Two Witnesses

“I began to think that all was not right. He said that with two hundred men he could drive congress, with the president at its head, into the river Potomac, . . .and he said with five hundred men he could take possession of New York….”

Colonel John Morgan, written testimony, 1807, the Burr Conspiracy

In grade school we watched a film titled, “The Man Without A Country.” Taken from a story by Edward Everett Hale, the tale tells of an American soldier named Philip Nolan. Nolan, a fictitious character had been arrested as a conspirator in a scheme to seize a chunk of the Louisiana Purchase and secede from the Union. At his trial an angry Nolan pitched a fit and shouted “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”

The presiding judge agreed with Nolan’s outburst and sentenced him to never hear of, nor set foot in the United States again. Serving his time, Nolan spends the rest of his days transferred from one Naval vessel to another, never permitted to see the shoreline again. By the end of this sad tale, Nolan grieves his error, and Hale has him express his regrets, and the majesty of our democracy.

Though just a little kid, that film struck me as a nightmare, a true horror story. (I was a history-geek before I knew I was a history-geek). The sadness remains with me now.

Hale set his patriotic tale against an actual event, the Burr Conspiracy, (1805-1807). Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s rival and Vice President had killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804, and resigned as Vice President in 1805. Heading west beyond the Appalachians, Burr allegedly hatched a plot to capture a southern piece of the Louisiana Purchase, and Mexican Texas. It was said Burr planned to install himself as a sovereign of a new nation, with New Orleans as his capital. A co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, turned on Burr, and spilled the beans to President Jefferson. The outraged President promptly dispatched soldiers to apprehend Colonel Burr.

In a Virginia court Burr was indicted for treason, and soon put on trial in Richmond. The Judge, Chief Justice John Marshall presided. 

Burr remained serene throughout the trial, and denied the charges against him. Jefferson, meanwhile breathed fire, demanding Justice Marshall convict. Marshall, a brilliant student of American Law, subpoenaed the President to testify, and that pissed off Jefferson even more. 

In a letter to the court Jefferson insisted British Common Law sufficed for conviction. That advice would place Burr in the vicinity of a seditious act, and lead to a quick guilty verdict. Marshall, however, relied on the recent Constitutional definition.

Article III, Section 3, Clause 1,

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to the Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

At the end of this saga Burr was acquitted, Jefferson’s opinion irrelevant to US Law. Without fear nor favor Marshall abided by the Constitution. Lacking eyewitness testimony to the act, Burr walked. Neither Wilkinson’s nor Colonel Morgan’s letters proved relevant.

This case, complicated, and circumstantial, tested the new Constitution, and the Constitution prevailed. Fictitious Nolan should perhaps have held his temper in check, but then there wouldn’t be a story.

For MAGA insurrectionists, exculpatory evidence is stacking up. We all  bore  witness to the ransacking of the Capitol, and the rest of the plot is coming to light. Archival documents, emails, phone conversations, sticky notes, fake electoral papers, and incompetent lawyers litter the January 6 landscape. 

This time, under the language of Article III, there is no doubt of treason. 

As Philip Nolan lay dying aboard a Navy vessel, he tells his comforter “Here, you see, I have a country!” A map of the United States is pinned to a wall at the foot of his bed. Nolan begs his visitor to draw in new states admitted since his long ago trial. A tragic yarn of regret to be sure.

In the end Aaron Burr faded into the fog of time. Due to a certain Broadway musical he has resurfaced. Did Burr engaged in treason? We’ll never know for certain. That he faded is important. America is more resilient than any one of us.

Though Philip Nolan is a character of fiction, and Burr an enduring mystery, the January 6th hoard will not fade. You aided another would-be tyrant, and you failed. Like Pearl Harbor, and 911, your treason will live in infamy, to borrow a phrase. 

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. Chumbley has also penned two plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” a look at American slavery and it beginnings.

gailchumbley@chumbleg

chumbleg.blog

Inheritance

Harry Truman understood the gravity of his duty right off. When FDR died in April, 1945, the newly installed Vice President got the word he was now president. And what a Herculean task he had before him. A world war to end, conferences abroad, shaping a new post-war world, and grappling with the human rights horrors in both Europe and in the Pacific. Add to all of that, he alone could order use of the newly completed Atomic Bomb.

On his White House desk, President Truman placed a sign, “The Buck Stops Here.” With that mission statement Harry Truman stepped up to his responsibilities despite the formidable challenges he faced.

