Reputation

Colonial Virginia valued real estate as much as family bloodlines, or polite manners and form. Land determined one’s social position in the Tidewater and vast estates were controlled by the very few; an aristocracy that shaped Chesapeake society. 

George Washington came of age in this exacting culture, and naturally yearned for acreage to set his mark as a gentleman, fueling his earliest ambitions.

This zeal for land had crossed the Atlantic in the first ships from Great Britain. In the British Isles only gentlemen of the highest status possessed “parks” where they and their guests could hunt, and fish, with acreage left over for tenancy. Landed Cavaliers in the Tidewater quickly fancied themselves equal to any landed gentleman residing in Kent or Sussex. A cursory reading of Jefferson’s Declaration illustrates this sentiment. The “All Men Are Created Equal,” passage in the document affirms Jefferson’s opinion regarding an equality of station. 

Washington’s older, half-brother, Lawrence, the heir of their deceased father’s estate, tried to help the twenty-year-old find his way. Lawrence first looked to secure George a commission in the Royal Navy, but Mary Ball, George’s widowed mother refused to permit it. With no money for young Washington to pursue a formal education, he settled on a career as a surveyor. 

Making use of his father’s instruments, and with  aid of Lord Fairfax, his neighbor and patron, George received an appointment in the Virginia Militia, then trekked into the wilds with his party of frontiersmen to the Ohio River Valley asserting Virginia’s land claims. 

The year was 1754 and a historic wilderness clash awaited the young surveyor.

Virginia claimed virtually all territories north by northwest of the colony. At the same time the French had staked claim to the entire region, as well. An initial engagement at the Great Meadows had gone wrong, when Native allies of Washington’s attacked a sleeping party of French soldiers. In the melee, Half King, a Catawba leader, killed a French diplomatic courier, which was, and still is, an international no-no. 

French soldiers at Fort Duquesne struck at once.

As the French pressed down on Washington’s party, the young militia officer made a some bad decisions. In the ensuing “Battle of Fort Necessity,” Washington was easily whipped and forced to surrender when his hastily erected stockade filled with rain, making defense impossible. 

Thoroughly humiliated, Washington surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. In his capitulation, young George unknowingly admitted he murdered the French diplomat. Lacking a gentleman’s education, which included an understanding of the French language, he didn’t realize what he had signed.

His disgrace was complete. 

Fast forward to 1794 and a return to the site of old Fort Duquesne. 

Much for Washington had changed. As Commanding General, Washington had won the Revolutionary War, and been elected the first President of the United States. For the nation Washington was fully redeemed through his leadership and valor. 

Still, for the man himself, the misadventures from forty years earlier still rankled. Though Washington’s name was universally lauded, nods and winks continued to echo about his pivotal role in starting the French and Indian War. 

The scene of Washington’s earlier bumbling had changed, as well.

The French Fort, Duquesne, had been renamed Fort Pitt, after the English Primes Minister who had made victory possible over the French. After the Revolution the growing town was simply called Pittsburgh. 

And it was in the proximity of Pittsburgh that a new challenge to Washington emerged.

Congress has passed an excise bill on distillers of whiskey. The infant federal government was burdened with debt from the Revolution. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had proposed the tax as a way to for the Treasury to settle its financial obligations. But distillers out near Pittsburgh stubbornly refused to pay the tax. Whiskey rebels rose up, attacking tax collectors who attempted to do their jobs. By summer of 1794, one collector had been tarred and feathered, and another was burned out of his home by a violent mob.

President Washington wasn’t having any of this defiance. He raised an army, placed Hamilton at the head, and sent them to the site of his earlier disgrace .

The rebels melted away like snow in April, bringing this challenge to federal authority to a speedy close. 

Washington flexed federal power in what was the Constitution’s real first challenge. That Washington may have felt some sense of personal absolution, considering the location, is understandable.

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

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

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