They Were Wrong

“Slave owners and white racist were afraid that the world they had always known was slipping away from them. Fear was a great motivator—fear of change, fear of losing power, fear of being that they were wrong. The roots of white anxiety over threats to enslavement and to legalize white supremacy ran deep.”

John Meacham, And There was Light. Random House, 2022, page 55.

Reading this passage last night stunned me for a moment. A flurry of thoughts rushed all at once, promptly turning to one central truth; racial dynamics in America have not changed. Not changed at all.

Meacham’s book, a biography of Lincoln, focuses on the shaping events that made Lincoln arguably America’s greatest President. However, those same formative circumstances left Southern slaveholders angry, and dangerous. This long-running rancor ultimately resulted in civil war, and Lincoln’s 1865 murder.

The Missouri Compromise triggered the first alarm below the Mason-Dixon Line. That slavery could be limited through any federal legislative act left the slave power touchy and suspicious. Sensitive to criticism, slave owners  (as Mr. Meacham pointed out), viewed opposition as a dishonorable insult. Prior to the Civil War Congressman and Senators dueled, a Senator suffered a severe beating on the Senate floor by a South Carolina Congressman. Tension in both chambers lead to the adoption of a “gag rule” that prohibited any discussion of slavery in Congress.  

As Northern abolitionists grew more emboldened, Southerners grew more militant. War was only a matter of time. Any abolitionists tracts, or books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin were discarded by local postal officials. Churches split. Southern Methodist, Southern Baptists are two examples indicating the fraying of North and South.

After the war, into the Reconstruction years Freedmen found protection through Yankee bayonets stationed in Reconstruction zones. Unrepentant Southern whites pushed back with terror. The Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and the White League rode through the night spreading fear and lynching freedman who dared to claim the blessings of freedom. 

Eventually the Northern public grew weary of protecting freedmen, and Union occupiers were pulled out of the region. White power was redeemed, the South closed in upon itself.

Contrasting the 21st Century to the 19th provides strikingly similar dynamics. In 2008 Barack Obama became 44th President of the United States, and white power interests again lost their minds.

It appeared America had turned a corner in race relations, but those appearances deceived. Senator Mitch McConnell began by decreeing the GOP would not work with the new president,  followed by the sunsetting a clause in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That provision, signed by Lyndon Johnson protected black voters from discrimination at the polls. Today voters now have to prove they were slighted.

Apparently these white supremacist again see their alpha-position slipping away, and they too, are touchy and dangerous. The names have changed, but not the mission. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, neo-Nazi’s, and Christian Nationalists, see themselves as the last bastion against Americans of color, of women’s rights, and LGBQT citizens. 

Again these thugs are thin skinned and hateful. This crowd championed an avowed racist for president, and still, today hold him as a white messiah. The symptoms are all there, fear of a changing America, fear of being wrong in their beliefs, fearful of losing control.

White supremacy as a social disorder manifests predictably. This country has been down this road before. America gave up law enforcement in 1877 due to lack of interest, the myth of white supremacy is just that, a myth. This land was made for your and me.

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know. Harry Truman

Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. She has penned two stage plays, “Clay,” exploring the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By the Ears,” a study of racism in America.

A Mandate

Theodore Roosevelt endured a childhood haunted by ill health. Orphaned by age 15, Andrew Jackson struggled for survival in the Carolina back country. Born the first son of a second marriage, George Washington aspired to rise above his inferior social rank. Abraham Lincoln, a child of the frontier, transformed himself through sheer hard work, and perseverance.

Before they were men these four presidents encountered enormous obstacles in order to reach America’s highest office.

This is the topic of four programs I’m presenting this spring. The idea of exploring future presidents childhoods seemed an interesting approach to understanding the past. What I didn’t expect was the anxiety churned up researching Andrew Jackson. 

Rereading Chernow’s Washington A Life proved an enjoyable review. Washington was not perfect, and certainly a man of his time. But that he overcame his avarice and ambition makes Washington an affirming subject.

On Lincoln, Douglas Wilson’s Honor’s Voice did no less. The man’s goodness, compassion, and intelligence came directly from overcoming his rustic beginnings. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Wilson, plumbs the depths of Roosevelt’s chronic childhood illnesses, and the directive from his father to overcome his frail body through exercise and sports. 

Then there is Andrew Jackson. 