Did Truman inherit the worst set of circumstances of any new president? Maybe? But it is open to debate.

America’s fourth President, James Madison, found himself  in one god-awful mess. His predecessor, Thomas Jefferson had tanked the US economy by closing American ports to all English and French trade. Those two powerful rivals had been at war a long time, and made a practice of interfering with America’s neutrality and transatlantic shipping. Despite Jefferson’s actions the issue of seizing US ships and kidnapping sailors never stopped. By 1812 President Madison asked for a declaration of war against England that, in the end accomplished nothing but a burned out White House and defaced Capitol.

Following the lackluster administrations of Franklin Pierce, then James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln stepped into a firestorm of crisis. Divisions over the institution of slavery had reached critical mass, and Lincoln’s election was enough for Southern States to cut ties with the North. So hated was Lincoln, that his name did not appear on the ballot below the Mason-Dixon. And the fiery trial of war commenced.

The Election of 1932 became a referendum on Herbert Hoover, and the Republican presidents who had served since 1920. Poor Hoover happened to be in the White House when the economic music stopped, and the economy bottomed out. And that was that for Hoover. His name remained a pejorative until his death. 

Franklin Roosevelt prevailed that 1932 election, in fact won in a landslide victory. Somehow Roosevelt maintained his confident smile though he, too, faced one hell of a national disaster. 

In his inaugural address the new President reassured the public saying fear was all we had to fear. FDR then ordered a banking “holiday,” coating the dismal reality of bank failures in less menacing terms-a holiday. From his first hundred days the new President directed a bewildered Congress to approve his “New Deal.” 

The coming of the Second World War shifted domestic policies to foreign threats as the world fell into autocratic disarray. FDR shifted his attention to the coming war. When President Roosevelt died suddenly, poor Harry Truman was in the hot seat. But that is where I want to end the history lesson.

If any new President has had a disaster to confront, it is Joe Biden. Without fanfare or showboating Biden, too, has stepped up to the difficulties testing our nation. 

Much like Truman and Lincoln before, 46 is grappling with a world in chaos, and a divided people at home. In another ironic twist, like Madison, Biden witnessed, a second violent desecration of the US Capitol.

To his credit, though his predecessor left a long trail of rubble, Biden understands the traditional role of Chief Executive, while clearly many Americans have forgotten, or worse, rejected. Biden is addressing the issues testing our country, not only for those who elected him, but those who did not. An American President can do no less.

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. She has completed her second play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Die was Cast

The threat of disunion appeared long before either the Civil War, or the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The architects laying the chaotic cornerstone? President John Adams, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.

David McCullough in his celebrated biography, John Adams, portrayed this Founding Father as a brilliant man, and that is true. However, his self righteous streak succeeded in undercutting his talent and better judgement. As the second president of the United States, John Adams, proved to be a prickly, and thin-skinned chief executive. A dour Yankee, Adams could not tolerate public criticism, and as many later presidents, came to view the press as an adversary—enemies of the government.

In a rage over newspapers excoriating his administration, Adams shepherded the Sedition Act through Congress in 1798. Opposition editors soon found themselves in the President’s cross hairs, and some were actually jailed. The Alien Act, also passed in 1798, aimed to delay new voters, by lengthening time for naturalization, as immigrants were certain to vote against Adams and his Federalist Party. (Hmm. The press, immigrants, and voting rights. Imagine that).

Jefferson, (still Adams’ Vice President), promptly took action to counter Adams’ wrong-headed legislation.

Launching a full out, but anonymous denunciation of the Adams Administration, Vice President Jefferson published tracts vilifying Adams, and emphasized the sovereignty of the states guaranteed under 10th Amendment.

Returning from France, where he had served as American ambassador, Jefferson had been appalled by the powerful Federal Constitution created in his absence. As a ‘natural aristocrat,’ and slave master, Jefferson was unwilling to cede power to any higher authority than himself, and his fellow patricians. Instead the “Sage of Monticello,” asserted the right of states not to obey laws they didn’t like.

Two state legislatures agreed to debate Jefferson’s counter measures, Virginia and Kentucky. Penned secretly by Jefferson, and Madison, these resolutions insisted the states were the final arbiters of what was legally binding. A new term emerged from this controversy—Nullification.

The die was cast, the seeds of disunion sown. In the years following, nullification intensified, fertilized particularly in 1832 by John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina Senator. That that state became the first to secede in 1861, sparking the US Civil War, is no coincidence.

