What If?

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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

I Wouldn’t Change A Thing

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One of my earliest recollections is kneeling on the cold basement floor in our Spokane house, lining up plastic Yankee infantry against an equal number of plastic Confederates. My brother would narrate the battle that was about to break loose, building up the suspense and drama that was destined to follow. But the art and beauty of the exercise was in the meticulous preparations, lines crafted and lovingly placed by my brother, an expression of his deep reverence for the past. And our fascination wasn’t limited to the basement, but rose upstairs to the rest of the house.
Our childhood dinners consisted of meals cooked for quantity, not quality, my mother bending over backward to please her crew of picky eaters. One brother only liked tomatoes, no lettuce. Another wouldn’t eat onions, and I wouldn’t eat potatoes, (I’ll get fat!). My mother should have tossed a loaf of white bread and peanut butter on the table and said to hell with us. But in truth, our dinners weren’t ever about the cuisine. That table was a place of interaction, debate and information. And we, my parents and three brothers talked about all sorts of topics; politics, swing music, classical music, FDR, and JFK. My mother knew every actor and singer ever filmed or recorded, so popular culture also had a rich review over those dry, bland hamburgers. My younger brothers typically listened and chewed, passively soaking up the banter as a normal dinner conversation.
My childhood memories are mainly a potpourri of All-American road trips. Slides of Montana’s Lewis and Clark Caverns, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellowstone Park, and Wall Drug, flash on the screen of my memory. These destinations were of such value to my folks; that they packed up a station wagon, replaced later by a truck and camper, crammed in their four noisy kids, and made many magical history tours. I especially remember standing on Calhoun Hill near Hardin, Montana, wondering how Custer missed the massive Sioux and Cheyenne encampments. Constructed in 1805 on the Pacific coast, Fort Clatsop, Oregon sheltered the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Visiting the site permitted me to physically touch this stockaded sanctuary of another time.
Wonder became permanently hotwired into my temperament.
A degree in American History came as no surprise to anyone. As in medical families, military families, or law enforcement families I followed my childhood path, nurtured in a family that treasured our nation’s history. As though I had been handed Diogenes lamp, illuminating past events became my present-day pursuit. I had to share this passion with others. This journey of discovery was not a solitary enterprise. So earning a secondary teaching certificate set my future into motion, allowing a way to disseminate the fire I felt for the past.
What a ride! I am now at the other end of my teaching career, and can honestly say that I even loved the tough days. I made a living out of being myself, constantly reinforced with a sense of liberation, and vindication. Magic happened after that tardy bell rang. And I knew then as I know now, that there was no cooler place to work than in my classroom. Who needed Hogwarts, I had Lincoln! Service projects came to life behind that door, efforts such as the Veterans Oral History Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress—fund raising for the World War Two Memorial—donations to support local history museums, and the yearly spray of flowers for the Vietnam Memorial each Memorial weekend.
And most gratifying of all was the connection students made to an earlier America. They grew beyond what they could see, feel and touch. They became more than just themselves. I can recall an essay on Richard Nixon where a girl ruled his desire to win at all costs, cost Nixon his place in history. Another student who pointed out that after Washington’s humiliation at the 1754 Battle of Fort Necessity near present-day Pittsburgh, later foreshadowed the President’s crack down on the 1794 Whiskey Rebels in the same location. The student pointed out that Washington would not be made a fool twice in the same place forty years later. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Those voila moments transcend the past to a present relevance. How Washington used his few military strengths to undermine the military strengths of the British in the Revolution. How Ho Chi Minh used those same strengths to undermine the same American efforts in Vietnam. Likewise how British violation of American trade lead the US into the War of 1812. And later how German violation of American trade lead the US into World War One. The examples are vast and instructive, processed with the same reverence and regard as my brother and his toy soldiers.
Now, in retirement, an entire archive of historic primary sources have fallen into my lap. An original story has come my way detailing a young ambitious couple who challenged the Twentieth Century and left a notable trail. I have been handed a micro-history narrative, to add to the larger picture of America. What an unexpected gift for this history addict!
Writing River of January has fed my soul. It turns out that Chum, my main character, rubbed shoulders with aviators Howard Hughes, and Amelia Earhart, and even actress Kathryn Hepburn. And from his words and records, he barely took notice of their celebrity. Helen, the other main character, knew “Red Hot Mama,” Sophie Tucker, the dashing Frenchman Maurice Chevalier, and a very young Humphrey Bogart in his first film. Those people were her peers and she rolled with that crowd on an equal footing.
This story grips my heart. I’ve was groomed from my parents dinner table to craft such a book. This Saturday missive is perhaps my long overdue expression of gratitude. I am thankful for my hardwired passion for earlier times, and how vital a role the past eternally plays. I am grateful that I value ideals, ideas and vibrant lives over material possessions . . . I will never be poor. I thank the Lord my heart is enriched by remembering what came before.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the creative non-fiction work, River of January

