An America To Believe In

Religion in politics presumes all citizens essentially hold to the same beliefs. This premise also maintains that religious conformity assures civic virtue, and good order. However, in practice theocracies actually run counter to effective government, as invoking God in public debate stymies the free exchange of ideas. Without the “free market of ideas,” nothing advances, resulting in national decline.   

The Constitution’s framers did not lightly pen any Article, Section, or Clause in their work, nor in the later Bill of Rights. James Madison, in particular, analyzed other government systems, both past and current to his time. What he and other’s found was politics combined with religion sows inevitable public conflict; damaging both political and religious institutions. Madison’s purposeful language in drafting the First Amendment signaled the United States would not make that same mistake. 

This legal tradition stemmed from the lessons of Colonial New England. Puritan dissenters, such as Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson publicly rejected mandatory church compliance. Williams, later exiled to Rhode Island, defended his convictions writing,

Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.

As the first Catholic-Presidential candidate, John F Kennedy later echoed,

. . .it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

And that was the point. American citizens can freely worship, or not-that is the essence of our liberty. Law cannot dictate conscience, as our thoughts are as unique as our finger prints.

Despite the secular legacy of American law, religious prerequisites still surface in one era or another. In the earliest years of the Republic a fervor of evangelism blazed, recognized today as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning around 1800, and lasting until the Civil War, endless, exhausting revivals across the country grew routine. Loosely paralleling “The Age of Jackson,” a political leavening with evangelicalism made for an interesting amalgam, a blend of both the sacred and secular . .  .individual choice. 

As democracy advanced inland as swift as any camp revival, voting rights increasingly extended to the lower classes. White farmers and tradesmen were permitted, in exchange for a poll tax, to cast votes. Working class men could not only choose to follow their vision of Jesus, but back political favorites, with the same evangelical passion. 

Another unexpected outcome of the Second Great Awakening came in the form of countless spinoffs. Rural isolation cultivated a veritable Golden Corral of new religions. William Miller, of upstate New York, forecast the return of Christ as imminent. He, and his followers believed Jesus would reappear sometime between 1843-1844. After the dates passed, with no rapture, the church regrouped becoming today’s Seventh Day Adventists.

Methodists dispatched “circuit riders” into America’s eastern interior. Men like Peter Cartwright, the epitome of a woodland “stump speaker,” could preach the Word of God, while beating the hell out of any heckler. Presbyterians split a couple of times before the Civil War. First, regarding whether or not untrained missionaries could lead revivals, or only seminary trained ministers. This controversy tore believers apart.

The final schism among churches came from the controversy over slavery. And that time bomb came through Biblical interpretation as well. In the North believers felt their duty was to take action against such a grave sin. Southerners, however countered that God made no mistakes. In fact, it was God himself who appointed masters, and placed the slaves beneath them. Rather a handy absolution.

Wisdom, indeed, abounded inside the chamber of Constitution Hall. Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and other lights hoped to avoid religious mistakes from the past, and took measures avoid the danger.

Perhaps the best advice on separation came from Justice William O Douglas in the court’s ruling, Engel V Vitale, 1962.

“once government finances a religious exercise it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.”

Dictating conscience is a fools errand, and a liberated conscience is the promise of America.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

You’ve Been Played

Strains between the North and South reached critical mass in the mid-19th Century, provoked by the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. A mere month later, on December 20th, 1860, the South Carolina legislature reacted by voting to secede from the Union. By Spring, 1861, the Confederate States of America solidified, and in April cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor, triggering fraternal war. 

How in the world did the slave-holding planter class persuade the mass of their social inferiors, those they most held in contempt, to fight and die for this so-called “glorious cause?”

The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. People from the lower rungs aspired to rise in this tightly prescribed Southern caste system. Planters set the standard of ideal gentility, and few were permitted entry. A small middle class of land holding farmers and city merchants, aimed to climb as well; complete with acquiring their own slaves, and exert influence over others. Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed the broadest class of poor whites, those who precariously scratched out some kind of desperate existence from what was left.

Widespread contempt for this hardscrabble class was evident by pejoratives that are still around today. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, and later hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.   

Back in that era, the incentive for most meant land ownership, with it a higher social standing, and ownership of a few slaves to call their own. 

