No Guarantee

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SCENE FOUR

The lights rise on an empty stage. The back curtain ripples with an image of the American flag, circa 1824. “Hail to the Chief” plays in the background. Only the table and two chairs rest at stage left, with a liquor bottle and two glasses. Clay enters from the wings. As Clay speaks the image and music fade.

CLAY A festive atmosphere greeted the 1824 election season. And some apprehension, as well.

Clay pours a drink, leaning against the table.

CLAY Secretary of War John C. Calhoun hoped he might find enough political momentum to land the highest office, but discovered little outside his home state. Though I never forged a warm friendship with Calhoun, we shared common cause promoting a protective tariff and investment in the American system.

He sips his drink.

CLAY As electioneering heated up, reports circulated in Washington City that the frontrunner, Georgia’s William Crawford, had fallen perilously ill. Initially, details were scarce, but in due order, a diagnosis arrived suggesting apoplexy. His allies vowed to continue the race, though Crawford’s prospects appeared dim.

Clay ponders a moment before continuing.

CLAY My old associate, John Quincy Adams, entered as well, with support from the whole of New England, including dispersed Yankees throughout the North. His supporters detested slavery, and as it happened, me, the slave holder. Resolving the Missouri crisis did nothing to gladden our fellow citizens of the North. Such is the thankless plight of public resolutions.

He smiles sadly, and sips. A melody, “My Old Kentucky Home,” increases in volume.

CLAY Despite my very public stance on gradual emancipation, the Adams people were not moved a whit. Their fierce intransigence gave me pause.

Clay stares a long moment. The music fades.

CLAY Then there was Andrew Jackson.

He issues a mirthless laugh.

CLAY As Jackson waited to enter the 1824 race, the Tennessee legislature elected Old Hickory to the United States Senate. Taking great pains to avoid any public positions, the honor must have horrified him. Jackson had to publicly commit to policy votes, and vote he did. Bills for the protective tariff, and for funding internal improvements. Hrrumph! But he had nothing to fear. Jackson’s reputation remained firm with his states rights’ proponents. I believe he could have shot someone in the lane and preserved his support.

Clay refreshes his drink while sitting at the table. He rises.

CLAY I too, craved the presidency. Forgive my repetition, but the so-called “American System” program was too vital to tolerate an ignoramus in the White House.

He pauses.

CLAY Celebrity is no guarantee of competence.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” She is also the writer of Clay, and 3-act play, and Scenes Of A Nation, in progress. Both books are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Tyler Too?

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The aged Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in the rain. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either work with him, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for the Whigs to make. The party had gelled during the Jackson administration, promoting financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern nation-state. Foremost among this group was the Whig Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to choose their 1840 candidate, Clay failed to gain the  nomination, and declined the second spot in a regrettable moment of pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the protection of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency.  From there, events quickly unraveled.

If the Whig Party hoped to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the death of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising Phoenix. And that party still exists today, if they don’t squander their good name on the shoals of Trumpism. 

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

Before They Were Men

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“It’s hard to remember that they were men before they were legends, and children before they were men..” Bill Moyers, A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. 

For Presidents Day I’ve been putting together a lecture series for my local library. These talks surround the childhoods and later experiences of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The thinking behind the series was that early life for all four men presented serious challenges. Complications in health, family tragedies, and economic circumstances appear to have shaped the temperaments and the world view of these future presidents.

It was how each overcame difficulties and setbacks, and how that endurance came to influence each of their presidencies.

This is a brief synopsis of what I found.

Behind the image mythologized in “The Life of George Washington, by writer, “Parson” Weems, obscures the reality of a more nuanced, and complex Virginia child. Born on February 22, 1732 in Pope’s Creek, George Washington came into the world as the first son of a planter, but from a second marriage. His position in the family line left him without any claim to his father’s estate, or assured public standing. In Tidewater Virginia, society strictly followed the rules of primogeniture, where only the eldest male inherited, and young Washington could claim nothing, aside from the family name. His father, Augustine Washington had two sons from a first marriage, and Lawrence, the eldest, stood to inherit all.

Augustine in fact died in 1743, when George was only eleven years old, the boy not only lost his father, but also lost the formal English education his older brothers had enjoyed. That particular shortcoming forever marked George, leaving him self conscious and guarded through his early life.

To find his way, the youth conducted himself with quiet poise; it was a conscience effort designed to enter the upper echelons of society. Over time, with constant practice, Washington successfully hid his insecurities behind a restrained, and formal persona. So proficient at playing the gentleman, Washington, in fact, became one.

The Revolutionary War that Washington later tenaciously served, cost young Andrew Jackson his family. Born on the frontier, in a region paralleling North and South Carolina, young Andrew arrived into the world without his father. Jackson Sr had died months before, leaving Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, and his two older brothers destitute.

At thirteen Andrew, along with his brother Robert, joined the Patriot ranks as runners, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Redcoats. While a captive an officer of the Crown ordered young Andrew to polish his boots, and the boy refused. Young Jackson claimed he was a “prisoner of war, and demanded to be treated as such.” The officer replied by whipping his sword across Jackson’s insolent head and forearms, creating a lifelong Anglophobe. (In January, 1815, 48-year old Colonel Andrew Jackson meted out his revenge on the Brits at the Battle of New Orleans).

