A Rare Topic

Watching a news host and guest discuss the topic of America’s Reconstruction era, my ears perked up, so rare is this topic presented. 

First of all, Reconstruction was the difficult period following the Civil War. The battles had ended, and the victorious president dead at the hands of an assassin. A new Battle Royale between Congress and the new President, Andrew Johnson, erupted over who would direct the aftermath. 

The thrust of the cable conversation centered on how important this time period remains, and that schools need to teach it. Much like Flo in the insurance ads, I started yelling at the television that I did cover that period, dammit. We all did in my department.

President Lincoln, before his death, had considered the role of newly freed persons as a moral imperative. Subsequent to the Emancipation, he had pushed for passage of the 13th Amendment, as dramatized in the film, “Lincoln.” Throughout the last months of the war Lincoln had revealed his vision of Reconstruction. Based on the 1860 election records, when 10 percent in the rebellious states swore a loyalty oath, each state could reform their constitutions recognizing the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln believed he possessed the power to pardon, and he would make full use of that Constitutional power. 

Legally speaking, President Lincoln viewed secession as an attempt to leave the Union, and that attempt had failed. The Chief Executive would pardon the ring leaders, and move on to rebuild the nation. But his political opponents, the Radical Republicans, under the leadership of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Senator Charles Sumner, saw the situation differently. 

For these abolitionists punishment was the order of the day. The 1864 Wade-Davis Bill mandated 50% + of 1860 rosters take that loyalty oath. To Stevens, Sumner and the like, these Rebel states had committed political suicide. Only after that majority swore the oath, including recognition of the 13th Amendment, would Congress consider readmitting each, as if new states. 

A political fight was brewing as to which branch held the reins to mend the nation, and deal with the lot of Freedmen.

The short answer is Lincoln’s death derailed any compromise. The Radicals held the day, and Southern whites would suffer. And Andrew Johnson was no match for an angry, determined Congress. In 1867 Federal forces occupied the South in political districts. Soon after, the Legislative Branch attempted to impeach the hapless new president. 

Though the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to the newly freed, and the 15th guaranteed the vote, northern opinion drifted into apathy. Enforcing the rights of Freedmen lost popularity, and dropped from the headlines.

The Old South reasserted traditional apartheid rules.

The cost for the newly freed? Desperate people wandered back to the old master. With no protection, lynching became common as domestic terrorists spread fear. Rights of citizenship went unenforced, with sharecropping and the crop lien system replacing legal bondage. 

Perpetual debt chained workers to the land as effectively as if slavery remained legal. 

Poll taxes, vagrancy laws, and literacy tests tyrannized the newly freed, as did threats of violence from the Klan, and the Knights of the White Camelia.

In 1876, Republican Rutherford B Hayes barely won the presidency in a tight election. His campaign officials cut a deal with three Southern electoral delegations. Florida, (of course) South Carolina, and Louisiana. These states agreed to direct their electors to vote Republican, and in return the Hayes people promised to withdraw the bluecoats. Free Blacks were abandoned.

All in all, the promise of liberty lay in ashes.

When the moment arrived for equal justice, the cause died due to lack of interest.

The cable host and his guest were right.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Bloody Shirt

Principled soldiers of conscience, the victorious army knew they had served well, defending the Constitution to the last full measure.

May of 1865 witnessed Washington’s Grand Review of the Union Army. Smartly uniformed soldiers filed past crowds, in a river of Union blue. The guns had silenced a mere month earlier at Appomattox, Virginia; the Republic preserved.

A brilliant sun glinted off polished bayonets, and the parade route decorated with miles of silk banners, tattered company colors and patriotic bunting. Rejoicing greeted the passing soldiers in shouts and fluttering handkerchiefs. Flower petals rained down in a fragrant carpet of gratitude. 

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

One year later, near Springfield, Illinois, a group of veterans established a fraternal association, the Grand Army of the Republic. The idea caught fire nationally as other veterans founded their own local chapters; a place men could remember, share, and grieve for lost friends. Soon these war horses got busy extending their service to those they had defended.

First, survivors lent aid to disabled fellow veterans, assistance to widows and their dependents, and orphan homes. Soon preserving battle sites added to the group’s outreach. Before long members began seeking electoral office to further serve the nation.

