King of the Hill

General Washington had not yet been appointed commander of the Continental Army. Nonetheless, the conflict against Great Britain, though running hot after Lexington and Concord, remained an informal, isolated brushfire in the eyes of the Crown. Still, the very presence of soldiers grated Bostonians, enough that outraged patriots plotted retaliation.

June 16th, after dark, these Sons of Liberty acted, digging in on Breeds Hill located near Bunker Hill, north of the city in Charles Town. All that night these newly minted Minutemen stacked preloaded-muskets, entrenched, and waited for sunrise. At first light, the startled Redcoats scrambled to form lines and launch an offensive against the rebels. Though holding the line through three assaults, the Bostonians, low on gunpowder, were forced to melt away into the surrounding area. The shocked Brits decided to call the contest a victory.

But as one royal officer candidly admitted, “if we win anymore like this, we’ll lose this war.”

That is the lesson of Bunker Hill, hold the high ground, and draw the fight uphill to a well-defended position.

General George Washington arrived in Boston the next month, taking command of the motley Continental Army. Positioning his inexperienced troops on the heights surrounding the city, Washington bluffed his military strengths. When actual heavy guns finally reached Washington, the Redcoats had had enough, and on March 17, 1776, all the King’s men evacuated to Canada.

Two philosophers on warfare, China’s Sun Tzu, and Prussian, Carl von Clauswitz had committed to paper their respective views on the value of the high ground. Sun Tzu in the 6th Century, and Clausewitz in the early 19th Century argued its significance. Much like that game, “King of the Hill,” we played as kids, the advantage belongs to the person on top. That essentially defines both tacticians principles.

Yet, physically holding a hill doesn’t go far enough. Both philosophers argued that a moral high ground is equally essential, an armed force must be clad with a virtuous cause. 

A higher moral purpose fills the sails to victory.

In 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, becoming America’s 16th President. That moment weighed with foreboding, as Southern States, one by one, chose to secede from the United States. The new President viewed this idea as impossible–statehood was not a revolving door. In his inaugural address. Lincoln spoke plainly, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

Then Lincoln, and the the rest of the nation watched and waited. On April 12, 1861 guns thundered from Charleston, South Carolina, smashing into Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor.

Boom, done and done.

The Rebs drew first blood, and Lincoln, by default, seized the moral high ground. After a duration of four long, bloody years, the rebellion collapsed, and slavery ended.

Both the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, elevated America’s retaliation as morally justified, drawing the nation into both World War Two, and the War on Terror.

Everyone around the world is watching the Ukrainian people standing tall against a mystifying invasion by Russia. Ukrainian President Zelensky has brilliantly executed the lessons of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz. His articulate, moral leadership, and courage has more than won the moral high ground test. In contrast, Vladimir Putin has proven his lack of preparation, and barbarity, assuring the Russian President an international pariah.

These principles are timeless and universal, not only in America, but in past conflicts like Thermopylae in the 5th Century, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1940.

Whether the Ukrainian President, is aware or not, he has benefitted from the teachings of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz, and this is Ukraine’s finest hour.

The possession of high ground may decide a battle, war or the fate of a nation.

Carl von Clausewitz

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and writer.

gailchumbley@chumbleg

Jenkins Hill

For teachers who are poor, but like to travel, nothing is better than hosting student tours. Truth is these trips are a lot of fun. Really. The kids make it fun. I led a number of tours over the years and still carry wonderful memories of the historic sites, our numerous guides, the bus drivers, my students, and the bustling itineraries that delivered us everywhere.

Out of the classroom, and away from home, students encountered much of what we had covered in history class, up close. On one stop at the US Capitol a guide opened a small door off a corridor revealing a narrow, circular stairway. Bygone soot and some damage remained down that steep passage, evidence of the War of 1812, when invading Brits set fire to the building. Our docent elaborated. A redcoat on horseback had urged his horse up those cramped stairs, only to be shot by American defenders waiting at the top. That anecdote caused a bit of a stir, as we all absorbed the horror.

Peeking into the Old Senate chamber, (much smaller than today’s grand affair) prompted another story of another clash, from another era. In this original legislative hall Massachusetts Senator, Charles Sumner had suffered a severe beating at the hands of a furious South Carolina Congressman. At issue, the fiery debate over the spread of slavery.

Bus drivers sometimes got into act, and added a few gems of their own. Before leaving the Capitol, he grabbed the microphone and shared a story.

George Washington had been inaugurated as America’s first president in New York City. But a site for a permanent national capitol had been selected. And it was President Washington, himself who laid the first cornerstone for the structure on a rise called Jenkins Hill. Why, the driver asked, did Washington turn the first spade, and set that brick of sandstone? Of course we all thought the honor went to Washington as the President. Wrong.

