New Birth of Freedom

th

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.

What If?

th

My students loved to play “what if,” following lessons on monumental events in my history classes. For example; what if Washington had been captured–or worse–by the British Army during the Revolution? What if the Senate had ratified the “Treaty of Versailles” at the end of World War One? Would there have been a World War Two? Or what if FDR hadn’t contracted polio? Would a walking FDR been as affective? And so on. Following these bird walks into conjecture they would look to me for some definitive answer on alternate outcomes. But I wasn’t much help. Teaching what actually happened was tough enough for this history instructor,

Still, on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death, “what if’s” might have a place . . . might provide some insight into what might have been.

We all know the story. President Lincoln, in an especially festive mood, joined his wife at Ford’s Theater for a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The nightmare of Civil War had essentially been settled with General Lee’s surrender, a week before, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Union had been preserved, and the President had much to celebrate. Plus as many “Lincolnistas” know, our 16th president loved the theater. Stage productions became a place where a troubled Lincoln became so absorbed in performances, others couldn’t catch his attention. (As a Lincoln-lover myself, I hope “Our American Cousin” so captivated the President that he never felt a thing in his final hours).

Wilkes Booth, the pea-brained zealot who murdered Lincoln had no idea he had also killed the South’s best defender against a vengeful Congress. Had this lunatic-actor paid attention to anything besides the insanity in his head, Booth would have recognized the President as a moderate–a leader who yearned for true national unity with “Charity for all, Malice toward none.”

So, what if Lincoln, this moderate, had survived, or better yet, never been harmed? What would post-bellum America have looked like with President Lincoln at the helm? Tough to judge, but a closer look at the political situation on April 14, 1865, could provide some direction.

First of all, America would have been spared the accession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency. Bum luck for the nation to say the least. Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 because he was a Southerner from Tennessee  who had remained loyal to the Union. Essentially a small minded, white-trash bigot, Johnson despised both the rebellious planter-elite but also newly freed slaves. On the one hand, he wanted former masters to grovel at his feet for presidential pardons, and simultaneously opposed any law that provided aid to former slaves. Where most Americans had come to trust Lincoln in varying degrees, informed Southern leaders like Alexander Stephens, freed slaves, and reluctantly, the Republican leadership in Congress, Andrew Johnson in short order alienated the whole lot.

To be fair, Lincoln was in trouble himself, with his party by 1865. But he did have some momentum going his way after General Grant’s success in Virginia. And though he pocket-vetoed a bill backed by vindictive Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, Lincoln recognized he had some compromises ahead, to settle down his critics. But, of course Lincoln died at the hands of a Southerner, unleashing zealotry on all sides.

Had Lincoln lived, harsh avenging laws aimed at punishing the South, may have taken a lighter tone. The Military Reconstruction Act, that established a military occupation of the South, the 14th and 15th Amendments may have been less forceful and strident. As an astute politician, Lincoln certainly would have avoided the ordeal of impeachment endured by Johnson at the hands of the Radicals.

Yet, there is still  much to say about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the “what if’s” of history. He died on Good Friday, as had Jesus, a point that wasn’t lost on the American public in 1865. Lincoln died for the cause of freedom. He died for the virtuous notion that “All Men are Created Equal.” Lincoln was crucified for the goodness in all of us, his “Better Angels of our Nature.” However, without Lincoln’s martyrdom later legislation may not have found a place in Constitutional law. The Radicals ran roughshod over Andrew Johnson’s stubborn resistance, overriding presidential vetoes that resulted in the 14th Amendment and it’s definition of citizenship with equal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of male suffrage.

Unfortunately, these amendments and other less enduring pieces of legislation were often ignored by unrepentant rebels who exacted their own punishment on freedmen. Still the body of law existed and found enforcement one hundred years later. And this same body of law came into existence because Lincoln died on Good Friday, 1865.

So perhaps the “what if” game ought to be left alone. The course of events that actually transpired built an articulate foundation of freedom, premised on human rights, that could have been otherwise absent from our nation’s history. Much as President Garfield’s murder in 1881 brought about Civil Service Reform, and JFK’s murder brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Mr. Lincoln’s death truly gave America a “New Birth of Freedom.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January available at www.river-of-january.com

The Poetry of Protest

ImageAlice Paul

Today’s posting has nothing to do with my book.  Instead I am moved to comment on today’s news.

The news of Pete Seeger’s passing is popping up everywhere on all my personal media settings.  And I, as millions of others loved the music of Pete Seeger.  I always have.  The beauty of his voice alone, or with his group, “The Weavers” still echoes compellingly in my mind.

Yet, today, with his passing, I’m not thinking of the silenced music.  As essentially American as his voice and lyrics resonated, the lessons I learned from Pete Seeger are more linked to political conviction and courage.  His was the voice of the non-conformist, the social and political critic who challenged conventional beliefs.

Seeger served in uniform during World War Two.  Though he was a young man when he soldiered, his participation says a great deal about the justness of America’s struggle against totalitarianism.  But after the war, Seeger seems to have instantly grasped the politics of the Cold War for was it was, an excuse to stifle the voice of opposition.  Seeger suffered for his convictions.  When popular thought demanded unified anti-Communist behavior, Seeger did not comply.  It was justice he sought, and in the days of racism and blind war mongering, Seeger would not close his eyes and pretend America practiced equality and liberty.  And his beliefs landed him in political hot water.

His banjo and singing voice were his only sword and sidearm– yet still he made himself a dangerous man to an American government that demanded wall to wall consensus.  This troubadour appeared to be fearless in expressing his thoughts, singing anywhere and everywhere he saw injustice.

The Vietnam War provided Seeger and a growing segment of Americans a broader platform to protest Johnson-Nixon policies in Southeast Asia.

I remember that he was to appear on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, an anti-war song.  Such a powerful message!  The lyrics at bottom called out the man in the White House as a “big fool.”  CBS pulled Seeger from the show out of fear of retribution from stock holders, sponsors and hawkish politicians.  To their credit, the Smothers Brothers refused to go on until Seeger was allowed back on the show.  CBS caved, Seeger appeared, the feelings of America soured more on the war, and for a wide variety of reasons America withdrew from that nightmarish miasma.

This blog is a tribute to other voices of opposition across many generations of Americans.  The list is long of patriotic citizens who understood the First Amendment meant what it said.  We should honor the lives of those who resisted the tyranny of a majority they believed misguided.

William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Helen Hunt Jackson, Homer Plessy, Jacob Riis, Henry George, Lewis Hine, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Eugene V. Debs, Alice Paul, Big Bill Haywood, Phil Ochs, Mario Savio, Cesar Chavez, Bobby Kennedy, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, Daniel Ellsberg, Harvey Milk, and the other thousands of names left off this list.

Hoist one tonight for Pete Seeger and the multitude of others who braved the currents of popular thought, for there is nothing more American than to question the status quo.