Reading Tea Leaves

Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision.

Abraham Lincoln

From 1790 to now, American midterm elections have functioned as an effective gauge of public opinion. 

Despite southern secession, and the subsequent war of rebellion, President Lincoln viewed national elections as the indispensable foundation of a free government. There were dissenting voices calling for cancellation of the 1862 midterms due to the war, but Lincoln did not hold to that. 

After two years in office, Lincoln needed to know where he stood with the people. The Republican Party kept majorities in Congress, but a significant shift among unhappy voters surfaced. 

Democrats (those still in the Union) picked up 27 seats in the House. Though the Senate did remain in Republican hands, Lincoln understood the first two years of war had cost him plenty. Bloody defeats on the field of battle at Bull Run, the Peninsular Campaign, plus the massive casualties at Antietam had cost his administration.

In the Twentieth Century, the bi-election in 1934 delivered a powerful message of support to Franklin Roosevelt and his administration. Not only did the public approve of his New Deal, they added nine more members to the House majority, and an additional nine to the Senate. Clearly Roosevelt’s economic measures had grown in popularity across the stricken nation. Conversely, by 1938, Democrats lost 72 House seats with 81 gains for the GOP.  FDR took those results to heart changing course on some of his policies.

Harry Truman, FDR’s successor inherited a more divided America. The Democrats had enjoyed nearly fourteen years in power, but Truman’s presidency faced a shifting change. In the midterm election of 1946 the GOP secured majorities in both the House and the Senate. Fifty-five seats changed hands in the lower chamber, and seated twelve more in the Senate. The public did not view Harry Truman in the same light as his predecessor.

There are other illustrative bi-elections to examine. For example, 1982, where the Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House, and seven in the Senate after two years of the Reagan Administration. And in 1994 Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” where the GOP picked up 54 House seats, and eights seats in the Senate. With that majority, Republicans worked to undermine the Clinton Administration. 

The midterms do act as a barometer of America’s political winds. A great deal is to be learned by analyzing voter turnout and the winners and losers. Political Parties can find where they stand with the people, and adjust accordingly.

In that light this last 2022 midterm spoke volumes as well. In a most unlikely scenario, where inflation and high gas prices, plus low poll numbers for our sitting president, the public rejected the GOP’s crazy MAGA’s. Yes a hand full of seats did shift the House, but barely. The former guy has clearly worn out his welcome, and voters have had enough of that sideshow. 

That he and his followers are oblivious to the temperament of the people makes no difference. The numbers don’t lie.

If this half-dozen, or so reelected extremists believe they have a mandate from the American people they are seriously mistaken. For next the two years the country will be forced to watch the same tiresome, noisy political antics they rejected at the polls.

You all are going to overplay your hands, and sink your party.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Newt Gingrich. He’s out of office and has time for your call.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has also penned two historical plays, “Clay” on the life of statesman, Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration of racism and slavery in America.

Broken

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The 68-year-old Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in foul weather. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either cooperate, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for Vice President. The Whig Party had gelled during the Jackson administration, proposing financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern economy.

Foremost among the Whigs was the Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, in 1840 when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to nominate their candidate, Clay failed to gain the top spot, and then declined the offer of the vice-presidency. Clay later regretted his momentary pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had publicly broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the institution of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency. 

From there, Whig policies quickly unraveled.

If the Whig’s aimed to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the demise of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising phoenix. And that party still exists today, for now. That is, if they haven’t already submerged their once decent name in the cesspool of Trumpism. 

*This post appeared in 2019. And now, in 2022, the GOP has formally forsaken all that was decent in the Republican Party. They now publicly support a coup attempt through silence and excuses, abandoning leadership of their party to propagandized fanatics.  

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight,” “Clay,” a play chronicling the life of Senator Henry Clay, followed by another, “Wolf By The Ears,” a study of racism and slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Fight Club

A biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, (by Robert A. Caro) presents an in-depth look at LBJ’s Senate career. Aptly titled “Master of the Senate,” Caro describes the future president’s considerable ability to push bills he championed through the US Senate.

Using his boundless energy to cajole, intimidate, and hound opponents, Senator Johnson proved remarkably effective. When candidate John F Kennedy selected LBJ to serve as his running mate, Johnson’s reputation as a political wheeler dealer sealed his selection. 

