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

A Learning Curve

 

George Washington came of age immersed in the culture of Tidewater Virginia. To join the higher echelons of society there were set requirements, in particular vast property holdings.

This lust for land had crossed the Atlantic with the first ships from Great Britain. Only gentlemen of the highest social station possessed “parks” to use the British term; bucolic sanctuaries where aristocrats, and their guests could hunt, and fish, with enough acreage left for tenancy. Landed Cavaliers to Virginia immediately assumed a sense of equality to any aristocrat residing in Old England. (The “All Men Are Created Equal,” passage in the Declaration of Independence affirms Jefferson’s sentiment.)

Washington’s older, half-brother, Lawrence, the heir of their deceased father’s estate, had the land, the title, the rank, and the education that George could never realize. But, Lawrence did try to help the twenty-year-old establish himself. Lawrence first tried to secure a naval commission for his younger brother. But that didn’t work out.* With no money or prospects, young Washington settled on a career as a land surveyor, a noble calling for the time. 

Making use of his father’s instruments, and with  help from a neighbor, Lord Fairfax, George gained an appointment to the Virginia Militia, and a chance to put his vocation to use.

The year was 1754 and a fateful clash awaited the untested soldier-surveyor.

Virginia’s original charter claimed virtually all western lands, north by northwest of the colony, theoretically to the Pacific. At roughly the same time the French too, had staked claim to that same interior region. At a site known now as Jumonville Glen, in the Ohio River Valley, Washington and his party detected then attacked an encampment of French Canadiens. In the melee a Native scout with Washington, called Half King, killed a Frenchman, who, as it turned out was a diplomatic courier. That was, and still is, an international no-no. 

In retaliation soon after, French reinforcements from Fort Duquesne, (Pittsburgh) pressed down on Washington’s party, where the untested and panicked militia officer made a colossally poor decision. In the ensuing “Battle of Fort Necessity,” Washington was easily whipped and forced to surrender when his hastily erected stockade filled with rain, making defense impossible. 

Thoroughly humiliated, Washington surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. In the capitulation treaty, young George unwittingly admitted he had allowed a French diplomat to be assassinated at Jumonville Glen. His lack of education was exposed. Washington couldn’t read French and didn’t know what he had signed. His humiliation was complete, his blunder igniting the French and Indian War. 

Fast forward forty years to 1794 and a return to the site of old Fort Duquesne, the scene of Washington’s infamous disgrace. For Washington much had changed. As Commander of the Continental Army, Washington had nobly defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and became the first President of the United States.

The once awkward Virginian was fully redeemed in the eyes of the new nation. Despite his rough start, Washington had grown up. Still, his misadventures decades earlier still stung. Despite universal accolades, the nods and winks of those who remembered Jumonville Glen remained.

As for old Fort Duquesne? The settlement had become the growing commercial center of Pittsburgh. 

And it was in the proximity of Pittsburgh, near the site of his former humiliation, that President Washington faced a new conflict.

The new Congress has passed an excise bill on distillers of whiskey, as a means for the federal government to settle war debt. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had proposed this tax on spirits as a way for the Treasury to settle its financial difficulties. But distillers around Pittsburgh stubbornly refused to pay. In fact Whiskey Rebels rose up, and attacked tax officials who attempted to collect. By summer of 1794, one collector had been tarred and feathered, and another was burned out of his home by a violent mob.

The Revolution was over, and President Washington had had enough. No more domestic violence, especially not from the Ohio Valley. He requested Congress to raise an army, placed Hamilton at the head, and sent them to the site of his earlier disgrace. These agitators melted away like snow in April.

Washington flexed federal power in what was the Constitution’s real first challenge. That Washington felt some sense of personal absolution, considering his military history is understandable.

And what does this episode mean to us in the long run? Don’t piss off George Washington? Maybe. But more importantly the new Constitution was the law, and as chief executive, he enforced that law.

Washington had grown up, and the country needed to do likewise.

*Washington’s mother said no.

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

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, his brother Lawrence, an English-educated captain in the British Navy.

Lawrence exemplified George’s ideal of the perfect English gentleman. 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 frontier tracts in service of his wealthy patron, Lord Thomas Fairfax. Through the Lord’s position, young Washington studied military science and joined 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 wilds of the Ohio River Valley, Washington inadvertently ignited the French and Indian War. Engaging French forces near what is today Pittsburgh, the young militia officer was defeated in July 3, 1754.

Promised rank by a British General, Washington looked to realize his most fervent wish—to become a bonafide English officer and gentleman. However, on Washington’s return to the Ohio Valley, this general was killed in the Battle of the Monongahela. Washington never received his British rank.

Humiliated by the experience, Washington left the militia, embittered, and returned home.

Shortly after Britain’s final victory over the French, Washington inherited Mt Vernon with the death of his beloved Lawrence. As a planter, he sought a planter’s wife, marrying widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. With his grand house on the Potomac, and wealthy bride, Washington’s status in the Tidewater elevated considerably.

Still ambitious, Washington ran for office, serving first in the House of Burgesses, then as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774. 

Under increasingly punitive British demands, Washington and many of his peers grew resentful of colonial treatment. By the time of the Second Continental Congress, Washington cast his public lot, by attending the proceedings in a uniform of buff and blue. Colonel Washington had become a rebel, available to command, if necessary, upon the field of battle.

It was during the Revolutionary War, particularly at the battle of Princeton, that Washington transformed, becoming something else, someone exceptional. As his ragtag troop of soldiers flushed redcoats out of the New Jersey town, he is said to have called out , “It is a fine day for a fox hunt, my boys.”

And in that moment George Washington discovered a cause better than any worldly possession could attain, a cause worth more than life.

Authentic majesty did not reside in Royal recognition or military rank. Rather, nobility lay in an ideal—that America could do something grand, and never before attempted—a government of the people. Washington grasped that outside trappings meant nothing, if unaccompanied by worthy ideals. 

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