The American Gentry

 

Note: My students used to ask how the planter aristocracy convinced poor whites to fight in the Civil War. I think the answer lies in the power and position that the underclass envied and hoped to emulate.

Please permit me to reintroduce these four figures from America’s antebellum period.

Thomas Jefferson, best recognized as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the U.S., and the man behind the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803.

Andrew Jackson, the celebrated hero of the Battle of New Orleans, noted Indian fighter, and seventh president of the U.S.

John C. Calhoun; Congressman, turned Senator, from South Carolina, who served two separate administrations as Vice President.

Jefferson Davis, a former soldier in the Mexican War, one-time Secretary of War, and later President of the Confederate States of America.

All four of these men avidly pursued political careers, embraced the social norms of their era, and all hailed from the Old South.

Ironically if one found the courage to ask their occupation, none would have mentioned politics. Instead, to a man, all would have replied, “I am a farmer.”

To modern ears that curt answer feels a bit disingenuous and profoundly understated. However, in the early nineteenth century, exercising dominion over large tracts of land, and cultivating crops as far as the eye could see, was considered the most noble and honorable of pursuits. In keeping with carefully practiced manners, one politely, and tactfully left unmentioned, the reality that hidden among the hogsheads of tobacco, the bales of cotton, and bags of rice, there germinated a mightier harvest of exaggerated superiority, violent racism, and self deception.

The truth was these politicians were all slave masters; Lords of the Lash, who derived a living “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” (as Lincoln so eloquently described). These four also minimized the financial underpinnings which afforded each man’s elevated social standing; for any talk of the dark brutality behind their “greatness,” was simply not discussed in genteel society. Each cavalier capably hijacked, and effectively distorted  American virtues, such as the ideals of freedom and the social contract to suit their own ends.

No central power held any authority over their personal affairs and conduct.

The maestro of this sophistry was Thomas Jefferson. Proffered as the “Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson brilliantly articulated a vision of America where all lived freely, untouched by the outside world, upon private acres of liberty, immune from any overreaching government. Occasionally those noble scions of property did assemble together to establish necessary laws on general issues; infrastructure, property disputes . . . common needs beyond plantation boundaries. For Jefferson, his fellow planters were “natural aristocrats,” the only power qualified to decide what mattered most. Only this paternal elite knew best what constituted the common good for lesser members of the community.

After the regrettable passage of a clearly unconstitutional law, the Sedition Act in 1798, Jefferson jumped into action against the Adams administration, authoring a tract titled the “Kentucky Resolution.” This position statement, submitted to the Kentucky Legislature, introduced the concept of ‘nullifying’ Federal law. The idea was simple. If a majority of delegates, assembled in special convention, renounced this Federal statute, the law was rendered null and void within the state.

For the first time, in one pivotal moment, Jefferson’s insidious principle found its way into the fabric of American politics, but found no traction in surrounding states . . . at least not yet.

Away from public scrutiny, Master Tom held sway over some 600 slaves, and fathered six children by his deceased wife’s half-sister—a slave—Sally Hemings. According to plantation records meticulously scribed by “the Sage,” himself, regular whippings, especially of young male slaves were scheduled, performed, and unquestioned. Jefferson understood slave labor required obedience, and obedience was assured only through violence. Apologists have argued that Jefferson felt troubled by such practices, and attempted to lay blame in the nation’s colonial past. Yet, he did nothing meaningful to end this tortuous practice, even when he could. Emancipation would have simply been his ruin.

And it is that legacy of deception–Jefferson’s cries for personal liberty versus the cries of the enslaved–that shaped his politics. The human nightmare Master Tom inflicted on his people laboring upon his lands was nobody’s business but his—and Jefferson’s aristocratic peers shared that same view.

Andrew Jackson interestingly enough didn’t care for Thomas Jefferson. As a young Congressman, then Senator from Tennessee, Jackson realized he couldn’t remain seated through all that talking and rules of procedure required in law making. Jefferson, in return, thought the brash young man a tad impetuous and well, nuts. But both planters did share in the same world view, “What happens on my plantation stays on my plantation.” Jackson too, was a ferocious master who answered to no law, but his own. A merchant in both horse and slave trading, Jackson dueled any who questioned his honor, supervised cotton production on his fiefdom (The Hermitage) and eradicated indigenous peoples on lands Jackson saw as better suited for more cotton production.

To Jackson’s credit he did not attempt any pretense of civic virtue, or learned philosophy.

