In order to be clearly understood one must write.
In order to be clearly understood one must write.
“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
I’m finishing up the last of a series of Presidential talks, closing with an examination of the life of Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President. TR’s formative years involved a great deal of outdoor activity, pursuing what he called the Strenuous Life. And that life dramatically shaped his later terms of office. Next to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, subjects of previous presentations, TR might be one of most thoroughly decent chief executives in the series.
Theodore Roosevelt liked to hunt, a lot. As a boy, while on holiday, floating the Nile, young “Teedie” bagged literally hundred of birds, picking them off along the riverbank. Toting a new shot gun, a gift from his father, and a new pair of glasses, he combed the grasses along the ancient river searching for winged prey. Back on board the family’s rented houseboat, he promptly performed amateur taxidermy on his take, as bewildered Egyptian servants and crewman stood silently by, watching. The finished collection eventually went on display in young Roosevelt’s own natural history museum, located on the top floor of the family’s elegant Manhattan home.
As a young adult, Roosevelt tracked countless paths through forested mountains, the prairies, and even the Great Plains, shooting and crating home countless pelts and game trophies. TR climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon, returning to Long Island rowing and sailing near his home at Sagamore Hill. The Roosevelt fortune made for comfortable, and convenient travels.
However, TR, through his innate sense of fair play came to a more enlightened conclusion, scrutinizing the inequity of his privileged lifestyle. In 1903, after a two-week trek into Yellowstone National Park, America’s first park, President Roosevelt was requested to make remarks to a small crowd of local Montanans. He agreed and took the opportunity to extoll his new democratic philosophy of America’s natural wonders. TR told listeners that day:
“The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures . . . the Park is simply being kept in the interest of all of us, so that every one may have the chance to see its wonders
with ease and comfort at the minimum of expense. This pleasure, moreover, can under such conditions be kept for all who have the love of adventure and the hardihood
to take advantage of it . . .”
This world-traveling aristocrat spoke of the essential equality of America’s public lands–open places tourists can all savor equally, rich or poor. Grasping the finite dimensions of land and wildlife, TR changed his earlier approach to hunting and camping. He came to embrace a classless ideology to accessing our mutual bounty. In spite of his famous name, wealth, and public prominence, President Roosevelt realized that natural wonders were meant to inspire us all.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com
We were in the midst of text book adoption some years ago when an unexpected snag brought the process to a screeching halt.
The Social Studies Departments across our district were asked to preview an array of textbooks in the Fall of 1994. Publishers had generously provided sample texts, and we had spent hours perusing different volumes, passing our professional preferences to our Social Studies Coordinator.
Government teachers decided unanimously that they would replace their current text with the same title they had used for some years. They agreed to adopt the newest edition of Magruders American Government; a trusty standard, and the hands-down favorite of 12th grade teachers across the country. Our instructors had ready-made units, lessons, speakers, ancillary materials,, film clips, debate resolutions, etc . . . and only required the newer books with updated factual information. And their task look like a done deal, but it wasn’t.
When presented with the teachers choice the Board of Trustees suddenly balked, viscerally unhappy with the recommendation, and for a reason no one could have predicted.
A tradition in Magruders American Government is placing a photo of the current first lady inside the front cover of the text. Lord, it might still have been Mamie Eisenhower in the tattered old volumes we were replacing. Prentice-Hall, smelling an easy sale, had shipped samples of the new edition, which sent the undertaking careening off the rails. The inside photo was of serving First Lady, Hillary Clinton, and these board members lost their minds.
I taught AP American History at that time, and thought nothing of reordering Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant, another classic. We had used this text for some time, and simply needed an updated edition. However, in light of the fiasco over Magruders, I too, found my text in the crosshairs.
Wearing an understanding, sympathetic expression the district coordinator said I had to prepare a defense of Pageant too, highlighting the merits of the book over others on the market. (Fair was fair, if one book was attacked for fallacious reasons, attack the rest—better optics). And it wasn’t that I minded writing the virtues of the book, I liked Pageant, but I did mind the time the effort took from my classroom. Plus, it was so annoying that I had to jump because Mrs. Clinton had the audacity to be the new First Lady, and our board thought the end days had commenced.
The Trump era has been in the making for quite some time. The politics of 2018 was clearly taking shape as early as the 1994.
This is a reprint of an earlier post.
It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic where I live and work. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.
Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest order. So reserved and deliberate in his career was Lee, that he is one of the few cadets who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of George and Martha Washington, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Lee added stature to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful).
When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his leadership qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.
On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip, but he also wasn’t perfect, despite his army’s thinking him so. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.
After speaking with General Grant, in a letter addressed to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .
But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.
Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and assassin John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that exhausted Lee died in 1870, and was buried.
Robert E. Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted. Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.
This current controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee at all. It’s about America in 2017.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.
We all know the story.
