recently retired George Washington agreed with both men, and chaired this new convention, assembling in Philadelphia the summer of 1787, and a determined Constitutional Convention worked hard to remedy many of the new nation’s ills.
This lesson from the past remains relevant. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal costs of road construction, nor of fire fighting. The former administration’s Covid-19 policies have proven, again the futility, and folly of every state scrambling for themselves.
The events of January 6, 2021, and now with the Texas legislature attacking both voting rights, and a woman’s right to choose, similar concerns arise. Is American law no more than a vulnerable rope of sand in the hands of the states?
Fellow Americans, do not buy into the so called advantages of States’ Rights. Hidden interests cloaked in virtuous words distract us from national needs, while the favored few push their political agendas. It’s not an overstatement to say States’ Rights again threatens the good order the Framers labored to establish.
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.
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.)