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

Bad Faith

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 the 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, 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, if they haven’t squandered their good name in the pit 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?

th

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

 

 

The Running Joke

th

Each school 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 dangerous challenge prompted the 1962 Missile Crisis.

After tying up the loose ends of the administration, we further probed the delicate diplomacy that, after 13 days, settled the incident peacefully. For years I closed the unit joking, “aren’t you glad Andrew Jackson wasn’t president?” That line always drew a good laugh.

But really it isn’t funny. Not in today’s political climate.

America’s seventh president was a mercurial character. He loved blindly and hated passionately. If convinced his honor had been besmirched, the man dueled—sometimes with pistols, sometimes with knives. It all depended upon his mood.

The provocation behind most of these confrontations touched upon Jackson’s wife, Rachel, who had, years before, married Jackson before her divorce from her abusive first husband had completed.

In one deadly episode, Jackson challenged a man named Charles Dickinson, a celebrated marksman. Dickinson apparently uttered Rachel’s name in a tavern, a deliberate provocation. The future president donned an oversized cape for the dueling grounds to disguise the location of his heart. He knew that Dickinson would take deadly aim on his upper left chest, and needed to conceal the target. The ploy worked. Jackson did indeed take a slug in his left shoulder, but remained long enough on his feet to shoot and kill his adversary.

In another episode, Jackson determined that Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, was his greatest enemy.

During the hotly contested election of 1828 a Cincinnati newspaper resurrected and published the old scandal of Rachel’s bigamy. As it happened, the newspaper editor was a friend of Senator Clay’s. Worse, Rachel read the article about her infamy—the resulting shock apparently killing her. For the rest of his life Jackson blocked Clay at every political turn, coolly remarking later that one of his regrets was not shooting the Senator.

Andrew Jackson went on to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, the central financial institution of the young country. Old Hickory then deposited the government’s money into pet banks, local private, unregulated concerns across the country. Mismanaged, these banks collapsed, propelling America into one the longest, deepest depressions in American history.

An astounded Senate formally censured President Jackson for this reckless deed, officially condemning Jackson’s conduct. Jackson later had the black mark removed from the Congressional Record.

In another, darker moment, Congress, a bastion of Jacksonians, passed the 1832 Indian Removal Act, aiding the State of Georgia in ridding themselves of the Cherokee.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the Natives could remain in the State, 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.” Moreover, as master of the “Hermitage,” near Nashville, Jackson held sway over some 500 black souls who tended his lands over the years.

The power King Andrew exercised rivaled the Almighty’s.

So the joke regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 resonated with my high school juniors. JFK’s skillful restraint in that perilous moment would certainly have resolved differently in the hands of the hotheaded, autocratic, Andrew Jackson.

But today the joke isn’t so funny.

Again America is saddled with an impulsive autocrat who’s hunger for authority tests us all. Moreover, this Commander in Chief shows little understanding of America’s legal tradition–of basic high school civics. 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.

The pertinent question this 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.” Both titles are available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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

th

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

th

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

th

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.