Halfway Measures

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America’s affluence appears to have successfully nurtured a national indifference to the meaning of America. A quick look into our comparatively short history reminds us all that this is nothing new.

Ten years following the founding of Plymouth came the mass of New England’s settlers. Titled the “Great Puritan Migration” thousands of religious refugees stepped onto dry land at Massachusetts Bay. These newcomers didn’t exactly seek religious freedom, but aimed to school Old England on how a Godly society ought to run. The Massachusetts Bay Governor, John Winthrop described the mission of the colony as establishing “A City on a Hill,” a Godly utopia.

Particularly focusing on the Book of Leviticus, behavior was carefully regulated in Puritan New England. From the eldest male down to the lowliest servant, every individual was compelled to attend church and follow a strict code of behavior. For example, if one was to gossip or speak untruths, a hot nail through the tongue might be inflicted. Missing hours-long Sunday services could earn a date in the town square stocks, to suffer public ridicule and humiliation. These Puritans were not messing around.

Settlers from Provincetown to Lawrence resided in closely set houses, domiciles that circled the local Congregational meeting house. Any notion of personal privacy did not exist in any modern sense. The “Elect,” as they referred to themselves monitored their neighbors for righteous conduct, and individuals were admonished to put God before any other concern. One could not eat too much, drink too much, quarrel too much, or appear flashy in any way. Those decadent distractions kept believers from deep contemplation of The Lord. 

So how does this set of historical circumstances reflect the America of today?

The New England Way meant self restraint, and self denial. Any extreme was frowned upon by the Church. The only aspect permitted and even encouraged was industry, productivity and the accumulation of wealth. The Puritan Work Ethic, direct from the Book of Proverbs loomed large in Colonial New England. 

The point is Massachusetts Bay grew steadily more affluent and more secular. Moreover, the people of that moment embraced wealth as a  righteous manifestation of God’s approval and favor.

Around 1660 the lifespans and prestige of first generation New Englanders began to ebb. The City on the Hill was losing its reach. Children born in the New World did not fully appreciate the harsh ordeal their forebears endured. This second generation, born and raised in America, only knew material comforts, and were, for lack of a better word, spoiled. 

I am the grandchild of the “Greatest Generation,” raised on stories of Depression-era hunger, and amphibious beach landings at Normandy. Moved by the purposeful lives my grandparents led, I chose for my career history education. I understood early on that if kids aren’t informed, they won’t know, and are susceptible to self-satisfied entitlement; meaning this moment is all there is. Material abundance doesn’t help, either. Gifting creature comforts is no substitute for nurturing proportion and a deeper appreciation for what came before. 

As a kid I vacationed at Disneyland, watched the Flintstones, and went through about a million Barbie dolls. But those indulgences were leavened by my elders who freely shared about once living only on turnips for a week, and watching school friends of Japanese descent sent away during the war. 

Outcomes in America’s past were not preordained, but the result of a hell of a lot of work. The stories, passed down from age to age, reveal different takes on shared experiences that sustain our national character. America is much bigger than this one moment, and material things only momentary distractions.

The past is not a foreign land. 

To preserve what they left us cannot be realized with halfway measures. A realistic appreciation of what went before illumines what can be done with today. Essentially we are our history and should get acquainted.

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

Both books are available on Kindle.

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, a nation of groomed roadways, busy canals, sturdy bridges, and sleek iron railways. He believed the country, in order to bloom into a truly great nation, required the best in structural innovation. But this practical Statesman 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. After serving In the House for three years, Clay moved over to the Senate, filling an unexpected vacancy.

Early in his career Clay made his share of blunders. A fierce booster for war in 1812, Clay worked with other young ‘ War Hawks,’ who favored a fight against Great Britain. However, by the end of that conflict Clay realized this second war against England had generated nothing of real value for the young Republic.

Embracing his new understanding, the young Senator devoted his career to building America from within. Clay crafted a long-range program of growth he called The American System. The components of his plan were three-fold: a strong protective tariff to nurture America’s fledgling industrial base, a Second Bank of the United States to house federal monies, which would then underwrite his ‘internal improvements,” (infrastructure projects). For Henry Clay this multilevel proposal would provide a solid foundation for a mighty nation-state to prosper, equal to any principality across the Atlantic. And Clay enthusiastically embraced his crusade as a quasi-secular faith.

Clay’s program attracted a great deal of support with fellow legislators, and The American System appeared on the brink success. 

Unfortunately, for Clay, a dashing war hero rose to challenged his vision. Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, the victor of New Orleans, conquerer of Spanish Florida, and vanquisher of the Creek Nation, now 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