A look at the backgrounds of all 46 American Presidents, only one-third rose from Congress’s upper chamber. From 1900 to today only seven Chief Executives began in the Senate. Perhaps as candidates, these politicians carry controversial voting records, or personal foibles leaving too much baggage for a successful run. In spite of inherent liabilities, most modern Senators-turned-President, bring an effective array of skills to the White House.

For both Truman with his Fair Deal, and John F Kennedy’s New Frontier, legislative wins were scarce. Truman did enjoy a moment with passage of the Marshall Plan to rebuilt war-torn Europe, and Kennedy with the ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Following JFK’s murder Lyndon Johnson seized that tragic moment initiating his Great Society program, and then showed America how to get things done. Public Television, highway beautification, Medicare, Medicaid, and both the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson’s achievements were many, and important. 

Richard Nixon served in the Senate, as well. Once President, Nixon promoted the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of Title IX for women in sports. It wasn’t all evil in that White House, the guy had skills.

In 2010, single-term Senator from Illinois, turned President, Barack Obama signed into law The Affordable Care Act. Standing near, watching was Obama’s Vice-President, Joe Biden, himself a 36 year veteran of the Senate. 

The thing is Mitch McConnell lobbed every counterpunch in the rules to stop Obamacare. But he failed in the face of three wily tacticians, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi in the House, and, of course, Joe Biden.

Now Joe has entered the White House in his own right.

The supposition that legislative cunning ensures a successful presidency is only an interesting thought. But Truman did see reelection, while LBJ collapsed under the weight of Vietnam, not his legislative magic. Nixon sabotaged himself, but the Biden presidency appears to be chugging along on a steady course. 

In the Senate since 1973, this 46th President cut his political teeth on Capitol Hill. Senate rules, cloture, floor privileges, and more are some of the lethal weapons in his political arsenal. For example, when Senator Manchin suddenly came on board with the Inflation Reduction Act, Mitch McConnell, another sly dog, staggered, blindsided.

The point remains. There is a lot more to Joe Biden than meets the eye. This is not a President to dismiss for superficial reasons, like his grandpa appearance, and folksy demeanor. If anything, Biden’s Senate career has forged him into a political shark. The Infrastructure package, Covid Relief, and College Debt Forgiveness have largely passed, allowing his opponents no time to breathe.

And Joe’s VP? She’s a former Senator, too.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are on Kindle. Chumbley has written two historical plays, “Clay” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration of American racism and slavery.

Catch Up

A radical change in imperial policy between Great Britain and her American Colonies marked the beginning of the Revolutionary Era.

Well before the American Revolution an amiable, and profitable arrangement existed between the Colonials and Parliament. This mutually profitable connection quickly terminated after the French and Indian War, 1754-1763. That conflict, though a victory for the British, had cost the Royal Treasury plenty, and the Crown abandoned friendly relations by coercing Americans to share in settling that war debt .

Parliament began by imposing a number of taxes, all designed to force Americans to pay up. The Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend Duties, among other measures, had been designed to force Americans to cover the royal debt. Once proud to be British, Colonials were shocked to realize the Crown viewed them as a source of revenue, and nothing more.

Colonials had a long running smuggling network, importing cheaper commodities from the French islands, thus evading British tariffs. Those caught and arrested found fast acquittal by colonial juries of their peers, as locals were also customers of the accused. In Boston, tensions soon turned to bloodshed, followed later with tea spilled into the Harbor. The Crown, not amused, soon forbade traditional trials, and transported accused Americans to military courts, in particular to Nova Scotia. Next, British Red Coats were deployed to the New England colonies to impose martial law, and Parliament decreed American’s had to house and feed their own oppressors.  

These matters were met with vehement dissent, Colonials protesting they had no representative in Parliament, and would not tolerate taxation without their consent. “No Taxation Without Representation” and “Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God,” rang throughout Colonial America.

Tensions ripened, finally coming to a bloody confrontation in April of 1775, and the rest we mostly remember from school. 

Tasked with scribing a Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson vented American grievances through his quill. Working alone, Jefferson defended the violent actions carried out by Americans, and took pains to explain the radicalism. . . . “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” And for six years the Continental Army persevered.

In 1787, the subsequent creation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution set an enduring national blueprint of settled law. The Framers designed a government derived from the people, meaning we all are equal, and guaranteed representation in shaping law.

That brings this story to today. 

The election of a president from an opposing party is not a radical, nor sudden change of policy. Rather, this cyclic American ritual is as normal as the singing the Star Spangled Banner before a game. American voters have chosen our leaders in this manner since George Washington’s name first appeared on the ballot. 