When elected in 1828, President Jackson exercised a different style. “Old Hickory” governed very efficiently without any of the political nonsense of protocol or formality.

Even Supreme Court reverses proved no obstacle. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation, et al, could remain on their ancestral lands in Georgia. Unimpressed by the judicial decision, Jackson cynically carried on ordering the military to remove the tribes from the state. The President knew the land in question was broad, and fertile; perfect for plantation crops. Plus gold discoveries in the same region put paid to the inevitable, accelerating a massive forced death march known as the Trail of Tears.

In another episode, Jackson, finding himself formally censured by the Senate (for vetoing the re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States) used his considerable influence to have that rebuke expunged from the Congressional Record. His overly exaggerated sense of honor demanded that Jackson demand that this official insult be eradicated.

In a candid moment Jackson later confessed his only regrets as president was not hanging the Senator behind the censure.

Jackson injected a petty impetuosity to national politics unrivaled until today’s shenanigans. And though Jackson’s enemies christened him “King Andrew I,” his unilateral style did not derive from any monarchical notions. Rather, the President’s conduct came from his background. Jackson was accustomed to being obeyed—he was Master Andrew, a member of the planter class.

Before Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina soured into a states’ right’s militant, his political outlook had been national in scope. With unusual clarity, young Representative Calhoun once confessed that slavery was a “necessary evil,” vital to South Carolina’s prosperity. Over time he married a wealthy Charleston cousin, elevating his standing and political authority in Southern society. Calhoun began renovations on Fort Hill, a plantation in the uplands of South Carolina, which, with his new wife, cemented his bona fides as a member the ruling class. This ambitious politician had truly arrived, assuming the role of gentleman, influential political figure, and a prominent slave master. Much like Monticello, Fort Hill was an ever-expanding operation, endlessly improved using the same teams of slaves that tended his fields.

However, in a series of unforeseen reverses beginning in 1828, Calhoun’s political prospects declined.

This self-made politician-planter coveted the highest office in the land. Calhoun had served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and viewed his ascendency to the White House a natural next step. Yet circumstances played out beyond his control. These events aren’t exactly pertinent to this essay, but look them up. Interesting stuff.

Bitter, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and returned to Fort Hill an angry man. His stance on slavery changed as well, leaving him vitriolic and defensive. Under increasing pressure from growing abolitionist criticism, Calhoun, speaking now for the entire South, adamantly insisted the institution was not evil, after all, but instead a ‘positive good.’

When a high import tariff was passed by Congress, Calhoun defiantly announced South Carolina would not collect this “Tariff of Abominations.” Moreover, the angry former Vice President organized a state convention to nullify (remember Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution?) the Federal law. With Calhoun’s newly minted militancy, the former Vice President defiantly stood his ground.

President Jackson did not suffer Calhoun’s impertinent challenge lightly. A another slave master, he bluntly threatened Calhoun in terms both “gentlemen” understood—the president personally guaranteed Calhoun’s thrashing. Fortunately this particular crisis was averted by cooler heads in Washington, postponing the curse of fraternal bloodshed for a later generation.

But the question of states’ rights, local control, and the sovereignty of the master class merely continued to boil. Nullification bloomed into full secession by 1861 after decades of discord. No longer did the planter class tolerate insults or challenges to their natural preeminence and power. South Carolina, (The deceased Calhoun’s home state) became the first of the eleven to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Delegates attending the state convention did not wait for the final electoral college results, to reject the victory of nationalist Abraham Lincoln as president. So enraged were these aristocratic lords, that Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot in most southern precincts.

I’ve added Confederate President Jefferson Davis to this piece because of his later role in perpetuating the genteel myth of the Southern aristocracy. After battles and bullets finally settled the supremacy of the Federal government, Davis, released from jail began a writing career. He penned first, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, followed later by A Short History of the Confederate States of America. In both of these works, Davis revisited the events leading to secession, briefly described in this essay.

Rehashing Constitutional debates from the Philadelphia convention, Davis insisted that the States existed before the Union, thus could leave whenever the Feds no longer acted on their behalf. Reiterating this view in both volumes, the defeated Secessionist defended the South’s righteous justification in standing up to tyranny. Davis repeatedly echoed the virtues of States’ Rights, nullification, and local political control. Sadly for our nation’s history, Jefferson Davis had not only the last word, but also the lasting spin on the creating the fictional myth of “The Lost Cause.” Oh, and this is significant—Jefferson Davis was a planter as well, the master of “Brierfield,” a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi before the onset of war.

