My grandson. He inherits the promise that is America.
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.
The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that only exists in the selfish vacuum of political rhetoric. If exploited as the only answer to the country’s problems, remember States’ Rights never solved a thing. Not in America.
Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority layers with state and local governments simultaneously. This system has been functioning for over two hundred years.
The most lethal challenge to centralized authority erupted in the Civil War. But that bloody conflict was certainly not the first confrontation.
Years earlier, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the fledgling states, drafted a national blueprint called the Articles of Confederation.
Much like assembling a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 tried to forge a national government to function through the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 States proved rather feeble in practice.
The fatal flaw woven into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Each delegation mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce deference, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress could not even gather enough votes to ratify the document until the end of the Revolution.
The sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. For example, states like Virginia and New York, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands would have helped offset mounting expenditures. And Congress, nearly bankrupt, with no real clout, could do little beyond promise to help Washington’s Army.
Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from desperate scarcity, the General admitted privately he believed “the game was nearly up.”
Drifting, rudderless, Congress fretted, begging for loans from abroad, and printing worthless paper money.
Worse, states such as New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with the coin-rich Brits, filling their personal coffers in pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked grim, each state dug in, defending their own interests first.
Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real prestige, inevitable bloodshed quickly ensued among the thirteen quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over currency exchange, nearly dissolved the fragile union.
In that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. In reality, both men intended to completely dump them for a new, stronger plan.
A recently retired George Washington chaired a new convention assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied many of the ills of the struggling nation.
This lesson from the past remains relevant. We are better together than alone. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal cost of road construction, nor of fire fighting. Recent Covid-19 policies have proven the futility, and folly of every state grasping for themselves.
The events of January 6, 2021 raises a similar question. Do we come out of this unrest a weakened and vulnerable rope of sand? Or does this Constitution sustain itself in this moment?
E Pluribus Unum
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle or at http://www.river-of-january.com.
The man in the portrait is mid-19th Century Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
A fierce opponent of slavey, Sumner delivered a scathing speech titled, “The Crime Against Kansas,” denouncing the proposed addition of a new slave state from Nebraska Territory. After his two-day denunciation of the “peculiar institution” the Senator was beaten in the Senate chamber, nearly to death, by a defender of slavery.
This symbol of slavery, waved by a domestic terrorist is especially repulsive.
And this Judas has no idea.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available at http://www.river-of-january.com, or on Kindle.
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.)
With only days until Christmas 1776, General Washington found his army melting away. Since July of that year the Continental Army had been chased from Long Island, through Manhattan, and across the Hudson into New Jersey.
Earlier, in August, Washington had been flanked by British forces and the untrained Patriot army turned tail and ran. So furious was Washington at their conduct, he threatened to lead another assault himself, against far superior, professional troops.
Amongst King Georges’ regulars were legions of Hessians, hired guns, from the German kingdom of Hesse-Kassel. These mercenaries were particularly brutal, taking a psychological toll on the all-volunteer Army with their skilled use of glinting, charging, bayonets.
Leaving camp fires burning, Washington directed Colonel John Glover, a New England mariner to gather enough vessels to ferry his surviving soldiers across to Manhattan, and then onward to New Jersey. To exude confidence, Washington waited until the last boat to cross the East River.
Battling through Manhattan, his army ferried west again, via the Hudson, with Colonel Glover’s expertise. Eventually the dash to safety near Trenton, succeeded.
Demoralized, and outgunned, the Continental Army appeared doomed and despondent. The general consensus among all was the war was hopeless, a lost cause, the Patriots ardor over.
By winter, Washington’s command seemed to be unraveling. Little food, too few supplies, or support came from the local population. At the same time the Brits, flush with currency, settled into cozy New York accommodations.
With circumstances conspiring against him-the weather, scarcity, and outgunned by enemy Hessians quartered in nearby Trenton, Washington had to act. The General faced a critical moment. To his cousin, (and Mount Vernon’s caretaker) Washington confessed his anguish.
. . .your immagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine—Our only dependance now, is upon the Speedy Inlistment of a New Army; if this fails us, I think the game will be pretty well up . . .
Out of desperation Washington expressed to his cousin what he termed as the “clarity of despair.” The General had to do something.
First he sent feelers out to bring in an operative who sold provisions to the nearby Hessians. John Honeyman came into camp and apprised Washington on the disposition of King George’s contracted killers. The General learned from Honeyman these Germans were settled in for a Christmas celebration, assured that the Americans were all but defeated..
In his second order, Washington commanded Colonel Glover to, once again, requisition every boat the Marblehead seafarer could find. Between Honeyman’s report and vessels secured, his men were mobilized for a Christmas morning assault on Trenton.
Once again, Glover pulled off a miracle amphibious operation. And once again, General Washington was the last man on the last boat. In two files the disheveled Continental Army marched, braving more than just the weather. His forces arrived to the New Jersey capital by first light.
