He Wrote for the Ages

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For starters, I am not a fan of Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the more I know of this founding father, the less I like him. The Sage of Monticello routinely had young male slaves beaten for no better reason than custom, and lay the foundation for secession in 1798 with his Kentucky Resolution.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish hero of the Revolutionary War, once offered to liquidate land holdings in the Northwest Territory to pay Jefferson to free some of his slaves, and Jefferson declined. Disillusioned, Kosciuszko condemned Jefferson as a fraud for once insisting “all men were created equal,” and not practicing that “truth.”

However, the reality remains that Jefferson did indeed, pen those words, and generations of Jeffersonian disciples have insisted those words are enough to maintain his venerated place in American history.

And I agree. His adulators are correct. Jefferson’s words are enough. His phrasing, painstakingly composed in 1776 has ignited the world on the ultimate quest to actualize Jefferson’s “unalienable” assertions. 

Abraham Lincoln took Jefferson’s sentiment to heart, and his devotion moved Lincoln to action. The foundation of the Republican Party rested partly upon removing artificial impediments restraining upward mobility, and Lincoln believed slavery such an obstacle, the most malignant bar to individual betterment. (Duh). In 1859 he stated in a speech, “We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better.” And Lincoln made it his aim to realize that betterment, first with Emancipation, then the 13th Amendment.

There could be no better description for America than a people steadily discarding artificial barriers. Women, Native Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Latino Americans: all of us freed to reach our highest potential. Annoying bigotry places a drag on the process, but justice still manages to surge steadily on, inspired by the words of the Declaration of Independence–Jefferson’s words. 

In reality, Jefferson had meant to argue white wealthy Colonials were of equal standing to Great Britain’s landed aristocracy. Despite his original intent, the promise of those words have outlived that specific moment. 

Understandably, Thaddeus Kosciuszko gave up in the face of Jefferson’s outrageous duplicity. And this generation of fanatics desperately promote Jefferson’s original racism. But, kids, we have inherited an obligation to continue this journey, not only for ourselves but to light the way for our children’s children.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the World War Two-era memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle, and hard copies at http://www.river-of-january.com

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

A Reasonable Man

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The Senator visualized a clear future for America, one of groomed roadways, canals, bridges, and sleek iron railways. He believed America, in order to bloom into a truly great nation, required the best in structural improvements. But this practical visionary encountered an insurmountable barrier impeding his dream, an obstacle built of senseless political partisanship.

Henry Clay first arrived in Washington DC, from Kentucky in 1803. In the House for three years, Clay moved to the Senate filling a recent vacancy. In these early, formative years of America, paralleling Clay’s own political youth, he promoted policies he later regretted. A fierce booster for the War of 1812, Clay joined a fraternity of other young politicos called War Hawks, who favored a fight against Great Britain. Yet, by the end of that conflict Clay realized the war had generated nothing of real value for the future of the country.

Embracing his new belief system, the young Senator turned to building up America from within. Clay crafted a long-range program of growth he called The American System. The components of this plan were three-fold: a strong protective tariff to nurture America’s fledgling industrial base, a Second Bank of the United States to finance government funds and issue currency, and funding for ‘internal improvements,” or infrastructure projects. For Henry Clay this multilevel proposal would provide a foundation for a mighty nation-state to grow, equal to any across the Atlantic. And Clay embraced the righteousness of his crusade as a quasi secular faith.

This grounded, logical man attracted a great deal of support among his fellow legislators, and The American System appeared on the brink success. 

Unfortunately, from the West, (meaning Tennessee) rode the dashing victor of the Battle of New Orleans, the conquerer of Spanish Florida, and vanquisher of the Creek Nation in the Red Stick War, Andrew Jackson, and Jackson intended to become president. At first Clay thought little of the uneducated, volatile militiaman, believing voters would not take this brawler seriously. But Clay was dead wrong. Jackson’s popularity soared among all  classes, especially poor whites, and Jackson won not only his first term, but reelection four years later. Most significantly, for Henry Clay, this  President did not like him, not one little bit.

The temperament of Congress shifted dramatically after Jackson’s election, as well.  Jacksonian supporters filled the  House, and to a lesser degree the Senate, leaving Clay hard pressed to pass any of his program. In fact Jackson made fast work on Clay’s earlier successes killing the Second Bank, vetoing countless internal improvement projects, and only defended the Tariff because a separate Jackson enemy threatened to violate the law in his state.

Henry Clay found himself fighting politically for every economic belief he championed. The mercurial man in the Presidential Mansion (White House) thwarting Clay at every turn. 

Adding more turbulence to the era, the intractable issue of slavery soon dwarfed all other concerns. Clay, a slave owner who believed in gradual emancipation, found enemies in both the North and South; Northerners because he was a slave owner, Southerners because he believed in emancipation. The man couldn’t win.

Over Clay’s lifetime of public service, he forged three major Union-saving compromises. An ardent patriot, the Senator believed men of good will could solve all problems for the greater good of the nation. First there was the Missouri Compromise,  the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and last, his swan song, the Compromise of 1850, giving America California. 

Sadly, Senator Henry Clay did not live to see his American System a reality. But there is a silver lining to this tale. Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Clayite saw passage of the Pacific Railways Act, the Morrill Act, and a National Banking Act. These three laws built the Transcontinental Railroad, Land Grant Universities in the west, and funding the Union war effort.

Oh, and Clay’s desire to emancipate slaves became real in 1863.

The moral of the story transcends time: America stalls when irrational politics displaces thoughtful, reasonable policies and the legislators who promote them.

Note-I have co-authored a new play celebrating the life of this remarkable, essential American simply titled “Clay.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both are available on Kindle, or in hard copy at www.river-of-january.com

You can contact Gail for questions or enquiries at gailchumbley@gmail.com

New Birth of Freedom

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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 violence.

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 promptly overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Reconstruction began with 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, (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 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 reached further, bringing about change where once-closeted American’s hid. Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in Obergefell V Hodges. The trans community found their champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner. Health care became available to those caught in relentless poverty and preexisting conditions. Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.” And though he didn’t take the Right’s 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 gave the only explanation history provided. The Obama years introduced change to America that reactionaries 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 has transpired in the last eight years. The thing 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.