Rope of Sand

The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that exists only in the opportunistic vacuum of political rhetoric, wishful thinking, and hubris. If exploited as the only answer to problems, remember States’ Rights have never solved a thing. Not in this country. Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority hums along with state and local governments. This has been the way America has sustained itself for over two hundred years.

The American Civil War comes to mind as the most lethal challenge to centralized authority. But that conflict was certainly not the first.

Years before, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the states, designed a national government titled the Articles of Confederation.

Much like building a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 attempted to forge a national government to face the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 proved rather toothless in operation. The fatal flaw penned into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Every state mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce obedience, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress couldn’t even ratify this document until the end of the war.

The biggest sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. Clinging to previous royal charters, Virginia and New York, for example, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands could have helped offset the expenditures of war. Congress, nearly bankrupt, and with no real clout, could do little while soldiers suffered. Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from a scarcity of provisions grew so dire General Washington fretted that “the game was nearly up.”

All that while Congress drifted, wringing their hands, begging for loans, and printing worthless paper money.

Worse, states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with English occupiers, filling their personal coffers in British pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked increasingly dim, the states still stubbornly defended their own turf.

Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real clout, inevitable bloodshed quickly followed among the thirteen jealous, quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over negotiable currency nearly crippled the nascent country.

In that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. In reality, both men intended to completely abolish them as a last ditch effort. With the approval of General Washington, a new convention in fact assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied much of the ills of the struggling nation.

This lesson from the past remains relevant. We are better together than alone. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal cost of road construction, nor of fire fighting. Recent Covid-19 policies have proven the futility, and folly of every state for themselves.

This lesson is as relevant today as in 1787.

E Pluribus Unum

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #2

Strutting through the broad, gilded doors, bearing the black and gold insignia of his building, the President acknowledged well wishers, reporters, and staff. Happy to be back in New York, he looked forward to his familiar apartment and comfortable bed. The President felt it a hardship to live in such an old structure in Washington, though the prestige made it tolerable.

He aimed directly toward the elevator, his closest aides and Secret Service agents in tow. The Chief Executive marched into the lift, with a triumphant gait, gracing photographers with a last thumbs up, as the golden doors silently sealed.

Soon enough, the elevator car slowed to a silent halt, the opening doors revealing an opulent penthouse. His entourage emptied first into the golden rooms, Secret Service staff sweeping for any dangers that might threaten the Commander in Chief. After the officers cleared the master bedroom, the President loosened his tie, slipped off his suit jacket and kicked off his designer shoes. Exhaling onto his grand bed, a sudden movement caught his eye.  

A tall man, of regal bearing stood by the window, surveying Midtown from on high. Attired in a blue uniform, trimmed with buff lapels and cuffs, the man’s hair looked powdery white, and was bound in a queue at the nape of his neck. 

Stunned, gasping at this extraordinary vision, the President froze, too astonished and frightened to speak.

“I’m very fond of New York,” the officer began. “During the War for Independence I remained in the vicinity waiting to reclaim it from British occupiers.” He glanced at the frightened man, now burrowing under his bedclothes. “As Chief Executive, I served both terms of office here in New York.”

The President could hear his heart pounding, and idly worried about his blood pressure.

“I, too, struggled with temptation,” the officer continued. In my youth I pined for the advantages of wealth that surrounded me.” The apparition glanced at the President. “Land, military rank, social standing, . . . these were the empty ambitions I embraced as valuable.”

The President slowly began to feel his heart rate slow, the adrenaline somewhat dissipating, and found the courage to speak. “Ho, . . . how did you get in here?” 

But the soldier did not reply, turning again toward the view of Manhattan. 

“Over time, particularly once the war commenced, I discovered my assumptions slowly crumbling. The sacrifices endured by the fine men in my command taught me that there were more important ideals than fleeting treasure,” the apparition sighed, emotion emphasizing his revelation. “You must realize,” the officer turned again toward the President, eyes blazing with conviction, “all a man truly possesses is reputation. In the end, that is all that matters.” 

Dread again filled the President, clutching tightly his golden comforter, finding no comfort. He wished the specter gone, praying with all his might that a staffer would hear and rescue him.

“You must understand,” the visitor continued, “I, too, struggled to master my avarice and envy. It was through a determined practice of self-restraint, a mastering of my baser desires, that I learned to be of service to more than myself.” The soldier paused a moment, studying the frightened man grasping his bedding. “Did you know that Article Two in the Constitution was written for me?” 