For this student of history, the bandying about of terms like “States Rights,” “nullification,” and “secession,” coupled with an unending vilification of the Federal Government gives me pause. This fanciful yarn was only concocted as an appealing cover for a legacy of hubris, power, greed, hate, racial exploitation, and violence.

This essay closes with no examination of the State’s Rights’ issue in the Twenty-first Century. Modern history most certainly has much to lend, especially regarding the Civil Rights Movement. The point of this effort, rather, is to shed light on an enduring political influence. This lot is not only vibrantly alive, but has left a tradition of chaos, intransigence, and gridlock. And this crowd has no intention to cooperate or compromise.

And I must confess when Representative Joe Wilson, a defoliant-resistant sprout from South Carolina shouted, “You Lie,” to President Obama, on the occasion of his first State of the Union address, my Nationalist-leaning blood froze. Though no longer permitted to inflict public whippings, or issue challenges to duels; the outraged indignation of America’s antebellum period roared across the House Chamber. On that cold, historic, January night in 2009, the master’s voice thundered once again.

Gail Chumbey is the author of River of January.

Waves

 

 

Preaching in 1630, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop, declared the new Puritan settlement a godly utopia, “A City on a Hill.” Since that time Winthrop’s assurance of purpose and perfection has shaped the narrative that is American history. For over two centuries the United States pushed forward striving to make real those founding aspirations. Many Americans, either in groups or as individuals have fought the good fight to extend liberty for all: the most notable example being the abolition of slavery. Yet the path toward realizing the dream of heaven on earth has been many times interrupted with progress’s nemesis—armed warfare.

As Revolutionary War zeal subsided in the late 1700’s, a series of remote camp meetings sparked a movement called the Second Great Awakening. (Yes there was a First) The popularity of these rousing evangelical revivals lit an impassioned fire that called Americans, mostly Northerners to eradicate sin in the shiny new republic. Determined reformers such as Charles Grandison Finney, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton labored tirelessly to rid America of her shortcomings; drunkenness, degrading of women, punitive treatment of the mentally ill, racial inequality . . . in order for the country live up to its charge as a “called nation.”

Despite the diversity of causes and legions of faithful supporters, slavery alone came to dwarf all other movements and to ultimately divide the country. Early instances of violence in the effort to end slavery offered a taste of the violence to come in the Civil War; Abolitionist-editor, Elijah Lovejoy was shot dead in the doorway of his newspaper office, while another anti-slavery editor, William Lloyd Garrison found himself tarred and feathered repeatedly by those who hated his militancy. Zealot John Brown hacked to death five pro-slavers in an episode known as “Bleeding Kansas.” In these instances, “the writing on the wall” had truly been composed in blood.

When hostilities began in April, 1861 the energy of a nation fixated on the course of each battle, fear and resolve ebbing and flowing with each outcome. The shape of America’s future waited in the balance. Finally, after four ghastly years of bloody fighting, Southern hopes of an agrarian, slave-ocracy died, and as President Lincoln so eloquently phrased it, America found “a new birth of freedom.”

Left unaddressed were those other reforms, forgotten in the war. The mentally ill remained behind bars, incarcerated alongside dangerous criminals. Women were legally considered wards of their husbands, with no more standing than dependent children. Countless young children toiled endlessly in textile mills and coal mines, exploited by owners, deprived of any chance for an education. And the legions of former slaves faced a new form of slavery, Jim Crow and sharecropping.

Reform again gathered momentum in the late 19th Century. Aiming once more for that ‘city’ aspiration, the Progressive movement took shape, carried on by a new generation of the faithful, imbued with a sense of social justice to confront the many wrongs left unaddressed from an earlier time, and new issues related to urban growth. Notables from this post bellum movement include; Jane Addams, one of the founders of American Social Work, writer Upton Sinclair and his shocking expose’ The Jungle a condemnation of the meat industry, and John Dewey who normalized public education with coherent curriculum’s and compulsory school attendance. Dewey believed, as had the founders of America, that the nation relied upon and deserved an educated electorate to safeguard the promise of America into the future.

This movement found a great deal of success in improving the country and the lives of its citizens. Building safety reform came on the heels of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. The Jungle brought about the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration, while political reforms included the secret ballot, limiting “Bossism,” and other forms of political corruption.