The traitors who invaded the halls of Congress last January took their cue from Jefferson, as if they, too battled the evils of John Adams. Scapegoating the media, immigrants and the Federal government has left a long, bloody stain on American history. As I write, the States of Georgia, and Texas among others, are attempting to limit voting rights once again. Texas has also taken a nullifying stance, limiting a woman’s right to her own body, despite Federal protections.                        

No government has a self-destruct button, none. John Adam’s pique, and Thomas Jefferson’s reaction stamped an incompatibility that still, today, inflames American politics. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Divisions

Balkanize: Division of a place or country into several small political units, often unfriendly to one another.

America’s founders meant education to flourish, as a vital part of our country’s longevity. 

Designed to advance literacy, American public schools also curbed the rougher aspects of an expanding country. Since the earliest days of the Republic, centers of learning not only taught content, but other lessons like cooperation, and self control. Ultimately schools have instilled in all of us a shared baseline of behavior, supported by foundational facts necessary to find consensus.  

Today, technology and social media have endangered our ability to reach common ground. The distracting noise of extremists, splintering, and Balkanizing our nation threatens American institutions. Elections, government agencies, city and state government, and yes, schools are all targeted. Navigating through a culturally diverse society is inevitably stormy, and a closed American mind isn’t helpful.

Public education has traditionally been one of the ligaments that bind us all together as one people. Years ago a president encouraged us to ask “what (we) can do for (our) country,” but that’s over. Today it’s “Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it!”

Patriotism and literacy evolved together hand in hand. In 1787 Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, passed an Ordinance for settling western land. This law devised a survey system, to organize states around the Great Lakes region. This is important because sales of one plat of the survey, (you guessed it,) funded public schools. 

Thomas Jefferson affirmed the practice by insisting, ”Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

President Lincoln, a figure who deeply lamented his own lack of formal education, pushed to establish land grant universities across the growing nation. The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, in particular, financed colleges through Federal funding.These universities today are located in every state of the Union. 

America’s erosion of unity is tied directly to the erosion of public education. Our kids are increasingly sequestered into alternative settings; online, magnet, charter, home, and private schools. Missing is the opportunity to experience democracy at its most basic. Students grow familiar with each other, softening our own edges, renewing the energy and optimism of the nation’s promise. 

We are all taxpayers, but your local public school isn’t supposed to be Burger King, where every citizen can have it “their way.” We have a system that, regardless of money, race, ability, and social class, all have a seat at the table of democracy.

Gail Chumbley is a history instructor and author. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #3

The military choir filed out of the Entrance Hall in a precise formation, trailed with a warm wave of applause. The President had enjoyed the evening performance, and bristled that no reporter had stayed to detail the concert for the public. “This is the kind of story real Americans would like to see on the news,” he complained, as he shook hands and chatted with departing well-wishers. 

The grand chamber soon emptied and the White House staff swept in, quickly stacking chairs, breaking down risers, and disconnecting sound equipment. The President turned from the racket, and headed toward the white Doric columns separating the hall and staircase. And it was there, beside an alabaster column, that the President stumbled upon a most unexpected visitor.

Lounging against the smooth white marble leaned a tall, lanky gentleman dressed in an antiquated silk dressing gown, white hose, and embroidered slippers. The man cooly assessed the stunned President.

“Are you familiar with the story of John Peter Zenger” the intruder murmured in a soft drawl. 

“Why are you still here? The entertainment left that way,” the President snapped, thumbing toward the side entrance.

“Zenger, a German immigrant, edited and printed a newspaper in New York,” the visitor continued, calmly shifting his position against the pillar. “Zenger had published an unflattering editorial of New York’s Colonial Governor, and the testy royal had the journalist jailed, charged with libel.”

The President, annoyed by the imposition, wanted to hurry up the stairs to his living quarters, but his legs remained stubbornly rooted in place. 

“Well, that Zenger character deserved it, he barked, unable to control his tongue. “Reporters need to watch what they write, and who they offend—like me. I’m the President, and they say terrible things about me, all lies and more lies.”

The tall figure crossed his arms and looked evenly at the President. “A jury of Zenger’s peers acquitted him, opining that if truth was stated, there is no libel,” the stranger subtly smiled. “That particular case established freedom of the press in this country, a principle I later insisted appear in the Bill of Rights.” 

“Do you understand how much I could accomplish if . . .”

