The Running Joke

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Each year, by spring break, my history classes had completed their study of the Kennedy years, 1961-1963. We discussed the glamor, the space program, civil rights, his charisma and humor with the press, and most importantly, JFK’s intense struggle with Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. In a provocative challenge to America, Khrushchev ordered the building of the Berlin Wall, and construction of nuclear missile sites in Cuba. This second and more direct challenge led to the 1962 Missile Crisis. At the end of deconstructing Kennedy’s delicate decision-making and the negotiations that peacefully ended the 13 day crisis, I often joked, “aren’t you glad Andrew Jackson wasn’t president?” That line always earned a good laugh from the kids.

But really it isn’t funny. Not any more. Let me explain.

America’s seventh president was a mercurial character. He loved blindly and hated passionately. If convinced his honor had been challenged, the man dueled—sometimes with pistols, sometimes with knives. It all depended on how he felt. The provocation behind most of these confrontations concerned Jackson’s wife, Rachel, who had, unknowingly, years earlier, married Jackson before her divorce from her abusive, first husband had completed.

In one deadly episode, Jackson challenged Charles Dickinson, a noted marksman, to a duel for speaking Rachel’s name in a tavern. In preparation, the future president selected an oversized cape to wear to the dueling grounds. Jackson intended to disguise the precise location of his heart, knowing Dickinson would take deadly aim on his upper left chest. And the ploy worked. Though Jackson did take a slug in his left shoulder, he remained on his feet, successfully shooting and killing his adversary.

In another instance, Jackson determined that Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, was his greatest enemy. A Cincinnati newspaper had published the old account of Rachel’s adulterous past, during the hotly contested election of 1828. As it happened, the Ohio newspaper editor who published the story was a good friend of Clay’s. Making matters worse, Rachel read the story of her checkered past—the shock apparently killing the woman who should have been First Lady. For the rest of his days, Jackson opposed Clay at every legislative turn, coolly remarking later that one of his regrets was not shooting Senator Clay.

Reelected in 1832, Andrew Jackson went on to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, the central financial institution of the young country. Clay had supported this bank, which was enough reason for Jackson to see to its destruction. The President promptly vetoed a renewal charter on the bank, removing Federal funds at once. Jackson then turned around and deposited the money into pet banks, local private, unregulated concerns across the country. Mismanaged by these small firms, the country fell into one the longest, deepest depressions in American history—the Panic of 1837. An astounded Senate formally censured President Jackson for this reckless deed, condemning Jackson’s conduct. Later, still enormously popular in the expanding west, and rural South, Jackson orchestrated a complete purge of this censure from the Congressional Record. His bitter enemies began referring to him as “King Andrew the First.”

In another, darker moment, Congress, a bastion of Jacksonians, passed the 1832 Indian Removal Act, aiding of the State of Georgia to rid themselves of the Cherokee nation. Gold had been found on Indian lands, and the acreage attracted white farmers. When the Supreme Court ruled that the Indians could remain on their lands, Jackson didn’t bat an eye. He ordered the US Army to force, not just the Cherokee, but other tribes onto the “Trail of Tears.” When asked about his bald defiance of the Court’s decision, Jackson remarked, “It’s (Chief Justice John) Marshall’s decision, let him enforce it.”

Inside Jackson’s world, people belonged in neat categories. As master of his plantation, the Hermitage, near Nashville, blacks were property. As a “gentleman” women were helpless ornaments, and in General Jackson’s eyes, natives were fair game, to be removed or exterminated. (See the Red Stick War.) And this president believed he represented the will of the American people, no judicial or governmental restritions concerned him.

So the joke regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 resonated with my high school juniors. JFK’s skillful handling of that perilous moment would certainly have turned out far differently in the hands of hotheaded, autocratic, Andrew Jackson.

But today the joke isn’t so funny. Once again America is saddled with an impulsive strongman who’s hunger for power rails against legal limits. Moreover, this new Commander in Chief shows little understanding of America’s legal tradition–of basic high school civics. In fairness, some Americans like his brand of knee-jerk improvisation, same as in the day of Jackson. But the  facade doesn’t resonate with the rest of us–his antics aren’t leadership. Much like Andrew Jackson, this current president carries himself as a wannabe monarch.

Most of us have been raised to avoid talking politics with friends and family as rude. But this is no ordinary moment in America. While we smile and chat about the weather Native Americans are once again harmed by an order signed by an indifferent President. His all-white, largely male cabinet has quickly dispensed with programs that aid women and African-Americans, marginalizing gender and race issues as unimportant. His administration’s malice toward American-Muslims and silence regarding violence toward Jewish-Americans is disturbing. The worst treatment, treatment Jackson would recognize, has been reserved for immigrants, especially those from south of the border, or escaping war zones in the Middle East.

