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

Symmetry

This reactionary-looking fellow is Marylander Roger Brooks Taney, who joined the Supreme Court as an appointee of Andrew Jackson. History recalls Justice Taney as the author of the Court’s most infamous ruling in Scott V Sandford (1857).  

Taney had consistently telegraphed his views on slavery and American citizenship by insisting that blacks had no rights white males were bound to respect. Even before his nomination to the bench, a free black had requested documents for overseas travel that Roger Taney, as the US Attorney General rejected rather quickly. Taney revealed his legal perspective before dawning judges robes, that blacks were not citizens, nor ever could be, and the travel documents were denied.

Another important element in this story concerns the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Decided eight years earlier than the Jackson Administration, this legislation directed that with the exception of the new state itself, slavery would be forbidden above Missouri’s southern border. Most Americans hoped that this Missouri Compromise Line would hold forever, clearly defining for posterity, new slave states from free. However, with westward migration and the advent of Roger Taney, that hope flickered and died, speeding up the advent of Civil War.

By the time the Scott case reached the Federal docket, violence and bloodshed had erupted west of Missouri, on the Kansas prairie. New Kansans, recently arrived from northern and southern states, were to vote upon the fate of slavery in the new state’s constitution. A volatile mix of invading, pro-slavery Missouri Ruffians attacked Free-State Jayhawkers near Lawrence, sparking deadly violence across the region. Unrepentant slaveholders demanded their 5th Amendment property rights; meaning slaves were allowed any place slaveholders settled. At the same time, equally fervent opponents of slavery contended the “peculiar institution” would remain contained where it existed, never to pollute new territories, or America’s future.

Justice Taney took umbrage at these incessant attacks on slavery, and at those Northern rabble rousers who would not respect the law. When the Scott case entered deliberations, it appears Taney intended to settle the question for all time, and silence those meddling, self righteous Yankees. When the Court issued its ruling in 1857, Justice Taney’s opinion rang out with authority, and finality.

  1. Despite Dred Scott residing in free territory for a time, he was still a slave.
  2. As a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen and had no standing in court.

With those two main points established, Taney could have stopped, but the Chief Justice had some venom to add.

3) Congress had exceeded its authority in legislating the Missouri Compromise in 1820, rendering it unconstitutional. Slavery could not be restricted by boundary lines or by popular vote. Property was protected by law.

Believing he had settled the issue, Justice Taney had, in fact, only stoked a more massive fire.

Indeed war erupted within four years of Taney’s decision, blazing on for another bloody four years. In the aftermath, in an interesting turn of symmetry, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, reversed all of Taney’s arguments, provision by provision. 

  1. By virtue of birth in the United States, one was a citizen. 
  2. As a citizen a person was due all rights and immunities, with equal protection under the law. 

This amendment reads as if the Scott Decision acted as a template for reversal.

Fast forward to 2008. 

In a conscious effort to mirror the events of fellow Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural, Barack Obama’s installation as chief executive deliberately followed the 1861 sequence. The Obamas rode the same train route, breakfasted on the same food inauguration day, and when the moment came for the swearing in, President Obama selected the same Bible as touched by Abraham Lincoln’s right hand.

In a last twist of symmetry that Bible belonged to Justice Roger B Taney.

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

 

Beware Of Darkness

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Vote, but don’t vote in fear. If concern guides your trip to the polls, clarify those fears.

While one party points to desperate and dispossessed people as threatening our country, recognize this distraction is providing cover for deeper, more substantive threats.

At this writing thirty-five people have been indicted for conspiring to hack the 2016 Presidential election. This is not theory, it is fact. Of those thirty-five, four convicted conspirators have  “flipped” and are cooperating with Federal Prosecutors to shorten their sentences in this scandal. George Papadopolous, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and others are awaiting their fate while they each divulge all they know about Russian meddling and their aid in that subversion.

Russia, under the direction of former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, powerful ‘oligarchs’ have organized electronic sabotage to interfere and undermine the integrity of the United States of America. Never forget that. It’s treason: providing aid and comfort to our enemies.

To silence his own critics, Putin has dispatched hit squads of assassins, at home in Russia, and abroad, using military grade nerves agents, thallium, and firearms to silence opponents. Though Putin has denied authorizing any such thing, as he did in Russian election meddling, our president says he believes him. That is a serious concern.

Friendship has extended from this White House to other totalitarian regimes similar to Putin’s. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean butcher of his own family members, and starving people, Rodrigo Deterte of the Philippines, and Erdogan of Turkey who is demanding the US release a Turkish journalist critical of the autocrat. As I write, the president still wants to do business with the Saudi Prince, MBS, despite the grisly murder of a Washington Post journalist by his order. That is a concern.