The apparition spoke quietly over the President. “I, too criticized a president bent on stifling  free expression” the visitor thoughtfully paused. “President John Adams supported passage of the Sedition Act in 1798 to silence critical voices such as mine.” 

The oddly dressed gentleman began drifting through the pillars into the Entrance Hall, as if floating on a sudden breeze. Unwillingly, the President followed. “I’m particularly fond of this room,” the visitor whispered, “it was the only finished room in my time.”

“The press wants to destroy my administration,” this time the President spoke over his visitor. “With their unlimited snooping, the constant leaks, and the treasonous things they say about me on cable tv.”

The apparition appeared indifferent to the President’s complaints. “A particular writer, James Callender, cast enough aspersions upon Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Adams, that he found himself jailed under the Sedition Act. Once I moved into this House, I pardoned Callender, and hired him to again take up his poison pen.” The spirit seemed sadly amused, “when I refused to appoint Callender to a government post, his pen turned full force upon me, exposing my deepest, most safeguarded secret.”

“The Sedition Act. I like that,” the President beamed, indifferent to the visitor’s revelation. “What’s the matter with my lawyers. They never told me we have that law.”

Instantly the apparition jutted his face directly into the startled President’s. “You must not respond,” he breathed.  “You must ignore what is written and reported regarding your administration. Never, never challenge the freedom of the press, to do so diminishes the office of chief executive, exposing you as petty and small.”

“But the Sedition Act says . . .” the President squeaked, unnerved.

“Is unconstitutional,” the visitor finished the sentence. “I, too, resented what appeared in the press, besmirching my personal life, and my family. However, I resolutely remained aloof to the reports. And so must you.” 

The visitor began to sound weary, worn by the conversation. “I once stated that if I had to choose among the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment, I would preserve Freedom of the Press. With that liberty secure, all others are assured.

As the visitor finished his statement, he lifted his eyes to some mysterious point above, and vanished. 

Dismayed by the experience, the President scrambled up the stairs.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Unforgivable Curse

Many of us have read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and/or watched the films. The author created a wondrous world of spells, incantations, and even included law and order via three unforgivable curses. 

There are guardrails in this tale, and a bit of a messiah storyline. Harry willingly sacrifices himself, as had his parents and many others before. However, the “Boy Who Lived,” does, and returns to fight and vanquish wickedness. 

Love, too, permeates the storyline, and the righteous power of good over evil. 

But that’s not my take.

As a career History educator I came to a different conclusion; Harry Potter told me that failing to understand our shared past can be lethal. And that was the metaphor I preached to my History students.

Harry rises to the threat and defends all that is good and valuable in his world. If he didn’t, Harry could have been killed and his world destroyed.

It’s so apropos at this moment in our history to grasp our collective story as Americans.

Honest differences within the confines of our beliefs is one thing. Obliterating the tenants of democracy is quite another. 

Americans cannot surrender our country to this would-be dictator, the things that have cost our people so dearly. Freezing soldiers at Valley Forge did not languish to enable DJT to trademark his brand to hotels, steaks or a failed university. The fallen at Gettysburg, and the suffering in Battle of the Bulge was not to pave the way for DJT to get us all killed from a ravaging plague. The girls who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the miners murdered in the Ludlow Massacre, or humiliated Civil Rights workers beaten at the Woolworth’s lunch counter was not for Donald Trump to validate racism and sexism and undo labor laws. 

He doesn’t know our nation’s history, and as George Santayana warned us, we are condemned to sacrifice all over again. 

Vote. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Endurance

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Three early American documents are often lumped together in our collective memory, though each is quite different from the others; The Declaration of IndependenceThe Articles of Confederation, and the enduring US Constitution. Citizens generally know something of the Declaration due to a certain celebration we observe each summer. The Articles of Confederation are a bit more elusive, and not nearly as recognized. The third, the US Constitution is revered, but its beginnings, and purpose is also shrouded in time. 

Here is a quick explanation of each missive, particularly the sequence, and the significance of each.

The Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. A product of the Second Continental Congress, this revolutionary document was ratified as an instrument of rebellion, after all other measures to avoid war with England had failed. In reality, the shooting had begun a year earlier in Lexington, Massachusetts, but the Declaration formalized hostilities. Debated and delayed, this document was finally adopted in July of that year. Congress made crystal clear their reasons and resolve to free themselves from King George’s arbitrary rule. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration began with a guiding statement about “Natural Right’s” shared by all humanity, and that people had the obligation to free themselves from unjust tyranny. The rest of the epistle read as a legal document condemning the King and his despotism. This document is the first of the three in forging the United States of America. 

