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.
I won’t kid you, I was scared. We, my girlfriends and I, were watching ABC’s Saturday Night Movie in their basement when stiff slanted letters intruded on the flickering screen. A Special News Report. “We interrupt this broadcast to bring this breaking news,” explained Harry Reasoner in his musical voice.
“FBI agents have sealed the office of the Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.”
I sat up from my prone position on the couch, trying to orient myself to the images on that black and white picture tube. The information didn’t make sense, Cox was the guy ferreting out the facts behind the Watergate scandal, and he should have been left alone to do his job. A sense of bewildered loss of gravity made me uneasy as I watched agents string crime tape across an office door, and around file cabinets.
I needed to go home; this movie could wait.
At the backdoor of my house, I could hear the television blaring. My parents were watching the reports, too. Good. Rounding the corner, there again appeared Harry Reasoner, sounding as confused as I felt. But my Dad knew right away something very shady was underway. He never liked Nixon, buying into that “Tricky Dicky” moniker coined back in the Fifties. So, he assumed the worst—and that was good enough for me.
The crisis deteriorated further. By the next morning, a Sunday, with all of America viewing, we found out Nixon ordered Archibald Cox fired, pronto. But the Attorney General wouldn’t do it, so Nixon fired him, instead. The second at the Justice Department wouldn’t carry out Nixon’s bidding either, opting to resign. The third in line, Robert Bork did fire Cox, and obeyed his President’s rather stunning orders.
I thought America was in the middle of a coup. Again, I was pretty scared.
The rest of this tragic tale is well documented, common knowledge. The public freaked, and the Nixon people freaked, and then the Nixon house of cards came a tumbling down. By August, 1974, less than a year after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” President Nixon resigned, the first chief executive to do so in our history.
The thing is, we all knew there was something dark about Richard Nixon. He looked like he was up to no good, and those who denied this quality were turning themselves inside out to deny it. Nixon always said the right things, “tough on crime,” “support our troops,” bleeding-heart Liberals,” pressing the correct conservative buttons. But he betrayed the trust of conservatives, and it took a man of quality, Gerald Ford, Nixon’s Vice President, to restore some kind of equilibrium to the GOP.
Today, Tuesday, January 10, 2017, some shady business is transpiring on Capitol Hill. Another hurried process to fast track Trump nominees for cabinet positions. We’ve got to ask ourselves, what’s the hurry? To whose benefit is the rush job.
And Trump isn’t about a Hundred Day Congress to aid the lives of Americans. Like Nixon, there is a darkness, and a craving for power that serves only one man. This plutocrat is all about buttressing his position, and ramming through his will as fast as possible. That should send up red flags across both houses of Congress and across the expanse of America.
I’m scared again. Watergate left us all reeling, and trust in government has never really returned. I don’t think any one person should have to endure two rancid presidencies in one lifetime.
The only solution is vigilance and persistence. Don’t listen to a word any of these characters utter. Instead watch what they do. Despots on their way up say what they must to get what they want. Watch what Trump and company actually do. Get your Senator on the phone, and press them with “what’s the rush?” We all want good government; government for all Americans.
If there appears to be an almighty hurry, history tells us it’s time to slow down. The Trump people are up to something.
We, the people and the press, need to insist on answers, and demand explanations for the big fat rush. Again, who gains from this fast tracking? And America doesn’t need another secret government.
Senate Switchboard (202) 224-3121, ask for your Senators office.
Looking for historic parallels to the outcome of the 2016 election, has left me thrashing about. For past comparisons, it seemed easier to piece parts from several different elections, than pin down any one year. In 1796, for example, the very thinned-skinned John Adams took office, and outraged by rising criticism coming from his own party, plus more from Jefferson’s growing opposition party, Adam’s shepherded the Alien Act that targeted immigrants. (These newcomers tended to join Mr. Jefferson’s Republican Party). On the heels of the Alien statute came the Sedition Act, that aimed to silence critics from the press. Or, decades later, Henry Clay’s horror in 1828, witnessing the meteoric rise of demagogue, Andrew Jackson, though Clay knew for certain that he alone was the smartest, and most deserving guy in the room. Another episode that fits was the seismic swing of competence in 1860 from inept James Buchanan to Lincoln’s majesty in office—only to return to incompetence with bungling Andrew Johnson in 1865. But, sifting through all these presidential races, 2016’s fiasco resembles most the election of Warren Harding in 1920.
Much upheaval predated the 1920 contest. The three previous administrations; Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson brought about an avalanche of progressive reforms. The first Roosevelt used his “bully pulpit” to preserve millions of acres of public lands, through both the National Park Service, and in designating wilderness protection. TR wielded his “Big Stick” to force mine owners to negotiate with a miner’s union in the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike, siding with the strikers. “Teddy” further whipped on big business, especially JP Morgan’s untoward interests in the Great Northern Railroad, ultimately breaking up Morgan’s monopolistic power.