Hearing this, the President forgot his fear for a moment. 

“For you?” he managed to murmur. 

“When I relinquished my command after the war, and returned to my home in Virginia, Congress judged my character upright. In truth I was weary, lonely for my family, and yearning for a peaceful life,” the General smiled sadly. “However, when I gave up power I earned honor, trust—a good name—and contentment.”

“Why are you bothering me? You should leave,” the President moaned, wishing he had flown instead to Florida. But his visitor seemed not to hear. 

“When the Constitutional Convention set to work, only one day was devoted to defining the role of president. One day,” the visitor repeated. “You see, the delegates wanted no more of arbitrary rule, believing only those of good character would occupy the office.” The apparition looked directly at the President,”

“Please go,” the President whimpered. “I’ll call my men . . .”

The General interrupted, “they are not yours, Sir. And therein lies the problem, and the purpose of my visit.” The soldier frowned deeply. “These deputies work for the American people, as do you, sir. The presidency is a position of service and trust.” He paused. “We have all noted your general deficiency in this aspect.”

“We all?” gasped the President, concerned with his pumping heart.

The General approached the vast bed, the President shrinking deeper with each step. “The President is entrusted with formidable powers, that must not be corrupted. In this you have fallen short.”

“As I am remembered in the annals of America for quiet dignity and fidelity to country, you will only be recalled as a cynical moneychanger who profited from foreigners and plutocrats.”

A knock at the bedroom door startled the cocooned President, breaking the spell. His elaborate, golden bedroom was empty.

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 hardcopy at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

A Fine Day


Washington at the Second Continental Congress

An anxious boy, George Washington began life in the formal, orderly Virginia Tidewater. Born the first son of a second marriage, young Washington looked up to his older half brothers, blessed with solid social standing and a full inheritance. In particular, George held dear, his brother Lawrence, an English-educated captain in the British Navy.

Lawrence exemplified George’s ideal of the perfect English gentleman. The younger man suppressed, (poorly) an ardent hunger to be a gentleman, too.

Self-conscious, young George flailed around for a vocation. He first trained as a surveyor, platting out frontier tracts in service of his wealthy patron, Lord Thomas Fairfax. Through the Lord’s position, young Washington studied military science and joined the Virginia militia. Tall and strong, with a talent for numbers and tactics, Washington performed well in both pursuits.

Dispatched by the Royal Governor of Virginia into the wilds of the Ohio River Valley, Washington inadvertently ignited the French and Indian War. Engaging French forces near what is today Pittsburgh, the young militia officer was defeated in July 3, 1754.

Promised rank by a British General, Washington looked to realize his most fervent wish—to become a bonafide English officer and gentleman. However, on Washington’s return to the Ohio Valley, this general was killed in the Battle of the Monongahela. Washington never received his British rank.

Humiliated by the experience, Washington left the militia, embittered, and returned home.

Shortly after Britain’s final victory over the French, Washington inherited Mt Vernon with the death of his beloved Lawrence. As a planter, he sought a planter’s wife, marrying widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. With his grand house on the Potomac, and wealthy bride, Washington’s status in the Tidewater elevated considerably.

Still ambitious, Washington ran for office, serving first in the House of Burgesses, then as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774. 

Under increasingly punitive British demands, Washington and many of his peers grew resentful of colonial treatment. By the time of the Second Continental Congress, Washington cast his public lot, by attending the proceedings in a uniform of buff and blue. Colonel Washington had become a rebel, available to command, if necessary, upon the field of battle.

It was during the Revolutionary War, particularly at the battle of Princeton, that Washington transformed, becoming something else, someone exceptional. As his ragtag troop of soldiers flushed redcoats out of the New Jersey town, he is said to have called out , “It is a fine day for a fox hunt, my boys.”

And in that moment George Washington discovered a cause better than any worldly possession could attain, a cause worth more than life.

Authentic majesty did not reside in Royal recognition or military rank. Rather, nobility lay in an ideal—that America could do something grand, and never before attempted—a government of the people. Washington grasped that outside trappings meant nothing, if unaccompanied by worthy ideals. 

It’s a pity that those who seem to know the price of everything understand the value of nothing. 

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. Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com