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.

Personal Earthquakes

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My mother worked for the US Postal Service. She went to work in the early sixties, when we were still in grade school and stayed on until her retirement at age sixty five. The woman had four kids and a house, and a yard, and she probably was pretty overwhelmed—something I now understand. To get an extra pair of hands my parents decided to house a student each term who attended a business school in Spokane called Kinman Business School. Lord knows what kind of credential awaited these secretaries-in-training after completion, but these girls ended up learning shorthand, typing, and office skills like that.

The first girl who lived with us stayed in the second bedroom off the hall. I think her name was Corrine. I can’t remember exactly because it was around 1965 or 1966, and we were pretty young. Corrine was from Alaska, and I remember she was part Filipino or Native American, which I thought was pretty cool. Her hair was long, thick, dark, and she ratted up a poofy top bubble in a clip while letting the rest fall in black curls. My hair looked a lot like Ramona’s from the Beverly Cleary books, and I admired her thick tresses all the more.

Our house was constantly in a state of chaos, with noise, messes—people coming and going and generally a hectic backdrop of activity. But walking into Corrine’s small quarters felt like a completely different world, a world of order and gravity. All of her things were neatly stowed away, her bed carefully made, and the space even smelled differently than the rest of the house. I loved visiting her room, as it felt like an oasis of tranquility in a sea of crazy disarray. And it was in her little sanctuary that serene Corrine shared her life with me just a little.

She told me about the terrible Alaska earthquake a couple of years prior, how her house in Cordova had been damaged; and that Anchorage was split nearly in two by the tremors. Her narrative made a big impact on me because I had just read about the Alaska quake in an issue of National Geographic. Corrine lived through an event memorialized in National Geographic! Corrine was part of a bigger, unpredictable world.

There was also a picture on her dresser of a boy. When I asked who he was, she told me he was Ty, and that they planned on getting married in a few years. Married! I never knew a girl who had plans to get married! The only people I knew who were married were parents, and they were boring. She explained to me that her boyfriend’s name, Ty, was short for Tyrone, and he was visiting Spokane soon because he was in the Army and heading to a country called Vietnam. Tyrone wanted to see his girlfriend, and future wife before shipping out to Asia.

Marriage, Ty for Tyrone, Vietnam, Earthquakes . . . Corrine fascinated me.

Now my memories are a little sketchy concerning Ty’s visit to our house. I do remember he was white, an interesting contrast to her dark, exotic appearance, but he had dark hair, too. They sat on the couch in our living room and held hands which struck me as very interesting. I am sure that there were deeper emotions at play with his visit, but whatever happened fell below my 11-year-old radar. He did spend a lot of time with her in her room, with the door closed. But who knows?

And then Ty was gone.

The school term ended, and apparently in a successful manner. Corrine packed up most of her things and returned to Cordova for the summer. I’m not sure of the agreements or adult discussions, but she did return the next fall. Her room remained a wonderful respite from the cacophony of the rest of the house, and the same picture of Ty’s remained on her dresser. Letters began to arrive in the mail written on onion-skin parchment, imprinted AIR MAIL. I’d never seen stationary like that, and she told me that was the best way she and Ty could exchange letters overseas. The paper was light blue, and felt like stiff tissue, but held its shape without creasing. Corrine had stacks of it, both fresh and received—the only sign of clutter in her neat little world.

And then one day Ty came back to our house, and this visit was very different from the first meeting. The couple did not sit on the couch and hold hands. Not this time. My pre-teen sensibilities were scandalized to see this grown man lying across her lap sobbing like his heart had broken. Poor Corrine! She too, was dissolved in tears, red, puffy eyes behind her glasses. Ty couldn’t stop, he could not compose himself, and he wouldn’t let go of her either. The whole scene seemed very surreal. I didn’t understand how a grown man could fly apart like that, and in front of everybody.

That episode happened a very long time ago. And it was also only yesterday.

I grew up, went to college, majored in American History and became a teacher. For years and years I taught a unit on the Vietnam War to high school juniors. I know the facts surrounding America’s entrance into that long, long, conflict. The 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords that split the country at the 17th parallel, the Marines landing at Danang in 1965, the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968, The My Lai Massacre, the Paris Peace Accords, the protests on the home front, the bombing operations (all by name), and finally the controversy over The Wall. But in all my teaching of those facts, of all the stories from Veterans of that war, after all of the analysis by historians regarding the War in Vietnam—nothing about those years affected me as deeply as the change in that boy from Alaska, utterly destroyed by his year-long deployment when I was eleven years old.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January