The hungover Hessians were completely routed in the surprise assault, providing the Patriot cause with desperately needed victory. The army again breathed life.
So tonight as you enjoy the warmth of the season, remember those who came before. For Christmas they marched through the inky, icy cold, missing their families, yet committed to the long game of founding a nation.
Despite this current, disastrous administration, and especially this last lamentable year, our game is certainly not up. America can and will move forward. We have done this before. Much like General Washington our desperation makes our choices clear.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Gail has recently completed a stage play, “Clay,” on the life of Henry Clay.
Let me be brief. What the GOP is attempting with this frivolous lawsuit concerning the 2020 election is dangerous and cynical. Party fidelity is certainly an American hallmark, but not at the cost of our political system. This dangerous precedent, pursued in a moment of expediency chips away at the foundation of our traditions.
The Constitution quite clearly established the rules on elections, and has endured since 1788. This moment of danger is more crucial to our nation than any excuse for undermining the transfer of power.
Clearly the steps taken by the Republican Party reveals an organization with nothing to offer. Ruthless partisanship is as much an epidemic as any virus.
Each state has verified no irregularities in voting exist, choosing instead to act on one fallible man’s loose talk. The Framers did not dedicate their lives and fortunes to establish a government that dissolves on the whims of any person or moment. The United States relies on people of good will to respectfully honor election results.
As reluctant as I feel about using this analogy, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor in 1933 in a free election, only to turn around and outlaw free elections.
Stop this now. Your party will lay in ruins if you forget who we are as a people. The process in presidential elections could not be clearer than stated in Article 1.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” and the stage play, “Clay.”
He looked an awful lot like Andrew Jackson. A long narrow face, a shock of white brushy hair, and an irascible temperament. He was my paternal grandfather, Kurtz Olson. Despite his prickly, no-nonsense, narrow approach to life, I found him endlessly endearing.
The youngest of seven children to immigrants Peter and Matilda Olson, Kurtz was born in Wing River, Minnesota in 1905. Though I don’t know much about his early life, I do know that he had a had a short attention span, and restless feet.
During the worst of the Depression Grandpa worked as a welder, and scrap metal dealer. My dad like to remind us that with so many people jobless, Kurtz had lots of work repairing and parting out junked automobiles. One of my favorite snapshots from his early years is Grandpa and another man posing with axle grease below their noses. The two were making sport of Hitler, who in the 1930’s was still viewed as laughable. Grandpa Kurtz is smirking, knowing he’s naughty, and enjoying himself.
During the Second World War, he and my grandmother moved the family to Tacoma, Washington. With the “Arsenal of Democracy” in full swing, Kurtz had plenty of metal work on the coast. After 1945, he again uprooted and moved his family to Spokane, Washington, where cheap hydro power had opened plenty of post-war employment.
Still, Minnesota remained the holy land. Grandpa would hop in his truck and make frequent pilgrimages to the the upper mid-west, driving straight through (24 hours or so) to his homeland. It was as if traveling from Paris to Versailles, only longer.
Unlike my immediate family, where I was the only girl, (not counting my mom) Kurtz lived in a decidedly female home. My aunt and grandmother sat at the kitchen table reading the Enquirer and talking shit about nearly everybody. Poor Grandpa. Those two women tied that poor man into knots, and he reacted predictably. It wasn’t that my Grandfather was unkind by nature, but he was easy to wind up, perceiving the world in black and white, no middle.
Despite those women bad-mouthing me and my brothers, he liked me. And I liked him. In a fleeting, incomplete memory I see him waiting under street lights at the Spokane Greyhound depot. We all must have been meeting a relative from Minnesota. In a burst of joy I remember shouting “Grandpa,” as I sprinted to him, where he scooped me up into a hug. Another vivid moment I recall was his truck pulling up in front of our house, and Kurtz coming to the door wearing nothing but a smirk, bright red long johns, and laced boots. What a crack up.
In a NorthAmerican Scandinavian cadence some of his comments were just a hoot.
“First they call it yam, and then they called it yelly, now they call it pree-serfse.”
And Kurtz always had a dog. There had been Corky, Powder and Puff, Samantha, and Cindy among many others. Samantha was an especially smart Border Collie. After finding herself thrown on the floor of Grandpa’s truck one too many times, she figured out how to brace herself on the dashboard. He would roar up to yellow traffic lights, then stand on the brakes to avoid a red light. My god was it perpetual. My guess is a new clutch about every three months, casualties of his Mr Magoo style. Anyway, Samantha learned to watch the traffic lights and prepare.
I drove over to his house on some such errand, and pulled into his long unpaved driveway. The little white garage was separate from the house, and left a gap enclosed by a cyclone fence. Opening the gate, I saw my grandpa splitting wood. In the yard next door a dog barked at me on the far side of the fence. I called out, “You be quiet over there,” to which my grandfather said, “He doessent underschand you. It’s a Cherman Shepard.” Then he laughed, and so did I.
