The Final Straw

The September 11th attacks in 2001 got our school year off to a strange start. There was, of course, the horror, and a lot of unplanned discussion about the Middle East. The course I taught covered Early American History through Reconstruction, and I couldn’t afford to take a lot of time to debrief. Nonetheless, the events of that day provided useful lessons that surfaced later in the year. 

By the following Spring the curriculum arrived to the series of calamities that led to the Civil War. The last compromises crumbled, and blood had spilled at Harpers Ferry. The story then turned to John Brown, God’s Avenging Angel, determined to slay slavery. 

Brown is a complicated figure, believing he had been chosen by the Great Jehovah, to draw the sword of mighty justice.

And a debatable issue offered itself.

The link to Brown and 911 suspect, a French-Moroccan terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, centered on jail time. Moussaoui’s trial was underway and came up in class discussion.

John Brown had been captured in Harpers Ferry, after a standoff with Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee. Intending to spark a slave insurrection, Brown and his raiders, including his sons had occupied the Federal arsenal in that river town. But once the military arrived the old man subsequently surrendered. 

As Brown awaited trial in Charles Town Virginia, the Governor, Henry Wise permitted reporters from Northern papers to interview Old Brown. To the press, Brown passionately defended his cause, insisting it was the work of righteousness. Newspaper readers throughout the North responded with support and compassion, gathering disciples for the cause of freedom.

However, in the South, the old man’s name was reviled. Viewed as a criminal below the Mason-Dixon, Brown was vilified as evil incarnate, hell bent on inciting slaves to murder their masters. Military training increased across the South, in preparation to defend their “peculiar institution.”

John Brown’s raid is often seen as one of the final straws, aside from Lincoln’s election the next year, leading to secession and a force of arms.

Prior to of horror of 911, Zacarias Moussaoui was detained in Minnesota. His immigration status apparently had irregularities, and his flight school enrollment tripped some security wires. At his trial, Moussaoui put on a noisy show, acting as his own attorney, and pitching frequent temper tantrums in the courtroom for all to see, including journalists. Initially the accused insisted he was innocent, then later confessed. Quite the circus.

During and following the conviction of the terrorist, Moussaoui demanded the judge permit him access to the press. The French terrorist had his side of the story, and he wanted to air his grievances on a national and international platform.

The judge said no. And Moussaoui today is a lifer, quietly incarcerated at Super Max in Florence, Colorado, and barely a footnote in history.

The significance of this complicated, and controversial comparison? Surely the Civil War would have transpired regardless of Brown; slavery was inconsistent in a nation that professed liberty.

But that fifteen minutes of notoriety can produce real dangerous blowback.  

In light of the events on January 6th, thank the Lord DJT is grounded from social media.

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

Choked Me Up

 In case anyone else is interested, here’s a little editorial piece I wrote about Critical Race Theory for my community. Gail Olson Chumbley, I didn’t expect it to go where it did, but I mean every word of that last part – but I’m sure you already know that because all of us students already do pastedGraphic.png😉

I would like to share something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I am hoping that those who are interested can engage in a way that promotes understanding on all sides as well as help dispel concerns. The topic is Critical Race Theory and what it means to have it “taught in schools.”

First, I am a teacher, though not in Kalama school district. I say this because I want to be transparent as well as reassure you that, if you do not agree with what I have to say, I also have no control over what is taught to your children either. I’m just here to chat. I also have my PhD in Educational Leadership and administration license.

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So, what is Critical Race Theory? Well, We need to understand what each of these words means in their original context, which is a widely accepted (non-controversial) area of scholarship, specifically legal scholars and practitioners:

Critical = Ask questions and analyze. It doesn’t mean to criticize, but rather is used in the same sense as teaching “critical thinking skills” and encouraging youth to think for themselves – even if their conclusions are different than our own.

Race = People who receive benefits or disadvantages due to race or ethnicity. This is not limited to black and white and does not villainize anyone. Rather, it’s looking at the factors that race MAY play in the way benefits are distributed through different communities.