To all of you who attacked our Capitol, it’s well past time for you to catch up. Put away those symbols of rebellion; of coiled snakes, hangmen gallows, and Viking horns. The Revolution ended two and a half centuries ago. The story of America is well underway.

In point of fact, those January 6th insurrectionists themselves attempted a radical change in American tradition. In pursuit of violence and chaos, these terrorists attempted a savage disruption of our deepest democratic traditions. Now that is unAmerican. In point of fact, we all have political representatives, and a right to a jury of our peers, and nary a soldier is found lounging on the couch.

Grow up and stand down.  

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

Chumbley has also penned two plays, “Clay” exploring the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an examination of American slavery and racism.

chumbleg.blog

A Scandalous Life

And I didn’t include GW Bush

A video blog. Forgive the quality, but the point is clear.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. In addition Chumbley has complete two plays, “Clay,” on the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” exploring the beginnings of racism and slavery.

The Long Haul

After the 1929 Market Crash, the world collapsed into nearly feudal isolation, and international trade quickly dried up. Like the rest of the world America focused inward, disillusioned by U.S. participation in WWI. Across the Pacific, the Japanese Empire, too, promoted a sphere of influence, sold to Asians under the moniker of a “Co-prosperity Sphere.” China, a vulnerable prize lay across the Sea of Japan, awaiting the wrath of Japanese aggression for land and resources.

Great Britain, too, struggled with a malaise of its own, as did the French–both nations saddled with debts extended by American banks during the war. Next to the new Soviet Union, Germany, struggled most of all, buried in war reparations the allies demanded from the vanquished.

As the financial fallout worldwide grew wildly unstable, regimes hunkered down and waited for better times.

The solution in that movement-elevate anti-democratic despots to power.

The Italians were the first, having produced a Fascist strongman, Benito Mussolini. He suppressed political diversity, harnessed economic efficiency, and soon, like the Japanese, pursued colonial inroads into Libya, and later the conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini envisioned a return to the glory days of Rome.

Germany, soon flirted with fascism, as well. In a reaction to impossible debts, and of national pride, Adolf Hitler, a feckless dreamer, stood on beer hall tables, and passionately spoke of national betrayal, and the victimization of Germany. “Mein Kampf” the product of an earlier prison sentence, circled around much the same, blaming Bolsheviks, Capitalists, and Jews for the hated Armistice of 1918.

However, America, unlike the rest of the world, clung with all their might to the national system of Constitutional norms. At the same time Germany elected a Hitler in 1932, the U.S. found their champion in Franklin Roosevelt. 

A popular Roosevelt Coalition steered those hard years holding the United States together. That’s not to say there weren’t kooks, to borrow Lindsay Graham’s phrase, but Americans faced the long haul together, knowing better days had to be ahead..

As FDR did not cause the Depression, Joe Biden did not precipitate the inept handling of Covid-19. Moreover, Biden’s policies did not cause Putin to invade the Ukraine, nor trigger the inflation rate, as financial matters are linear, impervious to election cycles. This new administration is not responsible for China’s economic reach, Britain’s Brexit debacle, Russia’s saber rattling, or global warming, let alone shortages of baby formula. 

The utter incompetence of that last blowhard made the real mess. This moment, like FDR’s, will take more time to sort out and stabilize. 

So, here is the question. Can Americans again remain bound to the framework of our Republic? Will today’s misinformed kooks forsake our financial, social, and political traditions and turn to petty retribution and tyranny?

Will we, as a nation, exchange our democracy for a strong man who insists he has all the answers?

That is the question of this historic moment. 

Gail Chumbley is an author and history educator.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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

Rebellions

The Republican Party emerged in 1854 as a voice for liberty, and of opportunity. Forged in sectional controversy, members dedicated themselves to one overriding priority, no slavery in America’s western territories. On that point the fledgling party stood firm.

A lawyer in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln, joined the growing party early, concerned, as were others, with escalating tensions between the North and South.

In 1860, Lincoln threw his very tall hat into the ring, and declared his candidacy for President. Defying considerable odds, Lincoln prevailed over other, more prominent Republicans at the GOP Convention in Chicago. Lincoln grasped the nomination. 

The South responded as one. If Lincoln won the Presidency, they would bolt the Union. He did win, and tried to reason with Southern States through his inaugural address. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

The sticking point of course, slavery. 