On a mild April night, President and Mary Lincoln attended the final performance of the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, by all accounts was in a light, blissful mood. A week earlier Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and except for some dust ups, the Civil War had ceased. We also know that John Wilkes Booth, and fellow conspirators plotted to kill, not only the President, but the whole order of presidential succession; Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, etc . . . but only Booth followed through with that night’s mayhem.
Andrew Johnson took office in a whirlwind of shifting circumstances. In the year up to President Lincoln’s death a notable power struggle had taken shape between the President and Congress. America had never before endured a civil war, and the path to reunion had never been trod. As President, Lincoln believed the power to restore the Union lay in the executive branch—through presidential pardon. But an emerging faction in the Republican Party, called the Radicals saw the issue differently. These men operated from the premise that the Confederate States had indeed left the Union—committed political suicide at secession—and had to petition Congress for readmission. (Congress approves statehood). And this new president, Andrew Johnson, was determined to follow through with Lincoln’s policies.
Unfortunately, Johnson was by temperament, nothing like Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln had a capacity to understand the views of his opponents, and utilize humor and political savvy, Johnson could not. Of prickly character, Andrew Johnson entered the White House possessed by deeply-held rancor against both the South’s Planter Class, and newly freed blacks. This new Chief Executive intended to restore the Union through the use of pardons, then govern through his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson had no use for Radical Republicans, nor their extreme pieces of legislation. Every bill passed through the House and Senate found a veto waiting at Johnson’s desk, including the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and the adoption of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress consistently overrode Johnson’s vetoes.
Reconstruction began in a vicious power struggle. And much of the tumult came from Andrew Johnson’s inability to grasp the transformation Civil War had brought to America. While the new president aimed to keep government limited, the Radicals and their supporters knew the bloody struggle had to mean something more—America had fundamentally changed. Nearly 700,000 dead, the emancipation of slavery, the murder of Father Abraham, and a “New birth of Freedom” had heralded an earthquake of change.
But Johnson was blind to this reality, seeing only an overreaching Congress, (google the Tenure of Office Act) and Constitutional amendments that had gone too far. And so it was a rigid and stubborn Andrew Johnson who eventually found himself impeached by a fed-up House of Representatives. Johnson only holding on to his broken presidency by a single Senate vote.
There have been other eras in America’s past that fomented rapid changes. The Revolution to the Constitutional period, the First World War into American isolation, the Vietnam War stirring up protest and social change. All concluding with reactionary presidencies. No less occurred with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
2008 to 2016 witnessed social change of a new order. Administered by America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, liberty extended, bringing about change to once-closeted American’s.
Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark decision Obergefell V Hodges.
The trans community found a champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner.
Health care became available to those trapped in grinding poverty and preexisting conditions.
Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.”
And though he didn’t ‘take yer guns,’ President Obama did successfully direct the mission to nab Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted man.
So when former students began sending horrified texts to me, their old history teacher on election night, 2016, I provided the only explanation history offered. The Obama years instituted rapid changes that the reactionary right could not stomach. (And yes, racism is certainly a large part of the equation).
So now we deal with a Donald Trump presidency. But, Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge and accept what transpired through the Obama years. The stubborn truth about expanding the ‘blessings of liberty,’ is no one is willing to give them back. When push comes to shove, the new president may find himself facing the fate of Andrew Johnson.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.
This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?
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 nation. 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, but 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.” He was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to solve. And it was here, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded his party and his career.
The new Republican Party had formed six years earlier in Wisconsin, established on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party grew fast. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified party maintained that free labor was an integral component of free market capitalism. The presence of slavery in growing regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future economic 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 in the fire 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, exact language guaranteeing the extension of slavery in 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 move forward.
Southern Democrats moved on as well. In a separate Richmond, Virginia convention Southern Democrats nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.
In Baltimore, Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local elections determining the western expansion of slavery. Bolting Democrats in Richmond went further adding an absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground vanished.
Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party.” I’m not sure what they stood for, but clearly it wasn’t support for Douglas or Breckinridge. Convening in Baltimore as well, in May of 1860, 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, so loudly 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 Democratic Party, and launched 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, social unrest, and racial strife. This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s splintering Republican Party.
Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected the 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. Now its true that no party can be all things to all citizens, nor should hardened splinter groups run away with the party.
The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to provide 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.
A visitor with the “Darkness Derby” trophy
Reno is situated in a golden bowl below mountains that separate Nevada from California. This enormous basin pulsates with life; upscale strip malls, flashy casinos, and relentless traffic following endless suburban growth.
To the north, off the beltway circling the “Biggest Little City,” sits Stead, Nevada, a locale clearly not touched by the same affluence as the rest of the region. A boarded up Catholic church, a Title-I elementary school and a Job Corps Center secured behind a grim, chain link fence, indicate that the very poor live world’s away from the prosperous south.
But at the end of this impoverished section of road, the world changes. Parachutists drift overhead in swatches of white, zigzagging through a deep blue autumn sky. Aircraft of every model and engine size wait, tied down on the asphalt, wing to wing. Vintage bi-planes, silvery jets, oddly shaped…
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