Then, in 1914 Europe went to war. By 1916 Progressive President, Woodrow Wilson committed America to join in, asking for a declaration against Germany, sending American soldiers into the trenches. And once again, when the guns silenced progressive reforms disappeared as if they had not existed. On the imaginary road to “Normalcy,” the wealthy and powerful misused the country as a personal piggy bank, plundering and cheating with no legal check.

After a decade long litany of economic abuses tanked the Stock Market in 1929, the nation once again turned toward progress, this time on an unparalleled scale. The advent of Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, to the White House marked a revitalization of reshaping America to benefit all Americans. The New Deal remembered for its alphabet agencies, aimed to recover the devastated economy and ward off future abuses that had nearly destroyed the well being of the Republic.

America’s entrance into World War Two bucked the pattern of a reactionary pushback. FDR remained at the helm, until Harry Truman took the reins of government, continuing the tradition of affirming change. GOP President Dwight David Eisenhower kept a moderate hand on the tiller, particularly in the realm of Civil Rights, enforcing the Brown V. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools.

But with JFK’s murder, the wheels once again came off social progress. As much as LBJ tried to give America all he could; The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Highways Beautification Act, Head Start, Medicaid, and many more pieces of his Great Society legislation, Vietnam eroded all the good.

That endless nightmare of a stalemate in Southeast Asia worked at cross purposes for bettering society. The daily body count, student protests, war atrocities, such as the My Lai massacre, or the shock of the TET Offensive in 1968 sapped America’s desire to do anything but find a way out of the jungle.

Promoting the general welfare came nearly to a complete halt by 1980. The advent of the Reagan Revolution, and subsequent downsizing of the federal government left the vulnerable largely on their own. School lunch programs were cut, the mentally ill let out on the streets of America, while the armament industry threw the nation into deep deficits.

On this Memorial weekend it might be good to consider the potential of America when at peace. Trapped today in an endless cycle of war, this nation struggles to find her soul, to embrace together the light of our national promise. Two military presidents, our first, General George Washington and our thirty fourth, General Dwight D. Eisenhower pleaded with America in their farewell remarks to avoid war as the worst use of our best abilities. Both men, forged in the adversity of difficult wars, recognized the wasteful distraction and deadly allure of war. Washington cautioned against “entangling alliances, and Eisenhower “the military-industrial complex.”

Ultimately, those who know war grasps what is truly lost. Every weapon produced in a munitions factory most certainly casts a wrench into the wheels of human progress. Winthrop meant his reference from the book of Matthew to inspire an example to the world. Forcing Americanism by the barrel of a gun is born to failure, achieving nothing lasting but resentment abroad, and stagnating injustice at home.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January, also available on Kindle.

Justice as a Force

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President Andrew Jackson has stopped spinning in his grave. Finally. He hated paper money with all the fiber in his being, and now thankfully for him, no longer tacitly endorses its use. Jackson was a sound money man and believed gold the only genuine medium of exchange . . . weigh-able, bite-able gold; good ole “cash on the barrel-head.” In fact, the President believed so passionately in the principle of gold bullion that he banned any use of paper money for any transaction whatsoever. This same policy, in the end, torpedoed the US economy and triggered the Panic of 1837.

That financial disaster held on for over five chilly years.

But the day has arrived, America has finally heard Jackson’s cries of anguish from the great beyond, and removed his likeness from that raggedy heresy of ersatz value. Still, one has to wonder. What would General Jackson make of runaway slave, Harriet Tubman taking his place on legal tender?

Ms. Tubman, as a woman, and as a slave, lived invisibly in Jackson’s world. The only notice a planter like Jackson would have made was Tubman’s incorrigible practice of stealing another master’s property. For a man of deep passions, of violent loves and hates, her offense would have pissed this president off, and sent him into a dangerous rage. In his world of master and slave, her offenses allowed no mercy, no reprieve.

As for Tubman? She understood a truth that Jackson could never, ever have comprehended—that justice was a force that bore no designation to color, gender, or appraised value. A mighty truth reigned far above the limited aspirations of General Andrew Jackson, killer of banks, Natives, and the hopes of the hundreds he held in bondage.

Tubman’s idea of honorable behavior had nothing to do with white men firing pistols on dueling grounds, and that white social conventions which condemned her to servitude were wholesome and noble. The human condition, as Tubman understood the meaning, held a deeper significance, an importance that required a profounder appreciation. The world of plantations, race hatred, whip wielding overseers, and economic injustice held no real sway, and certainly possessed no honor.