HW Brands work, Andrew Jackson His Life and Times, is an oldie but goody; a book I enjoyed a lot. But that was before Donald Trump. Picking up Andrew Jackson, American Lion has been an ordeal. Jon Meacham describes a man who honestly believed he alone could save America by consolidating all power in the White House. Only Jackson spoke for the people, not Congress and certainly not the Courts. And the most distressing element? The Seventh President got away with his autocratic coup because voters let him. 

How does his childhood figure into his administration? Jackson never had limits. The early demise of his family, left the boy unsupervised in the backcountry, shuttled from one relative to the next. Somehow his rootless beginnings left in Jackson a volatile temperament of him against the world. 

The General murdered scores of Native Americans, and brought home a Creek boy he’d made an orphan. Brutality and tenderness, compassion and racism, love or hate. 

For Jackson all issues of state were personal, and loyalty the foundation of all his relationships. In that vein Trump resembles Jackson, plus the vile racism. 

What separates Andrew Jackson from Trump is a numbers game. President Jackson, for better or worse did win 55.5% of the popular vote in 1828, 54.2% in 1832. (Each election included four or more candidates) Our seventh President did earn an actual mandate from the people. 

Trump did not, and loses more ground every day

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has written two plays, “Clay” about the life of Henry Clay, and Wolf By The Ears, an examination of slavery and racism.

Don’t Sit Down

In the political world there are two definitions for the term filibuster. The most common understanding concerns talking bills to death in the Senate, and the other is an unsanctioned invasion of a country to take it over. What both meanings share is a determination to wear out the opposition until the matter is settled. A siege of sorts—never giving up.

Famous uses of the filibuster include Andrew Jackson’s 1818 foray into Spanish Florida. Playing a little loose with his orders, Jackson entered the poorly defended territory, claiming to hunt down runaway slaves, and thump the Seminoles who provided sanctuary.

This extra legal foray caused an international incident. An American general, invading a weaker  target, under questionable authority. In the end, this filibuster paid off. Washington informed Madrid they supported Jackson’s invasion and the US took control of the peninsula from Spain. Done and done. 

The moral to this filibuster story is—never blink, never give up, never excuse.

In 1957, and in 1964, Southern Democrats, made use of the filibuster to talk Civil Rights legislation to death. In the ’57 debate South Carolina Senator, Strom Thurmond nattered on for 24 hours, and 18 minutes, still a standing record. And again in 1964, with Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who droned on for 14 hours and 13 minutes. Despite obstructionist resolve, both bills did squeak through with assistance of compromising northern Republicans.

What America is facing at his very moment is a Trump-style filibuster, containing both meanings. His insufferable, boorish delaying tactics, unblinking lies, and frivolous lawsuits have characterized this nincompoop’s newest version. He is certain he can hold out against America.

And I am tired— we all are tired, sometimes to the point of despair. But, friends this struggle against malignant arrogance, greed, and hate is a filibuster we cannot lose. Not only for a place called America, but for the enlightened spirit of our country. Our legal traditions must be protected from this fallible, flawed, would-be autocrat.

Trump has filibustered his whole life for something he’s never found nor earned—blind adoration. And that doesn’t meet our traditions or expectations for elected leaders. They work for us. In a real sense our country has suffered an unauthorized invasion of our government, a hostile take over, and the man’s filibuster continues, unabated.

Poet, Langston Hughes speaks to our moment in a portion of his 1922 poem, Mother To Son.

“So boy, don’t you turn back;
Don’t you sit down on the steps, 
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard;
Don’t you fall now— 

And Hughes is right. We can not fall. We must stay vigilant and wait this immediate threat out.

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

gailchumbley@chumbleg

The Die was Cast

The threat of disunion appeared long before either the Civil War, or the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The architects laying the chaotic cornerstone? President John Adams, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.

David McCullough in his celebrated biography, John Adams, portrayed this Founding Father as a brilliant man, and that is true. However, his self righteous streak succeeded in undercutting his talent and better judgement. As the second president of the United States, John Adams, proved to be a prickly, and thin-skinned chief executive. A dour Yankee, Adams could not tolerate public criticism, and as many later presidents, came to view the press as an adversary—enemies of the government.