Generally speaking, the Old South distrusted the outside world; foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, suffragettes, or anyone who might upset the strict sectional code. The consequences for the region were profound. While the world moved forward, innovated, and modernized, southern society remained stuck, ruled by fossilized reactionaries, who were quick to defend the status quo.

Outside moral judgement over this antiquated society galvanized most in the South. Outraged and insulted, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend their system and interests, despite any real prospect of upward mobility, nor any mixing of social rank.

Dear modern GOPers, wherever you may reside, party leadership does not wish to serve you. Candidates want your money and your vote to serve themselves. They are happy to scapegoat whatever minority, or public institution, you wish. (Not to mention piling it on the poor for good measure). But you serve them, this dynamic is designed to move upward, delivering cash and power to the top.

In short, you’ve been played by your chosen betters.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Humiliated, Angry, and Hurt

After losing reelection, he left Washington early. Humiliated, angry, and hurt, John Adams boarded a morning coach leaving the Capitol.

The prevailing issue in the campaign of 1800 concerned France, and that nation’s ongoing, and bloody revolution. Moreover, the French had declared war on England, and both belligerents  meddled in American domestic politics to turn public opinion.

As President, Federalist John Adams, had skillfully steered America clear of the European conflict, avoiding the danger of being ensnared between the two superpowers. Proud of his diplomatic accomplishments, Adams still brooded, unhappy with his lack of support from the country. His detractors belittled him, disparaging Adams as a pale substitute to the legendary George Washington.

His political challenger in 1800? The clever and calculating Thomas Jefferson. 

An outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Jefferson had been hurling plenty of invective toward the sitting President. What had once been a warm friendship between the two men quickly soured. Petulant and  thin-skinned, Adams had lashed out by pushing laws that restricted the free press and cracked down on immigration. Outraged by these policies, Jefferson, and his growing cadre of supporters, challenged the clear violations of the Constitution. 

In only the nation’s third presidential election the moment appeared volatile and uncertain. On one side was the defensive and testy incumbent, and on the other, a political foe intent on replacing him.  

Adding to the turbulence, a political wildcard entered the fray; New Yorker, Aaron Burr.

Burr, like Jefferson, had opposed unpopular and heavy handed Federalist policies, and Jefferson knew the ticket needed an electoral-rich northern state for strength. As party leader, Jefferson assumed Burr understood his lesser place, and only when the electors met did he learned just how wrong he had been. 

In the final tally, poor John Adams not only lost the election, but came in a distant third behind both challengers. Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 Electoral votes, followed by Burr with 73 of his own. Adams came in last with 65. (That tie is another story.)

Humiliated, Adams left Washington DC in a huff, but made no move to challenge the outcome. And though the former President did not greet the President-Elect, and pointedly skipped the inauguration, John Adams did not put his interests above the nation’s. 

He conceded in silence because he valued our country over his own interests. 

There is no precedent for false assertions from the clear loser in 2020.

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

Heartfelt Objections

We couldn’t find a seat on the Metro. In truth, we couldn’t even see the Metro station, just a mass of humanity.

This event challenged the notion of enormous. The moment was historic.

Dumb luck came to our aid. A city bus hissed to a stop at the curb, and my friend and I hopped aboard, joined by a couple hundred new friends. The atmosphere crackled with joy, solidarity and diesel fumes. I damn near busted out with “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

The driver seemed to catch our enthusiasm and peppered us with questions about the Women’s March. What time, where, how long would it last? She smiled realizing her shift would end before the speakers began, and I still wonder if she made it.

Nearly five hundred thousand of us convened on the National Mall, and expressed our heart-felt objections concerning the newly elected president. We marched as one.

By the way, no one violently attacked the halls of government. Though, if memory serves, I did flip off the Trump Hotel.

In October, 1969, 250,000 opponents of the Vietnam War descended upon Washington DC. In an event called Moratorium Day no one violently attacked the halls of government.

In the swelter of a 1963 Washington summer, Dr King convened the “Poor People’s” March on Washington. 250,000 Americans petitioned their government for a voting rights bill. No one even considered attacking the halls of government.

In the Spring and Summer of 1932 during the depth of the Great Depression, somewhere around 20,000 desperate men, some with their families, marched on Washington DC as part of the Bonus Army. For their trouble the marchers were attacked by Douglas McArthur, and an army detachment, who instead, burned out the shanties of the desperate. No one attacked the halls of government.