Jackson’s opinions truly hued in only black and white, and that outlook wasn’t limited to skin color. Abstract ideas like ‘humanity’ didn’t resonate in his mind, too ethereal for a man who loved gold coins. Banks were bad, women were ornaments, Indians were fair game, and blacks were slaves. That simple. Of course at the same time, this limited world view gave a figure with Tubman’s vision the edge. If a man of Jackson’s time and station caught a glimpse inside the real thoughts of his “family” members living over in the slave quarters, his mind would have been blown.

So it is with some satisfaction that Harriet Tubman replaces Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. But not only because she’s a woman, nor only because she’s black. The star she followed may have literally sparkled in the northern sky, but every footstep she trod signified progress on the road to realizing the immeasurable value in us all.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January

“Set their Feet on the Firm and Stable Earth”

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My mother has made it quite clear that she wants to live at home until the very end. Any member of our family daring to even think ‘assisted living’ can expect a reaming on the scale of a super nova. Mom has no reason to transplant elsewhere. She has her recliner, her adjustable mattress, her crossword puzzles, and her memories in that house. After 53 years under the same roof there is no other place–that home is the center of her universe.

Oddly enough her story somehow broaches the subject of why people do move—in this instance, the story of immigration to America.

The 19th Century American humor magazine, Puck once declared that “Princes’ don’t immigrate,” and that truth has found a lot of support in our historic record. Just a glimpse of current film footage along southern European borders powerfully demonstrate this 19th century truism. The vulnerable from Syria and other destabilized regions of the Middle East grapple with hate, fear and barbed wire to carry their families to safety.

Immigrants to American shores have all shared similar reasons to exchange the familiar, for the unknown. A brief look at America’s earliest settlers well illustrates this dynamic from 1620 to the present.

Some folks were pushed, some were pulled, but all European newcomers set foot on Atlantic shores because there was no reason to remain in the familiar.

Challenges to the Catholic Church provided the first steps toward the flow of populations to leave Great Britain. The Protestant Reformation essentially secularized the English Church, rejecting and replacing the Pope for the British sovereign as leader. Devout believers felt that King Henry’s English Reformation did not go far enough in ridding sacraments for deeper Biblical understanding. This faction became known as “Puritans,” those who wished to cleanse the English Church of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The religious struggle in the British Isles was long and complicated, but ultimately resulted in systematic Puritan persecution. Two phases of believers departed Great Britain as a consequence. First, were the Separatists led by William Bradford, who believed England was damned beyond redemption. This group settled first in Holland, then acquired funding for a journey on the Mayflower to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these folks as the Pilgrims.

Almost ten years later another group of mistreated reformers made landfall further north, closer to Boston. This wave of settlers, unlike the small trickle in Plymouth, came to Massachusetts Bay in a metaphoric deluge. Thousands upon thousands of Puritans departed England, driven out by an intolerant, albeit re-Catholicized crown. Called the Great Puritan Migration, refugees from religious bullying settled from Cape Cod, to the Caribbean.

The Quakers, or Society of Friends, made up another group pushed out of England. In a stratified culture of forced deference to one’s “betters,” this faith recognized the innate equality in all people. Quakers, for example, refused to swear oaths or ‘doft’ their hats in the presence of “gentlemen,” and that impudence made the sect an intolerable challenge to the status quo.

William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and found this punitive treatment of Quakers unjust. However, as a wall to wall adherent to peace and brotherhood, Penn used his childhood connections to the aristocracy to depart to America. King Charles II granted Penn a large tract of land in the New World, where Penn and his followers settled in the 1660’s. “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania set up shop establishing the settlement upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.

The father of President Andrew Jackson, Jackson Senior, stands as an excellent example representing another wave of humanity dispensable to the British Crown. Dubbed Scots-Irish, these were Scotsmen who resisted British hegemony and unification for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of rugged survivors, by the 1700’s, made their way to America. Not the most sociable bunch, these refugees found their path inland, eventually settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single minded this group transitioned from exiles to backcountry folk.

Now the settlers in Jamestown and Georgia offer a different explanation for permanent human migration.

The London Company of Virginia, a corporation, funded an expedition to Jamestown in 1607. Soldier of Fortune, Captain John Smith and his compatriots crossed the Atlantic to get rich. Inspired by the example of Spanish finds in Mexico, these English mercenaries were hopeful of finding golden cities of their own. Almost a disastrous failure, the Jamestown colony survived, not by precious metals, but from cultivating a Native crop . . . tobacco. Eventually arrivals outnumbered departures in the stabilizing Virginia settlement, and the addictive crop paid handsome dividends for London investors.