In a rage over newspapers excoriating his administration, Adams shepherded the Sedition Act through Congress in 1798. Opposition editors soon found themselves in the President’s cross hairs, and some were actually jailed. The Alien Act, also passed in 1798, aimed to delay new voters, by lengthening time for naturalization, as immigrants were certain to vote against Adams and his Federalist Party. (Hmm. The press, immigrants, and voting rights. Imagine that).

Jefferson, (still Adams’ Vice President), promptly took action to counter Adams’ wrong-headed legislation.

Launching a full out, but anonymous denunciation of the Adams Administration, Vice President Jefferson published tracts vilifying Adams, and emphasized the sovereignty of the states guaranteed under 10th Amendment.

Returning from France, where he had served as American ambassador, Jefferson had been appalled by the powerful Federal Constitution created in his absence. As a ‘natural aristocrat,’ and slave master, Jefferson was unwilling to cede power to any higher authority than himself, and his fellow patricians. Instead the “Sage of Monticello,” asserted the right of states not to obey laws they didn’t like.

Two state legislatures agreed to debate Jefferson’s counter measures, Virginia and Kentucky. Penned secretly by Jefferson, and Madison, these resolutions insisted the states were the final arbiters of what was legally binding. A new term emerged from this controversy—Nullification.

The die was cast, the seeds of disunion sown. In the years following, nullification intensified, fertilized particularly in 1832 by John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina Senator. That that state became the first to secede in 1861, sparking the US Civil War, is no coincidence.

The traitors who invaded the halls of Congress last January took their cue from Jefferson, as if they, too, battled the evils of John Adams. Scapegoating the media, immigrants and the Federal government has left a long, bloody stain on American history. As I write, the States of Georgia, and Texas among others, are attempting to limit voting rights once again. Texas has also taken a nullifying stance, limiting a woman’s right to her own body, despite Federal protections.                        

No government has a self-destruct button, none. John Adam’s pique, and Thomas Jefferson’s reaction stamped an incompatibility that still, today, inflames American politics. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Unexpected Inspiration

Dear Helen and Chum

I’ve neglected you since publishing your story, and I regret my doubt-inspired silence.

The delight of researching the both of you, made clear that you lived more life than I’ll ever see in mine. Risk, peril, glamor, and ambition. You put yourselves out there, and is the best story, ever.

I wrote those books wracked through with feelings of inadequacy. Possessing little experience as a writer, I took on both volumes largely on my own and finished them, impatiently pushing the story out to the world, mistakes and all.

Still, I’m not sorry to have narrated your journeys, it’s the most kick ass true story I’ve ever encountered. 

Fear and confusion froze this greenhorn in her tracks. I am guilty of getting in the way of sharing your adventures, and reliving your forever love story. Forgive me. I presumed this 20th century saga belonged to me, but that is not so. Truly, there would have been no books at all, without your daring and triumphs to inspire me.

These books were not a mistake. 

Chum, you squared your shoulders, took a deep breath and strapped into that cockpit, forging a career of monumental consequence. The victor of the 1933 Darkness Derby, you braved the night skies over a sleeping America. Flying your mighty Waco aircraft, you touched down at Roosevelt Field where Lindbergh and Earhart began their storied flights. Later, in defense of democracy, you piloted US invasion orders through a dangerous South Pacific typhoon, tossed and slammed by up and down drafts, to complete your mission.

And to you sweet Helen, though we never met in this life, you inspired the entire effort. It was that first visit to your Miami home when something stirred inside me. A unexpected inspiration. Remember that black and white glossy? The portrait of a sultry platinum blonde? You know the one. Chum had it up in his room until the end.

That photo triggered a spark, a slow burning fire I could not ignore. This story had to be shared. The European tours, dancing, dinner with Maurice Chevalier, cruises across the Atlantic on the SS I’le de France, vaudeville with comedians Jans & Whalen. Then off to Rio de Janeiro you sailed, opening at the Copa Cabana. And after your marriage to Chum, and the war broke out you took up ice skating, performing nightly for Sonja Henie’s productions at Rockefeller Center. My God! What a life.

“River of January” is done, as is the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.” Preserved in the pages is magic, whether in the sky, on the sea, under the footlights, and revolving across shimmering ice. This story crackles with your energy.

This won’t be neglected any longer. I’m getting out of your way.