A story has it General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman, grew extremely agitated while speechifying, and produced a torn, and bloody shirt he claimed came from the battlefield. Soon the practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking war credentials, became customary for candidates. The saying “vote the way you shot,” launched the careers of numerous politicians. 

Presidents from Ulysses Grant, (1868-1876) through William McKinley (1896-1901) had faced the rebels on the battlefield.*

War memorials and monuments mushroomed, funded with GAR donations. Reunions, benevolent societies, veterans homes, and hospitals kept local chapters busy. In fact, much of GAR efforts were eventually assumed by the Federal Government, particularly pensions for those who had served.

Over time survivors of the Civil War dwindled in number. However, the organization soldiered on until 1956 when it finally faded. Loosely related, though more a coincidence, our last five star general was serving as president when the GAR closed its doors. President Dwight David Eisenhower, who kept a farm in Gettysburg, happened to occupy the White House.

This brotherhood, this Grand Army of the Republic, rose to defend our democracy in the mid-19th Century. This model of valor, and sacrifice shaped the character of the military for years to come. 

But one truth is quite clear, no officer ever advocated for a coup, and there was not one sucker or loser in their ranks.

In 2021 we can do no less.

*Chester Arthur served in the New York Militia, Grover Cleveland did not serve.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Kindred Spirit?

Sen Henry Clay portrait (left of door.)

The word from a Kentucky acquaintance is Mitch McConnell fancies himself a Henry Clay scholar. That probably means little to most, but Senator Clay (1777-1852) nearly single-handedly held the US together, postponing Civil War for over 40 years.

With a name that epitomizes progress and compromise, it feels odd Mitch McConnell proclaims a kindred spirit in Senator Clay. This earlier Kentucky Senator bent over backwards to protect and promote the vitality of our young nation. 

Clay rolled up his sleeves and cultivated coalitions among his fellow law makers to keep the nation from fracturing. He orchestrated the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850; all of which threatened the Union. In fact, the Civil War erupted after Clay’s death as no other Senator demonstrated the talent and determination to keep Congress talking.

In the interest of full disclosure, yes, Henry Clay owned slaves. And yes, he believed in gradual emancipation as slavery proved antithetical to economic progress. His commitment to the survival of America drove his efforts, and Clay worked with political factions, even those he opposed.

McConnell does nothing. The now Minority Leader takes pride in doing nothing. Invoking Senator Clay is nothing more than cover for a vain and foolish politician to self-promote. Clay was no stubborn old fool who dug in his heels waiting to become obsolete. 

Henry Clay served his country, McConnell serves himself.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Hysteria and Martyrs

I didn’t care what my students thought. Their opinions were no business of mine. That they knew how to express those ideas, using factual information, was my business.

To introduce point of view, and critical thinking a quick textbook analysis did the trick. In groups (I assigned) students researched various history texts to spot biases in the presentation of historic facts. 

Over the years, a collection of comped survey books had accumulated on my classroom shelf. I used them for my own preparation, but decided to teach the same techniques to the kids. The task was pretty simple. All groups were asked to look up the two same topics: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. They noted the title of the text, the authors, the publication date, and any particular word choices used to explain or describe each episode.

This was the first day of school, mind you, and holy cow the results rocked these 15-year-olds orderly world.

When each group reported their conclusions, skewed viewpoints abounded. In other words the same facts drew decidedly different conclusions.

One book blamed the Witch Trials on tensions stemming from continuous Native attacks. Another blamed simmering resentment over social class, inheritance disputes, and property ownership. Moldy grain was to blame according to the Prentice Hall book. The good people living north of Boston were tripping on ergot fungus, a hallucinogen spreading on damp wheat baked into bread.

Nearly all texts made use of the terms “fear,” and “hysteria.”

The John Brown case provided even more interesting results. If the book had been published before 2001, Brown generally came off a saint. If after, the language use grew more sinister. In pre-911 America, fighting slavery had a righteous, noble language, that justified the violence. Something to the effect that, in the name of the mighty Jehovah, Brown martyred himself to strike a blow against evil. By contrast, books published after the collapse of the Twin Towers dismiss Brown’s means as unfortunate, though slavery was still bad.

By the end of this exercise students often seemed flummoxed asking “who can we believe?” 

“Yourself, of course, and your analysis skills,” I always replied.

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

For more explanation on this lesson email at gailchumbley@gmail.com

Humiliated, Angry, and Hurt

After losing reelection, he left Washington early. Humiliated, angry, and hurt, John Adams boarded a morning coach leaving the Capitol.