Georgia, the most southern colony came last, founded in 1732. The brain child of social reformer, James Oglethorpe, this colony of red clay became a dumping ground for victims of England’s byzantine criminal codes. Those of the lowest rungs of English society, from petty pickpockets to hardened felons found themselves “transported” to Oglethorpe’s colony for second chances, and out of the hair of English jailers.

On a side note, slavery explicitly was forbidden in the Georgia charter. And that raises the issue of the last group forced to American shores; African slaves. These unfortunate souls did not want to leave their homes in West Africa. Much like my mother, this group did not wish a new life in a new land. Economic demands brought about this “Middle Passage,” the despicable trade in human cargo, kidnapped for the New World. Force, brutality, and exploitation wrenched these people from their lands to serve those who for contrasting reasons came to live in America. The injustice of this “African Diaspora” still plagues an American society grappling to resolve this age-old injustice.

Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigration as an inherent evil and subverting occurrence. No one lightly pulls up roots. Leaving all that is familiar is an act of desperation, a painful and difficult human drama.

Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to lead.

Oh, and my 84-year old mother just remodeled the house, keeping her Eden fresh and new.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and the newly published River of January: Figure Eight.

We All Knew

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One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war . . . .If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due . . .Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, March 4, 1865

Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the early 19th Century. Both men, devout followers of the Methodist faith, often found personal worship disrupted by white parishioners, bent on limiting black presence and participation. Enduring decades of bullying by white clergy, these men and their followers established their own church in Philadelphia, “Mother Bethel.” At this site Allen and Jones, with their congregation witnessed the racial turbulence of the antebellum period, with the rise of Abolitionism, and finally culminating in bloody Civil War.

Richard Allen and his congregation were forced to draw away from the established Church because they longed for freedom of worship. And though this schism seems small today, the move toward religious independence indicated the real need for black equality in all spheres of life, but especially in this case of spirituality. “Mother Bethel,” and many more churches like it supplied the moral courage to risk all in the pursuit of public justice.

It was from African-American Churches, (all rooted in rejection by white congregations) that real advances began. Richard Allen and the AME is one example. But Dr. King provided the same succor for the next social-political push in the Civil Rights era of the 1950-1960’s. Faith and song propelled this hopeful movement forward, lead by blacks for blacks.Though a Lutheran, Rosa Parks was approached by the leaders of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to ride that bus in Montgomery and not be moved.

The African-American church was the anchor feeding the spirit of justice.

But yesterday a serpent was welcomed (with love) in to this timeless sanctuary of solace. This lost soul, channeling the rage of hundreds of years of hate, sprayed deadly venom to try and kill the timeless promise of hope. The message registered–we know hate still runs riot among the fearful. The church is no safe place from the legacy of ignorance and racism in America.

President Lincoln grasped that truth–slavery presented the worst kind of sin, a sin of such magnitude that oceans couldn’t wash America clean. He states in his Second Inaugural that “we all somehow knew.” And we indeed do know that racism is the defect that turns us into monsters. The president implored Americans to accept that racial conflict is our nation’s Achilles Heel, and it won’t go away without courageous action.

We must deal with inequality on a national level, a state level, and each in our own hearts. White and Black. Folks, the strife will not go away on it’s own–it never has.

And, yeah, maybe Rachel Dolezal has identity issues, maybe she acted the fool in front of us all. But I would suggest that we could all make a little effort to generate some empathy for the guy next to us.

If you enjoyed this message, please share.

Gail Chumbley is a historian and author of River of January

The American Gentry

Please permit me to reintroduce these four figures from America’s antebellum period.

Thomas Jefferson, best recognized as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the U.S., and the man behind the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803.

Andrew Jackson, the celebrated hero of the Battle of New Orleans, noted Indian fighter, and seventh president of the U.S.

John C. Calhoun; Congressman, turned Senator, from South Carolina, who served two separate administrations as Vice President.

Jefferson Davis, a former soldier in the Mexican War, one-time Secretary of War, and later President of the Confederate States of America.

All four of these men avidly pursued political careers, embraced the social norms of their era, and all hailed from the Old South.

Ironically if one found the courage to ask their occupation, none would have mentioned politics. Instead, to a man, all would have replied, “I am a farmer.”