This writer believes that in a reversal of chronology, Jackson may have launched those nuclear warheads in 1963. His behavior from an earlier time leaves little doubt. The pertinent question this morality tale raises is this; what could this petulant president, with little impulse control do in the turmoil of a similar crisis?

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

Waves

 

 

Preaching in 1630, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop, declared the new Puritan settlement a godly utopia, “A City on a Hill.” Since that time Winthrop’s assurance of purpose and perfection has shaped the narrative that is American history. For over two centuries the United States pushed forward striving to make real those founding aspirations. Many Americans, either in groups or as individuals have fought the good fight to extend liberty for all: the most notable example being the abolition of slavery. Yet the path toward realizing the dream of heaven on earth has been many times interrupted with progress’s nemesis—armed warfare.

As Revolutionary War zeal subsided in the late 1700’s, a series of remote camp meetings sparked a movement called the Second Great Awakening. (Yes there was a First) The popularity of these rousing evangelical revivals lit an impassioned fire that called Americans, mostly Northerners to eradicate sin in the shiny new republic. Determined reformers such as Charles Grandison Finney, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton labored tirelessly to rid America of her shortcomings; drunkenness, degrading of women, punitive treatment of the mentally ill, racial inequality . . . in order for the country live up to its charge as a “called nation.”

Despite the diversity of causes and legions of faithful supporters, slavery alone came to dwarf all other movements and to ultimately divide the country. Early instances of violence in the effort to end slavery offered a taste of the violence to come in the Civil War; Abolitionist-editor, Elijah Lovejoy was shot dead in the doorway of his newspaper office, while another anti-slavery editor, William Lloyd Garrison found himself tarred and feathered repeatedly by those who hated his militancy. Zealot John Brown hacked to death five pro-slavers in an episode known as “Bleeding Kansas.” In these instances, “the writing on the wall” had truly been composed in blood.

When hostilities began in April, 1861 the energy of a nation fixated on the course of each battle, fear and resolve ebbing and flowing with each outcome. The shape of America’s future waited in the balance. Finally, after four ghastly years of bloody fighting, Southern hopes of an agrarian, slave-ocracy died, and as President Lincoln so eloquently phrased it, America found “a new birth of freedom.”

Left unaddressed were those other reforms, forgotten in the war. The mentally ill remained behind bars, incarcerated alongside dangerous criminals. Women were legally considered wards of their husbands, with no more standing than dependent children. Countless young children toiled endlessly in textile mills and coal mines, exploited by owners, deprived of any chance for an education. And the legions of former slaves faced a new form of slavery, Jim Crow and sharecropping.

Reform again gathered momentum in the late 19th Century. Aiming once more for that ‘city’ aspiration, the Progressive movement took shape, carried on by a new generation of the faithful, imbued with a sense of social justice to confront the many wrongs left unaddressed from an earlier time, and new issues related to urban growth. Notables from this post bellum movement include; Jane Addams, one of the founders of American Social Work, writer Upton Sinclair and his shocking expose’ The Jungle a condemnation of the meat industry, and John Dewey who normalized public education with coherent curriculum’s and compulsory school attendance. Dewey believed, as had the founders of America, that the nation relied upon and deserved an educated electorate to safeguard the promise of America into the future.

This movement found a great deal of success in improving the country and the lives of its citizens. Building safety reform came on the heels of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. The Jungle brought about the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration, while political reforms included the secret ballot, limiting “Bossism,” and other forms of political corruption.

Then, in 1914 Europe went to war. By 1916 Progressive President, Woodrow Wilson committed America to join in, asking for a declaration against Germany, sending American soldiers into the trenches. And once again, when the guns silenced progressive reforms disappeared as if they had not existed. On the imaginary road to “Normalcy,” the wealthy and powerful misused the country as a personal piggy bank, plundering and cheating with no legal check.

After a decade long litany of economic abuses tanked the Stock Market in 1929, the nation once again turned toward progress, this time on an unparalleled scale. The advent of Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, to the White House marked a revitalization of reshaping America to benefit all Americans. The New Deal remembered for its alphabet agencies, aimed to recover the devastated economy and ward off future abuses that had nearly destroyed the well being of the Republic.

America’s entrance into World War Two bucked the pattern of a reactionary pushback. FDR remained at the helm, until Harry Truman took the reins of government, continuing the tradition of affirming change. GOP President Dwight David Eisenhower kept a moderate hand on the tiller, particularly in the realm of Civil Rights, enforcing the Brown V. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools.