By the time Lincoln took the oath of office, eight Southern States had voted to secede from the Union. This president understood the fears of the South, and knew what drove the secessionists. He didn’t hate them, he did not want them punished. During the last year of the war Lincoln, in his second inaugural address gently offered an olive branch stating, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Lincoln’s lasting legacy held that the Civil War meant more than reunification of the states. His  “new birth of freedom” implied a higher ideal, the turmoil meant something more honorable, and timeless: the cause of humanity. The Emancipation Proclamation came first, then the 13th Amendment, forever freeing those held in bondage. This president took no credit for prevailing over the Rebels, hoping only to heal the divisions that fueled the rage.

His martyrdom on April 15,1865 left the GOP imprinted with Lincoln’s goodness, modesty, and nobility. This first Republican President endured four years of national hell, and never forgot his mission.

Lincoln met the Rebellion, and vanquished it.

America today hears no soaring rhetoric from the GOP, nor elegant prose, only hate speech and bellyaching. The GOP has severed the cords of duty to country, replacing patriotic obligation with an unapologetic lust for power, and self interest. 

For four years the taxpayers have been fleeced, and minorities targeted, the kind of intolerance Lincoln abhorred. Long standing alliances were cast aside as a self-serving dunce cozied up to America’s enemies. The Republican members of Congress have forsaken their obligation to country first, pretending and excusing that all was normal in the turbulent White House. 

The greatest harm perpetrated by, and enabled by the current GOP, is the violent attack on the heart of our democracy: the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The irony is rich. As the Republican Party grew from a rebellion, it will now perish from another.

Animal House Meets the GOP

What do you get when you cross Animal House with the GOP? Roger Stone. He holds the dubious distinction of dragging Republican moral decay on, that first festered in the 1970’s. The product of Stone’s current efforts? The January 6th insurrection.

That young Stone cut his teeth orbiting around the Nixon disaster, and later lent a hand to the Reagan campaign, and even later aided the “Brooks Brother Riot” of 2000, his role as a covert agent of chaos lives on. “Conservative Values” a long running catch phrase is no more than an oxymoron, the national party undercut by a list of career dirty tricksters, including Stone.

Think Donald Segretti, of Watergate fame. Segretti hired a girl to run naked at a hotel shouting she was in love with Edmund Muskie, Nixon’s chief rival in 1972. In 1970, even Karl Rove interfered and sabotaged Democratic fund raising efforts by publishing false event information, ie . . . free beer, free food, girls, everyone welcome, etc. Rove’s work turned the event into a fiasco. Then there was Ken Clawson’s Canuck Letter. Clawson, a Nixon operative, published a fraudulent note dropping in phrases like “illegitimate babies,” and “homosexuality,” among Democratic leaders. (Homosexuality still a taboo.) And of course the most famous dirty trick of all, the burglary of the DNC at the Watergate Office Complex.

What this brief evidence has made clear is Republicans can’t win any other way, at least not nationally, without deception and disinformation campaigns. During the Reagan years, men like Oliver North, Admiral John Poindexter, and CIA Director William Casey privatized foreign policy in the Iran Contra Affair. Ronald Reagan haplessly confessed the crimes were real, though he didn’t understand how. The George W. Bush administration outed a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, via Scooter Libby, and Libby was convicted of his crime. But don’t cry for Scooter, Donald Trump pardoned him because it’s true, there is no honor among thieves.

Any pretense of “conservative values” is a myth, carefully advertised by party insiders, but hasn’t existed since President Dwight Eisenhower. 

Stone’s lies to Congress, and to the FBI reveals the state of the party. Any means to win.  Underhanded tactics indicate business as usual.

The harm? My vote doesn’t count, and neither does anyone else’s. The cry of States’ Rights echoing around the country is simply a cover to intensify efforts to deprive the people of good government. Stone, Trump, and the rest of the party has rejected an even playing field; they cannot win in an open, fair vote.  

This blog in no way implies that Dems are blameless, but short of Bill Clinton’s dalliances and others taking bribes, the crimes have hurt the individual, not the American people. Decent folks abandon the GOP daily because of such flagrant misuse of power. 

In a side note, Richard Nixon ran for Congress in 1946 smearing his opponent, Jerry Voorhees as “soft on Communism,” and in 1950 aimed for the Senate, insinuating his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear.”

We all know who the patron saint of the modern GOP is, and Stone, not to forget Trump, are his most astute disciples.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Chumbley has written two plays, “Clay,” exploring the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” regarding the establishment of American Slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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