To modern ears that curt answer feels a bit disingenuous and profoundly understated. However, in the early nineteenth century, exercising dominion over large tracts of land, and cultivating crops as far as the eye could see, was considered the most noble and honorable of pursuits. In keeping with carefully practiced manners, one politely, and tactfully left unmentioned, the reality that hidden among the hogsheads of tobacco, the bales of cotton, and bags of rice, there germinated a mightier harvest of exaggerated superiority, violent racism, and self deception.

The truth was these politicians were all slave masters; lords of the lash, who derived a living “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” (as Lincoln so eloquently described). These four also minimized the financial underpinnings which afforded each man’s elevated social standing; for any talk of the dark brutality behind their “greatness,” was simply not discussed in genteel society. Each cavalier capably hijacked, and effectively distorted  American virtues, such as the ideals of freedom and the social contract to suit their own ends.

No central power held any authority over their personal affairs and conduct.

The maestro of this sophistry was Thomas Jefferson. Proffered as the “Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson brilliantly articulated a vision of America where all lived freely, untouched by the outside world, upon private acres of liberty, immune from any overreaching government. Occasionally those noble scions of property did assemble together to establish necessary laws on general issues; infrastructure, property disputes . . . common needs beyond plantation boundaries. For Jefferson, his fellow planters were “natural aristocrats,” the only power qualified to decide what mattered most. Only this paternal elite knew best what constituted the common good for lesser members of the community.

After the regrettable passage of a clearly unconstitutional law, the Sedition Act in 1798, Jefferson jumped into action against the Adams administration, authoring a tract titled the “Kentucky Resolution.” This position statement, submitted to the Kentucky Legislature, introduced the concept of ‘nullifying’ Federal law. The idea was simple. If a majority of delegates, assembled in special convention, renounced this Federal statute, the law was rendered null and void within the state.

For the first time, in one pivotal moment, Jefferson’s insidious principle found its way into the fabric of American politics, but found no traction in surrounding states . . . at least not yet.

Away from public scrutiny, Master Tom held sway over some 600 slaves, and fathered six children by his deceased wife’s half-sister—a slave—Sally Hemings. According to plantation records meticulously scribed by “the Sage,” himself, regular whippings, especially of young male slaves were scheduled, performed, and unquestioned. Jefferson understood slave labor required obedience, and obedience was assured only through violence. Apologists have argued that Jefferson felt troubled by such practices and attempted to lay blame in the nation’s colonial past. Yet he did nothing meaningful to end this tortuous practice, even when he could. Emancipation would have simply been his ruin.

And it is that legacy of deception–Jefferson’s cries for personal liberty versus the cries of the enslaved–that shaped his politics. The human nightmare Master Tom inflicted on his people laboring upon his lands was nobody’s business but his—and Jefferson’s aristocratic peers shared that same view.

Andrew Jackson interestingly enough didn’t care for Thomas Jefferson. As a young Congressman, then Senator from Tennessee, Jackson realized he couldn’t remain seated through all that talking and rules of procedure required in law making. Jefferson, in return, thought the brash young man a tad impetuous and well, nuts. But both planters did share in the same world view, “What happens on my plantation stays on my plantation.” Jackson too, was a ferocious master who answered to no law, but his own. A merchant in both horse and slave trading, Jackson dueled any who questioned his honor, supervised cotton production on his fiefdom (The Hermitage) and eradicated indigenous peoples on lands Jackson saw as better suited for more cotton production.

To Jackson’s credit he did not attempt any pretense of civic virtue, or learned philosophy.

When elected in 1828, President Jackson exercised a different style. “Old Hickory” governed very efficiently without any of the political nonsense of protocol or formality.

Even Supreme Court reverses proved no obstacle. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation, et al, could remain on their ancestral lands in Georgia. Unimpressed by the judicial decision, Jackson cynically carried on ordering the military to remove the tribes from the state. The President knew the land in question was broad, and fertile; perfect for plantation crops. Plus gold discoveries in the same region put paid to the inevitable, accelerating a massive forced death march known as the Trail of Tears.

In another episode, Jackson, finding himself formally censured by the Senate (for vetoing the re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States) used his considerable influence to have that rebuke expunged from the Congressional Record. His overly exaggerated sense of honor demanded that Jackson demand that this official insult be eradicated.

In a candid moment Jackson later confessed his only regrets as president was not hanging the Senator behind the censure.

Jackson injected a petty impetuosity to national politics unrivaled until today’s shenanigans. And though Jackson’s enemies christened him “King Andrew I,” his unilateral style did not derive from any monarchical notions. Rather, the President’s conduct came from his background. Jackson was accustomed to being obeyed—he was Master Andrew, a member of the planter class.

