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

Cannon of Extremism

I often exit the FaceBook expressway because of the absurd misuse of the American past. And it’s not just history. Politics have abscessed into a free for all, and scientific/medical reality into FaceBook insanity. This verbal dysentery is loaded into into a cannon of extremism, where the unschooled righteously blast irrational conclusions. 

Case in point, an old friend of my husband’s posted, “Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither.” It’s Benjamin Franklin’s sentiment, but incomplete .“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” 

The quote is from a 1775 letter written by Dr. Franklin on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He addressed this (very long) correspondence to the Deputy Governor at the time, Robert Hunter Morris. Governor Morris had irritated the Assembly by demanding new militia for protecting western land from the Shawnee and Delaware Natives who, according to rumor were attacking settlers. To keep this simple, Morris wanted the lands of wealthy landowners protected, but the rest of the colony to cover the costs. Exempt were the Proprietary landowners who were earning rents from settlers, with a kickback percentage figured in for the deputy governor.

Franklin essentially called Morris out for conflict of interest, and the assembly wasn’t financing graft. This was, by the way, four months after Lexington and Concord, a moment of serious unrest among colonials.

What this misapplied quote implied on FaceBook, defended refusing a vaccine. So it’s virtuous somehow to be a cyber Paul Revere spouting Franklin, calling for vaccine resistance in a pandemic? 

The irony of playing fast and loose with the past, is presuming Franklin would agree with this nonsense. Every founder did what they did for the gravest of causes. Not some trivial declaration to reject public health interests, in bumper-sticker brevity. 

The irony of the post is Franklin, himself. By faith, he counted himself a Deist; that God was the creator of a precise universe, to discover that precision is to find God. Exploring those ideas, Franklin took on the life of an empirical, data-driven scientist. (Remember his kite, electricity experiment?)

“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves,” is another quote that ought to be repeated on FaceBook and everywhere else. When his child, Francis Folger Franklin died of small pox at age four, Dr. Franklin made an enlightened decision—he inoculated himself and his family from that deadly disease. And an inoculation was no easy or guaranteed procedure. But as a man of science, he had the sense to take the enlightened path.

Remembering Dr. Franklin means to further our understanding of our now, and follow his example of open minded curiosity. Develop concern for our communities, and for our nation, combined with a large dose of flexible forbearance.

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.

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

Rope of Sand

The creed of States’ Rights is all smoke and mirrors; a cover for the selfish interests of local napoleons, and the politicians they bankroll. When claimed as the only answer to the country’s problems, beware, States’ Rights never solved a thing.

Not in America.

Ours is a one of a kind, federal system of concurrent powers. Centralized authority layers and folds, meshing with state and local governments.This dynamic has functioned for over two hundred years and the bonds are subtle and sometimes conflicting. The most lethal confrontation between state and federal powers clashed in the Civil War, 1861-65. But that particular catastrophe was certainly not the first.

During the Revolution, state delegations, in an attempt to unify the embattled nation, drafted a national blueprint called the Articles of Confederation. Attending representatives squabbled endlessly to defend their own local interests, rejecting any language that bound state autonomy. So jealous were the original Thirteen of one another, political leaders dragged ratification out, while barely a step ahead of pursuing Redcoats. The Continental Congress dashed across Pennsylvania, into Maryland, and back, still resistant to real, national authority.

John Dickinson of Delaware, drafted some elements into this fledgling plan, but his model wasn’t helpful. General Washington still had to beg Congress for recruits and soldier pay, and Congress, in turn, had to beg States to fill those needs. One bright note is Congress did agree to dispatch diplomats, like Franklin and Adams, who continued the begging game across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile States such as New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, happily traded with coin-rich Brits, filling their personal coffers, while ignoring the needs of the war effort. The prospects of an American victory grew grim, as each state dug in, defending their own turf. In fact, the Confederation Congress was so toothless, the document itself failed ratification until a month before Yorktown.

Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real prestige, inevitable bloodshed quickly ensued among these thirteen quarreling kingdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over currency, nearly ended the budding union. At that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. Both men, in reality, intended to dump them for a different, stronger plan. Recently retired George Washington agreed with both men, and chaired this new convention, assembling in Philadelphia the summer of 1787, and a determined Constitutional Convention worked hard to remedy many of the new nation’s ills.

This lesson from the past remains relevant. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal costs of road construction, nor of fire fighting. The former administration’s Covid-19 policies have proven, again the futility, and folly of every state scrambling for themselves.

The events of January 6, 2021, and now with the Texas legislature attacking both voting rights, and a woman’s right to choose, similar concerns arise. Is American law no more than a vulnerable rope of sand in the hands of the states?

Fellow Americans, do not buy into the so called advantages of States’ Rights. Hidden interests cloaked in virtuous words distract us from national needs, while the favored few push their political agendas. It’s not an overstatement to say States’ Rights again threatens the good order the Framers labored to establish.

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

The Clarity of Desperation

With only days until Christmas 1776, General Washington found his army melting away. Since July of that year the Continental Army had been chased from Long Island, through Manhattan, and across the Hudson into New Jersey. 

Earlier, in August, Washington had been flanked by British forces and the untrained Patriot army turned tail and ran. So furious was Washington at their conduct, he threatened to lead another assault himself, against far superior, professional troops. 

Amongst King Georges’ regulars were legions of Hessians, hired guns, from the German kingdom of Hesse-Kassel. These mercenaries were particularly brutal, taking a psychological toll on the all-volunteer Army with their skilled use of glinting, charging, bayonets. 

Leaving camp fires burning, Washington directed Colonel John Glover, a New England mariner to gather enough vessels to ferry his surviving soldiers across to Manhattan, and then onward to New Jersey. To exude confidence, Washington waited until the last boat to cross the East River.

Battling through Manhattan, his army ferried west again, via the Hudson, with Colonel Glover’s expertise. Eventually the dash to safety near Trenton, succeeded.

Demoralized, and outgunned, the Continental Army appeared doomed and despondent. The general consensus among all was the war was hopeless, a lost cause, the Patriots ardor over. 

By winter, Washington’s command seemed to be unraveling. Little food, too few supplies, or support came from the local population. At the same time the Brits, flush with currency, settled into cozy New York accommodations. 

With circumstances conspiring against him-the weather, scarcity, and outgunned by enemy Hessians quartered in nearby Trenton, Washington had to act. The General faced a critical moment. To his cousin, (and Mount Vernon’s caretaker) Washington confessed his anguish. 

. . .your immagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine—Our only dependance now, is upon the Speedy Inlistment of a New Army; if this fails us, I think the game will be pretty well up . . .

Out of desperation Washington expressed to his cousin what he termed as the “clarity of despair.” The General had to do something.

First he sent feelers out to bring in an operative who sold provisions to the nearby Hessians. John Honeyman came into camp and apprised Washington on the disposition of King George’s contracted killers. The General learned from Honeyman these Germans were settled in for a Christmas celebration, assured that the Americans were all but defeated.. 

In his second order, Washington commanded Colonel Glover to, once again, requisition every boat the Marblehead seafarer could find. Between Honeyman’s report and vessels secured, his men were mobilized for a Christmas morning assault on Trenton. 

Once again, Glover pulled off a miracle amphibious operation. And once again, General Washington was the last man on the last boat. In two files the disheveled Continental Army marched, braving more than just the weather. His forces arrived to the New Jersey capital by first light. 

The hungover Hessians were completely routed in the surprise assault, providing the Patriot cause with desperately needed victory. The army again breathed life. 

So tonight as you enjoy the warmth of the season, remember those who came before. For Christmas they marched through the inky, icy cold, missing their families, yet committed to the long game of founding a nation. 

Despite this current, disastrous administration, and especially this last lamentable year, our game is certainly not up. America can and will move forward. We have done this before. Much like General Washington our desperation makes our choices clear.  

Merry Christmas.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Gail has recently completed a stage play, “Clay,” on the life of Henry Clay.

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

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

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.