The Articles of Confederation: September, 1777. The Articles provided America’s first national charter of government. Approved by the same Second Continental Congress in 1777, the Articles attempted to unify the original states under one government. Through this document, Congress sent diplomats abroad, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to (beg) obtain financial support from European powers. However, at home, this framework failed miserably. More a Confederation of independent principalities, Congress had to plead for money and men from each state, who often said no. There was no power to tax, no centralized currency, and the Articles weren’t even ratified by all 13 states until a month before the war ended at Yorktown. Each state jealously guarded its own interests over any unified cooperation. Congress could do next to nothing to aid General Washington and his army. Chaos ensued after the war ended, as well. Trade wars flared, disagreements among the states spilled over into violence, and rebellions within states promised more turbulence. The ability of America to govern itself appeared doomed. The English were sure America’s failure was imminent, and they could, once again, swoop in.

The United States Constitution: May to September, 1787. Born from an earlier 1786 meeting between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Annapolis, MD, the Constitutional Convention was organized and slated for Philadelphia in May. Both founders understood that without persuading Washington to attend this new Convention, any success was remote. Washington, tending his home at Mount Vernon, was hesitant, and tired. However, when news reached the General of an uprising in Western Massachusetts, (Shays Rebellion), Washington agreed to attend. Fifty-five delegates from all the states except Rhode Island, reported to the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia. Most were lawyers, sprinkled with many Southern slave holders. Virginian, James Madison came prepared with a plan to replace the feeble Articles of Confederation. Much of Madison’s Virginia Plan became the basis of the Constitution. Designed for endurance, this new charter vested authority in the Central government, and the states. Termed Federalism, powers under this frame of government are shared between both authorities simultaneously. The tooling of the document, employing separation of powers, and checks and balances is brilliant, and worked well until 2016.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Learning Curve

 

George Washington came of age immersed in the culture of Tidewater Virginia. To join the higher echelons of society there were set requirements, in particular vast property holdings.

This lust for land had crossed the Atlantic with the first ships from Great Britain. Only gentlemen of the highest social station possessed “parks” to use the British term; bucolic sanctuaries where aristocrats, and their guests could hunt, and fish, with enough acreage left for tenancy. Landed Cavaliers to Virginia immediately assumed a sense of equality to any aristocrat residing in Old England. (The “All Men Are Created Equal,” passage in the Declaration of Independence affirms Jefferson’s sentiment.)

Washington’s older, half-brother, Lawrence, the heir of their deceased father’s estate, had the land, the title, the rank, and the education that George could never realize. But, Lawrence did try to help the twenty-year-old establish himself. Lawrence first tried to secure a naval commission for his younger brother. But that didn’t work out.* With no money or prospects, young Washington settled on a career as a land surveyor, a noble calling for the time. 

Making use of his father’s instruments, and with  help from a neighbor, Lord Fairfax, George gained an appointment to the Virginia Militia, and a chance to put his vocation to use.

The year was 1754 and a fateful clash awaited the untested soldier-surveyor.

Virginia’s original charter claimed virtually all western lands, north by northwest of the colony, theoretically to the Pacific. At roughly the same time the French too, had staked claim to that same interior region. At a site known now as Jumonville Glen, in the Ohio River Valley, Washington and his party detected then attacked an encampment of French Canadiens. In the melee a Native scout with Washington, called Half King, killed a Frenchman, who, as it turned out was a diplomatic courier. That was, and still is, an international no-no. 

In retaliation soon after, French reinforcements from Fort Duquesne, (Pittsburgh) pressed down on Washington’s party, where the untested and panicked militia officer made a colossally poor decision. In the ensuing “Battle of Fort Necessity,” Washington was easily whipped and forced to surrender when his hastily erected stockade filled with rain, making defense impossible. 

Thoroughly humiliated, Washington surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. In the capitulation treaty, young George unwittingly admitted he had allowed a French diplomat to be assassinated at Jumonville Glen. His lack of education was exposed. Washington couldn’t read French and didn’t know what he had signed. His humiliation was complete, his blunder igniting the French and Indian War. 

Fast forward forty years to 1794 and a return to the site of old Fort Duquesne, the scene of Washington’s infamous disgrace. For Washington much had changed. As Commander of the Continental Army, Washington had nobly defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and became the first President of the United States.