Fear is a powerful and toxic motivation to rush the polls on Election Day. However, we must all show caution in what we fear. Do we look where this administration points, or do we ignore the calculated chaos and figure out the real threat to our nation?

“Beware of Darkness” from George Harrison’s song of the same name.

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

 

 

Aftermath

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The Constitution was slightly over twelve years old. The rules on presidential elections read precisely on paper, and in 1800 the front runner, Thomas Jefferson looked to enter the White House with ease. However, though designed by the best minds of that era, the flaws built into the Electoral College failed to deliver Jefferson his expected victory. Something had gone terribly awry triggering America’s first electoral crisis. 

New York Republican, Aaron Burr was chosen as Jefferson’s running mate. The thinking was to balance the ticket with a Virginian at the top, and a New Yorker in the second spot drawing Northern votes. Thus the stage was set for a painless triumph over the faltering Federalist Party. However, when the electoral votes were tallied as prescribed by Article 2, the running mates unexpectedly tied for the top spot.

The fault lay in the statute itself, by failing to anticipate such a scenario. Jefferson soon grew furious as Burr passively declined to concede the office, and the tie was forced to the House of Representatives for resolution. In the end the stalemate broke when Alexander Hamilton intervened, persuading the hold-over Federalist majority to choose Jefferson as the lesser of the two evils. (One of the grievances leading to the later duel with Burr). But why?

This was personal. New Yorkers both, Hamilton and Burr had come to detest one another, Though no political friend of Jefferson, Hamilton recognized a fellow patriot, despite deeply held differences. Burr, however was only interested in Burr. Hamilton’s intent was to protect the new nation, and block a scoundrel from assuming the highest office in the land.

Jefferson was sworn into office, and later, in 1804, the Constitution was modified with the Twelfth Amendment, rectifying the design flaws in the original document. 

Twenty years later, in 1824, another impasse materialized that touched off national outrage for decades. The shifting winds of political change found a champion in the person of General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans. Old Hickory had built his reputation as a ruthless Indian fighter, slave holder, and conqueror of Spanish Florida. His feats were celebrated throughout the growing nation, and Jackson’s prospects for election seemed assured. But again, events proved otherwise.

When the Electoral Vote was counted Andrew Jackson had received 99 votes. New England’s John Quincy Adams, son of the Second President, had secured 84 electoral votes. William Crawford of Georgia, though quite ill, earned 41 votes, and lastly, the former Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, 37. The magic number in 1824 to claim victory was 130 votes, so the race was once more, referred to the House of Representatives. Still, Jackson clearly had been the choice of the people.

When John Quincy Adams was unexpectedly named President the public outcry was deafening. In defiance of the people, Henry Clay, the former Speaker used his considerable influence to place Quincy Adams in the White House. When Clay became Adams nominee for Secretary of State, cries of “Corrupt Bargain” blazed across the nation. A furious Andrew Jackson at once began his bid for the presidency in 1828.

Quincy and Clay were stunned. They took actions they believed were best for the nation. They saw the capricious Jackson as a danger to democracy, a man who demonstrated the tendencies of a despot. Still Adams was politically wounded, and the Administration did little of substance in the four years left to them. As for Henry Clay, he never fully restored his reputation.

Other questionable elections repeated through the years. In 1876 with the election of Ruther”fraud” B Hayes, and again in 2000 with the Bush V Gore “hanging chad” debacle.

Today America is dealing with another administration struggling for legitimacy.

The Election of 2016 has left the American public uncertain that  their votes actually count. Russian interference, through social media, and electronic hacking was an exculpatory factor in the outcome. Sinister and new in electoral history, cyber espionage has given America a Chief Executive markedly sensitive to the dark subversion undermining his victory. 

Losing the popular vote by over 3 million ballots, the new president claims those votes were cast illegally, and demanded voting rolls from the states be turned over to a government committee for analysis. Nothing significant came of that effort, and questions continue to swirl around this fishy election cycle. 

Somewhere in the chaos the Russian government has reaped what it apparently wanted: domestic turmoil. A long-standing enemy of the United States, the former Soviet Union aims to re-elevate its international stature. What better way could objectives be met, than by hijacking an American election, causing enough confusion to find a sort of sweet revenge.

Deals have been brokered since the beginning of the Republic, but the players have been competing American interests. We may squabble our political beliefs among ourselves, but that is the messy nature of freedom. Now the arrangements appear to be negotiated by foreign players. This foreign interference cannot be repeated, we have future American generations to protect. 

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

Available on Kindle

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