On March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, nearly 10,000 women paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue promoting women’s suffrage. Though they were attacked by angry men along the route, not one woman attacked the halls of government.

Nearly 10,000 American’s joined Jacob Coxey’s Army in May of 1894. An extended economic depression caused mass unemployment, and the “Army,” demanded a public works bill to create jobs. Though the marchers reached the Capitol, and Coxey, himself leaped up the stairs to read his public works bill, the police opened up some heads, and the crowd dissolved. No one attacked the halls of government.

Public protest is as American as baseball. The difference lies in our use of free speech. On January 6, 2021 a mindless, misguided, and dangerous mob hijacked the right to assemble, instead escalating into a violent attack on the halls of government. There is no middle ground; this was a attempted coup to seize power.

We were correct in 2017, as were those in 1894, 1932, 1963, and 1968. Marchers were seeking “the blessings of liberty” within the rule of law. None of us ignored nor defiled the spirit of protest.

And that sense of heart-felt objection, concerning that president proved accurate.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Steal This Letter #2

Let me be brief. What the GOP is attempting with this frivolous lawsuit concerning the 2020 election is dangerous and cynical. Party fidelity is certainly an American hallmark, but not at the cost of our political system. This dangerous precedent, pursued in a moment of expediency chips away at the foundation of our traditions.

The Constitution quite clearly established the rules on elections, and has endured since 1788. This moment of danger is more crucial to our nation than any excuse for undermining the transfer of power. 

Clearly the steps taken by the Republican Party reveals an organization with nothing to offer.  Ruthless partisanship is as much an epidemic as any virus. 

Each state has verified no irregularities in voting exist, choosing instead to act on one fallible man’s loose talk. The Framers did not dedicate their lives and fortunes to establish a government that dissolves on the whims of any person or moment. The United States relies on people of good will to respectfully honor election results. 

As reluctant as I feel about using this analogy, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor in 1933 in a free election, only to turn around and outlaw free elections.

Stop this now. Your party will lay in ruins if you forget who we are as a people. The process in presidential elections could not be clearer than stated in Article 1. 

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

A Burst of Joy

He looked an awful lot like Andrew Jackson. A long narrow face, a shock of white brushy hair, and an irascible temperament. He was my paternal grandfather, Kurtz Olson. Despite his prickly, no-nonsense, narrow approach to life, I found him endlessly endearing. 

The youngest of seven children to immigrants Peter and Matilda Olson, Kurtz was born in Wing River, Minnesota in 1905. Though I don’t know much about his early life, I do know that he had a had a short attention span, and restless feet. 

During the worst of the Depression Grandpa worked as a welder, and scrap metal dealer. My dad like to remind us that with so many people jobless, Kurtz had lots of work repairing and parting out junked automobiles. One of my favorite snapshots from his early years is Grandpa and another man posing with axle grease below their noses. The two were making sport of Hitler, who in the 1930’s was still viewed as laughable. Grandpa Kurtz is smirking, knowing he’s naughty, and enjoying himself. 

During the Second World War, he and my grandmother moved the family to Tacoma, Washington. With the “Arsenal of Democracy” in full swing, Kurtz had plenty of metal work on the coast. After 1945, he again uprooted and moved his family to Spokane, Washington, where cheap hydro power had opened plenty of post-war employment. 

Still, Minnesota remained the holy land. Grandpa would hop in his truck and make frequent pilgrimages to the the upper mid-west, driving straight through (24 hours or so) to his homeland. It was as if traveling from Paris to Versailles, only longer. 

Unlike my immediate family, where I was the only girl, (not counting my mom) Kurtz lived in a decidedly female home. My aunt and grandmother sat at the kitchen table reading the Enquirer and talking shit about nearly everybody. Poor Grandpa. Those two women tied that poor man into knots, and he reacted predictably. It wasn’t that my Grandfather was unkind by nature, but he was easy to wind up, perceiving the world in black and white, no middle.

Despite those women bad-mouthing me and my brothers, he liked me. And I liked him. In a fleeting, incomplete memory I see him waiting under street lights at the Spokane Greyhound depot. We all must have been meeting a relative from Minnesota. In a burst of joy I remember shouting “Grandpa,” as I sprinted to him, where he scooped me up into a hug. Another vivid moment I recall was his truck pulling up in front of our house, and Kurtz coming to the door wearing nothing but a smirk, bright red long johns, and laced boots. What a crack up.