My children didn’t know Kurtz. And for that I’m sorry. They missed a true original. I suppose that is my job, and the job of all of us Boomers. We bridge the years between that Depression-era, World War Two generation to our children. They won’t know if we don’t share the story. And since it’s December, I’ll sign off with this Kurtz Christmas anecdote.
On Christmas Eve in about 1936-37, my grandparents packed up their children for an evening church service. Being good Swedes they had traditional candles balanced on the boughs of their Christmas tree. And they left them lit. By the time they returned home a fully engulfed fire lit up the night. They lost everything. My grandfather knew his way around a welder, but somehow overlooked the yule-tree. That incident remains today as serious family lore.
Now he’s long gone, as is my dad. But through the written word he remains as vivid as his humor, his voice, and his presence in my memory.
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.
“Princes’ don’t immigrate” opined the 19th Century American magazine, Puck. The subject of the quote concerned the multitudes of immigrants flooding to both American coastlines. Newcomers hailing from Asia and Southern Europe had alarmed American Nativists who considered the influx as nothing more than riffraff, and a danger to good order. Unfortunately this view of the foreign-born still endures today.
News footage over the last few years has chronicled the plight of the dispossessed amassing along southern tiers of both Europe and the US. Frequently victims of repressive governments, criminals, and crippling poverty risk dangerous transit, refugee camps, and even cages to escape hardships.
The earliest immigrants to American shores shared similar pressures, escaping the unacceptable familiar for an unknowable future. A brief look at the American Colonial period illustrates this enduring dynamic.
16th and 17th Century England targeted dissident groups in much the same way; exiling nonconformists, petty criminals, while others were lured by the hope of riches and a fresh start.
These emigres shared one common thread-remaining in England was not an option.
Religious challenges to the Catholic Church set in motion a veritable exodus of refugees fleeing England. As the Protestant Reformation blazed from Europe to the British Isles, the bloody transformation of the English Church began. In the 1535 English Reformation, King Henry VIII cut ties with the Vatican, naming himself as the new head of the English Church. This decision triggered a religious earthquake.
The Church still closely resembled Catholicism, and the disaffected pressed for deeper reforms, earning the title, “Puritans.” Ensuing religious struggles were long, bloody, and complicated. Ultimately the discord culminated in the violent repression of Puritans.
Two phases of reformed believers departed Great Britain for the New World. First was a small sect of Separatists led by William Bradford. These Protestants believed England to be damned beyond redemption. This band of the faithful washed their hands entirely of the mother country. Settling first in Holland, Bradford and other leaders solicited funding for a journey to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these religious refugees as Pilgrims.
Nearly a decade later another, larger faction of Puritans followed, making landfall near Boston. More a tsunami than a wave, the Great Puritan Migration, brought thousands across the Atlantic, nearly all seeking sanctuary in New England.
Lord Baltimore was granted a haven for persecuted English Catholics when that faith fell under the ever swinging pendulum of religious clashes. Maryland aimed for religious toleration and diversity, though that ideal failed in practice.
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, made up another sect hounded out of England. Britain’s enforcement of social deference, and class distinction, ran counter to this group’s simple belief in divine equality. Quakers, for example, refused to fight for the crown, nor swear oaths, or remove hats encountering their ‘betters.’ That impudence made the faith an unacceptable challenge to the status quo.
William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and determined the Crown’s treatment of Quakers unjust. After a series of internal struggles, King Charles II removed this group by granting Penn a large tract of land in the New World. Settling in the 1660’s, “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania settled the colony upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.
Scot settlers, known as Scots-Irish had resisted British hegemony for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of hardy individualists, made their way to America. Not the most sociable, or friendly bunch, these refugees ventured inland, settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single-minded, this group transformed from British outcasts to self-reliant backcountry folk.
Virginia, the earliest chartered colony, advanced in a two-fold way; as an outpost against Spanish and French incursions, and to make money. At first a decidedly male society cultivated tobacco, rewarding adventurers and their patrons back home by generating enormous profits. Ships sailed up the James and York Rivers depositing scores of indentured servants, not only to empty debtors prisons, but to alleviate poverty and crime prevalent in English cities.
Transporting criminals across the Atlantic grew popular. The Crown issued a proprietary charter to James Oglethorpe, for Georgia. Oglethorpe, a social reformer, envisioned a haven for criminals to rehabilitate themselves, and begin anew.
All of these migrants risked dangerous Atlantic crossings for the same reason. Parliament and the Crown considered the Colonies as a giant flushing toilet. England’s solution to socially unacceptable populations, was expulsion to the New World.
Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigrants as sinister and disruptive. No one lightly pulls up roots, leaving behind all that is familiar. (Consider the human drama on April 1, 2021 where two toddlers were dropped over a border wall from the Mexican side).
Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to govern.
*The Middle Passage was the glaring exception of those wishing to emigrate.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles available on Kindle.