The once awkward Virginian was fully redeemed in the eyes of the new nation. Despite his rough start, Washington had grown up. Still, his misadventures decades earlier still stung. Despite universal accolades, the nods and winks of those who remembered Jumonville Glen remained.

As for old Fort Duquesne? The settlement had become the growing commercial center of Pittsburgh. 

And it was in the proximity of Pittsburgh, near the site of his former humiliation, that President Washington faced a new conflict.

The new Congress has passed an excise bill on distillers of whiskey, as a means for the federal government to settle war debt. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had proposed this tax on spirits as a way for the Treasury to settle its financial difficulties. But distillers around Pittsburgh stubbornly refused to pay. In fact Whiskey Rebels rose up, and attacked tax officials who attempted to collect. By summer of 1794, one collector had been tarred and feathered, and another was burned out of his home by a violent mob.

The Revolution was over, and President Washington had had enough. No more domestic violence, especially not from the Ohio Valley. He requested Congress to raise an army, placed Hamilton at the head, and sent them to the site of his earlier disgrace. These agitators melted away like snow in April.

Washington flexed federal power in what was the Constitution’s real first challenge. That Washington felt some sense of personal absolution, considering his military history is understandable.

And what does this episode mean to us in the long run? Don’t piss off George Washington? Maybe. But more importantly the new Constitution was the law, and as chief executive, he enforced that law.

Washington had grown up, and the country needed to do likewise.

*Washington’s mother said no.

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

Peer Review #3

The military choir filed out of the Entrance Hall in precise formation, trailed with a warm wave of applause. The President had enjoyed the evening performance, and bristled that no journalists had reported on the concert for his base. “This is the kind of story real Americans would like to see on the news,” he complained, as he shook hands and chatted with departing well-wishers. 

The grand chamber soon emptied and the White House staff swept in, quickly stacking chairs, breaking down risers, and disconnecting sound equipment. The President turned from the racket, and headed toward the white Doric columns separating the hall and staircase. And it was there, beside an alabaster column, that the President stumbled upon a most unexpected visitor.

Lounging against the smooth white marble leaned a tall, lanky gentleman dressed in an antiquated silk dressing gown, white hose, and embroidered slippers. The man cooly assessed the stunned President.

“Are you familiar with the story of John Peter Zenger” the intruder murmured in a soft drawl. 

“Why are you still here? The entertainment left that way,” the President snapped, thumbing toward the side entrance.

“Zenger, a German immigrant, edited and printed a newspaper in New York,” the visitor continued, calmly shifting his position against the pillar. “Zenger had published an unflattering appraisal of New York’s Colonial Governor, and the testy royal had the journalist jailed, charged with libel.”

The President, annoyed by the imposition, wanted to hurry up the stairs to his living quarters, but his legs remained stubbornly stuck in place. 

“Well, that Zenger character deserved it, he barked, unable to control his tongue. “Reporters need to watch what they write, and who they offend—like me. I’m the President, and they say terrible things about me, all lies and fake news.”

The tall figure crossed his arms and looked evenly at the President. “A jury of Zenger’s peers acquitted him, opining that if truth was stated, there is no libel,” the stranger subtly smiled. “That particular case established freedom of the press in this country, a principle I later insisted appear in the Bill of Rights.” 

“Do you understand how much I could accomplish if . . .”

The apparition spoke quietly over the President. “I, too criticized a president bent on stifling  free expression” the visitor thoughtfully paused. “President John Adams supported passage of the Sedition Act in 1798 to silence critical voices such as mine.” 

The oddly attired gentleman began drifting through the pillars into the Entrance Hall, as if floating on a sudden breeze. Unwillingly, the President followed. “I’m particularly fond of this room,” the visitor whispered, “it was the only finished room in my time.”

“The press wants to destroy my administration,” this time the President spoke over his visitor. “With their unlimited snooping, the constant leaks, and the treasonous things they say about me on cable tv.”

The apparition appeared indifferent to the President’s complaints. “A particular writer, James Callender, cast enough aspersions upon Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Adams, that he found himself jailed under the Sedition Act. Once I moved into this House, I pardoned Callender, and hired him to again take up his poison pen.” The spirit seemed sadly amused, “when I refused to appoint Callender to a government post, his pen turned full force upon me, exposing my deepest, most safeguarded secret.”

“The Sedition Act. I like that,” the President beamed, ignoring the visitor’s revelation. “What’s the matter with my lawyers. They never told me we have that law.”

