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 burst 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. A bloody fraternal war began. 

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

Symmetry

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

Taney had frequently telegraphed his views on slavery and American citizenship, insisting that blacks had no rights white men were bound to respect. Even before his nomination to the bench, a free black had requested documents for overseas travel that Roger Taney, as then US Attorney General, instantly rejected. Taney conceded his legal views long before dawning judicial robes; blacks were not citizens, and never could be. Travel documents for this man of color were denied.

Another important element in this story concerns the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Settled eight years prior to the Jackson Administration, this legislation directed that with the exception of the new state itself, slavery would be forbidden above Missouri’s southern border. Most Americans hoped that this Missouri Compromise Line would endure forever, clearly delineating for posterity new slave states from free.

However, with westward migration and the advent of Roger Taney, that hope flickered and died, speeding up the advent of Civil War.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward to 2008. 

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

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

 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com