The end of the Revolution found young Andrew alone-the only survivor of his Scots-Irish family. His brother Robert had succumbed to camp fever from his time as prisoner, followed by his mother three weeks later. For the rest of his long life, Andrew Jackson lashed out, perceiving any criticism as a challenge to his honor and authority. He governed with the desperate instincts of a survivor.

Of a mild, more genial temperament, Abraham Lincoln came to being in the wilds of Sinking Springs, Kentucky, near the settlement of Hodgenville. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a hard scrabbling farmer, while his loving mother Nancy Hanks lived only until Abe reached the age of nine. Hard work, deprivation and tragic personal losses seemed to permeate Lincoln’s young life, and as he grew Abraham grappled with serious bouts of melancholy.

Exhibiting a quick and curious mind, he struggled to educate himself on the frontier. Largely self-taught, Lincoln grasped the rudiments of reading and spelling, but his father saw schooling as idling away time better suited to work. Young Lincoln had to find tricks to do both, such as clearing trees then reading the primer he kept handy.

His step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston reported that Abe would cipher numbers on a board in char, then scrape away the equation with a knife to solve another.

By young adulthood Lincoln left his father’s farm, and relocated to central Illinois, and made a life in the village of New Salem. Over time, Lincoln grew remarkably self-educated, studied law and passed the Illinois bar in 1836.

Of all the resentments he felt toward his father, it was Thomas’s clear lack of ambition and self improvement that nettled the son most. Upward mobility was America’s greatest gift, and young Lincoln pursued it with relish.

From his first gasping moments Theodore Roosevelt struggled simply to breathe. A child of rank, privilege and wealth, he suffered from debilitating, acute asthma. His parents, Theodore Sr and Mitty Bullock Roosevelt, stood helplessly over his sick bed, fearing that their little boy wouldn’t survive childhood. Later TR recalled how his father would lift him from his bed, bundle him into an open carriage for a long ride through the moist Manhattan night. Small for his age, and nearly blind, young Teedee as he was called, began an exercise regime in a gym, built by his father on the second floor of their palatial home on East 20th Street in New York. Over time, using a pommel horse, the rings, and a boxing speed bag, Theodore Jr visibly grew.

As for his eyes, a hunting trip finally proved to his family that he just couldn’t see. With new glasses, a self made physique and a dogged determination, Theodore Roosevelt brought his indefatigable zest and energy into his presidency.

Today is Presidents Day, 2018, and there is great value in remembering those who have served in this experiment in democracy. All four of these presidents left a distinctive signature of governance, schooled by earlier experience. And all, even Andy Jackson, governed in the spirit of service, believing they could make a contribution to this boisterous, ever-evolving experiment called America.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Justice as a Force

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President Andrew Jackson has stopped spinning in his grave. Finally. He hated paper money with all the fiber in his being, and now thankfully for him, no longer tacitly endorses its use. Jackson was a sound money man and believed gold the only genuine medium of exchange . . . weigh-able, bite-able gold; good ole “cash on the barrel-head.” In fact, the President believed so passionately in the principle of gold bullion that he banned any use of paper money for any transaction whatsoever. This same policy, in the end, torpedoed the US economy and triggered the Panic of 1837.

That financial disaster held on for over five chilly years.

But the day has arrived, America has finally heard Jackson’s cries of anguish from the great beyond, and removed his likeness from that raggedy heresy of ersatz value. Still, one has to wonder. What would General Jackson make of runaway slave, Harriet Tubman taking his place on legal tender?

Ms. Tubman, as a woman, and as a slave, lived invisibly in Jackson’s world. The only notice a planter like Jackson would have made was Tubman’s incorrigible practice of stealing another master’s property. For a man of deep passions, of violent loves and hates, her offense would have pissed this president off, and sent him into a dangerous rage. In his world of master and slave, her offenses allowed no mercy, no reprieve.

As for Tubman? She understood a truth that Jackson could never, ever have comprehended—that justice was a force that bore no designation to color, gender, or appraised value. A mighty truth reigned far above the limited aspirations of General Andrew Jackson, killer of banks, Natives, and the hopes of the hundreds he held in bondage.

Tubman’s idea of honorable behavior had nothing to do with white men firing pistols on dueling grounds, and that white social conventions which condemned her to servitude were wholesome and noble. The human condition, as Tubman understood the meaning, held a deeper significance, an importance that required a profounder appreciation. The world of plantations, race hatred, whip wielding overseers, and economic injustice held no real sway, and certainly possessed no honor.

Jackson’s opinions truly hued in only black and white, and that outlook wasn’t limited to skin color. Abstract ideas like ‘humanity’ didn’t resonate in his mind, too ethereal for a man who loved gold coins. Banks were bad, women were ornaments, Indians were fair game, and blacks were slaves. That simple. Of course at the same time, this limited world view gave a figure with Tubman’s vision the edge. If a man of Jackson’s time and station caught a glimpse inside the real thoughts of his “family” members living over in the slave quarters, his mind would have been blown.

So it is with some satisfaction that Harriet Tubman replaces Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. But not only because she’s a woman, nor only because she’s black. The star she followed may have literally sparkled in the northern sky, but every footstep she trod signified progress on the road to realizing the immeasurable value in us all.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January