Theory = A perspective. It isn’t about whether this is an idea, but rather one way of looking at things. Scholars, experts, and practitioners usually use multiple perspectives (theories) to analyze (critical analysis) certain phenomena. Essentially, theories are a framework for asking questions and understanding phenomena, not a conclusion in and of itself.

So, Critical Race theory, in a sentence, is a perspective for considering history, including the systems such as government and legal systems that were built in the context of our history, in a way that asks “What role might race have played here, and how does that inform issues we face today?” It is an intentional effort to ask those questions and seek out answers based on historical events and research.

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What does this mean for teachers?

For teachers, this is nothing new. Understanding issues of equity is something that is covered in the most basic educator preparation courses, which includes understanding how to help ALL children access equitable learning opportunities regardless of location, income, disability, language, race, gender, orientation, etc. This is a basic and constitutionally guaranteed right (WA state constitution, Article 9, Sections 1 and 2; this is what “without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex” and “general and uniform system of public schools” means). I attended a Nazarene university in a very, very conservative area and we were talking about these issues 10 years ago and continue to do so today. I promise you, this is not a new or left-leaning movement.

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What does this mean for school districts?

While the State can establish general standards, the actual curriculum and practices are determined at the local district level. Curriculum adoption involves the teachers in that subject area getting together with the district office to look at a variety of curricula and analyze which ones best fit their school’s needs. They then make a recommendation to the school board (including their analysis of the curriculum and why they chose it) who then votes on whether or not to approve the recommended curriculum. You, as citizens, get involved in this process by showing up to school boards (and voting for board members in the first place!) and letting them know how you feel about the curriculum. In sum, ALL stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, community members, board members, administration) have a voice and a part to play when it comes to adopting the curriculum. The ultimate decision, though, lies with the school board on whether or not to adopt a particular curriculum.

Of course, then, individual decisions about how to teach the curriculum, including what to focus on, how to focus on it, and what students are asked to do, are largely in control of the teacher. Teachers do have rights in making these decisions, though you are always welcome to voice any concerns. It is ideal to talk to the teacher first, then the principal or counselor if the issue doesn’t get resolved, and you can also contact the district. The district will then follow through with due process to ensure the rights of parents, students, and teachers are all protected.

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What does this mean for students?

Students in classrooms where Critical Race Theory is taught (largely social studies) will learn about history in a way that intentionally includes parts of history that have often been left out. They are NOT told what to think about it by the teacher (or at least shouldn’t be told – that would be grounds for a complaint), but rather would be encouraged to analyze the information and come to their own conclusions. Discourse is an important part of these topics, so they would likely be encouraged to discuss these topics with their peers (and with guidance by their teachers to ensure the class stays productive, on topic, and prevent hostility).

This is a TALL order, especially in classrooms with 30+ opinionated students, so not all teachers will get it right, especially if this is new for them. For many, though, it isn’t – again, I grew up in a conservative area and I feel as though I was exposed to this by my favorite teacher of all time BECAUSE she encouraged us to explore and think for ourselves. She never once told us what to believe, but rather taught us to ask questions, seek out facts to inform our opinions, and then develop and defend our opinions, regardless of what those opinions might have been. My sister and I both had her as a teacher and, 20 years later, we have opposite opinions on just about everything, especially politics. But the one thing we can agree on is that this teacher changed our lives and inspired us both to become teachers ourselves. Countless students across all beliefs and perspectives have named her as their most influential teacher. I truly believe that this type of teaching made us better people as we learned to consider perspectives that may be different from our own, ask questions, and seek out answers that we can defend with solid evidence. Here’s to you Mrs. Chumbley, who students affectionately referred to as “Chumbledore” because she was just that magical for literally generations of students

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Richer Than Myth

We all closed our eyes and directed to imagine a stage play. The lights dim to darkness and the curtains open revealing a maid busy at a fireplace feather dusting the mantel.

I dutifully shut my eyes envisioning white marble and busts of philosophers as the servant did her thing.The instructor asked us to further imagine the play’s star dramatically entering from the wings. She asked what would we do as an audience? Clap of course, because the story is about to begin.