William Howard Taft, with a strong background in law, (he later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) completed the breakup of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, and busted up US Steel for good measure. But the lion share of America’s transformation came about during Woodrow Wilson’s two terms, 1912 and 1916.
The Federal Reserve Act, Federal Income Tax, Direct Election of Senators, Prohibition, and Women’s Suffrage all became law during the Wilson Administration. An advocate of good government, including more voters in the electoral process, Wilson championed political reforms, such as the secret ballot, the use of initiative, referendum, and recall, and curbing the influence of political machine bosses; all designed to strengthen democracy. Wilson’s most well-known came in 1917 when the president requested a declaration of war against Germany in 1917. He articulated to Congress that his sole aim in entering The Great War, was to “Make the World Safe for Democracy,” (export the American political system). At the end of that conflict, in 1918, Wilson drew up his visionary Fourteen Point Plan, featuring the League of Nations, a forerunner to the United Nations.
By the time the election of 1920 rolled around, the American public had had enough change. Too much had happened, too much upheaval, all too fast. And an international organization committing the US to a permanent membership found no traction with the populace. To his credit, (stubbornness?) Wilson didn’t give up on his lofty world aims. When the Senate rejected his altruistic Treaty, Wilson responded that they had “broken the world’s heart.” In that same spirit, President Wilson characterized the 1920 election a “Solemn Referendum,” on his League.
For its part, the Republican Party couldn’t agree on any candidate in 1920, when they convened in Chicago. Frontrunner, General Leonard Wood, faced fierce inter-party opponents, and after nine ballots, Ohioan, Warren Gamaliel Harding, an undistinguished, but amiable candidate emerged to gain the nomination. Republican machine handlers forbade Harding to campaign, and told him to essentially say nothing, and do so from his front porch. Considering the candidate’s singular statement using the non-word “normalcy,” staying quiet was probably good advice That following November, the power of inertia won when Harding was elected over Democrat, James Cox, a Wilson man. (a young FDR ran as Cox’s vice presidential candidate)
The Harding administration resumed their version of “normalcy” at once. Two immigration restriction laws were passed by Congress—the Quota Laws of 1921 and 1924. The message quickly spread. Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of a Boston robbery and murder, despite questionable evidence and a crooked trial. White supremacist, Madison Grant added to the intolerance with his diatribe titled, “The Passing of the Great Race,” and the Klan resumed its reign of terror targeting blacks, despite the hard work of the newly founded NAACP. (Lynching’s spiked; 110 between 1921-22).
The economy once again lapsed back to an unfettered affair, into the hands of laissez faire capitalists. The stock market began a steep rise fueled by “on-margin buying,” (10% down, the balance financed by easy credit from unregulated banks). Wall Street insiders enjoyed a field day employing shady practices that included “painting the tape,” artificially inflating stock prices to record highs, then dumping the same stocks after reaping fabulous profits. Working class investors, assuming the growth was legitimate, bought in, and were left holding the devalued stocks. That free-for-all came to a halt with the Crash of 1929.
Under Harding’s unwatchful eye, federal oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California were leased for lucrative kickbacks, to private oilman, Harry Sinclair of Stinker fame. And labor found no friend in the Harding administration, where strikes were viewed as Communist-inspired, and a minimum wage law died with the Supreme Court ruling in Adkin’s V. Children’s Hospital, (1923). Speaking of Communists, following the 1917 Russian Revolution, a Red Scare was underway and Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin vowed in the Comintern to topple Western, and American capitalism.
Today, despite his personal approval ratings, it appears that the changes brought about in the Obama years are facing a similar type of reaction. The Affordable Care Act, the Obergeffell decision upholding gay marriage, the Black Lives Matter movement, have extended the blessings of liberty to the rest of us. The President’s middle ground treaty, forged with the Iranians, has, so far, avoided any additional armed confrontation in the Middle East, that critics seem keen to nullify.
It’s unfortunate that the working poor will not see any advantage from their hopeful votes for Donald Trump. Those left behind in America’s transformation to a service economy will never realize jobs that, for economic reasons, have shipped overseas. Even if the label says Trump, it also says Made in Somewhere Else—that is the reality of 21st Century manufacturing. Moreover, a national minimum wage for those same hard working poor, looks doubtful with a quick glimpse at Trump’s plutocrat-filled cabinet. The most unfortunate outcome from the campaign, was the free use and acceptance of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and sexist rhetoric. As before in 1920, the temperament reflected in the new administration emboldened the forces of reaction and hate.
A lot changed for America with the election of our first black president. But the message of the administration spoke of hope and forbearance. Those among us who shared this philosophy looked ahead with optimism. But if the past is a reliable guide, and I believe it is, this recent swing toward the overly male, wealthy, Caucasian, Right cannot, and never has governed well. An administration that plots a course based on exclusion, has never found measurable success. That faction owns a lot, and looks out for their interests. That guiding principle leaves out the rest of us in this roiling mass of diversity that is the real America.