Before Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina soured into a states’ right’s militant, his political outlook had been national in scope. With unusual clarity, young Representative Calhoun once confessed that slavery was a “necessary evil,” vital to South Carolina’s prosperity. Over time he married a wealthy Charleston cousin, elevating his standing and political authority in Southern society. Calhoun began renovations on Fort Hill, a plantation in the uplands of South Carolina, which, with his new wife, cemented his bona fides as a member the ruling class. This ambitious politician had truly arrived, assuming the role of gentleman, influential political figure, and a prominent slave master. Much like Monticello, Fort Hill was an ever-expanding operation, endlessly improved using the same teams of slaves that tended his fields.

However, in a series of unforeseen reverses beginning in 1828, Calhoun’s political prospects declined.

This self-made politician-planter coveted the highest office in the land. Calhoun had served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and viewed his ascendency to the White House a natural next step. Yet circumstances played out beyond his control. These events aren’t exactly pertinent to this essay, but look them up. Interesting stuff.

Bitter, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and returned to Fort Hill an angry man. His stance on slavery changed as well, leaving him vitriolic and defensive. Under increasing pressure from growing abolitionist criticism, Calhoun, speaking now for the entire South, adamantly insisted the institution was not evil, after all, but instead a ‘positive good.’

When a high import tariff was passed by Congress, Calhoun defiantly announced South Carolina would not collect this “Tariff of Abominations.” Moreover, the angry former Vice President organized a state convention to nullify (remember Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution?) the Federal law. With Calhoun’s newly minted militancy, the former Vice President defiantly stood his ground.

President Jackson did not suffer Calhoun’s impertinent challenge lightly. As another slave master, he bluntly threatened Calhoun in terms both “gentlemen” understood—the president personally guaranteed Calhoun’s thrashing. Fortunately this particular crisis was averted by cooler heads in Washington, postponing the curse of fraternal bloodshed for a later generation.

But the question of states’ rights, local control, and the sovereignty of the master class merely continued to boil. Nullification bloomed into full secession by 1861 after decades of discord. No longer did the planter class tolerate insults or challenges to their natural preeminence and power. South Carolina, (Calhoun’s home state) became the first of the eleven to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Delegates attending the state convention did not wait for the final electoral college results, to reject the victory of nationalist Abraham Lincoln as president. So enraged were these aristocratic lords, that Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot in most southern precincts.

I’ve added Confederate President Jefferson Davis to this piece because of his later role in perpetuating the genteel myth of the Southern aristocracy. After battles and bullets finally settled the supremacy of the Federal government, Davis, released from jail began a writing career. He penned first, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, followed later by A Short History of the Confederate States of America. In both of these works, Davis revisited the events leading to secession, briefly described in this essay.

Rehashing Constitutional debates from the Philadelphia convention, Davis insisted that the States existed before the Union, thus could leave whenever the Feds no longer acted on their behalf. Reiterating this view in both volumes, the defeated Secessionist defended the South’s righteous justification in standing up to tyranny. Davis repeatedly echoed the virtues of States’ Rights, nullification, and local political control. Sadly for our nation’s history, Jefferson Davis had not only the last word, but also the lasting spin on the noble myth of “The Lost Cause.” Oh, and this is significant—Jefferson Davis was a planter as well, the master of “Brierfield,” a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi before the onset of the war.

For this student of history, the bandying about of terms like “States Rights,” “nullification,” and “secession,” coupled with an unending vilification of the Federal Government brings me pause. This fanciful yarn was only concocted as an appealing cover for a legacy of hubris, power, greed, hate, racial exploitation, and violence.

This essay closes with no examination of the State’s Rights’ issue in the Twenty-first Century. Modern history most certainly has much to lend, especially regarding the Civil Rights. The point of this effort, rather, is to shed light on a dominant enduring political influence. This venerable lot is not only vibrantly alive, but has left a tradition of chaos, intransigence, and gridlock. And this crowd has no intention to cooperate or compromise.

And I must confess when Representative Joe Wilson, a defoliant-resistant sprout from South Carolina shouted, “You Lie,” to President Obama, on the occasion of his first State of the Union address, my Nationalist-leaning blood froze. Though no longer permitted to inflict public whippings, or issue challenges to duels; the outraged indignation of America’s antebellum period roared across the House Chamber. On that cold, historic, January night in 2009, the master’s voice thundered once again.

Gail Chumbey is the author of River of January.