With Love, and Eternal Admiration,

Gail

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

Anyway Anyhow Anywhere

The deal is, coming out victorious World War Two, the certainty of America’s omnipotence shaped foreign policy. The US armed forces proved they could expertly parachute behind enemy lines, storm contested beaches, and plant the flag of American freedom at the close of every engagement. US pride meant we only mobilized decent men, and armed them with top notch war materiel, and enough Hershey Bars to treat the world. 

Those lessons of the 1940’s mislead later military planners. The assumption that Americans could do no wrong, and intervening into other nations, an imperative. However, what worked in one moment wasn’t necessarily viable later. America’s entrance had saved the world, but that particular episode ended in September, 1945, and the US moved forward looking backward.

Five years later the Korean conflict exploded, and after three years of fighting, ended where it began, the 38th parallel. That stalemate ought to have signaled a reassessment of America’s role abroad, but the Sergeant Stryker school of war had engrained itself too deeply into foreign poIicy.

I am a child of the Vietnam era. In my head the kaleidoscope of Lucy’s eyes plays, and televised images of soldiers knee deep in rice paddies, flicker in black and white. Protesting students with raised fists, black armbands affixed, occupying college offices, all to the soundtrack of kick ass rock and roll. In fact, the most enduring feature of the Sixties, for this boomer, is that pulsating electric guitar played by the hands of masters.

From 1959 to 1975 Washington dispatched advisers, munitions, and finally by ’65 ground forces to Vietnam. The French had failed to hold their Indochinese possession against the Communists, as they had failed against the Germans in 1940. America would bail them out once again.

But our intervention was premised on dated strategies. Vietnam was not a stand and fight war.

What Vietnam taught policy makers, (for a millisecond) is that patience is a most powerful foe. The NVA and Vietcong played the waiting game with grit and timeless certainty. 

the Our nation was not the first on the scene in Saigon, but certainly the last western power. As for Afghanistan, the dynamic remains. Leaving 10 years ago, or 10 days ago, the outcome would have been the same. The post-911 Middle Eastern conflicts were truly good for the people of those nations, but not for the United States.

Just check with the Brits and Russians. They left too.

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

Cocolalla

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We had two cabins on a small lake in Northern Idaho.

Located between Lake Coeur de Alene, and the Pend Oreille, our little acre overlooked tiny Cocolalla, with large windows where we could watch the waves lap up on the beach. The original structure we astutely named the Little Cabin, later followed by the larger Big Cabin. This bigger cottage had been built with all the amenities of home; running water–hot and cold, a tub and toilet, a full kitchen, and electric heat.

Those early weekends in the Little Cabin hold many good memories. All of us crammed into that tiny wood box, the unfinished walls festooned with a lifetime of greeting cards, a big enameled wood stove, and a porcelain basin for washing dishes. Grandpa got his hands on a tall steel milk can and commandeered it for enough drinking water to get us through the weekend. As for entertainment, Grandma had an old radio that blasted the most impressive static, interspersed with Roy Orbison or Andy Williams fading in and out.

Once the Big Cabin was completed and my grandparents moved in, the smaller cabin was demoted to storage. It also housed a set of bunk beds, a fold-down couch, and one double bed; useful for my brothers who were just getting bigger. Now, in addition to greeting cards, the cabin stored every variety of water equipment. Fishing poles, life jackets, oars, and an outboard motor clamped to a metal barrel, with stacks of beach towels the size of blankets.

As I recall, a constant grit of sand coated the linoleum floor.

The property was my grandparents retirement dream, but a dream they happily shared with the rest of us. I knew, even then, that I was always welcome, always.

My grandpa was an early riser, a product of a lifetime as a mailman. He didn’t want to tiptoe around a little kid sleeping on his sofa at five in the  morning. At bedtime my grandmother and I made our way to the Little Cabin in the dark by flashlight. Under the covers of  the double bed, I would chafe my feet deep under the sheets to warm my toes. As we grew settled and peaceful she would begin to reminisce, talking to me for hours in that darkness. I learned of her life in those moments, warm in that cozy bed, listening to her voice, breathing the scent of the evergreen forest.

She told me of my biological grandfather, her first husband, who had left her bereft and penniless after my mother had been born. Despite the Depression, he liked to gamble away their money. My Grandma had to leave him and she struggled to find work as few jobs existed. Forced to farm out her daughter, my mother, in various homes, her the guilt still haunted her. Clearly it still broke Grandma’s heart that she was forced to separate from her little girl for months at a time. I could hear a wound that could never heal.