But with JFK’s murder, the wheels once again came off social progress. As much as LBJ tried to give America all he could; The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Highways Beautification Act, Head Start, Medicaid, and many more pieces of his Great Society legislation, Vietnam eroded all the good.

That endless nightmare of a stalemate in Southeast Asia worked at cross purposes for bettering society. The daily body count, student protests, war atrocities, such as the My Lai massacre, or the shock of the TET Offensive in 1968 sapped America’s desire to do anything but find a way out of the jungle.

Promoting the general welfare came nearly to a complete halt by 1980. The advent of the Reagan Revolution, and subsequent downsizing of the federal government left the vulnerable largely on their own. School lunch programs were cut, the mentally ill let out on the streets of America, while the armament industry threw the nation into deep deficits.

On this Memorial weekend it might be good to consider the potential of America when at peace. Trapped today in an endless cycle of war, this nation struggles to find her soul, to embrace together the light of our national promise. Two military presidents, our first, General George Washington and our thirty fourth, General Dwight D. Eisenhower pleaded with America in their farewell remarks to avoid war as the worst use of our best abilities. Both men, forged in the adversity of difficult wars, recognized the wasteful distraction and deadly allure of war. Washington cautioned against “entangling alliances, and Eisenhower “the military-industrial complex.”

Ultimately, those who know war grasps what is truly lost. Every weapon produced in a munitions factory most certainly casts a wrench into the wheels of human progress. Winthrop meant his reference from the book of Matthew to inspire an example to the world. Forcing Americanism by the barrel of a gun is born to failure, achieving nothing lasting but resentment abroad, and stagnating injustice at home.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January, also available on Kindle.

Justice as a Force

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President Andrew Jackson has stopped spinning in his grave. Finally. He hated paper money with all the fiber in his being, and now thankfully for him, no longer tacitly endorses its use. Jackson was a sound money man and believed gold the only genuine medium of exchange . . . weigh-able, bite-able gold; good ole “cash on the barrel-head.” In fact, the President believed so passionately in the principle of gold bullion that he banned any use of paper money for any transaction whatsoever. This same policy, in the end, torpedoed the US economy and triggered the Panic of 1837.

That financial disaster held on for over five chilly years.

But the day has arrived, America has finally heard Jackson’s cries of anguish from the great beyond, and removed his likeness from that raggedy heresy of ersatz value. Still, one has to wonder. What would General Jackson make of runaway slave, Harriet Tubman taking his place on legal tender?

Ms. Tubman, as a woman, and as a slave, lived invisibly in Jackson’s world. The only notice a planter like Jackson would have made was Tubman’s incorrigible practice of stealing another master’s property. For a man of deep passions, of violent loves and hates, her offense would have pissed this president off, and sent him into a dangerous rage. In his world of master and slave, her offenses allowed no mercy, no reprieve.

As for Tubman? She understood a truth that Jackson could never, ever have comprehended—that justice was a force that bore no designation to color, gender, or appraised value. A mighty truth reigned far above the limited aspirations of General Andrew Jackson, killer of banks, Natives, and the hopes of the hundreds he held in bondage.

Tubman’s idea of honorable behavior had nothing to do with white men firing pistols on dueling grounds, and that white social conventions which condemned her to servitude were wholesome and noble. The human condition, as Tubman understood the meaning, held a deeper significance, an importance that required a profounder appreciation. The world of plantations, race hatred, whip wielding overseers, and economic injustice held no real sway, and certainly possessed no honor.

Jackson’s opinions truly hued in only black and white, and that outlook wasn’t limited to skin color. Abstract ideas like ‘humanity’ didn’t resonate in his mind, too ethereal for a man who loved gold coins. Banks were bad, women were ornaments, Indians were fair game, and blacks were slaves. That simple. Of course at the same time, this limited world view gave a figure with Tubman’s vision the edge. If a man of Jackson’s time and station caught a glimpse inside the real thoughts of his “family” members living over in the slave quarters, his mind would have been blown.

So it is with some satisfaction that Harriet Tubman replaces Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. But not only because she’s a woman, nor only because she’s black. The star she followed may have literally sparkled in the northern sky, but every footstep she trod signified progress on the road to realizing the immeasurable value in us all.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January

Lay Down His Burdens

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April 14, 1865 fell on Good Friday. It had been five days since General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, and a good, Good Friday for President Lincoln. In high spirits, the President escorted his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln to Ford’s Theater for the final curtain of the comedy, “Our American Cousin,” starring Laura Keene. From his seat in the presidential viewing box, Lincoln was murdered at point blank range by an assassin sneaking from behind.