Right?

And that dear reader is the model history educators have employed for eons. America was just waiting for white folks to appear, so the story could begin. The implication is that nothing of significance had yet happened. Just the maid dusting the mantel.

To accept that John Wayne or James Arness won the west is but a myth for films and television. American history in noway resembles an episode of The Waltons. The reality of the narrative, stripping away the fiction is much richer when including the whole story.

Mining and ranching customs in America are largely of Spanish origin. Standard size horses spread northward from Mexico as escapees from Hernan Cortes and other conquistadors. The rendezvous system came to be under the French, and their Huron fur-trading partners. From totems, to kivas, to longhouses indigenous people developed distinct cultures. New World foods like corn and potatoes conquered Europe, and African exploitation introduced American traditions in music, food and language.

In short, the story of America didn’t start with Plymouth Rock, nor Jamestown. It isn’t sunbonnet madonnas, bravely trudging west, or white hatted heroes saving the day.

No clear lines separate villains from heroes. If the myth makes you feel good, watch “Lonesome Dove,” or “The Alamo.” Keep in mind both are works of fiction. If it’s accuracy you’re after, crack a history book, or catch a Ken Burns documentary.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Hysteria and Martyrs

I didn’t care what my students thought. Their opinions were no business of mine. That they knew how to express those ideas, using factual information, was my business.

To introduce point of view, and critical thinking a quick textbook analysis did the trick. In groups (I assigned) students researched various history texts to spot biases in the presentation of historic facts. 

Over the years, a collection of comped survey books had accumulated on my classroom shelf. I used them for my own preparation, but decided to teach the same techniques to the kids. The task was pretty simple. All groups were asked to look up the two same topics: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. They noted the title of the text, the authors, the publication date, and any particular word choices used to explain or describe each episode.

This was the first day of school, mind you, and holy cow the results rocked these 15-year-olds orderly world.

When each group reported their conclusions, skewed viewpoints abounded. In other words the same facts drew decidedly different conclusions.

One book blamed the Witch Trials on tensions stemming from continuous Native attacks. Another blamed simmering resentment over social class, inheritance disputes, and property ownership. Moldy grain was to blame according to the Prentice Hall book. The good people living north of Boston were tripping on ergot fungus, a hallucinogen spreading on damp wheat baked into bread.

Nearly all texts made use of the terms “fear,” and “hysteria.”

The John Brown case provided even more interesting results. If the book had been published before 2001, Brown generally came off a saint. If after, the language use grew more sinister. In pre-911 America, fighting slavery had a righteous, noble language, that justified the violence. Something to the effect that, in the name of the mighty Jehovah, Brown martyred himself to strike a blow against evil. By contrast, books published after the collapse of the Twin Towers dismiss Brown’s means as unfortunate, though slavery was still bad.

By the end of this exercise students often seemed flummoxed asking “who can we believe?” 

“Yourself, of course, and your analysis skills,” I always replied.

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

For more explanation on this lesson email at gailchumbley@gmail.com

You’ve Been Played

Strains between the North and South had reached critical mass by November, 1860. Escalating tensions erupted with the election of America’s first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. The South Carolina legislature responded by voting to secede from the Union on December 20th, a mere month later. By Spring 1861, the Confederate States of America solidified, and in April cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor. So began a bloody fraternal war. 

A longstanding question is how in the world did Planters, a small slice of the southern population, convince a mass of their social inferiors to sacrifice all, defending their aristocracy? The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. Folks from the lower rungs bought into the rules set by the elite. The Planter Class had established the rituals of polite society, and every white man below the Mason-Dixon hoped to someday to join their ranks (acquiring land and slaves).

The lower classes defended a minority they ached to join.

A small middle class of land holding farmers, and city professionals, also labored to reach the same social summit. In other words, acquiring the trappings of wealth, punched one’s ticket to ride.

Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed poor whites. These desperate souls were left to precariously scratch out some kind existence as itinerant tenants. Contempt for this hardscrabble class is still evident through pejoratives that are still in use. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.    

The Old South, in general, also distrusted the outside world. Foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, meaning anyone who might challenge rigorous, aristocratic formalities. The consequences for this delicate arrangement were profound. As the North industrialized, innovated, and modernized, Southern society languished, governed by reactionaries, more interested in public manners and bloodlines.

Outraged and insulted by Yankee ways, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend Southern traditions, while in reality, barring any real opportunity of upward mobility.

This dynamic remains modern American politics. The GOP, in our time, is requiring the same fidelity. Party leadership honestly does not wish to serve you. All candidates want is your money and your vote to protect their interests, (especially the guy at the top). These characters are happy to rile voters through exhibitionism, and scapegoating whatever grievance you wish, especially piling it on minorities, the poor and the dispossessed.

But remember this, the traffic is one way only, and you are serve them, not the other way around. Keep delivering cash and power to the top, and nothing changes.

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

Breaking Point

No beating around the bush. These seditionists inside the halls of Congress are damn dangerous. Something that requires violence as a solution is no solution. Never has been. Those two drama queens from Colorado and Georgia have no answers, only an odd sense of chaotic victimhood. Same goes for Cruz and Hawley.

As Tom Petty aptly titled the mindset, these scoundrels are Rebels Without a Clue.

South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks was much the same. The young man had a Velcro sensibility to perceived wrongs, and could lash out unexpectedly. Raised in the Southern canon of the code duello, Brooks believed physical retribution a necessity to defend honor. Years before he came to Washington, the young man challenged another he believed had insulted his father, Whitfield Brooks. For his trouble young Preston carried a cane and a limp for the rest of his short life.

Hate was in the very air of Capitol Hill during the 1850’s. The “irrepressible conflict,” slavery, weighed heavily among its members.

The question at that moment, concerned the extension of slavery into expanding territories. One law after another had allowed or limited the peculiar institution to migrate across the Mississippi River. This was also when Brooks arrived from South Carolina to take his seat in the House of Representatives.

The admission of Kansas cut from Nebraska Territory drove the headlines of the day. Would the Nebraska Territory split into two new states, one free, and one slave? The decision came at a critical moment challenging the delicate equilibrium in the Senate.

Into this tinderbox stepped Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and his powerful speech that gripped not only Congress but the agitated nation. Titled “The Crime Against Kansas,” this staunch abolitionists and orator cursed the institution of slavery and belittled people of the south as enamored with the “harlot slavery.”

That oratory was all the spark necessary to ignite Congressman Preston Brooks.

Following Senator Sumner’s two-day denunciation, the chamber quieted, and members wandered in and out, chatting or working at their fixed desks. Charles Sumner himself, was seated on the Senate floor, focusing on the work before him. That was the moment Rep Brooks sidled up behind the preoccupied lawmaker.

Brooks made some remarks at the Senator’s desk, then lifted his cane and came down hard on Sumer’s head. Over and over the provoked South Carolinian beat his quarry, who found himself trapped halfway between his chair and bolted desk. Finally Brooks ceased, and exited the Senate floor. Sumner was a bloody mess.

In the following days Preston Brooks was reviled and feted by enemies and compatriots. As a point of order, the young Representative resigned his seat and left for home.

Gifts of canes were sent to this Southern hero who had demonstrated to those Yankees the price of loose talk.

The episode accomplished nothing of substance. Nothing. Brooks died of some damn thing soon after, and Charles Sumner survived to later take a Jehovah-like revenge on the defeated Confederacy.

Why does this matter? How does this concern Brobert, Greene, Cruz, and Hawley? Because America is a nation of laws. When these yahoos stoop to assault and insurrection it never turns out how it started. Methodical lawmaking takes more thought, analysis, and compromise than these media-starved exhibitionists possess.

Take it from me, the past does matter. Deja Vu.

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 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

Publicly 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, and 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. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight,” and “Clay,” a play in three acts. Books are available on Kindle and at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

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