As the night grew deep, crickets and bullfrogs began to chorus. Flanked next to her, and pressed against some greeting cards, I prayed I wouldn’t spoil the magic by having to go potty. She kept, beneath the bed, a Chase and Sanborn coffee can that I hated to use. It felt cold and left rings on my little bottom. Still, considering options, the can was more appealing than a journey to the outhouse. Using that creepy outhouse in the daytime was bad enough, but at night unthinkable.

Finally poking her lightly, I would tell her. And she never hesitated. Showing no impatience at all, Grandma seemed to make my problem her own, reaching for the flashlight and finding that rusty can. She held the light on me so I could aim properly, then back into the warm bed. No recriminations.

She loved me.

I loved her.

Today my husband and I live in the woods. We don’t have a lake, but a river runs near and we can hear it on very quiet nights. I relax in my cozy bed in the darkness and listen to the crickets and bullfrogs, while breathing in a scent of pine. A sense of complete security, of love, of acceptance returns, synonymous with the love of my grandmother. She was home for me, and though gone these many years, my mountain cabin still echoes with her voice.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Spirit of the Age

We’re that little guy

In the post-Civil War era. John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and others rose to wield unparalleled financial power. Emerging industries in oil, steel, and mining had grown into monolithic trusts, using innovative banking practices that fed an explosion of wealth. Titled “The Gilded Age,” these and other industrial giants earned another moniker “Robber Barons,” for not only the fortunes they built, but the ruthless practices that bred those millions.

The American public both admired and loathed these magnates. Critics argued the nature of such concentrated treasure was damaging to the lower rungs of American society. In pushback, journalists and economists lay bare the cruel tactics these industrialists utilized. Notable critics included Ida Tarbell, who investigated Rockefeller’s shady dealings in creating Standard Oil, Upton Sinclair did much the same through his novel, “The Jungle,” leaving readers both outraged and nauseous. And social reformer, essayist, Henry George, argued Carnegie had in no way improved the quality of American life, despite Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts. 

President Theodore Roosevelt found no friendship on either side. “Muckrakers,” he called these journalists, while still pursuing legal action against the excesses of what he termed the “wealthy criminal class.” 

In response, Andrew Carnegie published a work titled, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Centered upon the principles of 18th Century economist, Adam Smith, Carnegie argued that his success was no more than God’s will, and a gift to mankind. To Carnegie’s way of thinking, the Almighty himself, had conferred upon each certain gifts, and Mr Carnegie’s talent lay in getting rich. Left unmentioned were the unmet talents of those condemned to labor in the fiery pits of Carnegie Steel, and other factories. 

Confident in his beliefs, the tycoon believed he stood in God’s favor. And Americans swallowed the Gospel of Wealth, hook, line, and sinker, rendering reforms nearly impossible. 

After World War One America went on an unfettered spending spree. Throughout the Twenties President Coolidge rejected T. Roosevelt’s moral crusade, holding firm that “The Business of America is Business.” Then in October, 1929, at the beginning of Herbert Hoover’s administration the bottom fell out of the New York Stock Market. 

And somehow the rich no longer seemed quite as godly.

The 1932 Presidential Election issued a mandate for a “New Deal.” Desperate Americans were struggling, going hungry, losing their homes, writing the Franklin Roosevelt administration pleading for a hand up. And FDR acted quickly. Harnessing the power of the Federal Government, the President championed deficit spending, stimulating buying power to the underclasses. No longer would Americans tolerate the unregulated thievery of the past. By the 1960’s Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” extended aid even further, so regular people could tap into the financial support to get ahead. 

By 1980 the pendulum had swung to the right once again, regulation falling into disfavor. Laissez faire policies returned under Ronald Reagan. In turn, deficits blossomed, and the market crashed again in 1987 under the weight of the DotCom boom, and savings and loan scandals. Under GW Bush a scarier crash occurred in 2008, following the fallout of the mortgage market. 

American laws, passed in the heart of crises, need to be remembered and embraced, not discarded during better times.

Much like America during and after World War Two, private, public, and global financial institutions cooperated for just and equitable progress. Enlightened self-interest with carefully crafted guardrails enhance prosperity, and promotes financial stability.

Those lessons in economic policy made the 20th Century, America’s Century. This isn’t a lesson we have to relearn, the path has been paved.