This famous scenario provides quite the ironic twist considering the high opinion Lincoln held for actors and plays. In a cruel irony, President Lincoln sought refuge from his storm of troubles in Washington theaters, a setting where he could lay down his burdens.

From his earliest days in the White House, Lincoln avidly sought out the Capitol’s many stages. An enthusiast, he fell into the dangerous habit of sneaking out of the mansion, without his wife, without any protection detail, determined to take in any new production advertised in Washington papers. Members in various audiences, who spied the President playing hooky, reported that Lincoln watched these plays transfixed, as absorbed as if he was alone rather than seated in a crowd. Apparently his determination in attending Washington City theaters seemed to eclipse even concern for his own safety and in a city ripe with rebel sympathizers looking to inflict harm on the President.

What could impel a Chief Executive to take such risks in wartime, when many wished him ill? Why would Lincoln place himself in such peril?

Neither a drinking man, nor much interested in other vices, the President instead relished stories, either written or dramatized, where he found the distraction and solace he so desperately needed. A prolific story-teller himself, Lincoln appreciated a well turned tale, either in the books he voraciously consumed, or the yarns regaled on a late night near a warm wood stove. This president hungered for diversions to ease his troubled mind weighted by his intractable problems.

And Lincoln’s burdens, both personal and those of the presidency reached far beyond terrible. A protracted and bloody Civil War, the pain-in-the-neck generals who consistently failed in their duty, his difficult wife, Mary, the tragic loss of two young sons, and an unending flow of reverses from irascible members of Congress. That a well-crafted drama or comedy seemed to salve Mr. Lincoln’s soul must have made the temptation of escaping the White House irresistible, and a nightmare for those Pennsylvania troopers assigned to protect him.

Wilkes Booth knew Lincoln would attend the closing night at Ford’s Theater. The owner of Ford’s Theater had advertised that fact earlier in the day. Booth had, in fact, visited the site to prepare for his ‘greatest’ performance. The narrative in the actor’s deranged thoughts, screamed vengeance and duty to the lost cause of the Confederacy.

But I would like to offer another perspective on those same last moments in President Lincoln’s life.

The narrative Lincoln likely played touched more upon hope and delight. Slavery that April night, existed no more in America, and the battlefields had grown quiet. Much work lay ahead for the nation, but Lincoln knew he would attend to those matters as they emerged. For that one night the President did what he loved most—attended a theatrical production, and even better for his rising spirits, a comedy.

At the moment Booth pulled that derringer’s trigger, Lincoln was laughing. The whole audience, in fact, had erupted in guffaws, at an expertly delivered punch line. Perhaps that is how we ought to frame the horrific murder of our greatest commander in chief. While the murderer fumed in hate and revenge, Lincoln over flowed with concentrated joy, reveling in all that was good.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, also available on Kindle

Duty Faithfully Performed

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April 9th, today marks the 151st anniversary of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, ending the Civil War.

Lee didn’t want to to do it. He remarked to his aides that he’d rather ride his horse, Traveler, into a meadow and be shot by the Yankees, than surrender. But the General didn’t relinquish his burden that way, instead he did his duty.

Even General Grant sat in awe of his most worthy foe. Poor Grant seemed to have felt his social inferiority even in the midst of his greatest military victory. Grant informed Lee he had seen him once in the Mexican War, almost stalling, avoiding the business at hand. The Ohio-born Grant came from humble beginnings becoming one of the most unlikely warrior-heroes in history. Graciousness and duty impelled the Union Commander to receive General Lee with quiet, somber respect.

I would bet that though all participants ardently desired peace, no one exactly wanted to be in that room on that April 9th. The war had cost too much, more than any nation should have to bear. So many losses, so much blood; the cream of the Confederate command only memories to the bowed Lee. Grant, musing the thousands he ordered into the murderous fire of Rebel cannon and shot. The deadly dance, just ended, between two worthy foes, from the Wilderness, to Cold Harbor, to Yellow Tavern, to Petersburg, and finally to the quiet crossroads of Appomattox, and peace.

These two generals, and the loyal armies they commanded had set aside all personal concerns, steeled themselves and did their duty, in Lee’s words, faithfully.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January  Also available on Kindle.

“Set their Feet on the Firm and Stable Earth”

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My mother has made it quite clear that she wants to live at home until the very end. Any member of our family daring to even think ‘assisted living’ can expect a reaming on the scale of a super nova. Mom has no reason to transplant elsewhere. She has her recliner, her adjustable mattress, her crossword puzzles, and her memories in that house. After 53 years under the same roof there is no other place–that home is the center of her universe.