Instantly the apparition jutted his face directly into the startled President’s. “You must not respond,” he breathed.  “You must ignore what is written and reported regarding your administration. Never, never challenge the freedom of the press, to do so diminishes the office of chief executive, exposing you as petty and small.”

“But the Sedition Act says . . .” the President squeaked, unnerved.

“Is unconstitutional,” the visitor finished the sentence. “I, too, resented what appeared in the press, besmirching my personal life, and my family. However, I resolutely remained aloof to the reports. And so must you.” 

The visitor began to sound weary, worn by the conversation. “I once stated that if I had to choose among the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment, I would preserve Freedom of the Press. With that liberty secure, all others are assured.

As the visitor finished his statement, he lifted his eyes to some mysterious point above, and vanished. 

Dismayed, the President scrambled up the stairs.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #1

Marines manned numerous doorways along the wide hallway, as clusters of tourists wandered through colorful rooms. Upstairs the President listened to the public commotion with satisfaction, not for the house, not for the job, which, in truth, had become tiresome, but for the knowledge he could drop down and set all their bourgeois hearts aflutter. 

After a moment, he made his decision, slipping down an interior stair case, stepping into the Blue Room.

As his hands automatically fluffed his hair, the President sidled up beside a class of wiggly school children snapping cell phone pictures.

“And where are you from?,” the president teased with pleasure, anticipating an excited response. He half closed his eyes, and paused, waiting for the gratifying answer.

But he heard nothing.

Bemused, the President opened one eye, then the other. The chatty children paid him no mind, in fact were moving away, following their guide into the hallway.

“Wait,” he found himself calling. “It’s me, your President. I’m here.”

He repeated, “The President of the United States.”

But the children didn’t hear. He remained alone in the Blue Room, his hair acceptably coiffed.

No further tourists entered, though dozens drifted past the doorway. He didn’t understand and he thought very hard, seeking a rational explanation.

It was at that moment that he heard a voice, quite close, and quite annoyed. 

“Am I to understand you are a New Yorker?” 

The President wheeled around toward the sound. Before him, no more than an arm’s length away stood a mustachioed gentleman, wearing pinz nez spectacles, sporting a shiny top hat. The man’s eyes blazed behind the thick round lenses, and the astonished President detected a trickle of cold sweat trace down the back of his thick neck.

“I say, are you, or are you not, a New Yorker?” The stern man spoke in a nasally, patrician voice.

“Ahh. How did you get in here,” the President stammered. “Where is my secret service protection?”

“Supercilious pup,” the man in the top hat snapped. “They tell me that YOU are from New York, and are president! A common side show huckster, President.”

The President, though alarmed, replied reflexively, “I’m in real estate. I . . .made my fortune in New York real estate.” Only the muffled din of passing tourists kept the President from panic.

“Real Estate!” The man in spectacles scornfully shouted. “I’d say you are just another scoundrel from the wealthy criminal class. In New York, swindlers like you are a dime a dozen. I made a career of exposing rascals like you.” 

The man, attired in a three-piece suit, a watch fob draping his ample waist, bore a deep scowl. “And you found your way into this office of trust. Intolerable.”

Though bewildered, the President, unaccustomed to such personal insults, felt his pique rising. “I was elected President by the largest margin in American Hist . . .”

“Poppycock,” the specter interrupted. “It is my understanding the decision rested upon a mere tilt in the Electoral system, and that outsiders interfered to make certain of your victory.” 

The strange visitor moved closer. “I’d say that you are a compromised pawn of foreign meddlers, and give not one damn for the American people.”

At this point the President had heard enough, and attempted to move his legs. He wanted very much to escape the Blue Room, but his feet remained rooted. 

“I have important things to do, you need to go,” the President’s voice trembled, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

The apparition narrowed his intense eyes, and took another step toward the unnerved President. 

“I claim more authority to this revered House and Office than your mercenary greed could ever comprehend. You belong with Tweed, Plunkitt, Fisk, Conkling, and the rest of New York’s good-for-nothings. Dishonor has followed you to the Presidency, what, with your womanizing, graft, and unsavory business connections.” The fierce apparition fixed an intense, menacing gaze. “You do not belong here, nor your parade of lackeys and opportunists.

The buzz of foot traffic grew louder, and when the President again glanced toward his unwelcome visitor, he found him gone, the Blue Room empty.

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

Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com