In a NorthAmerican Scandinavian cadence some of his comments were just a hoot. 

“First they call it yam, and then they called it yelly, now they call it pree-serfse.”

And Kurtz always had a dog. There had been Corky, Powder and Puff, Samantha, and Cindy among many others. Samantha was an especially smart Border Collie. After finding herself thrown on the floor of Grandpa’s truck one too many times, she figured out how to brace herself on the dashboard. He would roar up to yellow traffic lights, then stand on the brakes to avoid a red light. My god was it perpetual. My guess is a new clutch about every three months, casualties of his Mr Magoo style. Anyway, Samantha learned to watch the traffic lights and prepare. 

I drove over to his house on some such errand, and pulled into his long unpaved driveway. The little white garage was separate from the house, and left a gap enclosed by a cyclone fence. Opening the gate, I saw my grandpa splitting wood. In the yard next door a dog barked at me on the far side of the fence. I called out, “You be quiet over there,” to which my grandfather said, “He doessent underschand you. It’s a Cherman Shepard.” Then he laughed, and so did I.

My children didn’t know Kurtz. And for that I’m sorry. They missed a true original. I suppose that is my job, and the job of all of us Boomers. We bridge the years between that Depression-era, World War Two generation to our children. They won’t know if we don’t share the story. And since it’s December, I’ll sign off with this Kurtz Christmas anecdote.

On Christmas Eve in about 1936-37, my grandparents packed up their children for an evening church service. Being good Swedes they had traditional candles balanced on the boughs of their Christmas tree. And they left them lit. By the time they returned home a fully engulfed fire lit up the night. They lost everything. My grandfather knew his way around a welder, but somehow overlooked the yule-tree. That incident remains today as serious family lore.

Now he’s long gone, as is my dad. But through the written word he remains as vivid as his humor, his voice, and his presence in my memory.

Happy Holidays. 

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

A Heady Moment

The night race kicked off “Roosevelt Field’s “National Air Pageant.” The event, chaired by First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrated aviation and also raised funds for Mrs Roosevelt’s special charities. In addition, the Darkness Derby, competition, promoted “Night Flight” a new Metro Goldwyn Mayer film. The movie premiered at the Capitol Theater the following evening, and leading lady, Helen Hayes emceed the opening. And it was on the Capitol stage that Chum received his trophy from the actress. 

This 1933 Transcontinental Air Race/Darkness Derby/Air Pageant/Film Premier, combined to make the moment a heady one for 24-year-old Mont “Chum” Chumbley. Armed with new friends and clients, and other air enthusiasts from the City, a promising future in flight lay before him. 

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

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

A Break In The Cover

Chum, Derby Winner.

Cloud cover continued to dog the exhausted flyer. Though dawn light saturated the sky, visibility hadn’t improved. 

Whirring through the gauzy gray, he weighed his options. If the weather didn’t improve, he would navigate out over open ocean and look for a break in the misty gloom. This contingency plan set, Chum streamed eastward, nervously checking and rechecking his wristwatch. 

From the corner of his eye, he spied a shifting break in the cover, and Chum didn’t hesitate. He pushed the yoke and slipped through the sudden gap.

A panorama of chalk-gray spindles greeted him. Automobiles the size of insects, inched along among the spires.The Waco soared above the Manhattan skyline.

Exhilarated and exhausted, Chum beelined over the East River, and on to Roosevelt Field.

Thundering down landing strip number 1, Chum slowed his Waco to a full stop, tired but satisfied he had prevailed. 

But the race had not ended.

Officials rushed the tarmac, urgently shouting and waving. Concerned about the commotion, he reached to turn the throttle off, and that was when he heard a chorus of NO above the din. Frantic hands pointed in the direction to another landing strip. If he shut down the motor he would be disqualified. Without a word, Chum promptly taxied to landing strip number 2, then shut down his biplane.

He had won.

Seven planes had ascended into darkening California skies. Of the seven only three found their way to Roosevelt Field. Chum’s Waco cabin had journeyed above the sleeping nation in 24 hours and 26 minutes; two minutes added by his last minute dash across the field. His victory award-$1,500, enough to reimburse the stock broker, and pay off his airplane. Not bad for a young man struggling through the worst year of the Great Depression.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com