The President had been asked to set the stone, because he was a stone mason.

Who’d a thought!

On the bus we loudly debriefed, the chatter sounding much like gossiping about Justin Bieber, or the Kardashians. The narrative may have been a century or two old, but still very much alive–resurrected by students in the Twenty-first Century.

There are many such stories of American school kids touching our collective past, and many adults who made that happen. Somehow we all came away better people. Perhaps we’re all reminded we are part of a much bigger picture, and we all fit somewhere within the frame.

On January 6, 2021, Americans across the nation watched domestic terrorists violated the inner sanctum of democracy. I wondered what thoughts crossed the minds of those same former students to witness this tarnishing of democratic majesty.

Not everyone can afford to send their kids on trips like these. I couldn’t. But understand this, every public school in the country teaches American History. The public must understand this story tells of a unique nation, and democracy grows fragile when the ignorance rules the times.

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 historic plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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

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

Humiliated, Angry, and Hurt

After losing reelection, he left Washington early. Humiliated, angry, and hurt, John Adams boarded a morning coach leaving the Capitol.

The prevailing issue in the campaign of 1800 concerned France, and that nation’s ongoing, and bloody revolution. Moreover, the French had declared war on England, and both belligerents  meddled in American domestic politics to turn public opinion.

As President, Federalist John Adams, had skillfully steered America clear of the European conflict, avoiding the danger of being ensnared between the two superpowers. Proud of his diplomatic accomplishments, Adams still brooded, unhappy with his lack of support from the country. His detractors belittled him, disparaging Adams as a pale substitute to the legendary George Washington.

His political challenger in 1800? The clever and calculating Thomas Jefferson. 

An outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Jefferson had been hurling plenty of invective toward the sitting President. What had once been a warm friendship between the two men quickly soured. Petulant and  thin-skinned, Adams had lashed out by pushing laws that restricted the free press and cracked down on immigration. Outraged by these policies, Jefferson, and his growing cadre of supporters, challenged the clear violations of the Constitution. 

In only the nation’s third presidential election the moment appeared volatile and uncertain. On one side was the defensive and testy incumbent, and on the other, a political foe intent on replacing him.  

Adding to the turbulence, a political wildcard entered the fray; New Yorker, Aaron Burr.

Burr, like Jefferson, had opposed unpopular and heavy handed Federalist policies, and Jefferson knew the ticket needed an electoral-rich northern state for strength. As party leader, Jefferson assumed Burr understood his lesser place, and only when the electors met did he learned just how wrong he had been. 

In the final tally, poor John Adams not only lost the election, but came in a distant third behind both challengers. Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 Electoral votes, followed by Burr with 73 of his own. Adams came in last with 65. (That tie is another story.)

Humiliated, Adams left Washington DC in a huff, but made no move to challenge the outcome. And though the former President did not greet the President-Elect, and pointedly skipped the inauguration, John Adams did not put his interests above the nation’s. 

He conceded in silence because he valued our country over his own interests. 

There is no precedent for false assertions from the clear loser in 2020.

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

Steal This Letter

If you feel like contacting your Republican Senators copy and paste this one. Tweak it for your own state and issues.

Senator,

Donald Trump’s stubborn refusal to face the reality of his election loss is as dangerous an assault on our nation as 911, and much more damaging than Pearl Harbor.

This election fiasco flies in the face of American traditions. General Washington sacrificed much of his personal happiness to found our nation. As America’s first president, he placed our republic above any personal comfort, and Washington’s legacy bears that out. When his officers suggested he take the reins of power, the general declined and went home to Mt Vernon.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln preserved what Washington had begun, our Union. And though it cost him his life, the United States was Lincoln’s primary concern.

Both men, a founding father, and the savior of the Union, counted their interests as secondary, because America mattered more than any one man. Now, through a series of events, that responsibility has fallen to you. The GOP majority in the Senate can end this assault on our heritage, and you can make that happen. 

Your forebears would be proud.

The Republican Party came into being on a noble, decent premise. It is the Party of Lincoln, not a lout from Queens.

*Please don’t patronize me with excuses.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Unforgivable Curse

Many of us have read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and/or watched the films. The author created a wondrous world of spells, incantations, and even included law and order via three unforgivable curses. 

There are guardrails in this tale, and a bit of a messiah storyline. Harry willingly sacrifices himself, as had his parents and many others before. However, the “Boy Who Lived,” does, and returns to fight and vanquish wickedness. 

Love, too, permeates the storyline, and the righteous power of good over evil. 

But that’s not my take.

As a career History educator I came to a different conclusion; Harry Potter told me that failing to understand our shared past can be lethal. And that was the metaphor I preached to my History students.

Harry rises to the threat and defends all that is good and valuable in his world. If he didn’t, Harry could have been killed and his world destroyed.

