A Fine Day


Washington at the Second Continental Congress

An anxious boy, George Washington began life in the formal, orderly Virginia Tidewater. Born the first son of a second marriage, young Washington looked up to his older half brothers blessed with solid social standing and a full inheritance. In particular, George held dear, brother Lawrence, an English educated captain in the British Navy. Lawrence exemplified George’s ideal of the perfect English gentleman, and the younger man suppressed, (poorly) an ardent hunger to be a gentleman, too.

Self-conscious, young George flailed around for a vocation. He first trained as a surveyor, platting out western lands in service to the wealthy, then studying military science and joining the Virginia militia. Tall and strong, with a talent for numbers and tactics, Washington performed well in both pursuits.

Dispatched by the Royal Governor of Virginia into the hinterlands of the Ohio Valley Washington ignited the French and Indian War, by clashing with French forces near, what is today, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Promised rank by a British General, Washington looked to realize his most fervent wish—to become a bonafide English gentleman. However, the general was killed, and Washington blamed for the disasters on the frontier. Humiliated by the experience, Washington returned home.

In the years after Britain’s final victory over the French, Washington inherited Mt Vernon after the loss of his beloved Lawrence, then married widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. With his grand house and wealthy bride, Washington’s status in the Tidewater rose considerably. Still ambitious, Washington ran for office, serving first in the House of Burgesses then as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. 

Under increasingly punitive British rule, Washington and many others grew resentful of discriminatory treatment. By the time of the Second Continental Congress, Washington attended in a uniform of buff and blue, telegraphing his availability to lead, if necessary, on the field of battle.

It was during the Revolutionary War, particularly at the battle Princeton, that Washington transformed, became something different, someone better. As his troops flushed redcoats out of the New Jersey town, he is said to have exclaimed, “It is a fine day for a fox hunt, my boys.” In that moment George Washington discovered a cause greater than any gentleman could attain, something worth dying for. Majesty did not reside in Royal favor or rank. Rather nobility lay in an idea—that a people could do something grand, and never before attempted—freely govern themselves. Washington grasped that outside trappings meant nothing, if unaccompanied by noble principles. 

Those who assess General Washington with shallow, superficial values have missed the meaning of the man’s life and distinction. It’s a pity that those who seem to know the price of everything understand the value of nothing. 

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. Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

He Wrote for the Ages

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For starters, I am not a fan of Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the more I know of this founding father, the less I like him. The Sage of Monticello routinely had young male slaves beaten for no better reason than custom, and lay the foundation for secession in 1798 with his Kentucky Resolution.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish hero of the Revolutionary War, once offered to liquidate land holdings in the Northwest Territory to pay Jefferson to free some of his slaves, and Jefferson declined. Disillusioned, Kosciuszko condemned Jefferson as a fraud for once insisting “all men were created equal,” and not practicing that “truth.”

However, the reality remains that Jefferson did indeed, pen those words, and generations of Jeffersonian disciples have insisted those words are enough to maintain his venerated place in American history.

And I agree. His adulators are correct. Jefferson’s words are enough. His phrasing, painstakingly composed in 1776 has ignited the world on the ultimate quest to actualize Jefferson’s “unalienable” assertions. 

Abraham Lincoln took Jefferson’s sentiment to heart, and his devotion moved Lincoln to action. The foundation of the Republican Party rested partly upon removing artificial impediments restraining upward mobility, and Lincoln believed slavery such an obstacle, the most malignant bar to individual betterment. (Duh). In 1859 he stated in a speech, “We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better.” And Lincoln made it his aim to realize that betterment, first with Emancipation, then the 13th Amendment.

There could be no better description for America than a people steadily discarding artificial barriers. Women, Native Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Latino Americans: all of us freed to reach our highest potential. Annoying bigotry places a drag on the process, but justice still manages to surge steadily on, inspired by the words of the Declaration of Independence–Jefferson’s words. 

In reality, Jefferson had meant to argue white wealthy Colonials were of equal standing to Great Britain’s landed aristocracy. Despite his original intent, the promise of those words have outlived that specific moment. 

Understandably, Thaddeus Kosciuszko gave up in the face of Jefferson’s outrageous duplicity. And this generation of fanatics desperately promote Jefferson’s original racism. But, kids, we have inherited an obligation to continue this journey, not only for ourselves but to light the way for our children’s children.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the World War Two-era memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle, and hard copies at http://www.river-of-january.com

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

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