Hear Me For My Cause

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I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. It is fortunate that there is a Senate of the United States; a body not yet moved from its propriety, not lost to a just sense of its own dignity and its own high responsibilities, and a body to which the country looks, with confidence, for wise, moderate, patriotic, and healing counsels. It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions and our government. The imprisoned winds are let loose.

The above words were powerfully delivered by Senator Daniel Webster on the 7th of March, 1850. The occasion concerned the Fugitive Slave Act, a piece of explosive legislation forcing the return of runaway slaves to the South. Webster truly fell on a political sword to keep our nation whole. Notable in his grand eloquence was his specific reverence, and deference to the chamber Webster addressed, the august United States Senate.

I found myself quite uncomfortable viewing the State of the Union on Tuesday night. Each year, this duty is clearly defined for America’s Chief Executive. Article 2, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that the President shall . . . give to Congress Information on the of the State of the Union . . . The word is “shall,” not “may.” So it was with personal distress, that we all witnessed such bad behavior from the right side of the aisle.

Beginning with the President’s first State of the Union message in 2009, and the appalling “you lie” heckler, conduct from the opposition has deteriorated. Senator Webster’s expressions of propriety and dignity have been replaced by frat boy behavior, apparently condoned by party leadership. Texting, chatting, applauding inappropriately is, well, just embarrassing to this student of America’s distinctive political legacy.

As a teacher, that blatant disruptive rudeness would have sent you to the hall. And speaking of classrooms, why should any student show respect for any institution when elected role models behave so badly, so publicly. I’ve seen you at 16, you’re the boneheads in the back row, working overtime to shift the attention from the focus of the lesson to your own self important, corrosive conduct. To validate the lowest kind of public behavior is the last example our students need in this divisive era. Demonstrate honorable behavior, show some restraint, if only for the great legislative leaders who served and sacrificed before you. Conduct yourselves with the dignity your office represents.

If, indeed, the majority party aspires to national leadership you must be a party worth following. Last night represented and celebrated the best thinking on the part of our nation’s Framers. This condoned pack mentality to publicly belittle the sitting President, does not serve your future aims.

As the first president, elected in 1860 from your emerging party once stated,  “All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution—to this provision as much as to any other. “

In his 7th of March Speech, Webster explained to his listeners the urgency of his words. The Senator continued,

I speak to preserve the Union.
Hear me for my cause

Gail Chumbley is a retired History educator, and author of River of January. Available on Amazon

Another View

ImageI’m back.  I’ve spent the last couple of days visiting my folks and checking out some mom and pop bookstores.  It’s my hope to find some speaking opportunities to promote my forthcoming book, River of January, and perhaps sell a few.

Again, I have posted Lincoln’s picture as I did in my last post, because today is our 16th President’s 206th birthday.  I like Lincoln.  A lot.  I am what one would call a “Lincoln-ista.”  As I write, my standup cardboard Lincoln is presiding over the dining room table.  It is after all his birthday!

A life lesson Mr. Lincoln seemed to apply frequently was understanding other points of view.  He and his wife were both born in the border state of Kentucky.  Slavery was legal in Kentucky until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the practice.  Lincoln understood the mindset of slave owners, he grew up among them.  He knew the agricultural imperative of forced labor and the violent defense by planters who would lose their customary way of life.  However, Lincoln disapproved of slavery.  To him the issue was not only a moral one, but an economic wrong as well.  He believed all men should enjoy the fruits of their own labor.  Still Lincoln didn’t point fingers and shrilly condemn his Southern brethren–that would have been foolish and frankly unLincoln-like.

Lincoln tended to avoid resentments and harsh judgements.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rival’s recounts an incident where Lincoln was to represent a railroad company in a Chicago trial.  When he arrived to court, Lincoln found he had been fired and a “real lawyer,” Edwin M. Stanton was arguing for the company.  Stanton made a snide comment about Lincoln’s crude and hayseed appearance within his hearing.  Still, Lincoln remained in court as an observer, believing he could learn something from a Harvard trained attorney.  Later, Lincoln made Stanton his Secretary of War.  No offense taken, so none festered.  As a member of the Cabinet, Stanton became deeply devoted to this uniquely principled president.