The prevailing issue in the campaign of 1800 concerned France, and that nation’s ongoing, and bloody revolution. Moreover, the French had declared war on England, and both belligerents  meddled in American domestic politics to turn public opinion.

As President, Federalist John Adams, had skillfully steered America clear of the European conflict, avoiding the danger of being ensnared between the two superpowers. Proud of his diplomatic accomplishments, Adams still brooded, unhappy with his lack of support from the country. His detractors belittled him, disparaging Adams as a pale substitute to the legendary George Washington.

His political challenger in 1800? The clever and calculating Thomas Jefferson. 

An outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Jefferson had been hurling plenty of invective toward the sitting President. What had once been a warm friendship between the two men quickly soured. Petulant and  thin-skinned, Adams had lashed out by pushing laws that restricted the free press and cracked down on immigration. Outraged by these policies, Jefferson, and his growing cadre of supporters, challenged the clear violations of the Constitution. 

In only the nation’s third presidential election the moment appeared volatile and uncertain. On one side was the defensive and testy incumbent, and on the other, a political foe intent on replacing him.  

Adding to the turbulence, a political wildcard entered the fray; New Yorker, Aaron Burr.

Burr, like Jefferson, had opposed unpopular and heavy handed Federalist policies, and Jefferson knew the ticket needed an electoral-rich northern state for strength. As party leader, Jefferson assumed Burr understood his lesser place, and only when the electors met did he learned just how wrong he had been. 

In the final tally, poor John Adams not only lost the election, but came in a distant third behind both challengers. Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 Electoral votes, followed by Burr with 73 of his own. Adams came in last with 65. (That tie is another story.)

Humiliated, Adams left Washington DC in a huff, but made no move to challenge the outcome. And though the former President did not greet the President-Elect, and pointedly skipped the inauguration, John Adams did not put his interests above the nation’s. 

He conceded in silence because he valued our country over his own interests. 

There is no precedent for false assertions from the clear loser in 2020.

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Marking Time

2020.

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.)

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Set Their Feet On The Firm And Stable Earth

“Princes’ don’t immigrate” opined the 19th Century American magazine, Puck. The subject of the quote concerned the multitudes of immigrants flooding 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 journeys, 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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

New Name Same Party

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On Twitter, Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Congressman Louis Gohmert, R-Texas have been been busy disseminating political fiction.

Both have tweeted on the Democratic Party as the perpetrators of the Civil War, racism, and other misleading accusations.

Were these two guilty of sleeping through their history classes, or purposefully spreading propaganda to other former classroom snoozers? 

The Democratic Party evolved from Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the US Constitution. Jefferson had been abroad during the Constitutional Convention and upon his return quickly made his objections known. A planter and slave master, this “natural aristocrat” resisted any higher form of government that checked his own authority.

Jefferson rejected the notion that a distant power knew better than he, the master of Monticello. He favored a small, disinterested government that coordinated foreign affairs, trade, and not much more. Men such as himself could better govern localities than any distant political power.

As America’s third president, Jefferson envisioned a Republic of “farmers,” like himself, running their own fiefdoms across the continent. (That is until he bought Louisiana, where he stretched the Constitution plenty).

That’s about it. That was the essence of the 18th, and early 19th Century philosophy supporting the Democratic Party. Oh, and the party shuffled names over that time, as well, though never wavering from the belief that local government served democracy best.

First, called Antifederalists, for opposing the Constitution, then Jeffersonian-Republicans, opposing Hamilton’s Federalists. Later, after the War of 1812, the name became Democratic-Republicans, then simply Democrats under Andrew Jackson. Still the philosophy endured; curb centralized economic, and other domestic investments and maintain local control.

The late 20th Century’s Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War brought about yet another rebranding of the party. Ronald Reagan’s election moved the Solid South from Democratic to Republican.

Reagan’s famously asserted that big government wasn’t the solution, but the problem. And that suited former southern Democrats just fine. Less government, less in taxes, and more local control. Relaxing economic regulations, and starving domestic programs rounded out the 1980 agenda. 

When Ted Cruz and Louis Gohmert spout off on the villainy of the Democratic Party, don’t be fooled. Remember that these sons of the South embrace the same old Jeffersonian ideology today, neatly packaged under the now-eroding GOP.  

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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