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 topic in question concerned the waves of immigrants flooding onto both American coastlines. Newcomers hailing from Asia and Southern Europe had alarmed Nativists who viewed the influx as nothing more than riffraff, and a threat to good order. Unfortunately that view of the desperate still endures today.

News footage over the last few years has chronicled the plight of the desperate amassing along southern tiers of Europe and the US. Victims of repressive governments, criminal factions and crippling poverty risk violence, refugee camps, and even cages to escape oppression .

The earliest immigrants to American shores shared similar pressures to escape the familiar to face the unknown. A brief look at colonial examples illustrate this timeless dynamic.

16th and 17th Century England targeted some groups in much the same manner, pushing out nonconformists, while other Brits were pulled by the lure of new beginnings. But all newcomers from Britain set sail because staying was not an option.

Religious challenges to the Catholic Church set the stage for the flood of refugees who ultimately escaped England. As the Protestant Reformation blazed from the Continent to the British Isles, the transformation to the English Church commenced. In the 1535 English Reformation, King Henry VIII replaced the Pope as head of the Church. Henry’s motivation came from a range of objectives, concerning money, and succession.

Social unrest followed the schism with Rome, eventually to stabilize under Elizabeth I. Yet factions of true believers felt that Henry’s interpretation of reform too closely resembled Catholicism, and had not gone far enough in simple devotion to God. The largest faction, intent on deeper reforms, earned the name “Puritans.”

The religious struggle in the British Isles was long, bloody, and complicated, ultimately resulting in systematic persecution of Puritans.

Two phases of reformed believers departed Great Britain. First, was a small sect of Separatists led by William Bradford. These Protestants believed England damned beyond redemption, and washed their hands entirely of the mother country. This group settled first in Holland, then solicited funding for a journey to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these folks as Pilgrims. (Happy Thanksgiving.)

Nearly a decade later another, larger faction made landfall near Boston, and subsequently southward to the sugar islands of the Caribbean. This wave, the Great Puritan Migration, unlike the trickle to Plymouth, poured by the thousands seeking sanctuary in the New World. These Puritans had suffered terribly, repressed and harassed by an intolerant Anglican Church.

The Society of Friends, or Quakers, made up another group hounded out of England. Britain’s enforcement of titled aristocracy and required class deference ran counter to this group’s simple belief in the divine equality of all people. Quakers, for example, refused to fight for the crown, nor swear oaths, and refused to ‘doft’ their hats in the presence of their “betters.” That impudence made the sect an intolerable challenge to the status quo.

William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and found this punitive treatment of Quakers unjust. After a series of internal struggles, King Charles II ridded England of this group by granting Penn a large tract of land in the New World. Settling in the 1660’s. “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania set up shop establishing the colony upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.

The father of President Andrew Jackson, Jackson Senior, stands as an excellent example representing another wave of humanity troublesome to the British Crown. Dubbed Scots-Irish, these were Scotsmen who had resisted British hegemony for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of pugnacious survivors, made their way to America. Not the most sociable, or friendly bunch, these refugees found their path inland, settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single minded this group transitioned from British exiles to backcountry folk.

Virginia, the earliest claimed colony, came to existence with a two-fold aim; establish an outpost against Spanish and French claims in North America, and seek profits. At first a decidedly male society, tobacco cultivation earned adventurers and their patrons great wealth, and drained excess malcontents from religious wars and dynastic struggles. Ships navigated the James and York Rivers carrying full cargoes of indentured servants, to clear the poverty and oppression of English cities.

James Oglethorpe, a social reformer, aspired to found a place for criminals to begin anew. The Crown and Parliament liked the experiment, for it cleared those same cities of jailbirds. *

Lord Baltimore was granted a haven for English Catholics when that faith fell under the ever swinging pendulum of acceptability. Maryland had been established for religious toleration, though that was short lived.

All of this transport held the same mission-flush a metaphoric toilet of undesirables from Great Britain. The solution to the issue of socially unacceptable people, the dregs, if you will, was to send them to the New World.

Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigration as an inherent evil and subverting occurrence. No one lightly pulls up roots. Leaving all that is familiar is an act of desperation, a painful and difficult human drama.