Now how does an examination of two qualities in President Lincoln have anything to do with my book?  Well, more than you might think.  Though Chum never had the stomach for unjustifiable character attacks, he didn’t waste his energy holding resentments.  From my time in his company he never, ever gossiped or spoke badly of anyone that I can remember. His only remark close to snide, was the time he said Howard Hughes kept the Kleenex business booming.  (Anyone who’s seen the DiCaprio movie understands).  Helen however, seemed to be able to take criticism well.  It was a must, a part of the business.  She was a performer and required to stay sharp.  From my study of her letters, Helen often attended other productions to see what she was up against as an artist.  If she read poor reviews the girl took it in stride and learned.  She improved her skills.

I, too would love to be free of resentments and to see the other person’s viewpoint without spite.  Society is a collection of individuals with limitless opinions on limitless subjects. Believing that we are all absolutely right, and refuse to hear otherwise, does little in the way of progress.  Chum didn’t let the obstacles of his time and place discourage him.  Instead he was polite, courteous, and left the naysayers behind.  Helen saw opportunity in adversity.  She tenaciously used criticism and competition as guideposts to her success.

Not one among us have the market cornered on truth.  But, as Lincoln knew, self righteous blowhards who refuse to bend, eventually break.

Fifteen Minutes

A number of years ago I attended a seminar on President Lincoln.  The title of the course was “Controlled by Events.”  That name puzzled me when I first read the brochure.  Abraham Lincoln, in my mind, was the most dogged, determined figure in American History. Because of his resolve, the Union was saved.  I later learned that the title came from a moment when the President admitted that he couldn’t manage outcomes once the dogs of war were released, just grapple with the aftermath. Now, after our battle with cancer and my husband’s close brush with death, I realize what our 16th president meant.

Through rigorous exertion Chad, my husband, succeeded in sitting up for fifteen minutes-a significant milestone. Soon after, his doctors determined he was ready for transfer to a rehabilitation hospital. This move was designed to teach Chad how to function again.  Seriously, the man could not lift a styrofoam cup, brush his teeth, shave, or comb what was left of his hair.

The nurse notified us by nine in the morning that he was scheduled for transport to the new facility sometime before lunch. Of course that meant the orderlies arrived around two in the afternoon, and Chad was tucked into his new bed in the new hospital by three. Not too bad for hospital time.  But what we heard at the new facility left me despondent, and Chad frightened and frustrated.

One by one, therapists visited us until six that evening. They introduced themselves, and gently informed us that sitting up for fifteen minutes was only the beginning. His relearning would test his endurance, reaching new levels of exertion. Critically frail, Chad grew deeply stressed because what they were asking seemed impossible. I vicariously felt his fears, and could do nothing to allay them.

I couldn’t do anything about anything.

I bumped along the currents of endless medical advice. After all, he couldn’t come home until he reclaimed something of his former body.

There he lay, bag of feces on his belly, an open, seeping surgical cut, from his naval to his groin, and the hospital was forcing him to get up and live again.

The looming deadline ahead for me was school starting again. There was no question that I had to work. We had to have the insurance, and the income if we were to survive this disaster financially. The medical bills were piling up, and I had no choices but to accept my nightmare. Then events, for a change, turned for the better.

One of my students lived behind our home, and I had hired her to tend our dogs while I spent days at the hospital. It turned out her mother was a registered nurse, who, just steps away, could be at our house within minutes. Wow, what a miracle for when he came home. Secondly, my seventy eight-year-old mother informed me she was coming to care for Chad so I could return to work. Honest to God, I didn’t want to bother other people, but had no other options. And both our neighbor and my mother assured me it was no bother, and they were glad to help. Both parties kindly offering the gift of their time and skills.

After two more excruciating weeks in rehab, I got to bring him home.  That night my mother chauffeured by my brother arrived at our door. I was sure my husband looked so much better after four weeks of hospitals and treatment. But when the both of them came in, and their faces betrayed shock by his poor condition.

In the end, unlike Lincoln, my husband survived our intense, little war. Trapped in the maelstrom, careening from one disaster to another we had no future.

Events controlled us.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com