It’s so apropos at this moment in our history to grasp our collective story as Americans.

Honest differences within the confines of our beliefs is one thing. Obliterating the tenants of democracy is quite another. 

Americans cannot surrender our country to this would-be dictator, the things that have cost our people so dearly. Freezing soldiers at Valley Forge did not languish to enable DJT to trademark his brand to hotels, steaks or a failed university. The fallen at Gettysburg, and the suffering in Battle of the Bulge was not to pave the way for DJT to get us all killed from a ravaging plague. The girls who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the miners murdered in the Ludlow Massacre, or humiliated Civil Rights workers beaten at the Woolworth’s lunch counter was not for Donald Trump to validate racism and sexism and undo labor laws. 

He doesn’t know our nation’s history, and as George Santayana warned us, we are condemned to sacrifice all over again. 

Vote. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Joe In 170 Words

This is a letter of support recently send to newspapers across Idaho. With Kamala Harris named as Biden’s running mate today, it is clear good government awaits America in 2021.

Joe Biden has my enthusiastic support for president. Joe is humble, compassionate, and has dedicated his career to America. His experience in foreign affairs will fortify our country against unfriendly powers; those foes across the sea who would like to see the US collapse from within. 

Domestically, the VicePresident honors our legacy of rights, balanced with the courage to tell us when we must reach out for the common good. 

Biden’s experiences reflect our own. We have also lost loved ones, lived paycheck to paycheck, and most importantly he understands that America is about people, not just about racking up wealth. There is a proportion in Joe Biden’s character, and he listens in order to understand the difficult situations we all face. 

As our first President, George Washington knew he was no orator, nor a writer. But he was honest like Joe, and knew himself. Washington surrounded himself with the brightest; Hamilton, Jefferson, Henry Knox, and others, setting the nation we have today into motion. 

Joe Biden will restore it.

Gail Chumbley,

Garden Valley

Endurance

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Three early American documents are often lumped together in our collective memory, though each is quite different from the others; The Declaration of IndependenceThe Articles of Confederation, and the enduring US Constitution. Citizens generally know something of the Declaration due to a certain celebration we observe each summer. The Articles of Confederation are a bit more elusive, and not nearly as recognized. The third, the US Constitution is revered, but its beginnings, and purpose is also shrouded in time. 

Here is a quick explanation of each missive, particularly the sequence, and the significance of each.

The Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. A product of the Second Continental Congress, this revolutionary document was ratified as an instrument of rebellion, after all other measures to avoid war with England had failed. In reality, the shooting had begun a year earlier in Lexington, Massachusetts, but the Declaration formalized hostilities. Debated and delayed, this document was finally adopted in July of that year. Congress made crystal clear their reasons and resolve to free themselves from King George’s arbitrary rule. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration began with a guiding statement about “Natural Right’s” shared by all humanity, and that people had the obligation to free themselves from unjust tyranny. The rest of the epistle read as a legal document condemning the King and his despotism. This document is the first of the three in forging the United States of America. 

The Articles of Confederation: September, 1777. The Articles provided America’s first national charter of government. Approved by the same Second Continental Congress in 1777, the Articles attempted to unify the original states under one government. Through this document, Congress sent diplomats abroad, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to (beg) obtain financial support from European powers. However, at home, this framework failed miserably. More a Confederation of independent principalities, Congress had to plead for money and men from each state, who often said no. There was no power to tax, no centralized currency, and the Articles weren’t even ratified by all 13 states until a month before the war ended at Yorktown. Each state jealously guarded its own interests over any unified cooperation. Congress could do next to nothing to aid General Washington and his army. Chaos ensued after the war ended, as well. Trade wars flared, disagreements among the states spilled over into violence, and rebellions within states promised more turbulence. The ability of America to govern itself appeared doomed. The English were sure America’s failure was imminent, and they could, once again, swoop in.

The United States Constitution: May to September, 1787. Born from an earlier 1786 meeting between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Annapolis, MD, the Constitutional Convention was organized and slated for Philadelphia in May. Both founders understood that without persuading Washington to attend this new Convention, any success was remote. Washington, tending his home at Mount Vernon, was hesitant, and tired. However, when news reached the General of an uprising in Western Massachusetts, (Shays Rebellion), Washington agreed to attend. Fifty-five delegates from all the states except Rhode Island, reported to the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia. Most were lawyers, sprinkled with many Southern slave holders. Virginian, James Madison came prepared with a plan to replace the feeble Articles of Confederation. Much of Madison’s Virginia Plan became the basis of the Constitution. Designed for endurance, this new charter vested authority in the Central government, and the states. Termed Federalism, powers under this frame of government are shared between both authorities simultaneously. The tooling of the document, employing separation of powers, and checks and balances is brilliant, and worked well until 2016.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com