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 original charter for Georgia outlawed slavery. The Middle Passage is 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 perpetrators of the Civil War, racism, and other misleading accusations. Are the two guilty of sleeping through their history classes, or purposefully spreading propaganda to others who also snoozed? 

The Democratic Party evolved from Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the US Constitution. Jefferson had been abroad during the Constitutional Convention and quickly made his objections known. A planter and slave master, this “natural aristocrat” resisted any form of government that deferred to an overarching central government. America’s third president envisioned a Republic of “farmers,” like himself, running their own fiefdoms across the continent. 

Jefferson rejected any higher authority than himself, the master of Monticello, and favored a small, disinterested government that coordinated foreign affairs, and trade. Nothing much more. He proposed that men like himself could better govern localities than any distant entity.  

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, but never wavered from the belief that local government served democracy best. First, as Antifederalists, opposing the Constitution, to Jeffersonian-Republicans, opposing Hamilton’s Federalists, to Democratic-Republicans, then simply Democrats, determined to curb centralized economic, and other domestic programs; all defined by local control and states’ rights.

The late 20th Century’s Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War brought about yet another rebranding. Ronald Reagan’s election moved the Solid South from Democratic to Republican. Reagan’s assertion that big government wasn’t the solution, but the problem, suited former southern Democrats just fine. Less government, less in taxes, with more local control. A relaxation in economic regulation, and shrinking funds for domestic policies 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 moniker 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

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 mighty iron railways. He believed America, in order to mature into a truly great nation, required the best in structural innovation. Yet, despite his noble intentions, this practical statesman faced an insurmountable barrier impeding his work–Andrew Jackson.

Henry Clay first arrived in Washington City as a green Kentucky Congressman in 1803. Serving in the House for three years, Clay eventually moved over to the Senate, appointed by the Kentucky legislature to fill an unexpected vacancy.

Early in his legislative career young Clay committed his fair share of blunders. A fierce booster for war in 1812, Clay worked with other young ‘ War Hawks,’ who favored this second brawl against Great Britain. However, by the end of that conflict, Clay realized this do-over against England had generated nothing of real substance for the young Republic.

Fully embracing his epiphany, the young Senator turned his efforts to building America from within. Clay devised a long-range program of development he called The American System. 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 administer federal funds, that in turn would underwrite his ‘internal improvements,” (infrastructure projects). For Henry Clay this three-tiered plan would provide the solid foundation a mighty nation-state needed to prosper. And the Senator enthusiastically advanced his crusade as a secular evangelical.

Henry Clay’s progressive program found considerable support among his fellow legislators, so much so, The American System seemed 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, had set his sights on becoming president.

In the beginning Clay thought little of the uneducated, volatile militiaman, believing voters would not take this rustic hellion seriously. But Clay misread public sentiment. Jackson’s popularity soared among all classes, particularly among poor whites. Jackson successfully won not only a first term, but enjoyed reelection four years later. Most ominous for Henry Clay, this formidable president did not like him, not one little bit.

Very quickly Congressional appetite for public works dissolved. New 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 by killing the Second Bank of the US, and vetoing countless internal improvement projects. The only portion of the American System Jackson defended was the Tariff, and merely because a separate Jackson enemy threatened to ignore the law.

Henry Clay found himself fighting tooth and nail for every economic belief he championed. And the harder he pushed, the harder the mercurial man in the (White House) thwarted him. 

The intractable issue of slavery soon dwarfed all other political and economic conflicts. Clay, a slave owner himself, who preached gradual emancipation, found Jacksonian enemies in both the North and South. Northerners hated him because he was a slave owner, and Southerners because he believed in emancipation. The Senator couldn’t win.

Over the course of Clay’s decades in public service, he brokered three major nation-saving compromises. An ardent patriot, he believed men of good will could solve sectional differences for the greater good of the nation. First, as Speaker of the House, Clay crafted the Missouri Compromise, followed later by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. His last, and most difficult ordeal,  the Compromise of 1850, granting California statehood, among other provisions. 

Sadly, Senator Henry Clay did not live to see his American System become a reality. But there is a silver lining to this tale. Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Clayite shepherded 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 in the Civil War.

Oh, and Clay’s desire to emancipate slaves became a reality 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.