Oddly enough her story somehow broaches the subject of why people do move—in this instance, the story of immigration to America.

The 19th Century American humor magazine, Puck once declared that “Princes’ don’t immigrate,” and that truth has found a lot of support in our historic record. Just a glimpse of current film footage along southern European borders powerfully demonstrate this 19th century truism. The vulnerable from Syria and other destabilized regions of the Middle East grapple with hate, fear and barbed wire to carry their families to safety.

Immigrants to American shores have all shared similar reasons to exchange the familiar, for the unknown. A brief look at America’s earliest settlers well illustrates this dynamic from 1620 to the present.

Some folks were pushed, some were pulled, but all European newcomers set foot on Atlantic shores because there was no reason to remain in the familiar.

Challenges to the Catholic Church provided the first steps toward the flow of populations to leave Great Britain. The Protestant Reformation essentially secularized the English Church, rejecting and replacing the Pope for the British sovereign as leader. Devout believers felt that King Henry’s English Reformation did not go far enough in ridding sacraments for deeper Biblical understanding. This faction became known as “Puritans,” those who wished to cleanse the English Church of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The religious struggle in the British Isles was long and complicated, but ultimately resulted in systematic Puritan persecution. Two phases of believers departed Great Britain as a consequence. First, were the Separatists led by William Bradford, who believed England was damned beyond redemption. This group settled first in Holland, then acquired funding for a journey on the Mayflower to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these folks as the Pilgrims.

Almost ten years later another group of mistreated reformers made landfall further north, closer to Boston. This wave of settlers, unlike the small trickle in Plymouth, came to Massachusetts Bay in a metaphoric deluge. Thousands upon thousands of Puritans departed England, driven out by an intolerant, albeit re-Catholicized crown. Called the Great Puritan Migration, refugees from religious bullying settled from Cape Cod, to the Caribbean.

The Quakers, or Society of Friends, made up another group pushed out of England. In a stratified culture of forced deference to one’s “betters,” this faith recognized the innate equality in all people. Quakers, for example, refused to swear oaths or ‘doft’ their hats in the presence of “gentlemen,” and that impudence made the sect an intolerable challenge to the status quo.

William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and found this punitive treatment of Quakers unjust. However, as a wall to wall adherent to peace and brotherhood, Penn used his childhood connections to the aristocracy to depart to America. King Charles II granted Penn a large tract of land in the New World, where Penn and his followers settled in the 1660’s. “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania set up shop establishing the settlement upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.

The father of President Andrew Jackson, Jackson Senior, stands as an excellent example representing another wave of humanity dispensable to the British Crown. Dubbed Scots-Irish, these were Scotsmen who resisted British hegemony and unification for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of rugged survivors, by the 1700’s, made their way to America. Not the most sociable bunch, these refugees found their path inland, eventually settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single minded this group transitioned from exiles to backcountry folk.

Now the settlers in Jamestown and Georgia offer a different explanation for permanent human migration.

The London Company of Virginia, a corporation, funded an expedition to Jamestown in 1607. Soldier of Fortune, Captain John Smith and his compatriots crossed the Atlantic to get rich. Inspired by the example of Spanish finds in Mexico, these English mercenaries were hopeful of finding golden cities of their own. Almost a disastrous failure, the Jamestown colony survived, not by precious metals, but from cultivating a Native crop . . . tobacco. Eventually arrivals outnumbered departures in the stabilizing Virginia settlement, and the addictive crop paid handsome dividends for London investors.

Georgia, the most southern colony came last, founded in 1732. The brain child of social reformer, James Oglethorpe, this colony of red clay became a dumping ground for victims of England’s byzantine criminal codes. Those of the lowest rungs of English society, from petty pickpockets to hardened felons found themselves “transported” to Oglethorpe’s colony for second chances, and out of the hair of English jailers.

On a side note, slavery explicitly was forbidden in the Georgia charter. And that raises the issue of the last group forced to American shores; African slaves. These unfortunate souls did not want to leave their homes in West Africa. Much like my mother, this group did not wish a new life in a new land. Economic demands brought about this “Middle Passage,” the despicable trade in human cargo, kidnapped for the New World. Force, brutality, and exploitation wrenched these people from their lands to serve those who for contrasting reasons came to live in America. The injustice of this “African Diaspora” still plagues an American society grappling to resolve this age-old injustice.

Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigration as an inherent evil and subverting occurrence. No one lightly pulls up roots. Leaving all that is familiar is an act of desperation, a painful and difficult human drama.

Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to lead.

Oh, and my 84-year old mother just remodeled the house, keeping her Eden fresh and new.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and the newly published River of January: Figure Eight.