The Final Straw

The September 11th attacks in 2001 got our school year off to a strange start. There was, of course, the horror, and a lot of unplanned discussion about the Middle East. The course I taught covered Early American History through Reconstruction, and I couldn’t afford to take a lot of time to debrief. Nonetheless, the events of that day provided useful lessons that surfaced later in the year. 

By the following Spring the curriculum arrived to the series of calamities that led to the Civil War. The last compromises crumbled, and blood had spilled at Harpers Ferry. The story then turned to John Brown, God’s Avenging Angel, determined to slay slavery. 

Brown is a complicated figure, believing he had been chosen by the Great Jehovah, to draw the sword of mighty justice.

And a debatable issue offered itself.

The link to Brown and 911 suspect, a French-Moroccan terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, centered on jail time. Moussaoui’s trial was underway and came up in class discussion.

John Brown had been captured in Harpers Ferry, after a standoff with Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee. Intending to spark a slave insurrection, Brown and his raiders, including his sons had occupied the Federal arsenal in that river town. But once the military arrived the old man subsequently surrendered. 

As Brown awaited trial in Charles Town Virginia, the Governor, Henry Wise permitted reporters from Northern papers to interview Old Brown. To the press, Brown passionately defended his cause, insisting it was the work of righteousness. Newspaper readers throughout the North responded with support and compassion, gathering disciples for the cause of freedom.

However, in the South, the old man’s name was reviled. Viewed as a criminal below the Mason Dixon, Brown was vilified as evil incarnate, hell bent on inciting slaves to murder their masters. Military training increased across the South preparing to defend the “peculiar institution.”

John Brown’s raid is often seen as one of the final straws, aside from Lincoln’s election the next year, leading to secession and a force of arms.

Prior to of horror of 911, Zacarias Moussaoui was detained in Minnesota. His immigration status apparently had irregularities, and his flight school enrollment tripped some security wires. At his trial, Moussaoui put on a noisy show, acting as his own attorney, and pitching frequent temper tantrums in the courtroom for all to see, including journalists. At first the accused insisted he was innocent, then later confessed. Quite the circus.

During and following the conviction of the terrorist, Moussaoui demanded the judge permit him access to the press. The French terrorist had his side of the story, and he wanted to air his grievances on a national and international platform.

The judge said no. And Moussaoui today is a lifer, quietly incarcerated at Super Max in Florence, Colorado, and barely a footnote in history.

The significance of this complicated, and controversial comparison? Surely the Civil War would have transpired regardless of Brown; slavery was inconsistent in a nation that professed liberty.

But that fifteen minutes of notoriety can produce real dangerous blowback.  

In light of the events on January 6th, thank the Lord DJT is grounded from social media.

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

An America To Believe In

Religion in politics presumes all citizens essentially hold to the same beliefs. This premise also maintains that religious conformity assures civic virtue, and good order. However, in practice theocracies actually run counter to effective government, as invoking God in public debate stymies the free exchange of ideas. Without the “free market of ideas,” nothing advances, resulting in national decline.   

The Constitution’s framers did not lightly pen any Article, Section, or Clause in their work, nor in the later Bill of Rights. James Madison, in particular, analyzed other government systems, both past and current to his time. What he and other’s found was politics combined with religion sows inevitable public conflict; damaging both political and religious institutions. Madison’s purposeful language in drafting the First Amendment signaled the United States would not make that same mistake. 

This legal tradition stemmed from the lessons of Colonial New England. Puritan dissenters, such as Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson publicly rejected mandatory church compliance. Williams, later exiled to Rhode Island, defended his convictions writing,

Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.

As the first Catholic-Presidential candidate, John F Kennedy later echoed,

. . .it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

And that was the point. American citizens can freely worship, or not-that is the essence of our liberty. Law cannot dictate conscience, as our thoughts are as unique as our finger prints.

Despite the secular legacy of American law, religious prerequisites still surface in one era or another. In the earliest years of the Republic a fervor of evangelism blazed, recognized today as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning around 1800, and lasting until the Civil War, endless, exhausting revivals across the country grew routine. Loosely paralleling “The Age of Jackson,” a political leavening with evangelicalism made for an interesting amalgam, a blend of both the sacred and secular . .  .individual choice. 

As democracy advanced inland as swift as any camp revival, voting rights increasingly extended to the lower classes. White farmers and tradesmen were permitted, in exchange for a poll tax, to cast votes. Working class men could not only choose to follow their vision of Jesus, but back political favorites, with the same evangelical passion. 

Another unexpected outcome of the Second Great Awakening came in the form of countless spinoffs. Rural isolation cultivated a veritable Golden Corral of new religions. William Miller, of upstate New York, forecast the return of Christ as imminent. He, and his followers believed Jesus would reappear sometime between 1843-1844. After the dates passed, with no rapture, the church regrouped becoming today’s Seventh Day Adventists.

Methodists dispatched “circuit riders” into America’s eastern interior. Men like Peter Cartwright, the epitome of a woodland “stump speaker,” could preach the Word of God, while beating the hell out of any heckler. Presbyterians split a couple of times before the Civil War. First, regarding whether or not untrained missionaries could lead revivals, or only seminary trained ministers. This controversy tore believers apart.

The final schism among churches came from the controversy over slavery. And that time bomb came through Biblical interpretation as well. In the North believers felt their duty was to take action against such a grave sin. Southerners, however countered that God made no mistakes. In fact, it was God himself who appointed masters, and placed the slaves beneath them. Rather a handy absolution.

Wisdom, indeed, abounded inside the chamber of Constitution Hall. Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and other lights hoped to avoid religious mistakes from the past, and took measures avoid the danger.

Perhaps the best advice on separation came from Justice William O Douglas in the court’s ruling, Engel V Vitale, 1962.

“once government finances a religious exercise it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.”

Dictating conscience is a fools errand, and a liberated conscience is the promise of America.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Rope of Sand

The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that only exists in the selfish vacuum of political rhetoric. If exploited as the only answer to the country’s problems, remember States’ Rights never solved a thing. Not in America.

Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority layers with state and local governments simultaneously. This system has been functioning for over two hundred years.

The most lethal challenge to centralized authority erupted in the Civil War. But that bloody conflict was certainly not the first confrontation.

Years earlier, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the fledgling states, drafted a national blueprint called the Articles of Confederation.

Much like assembling a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 tried to forge a national government to function through the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 States proved rather feeble in practice.

The fatal flaw woven into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Each delegation mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce deference, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress could not even gather enough votes to ratify the document until the end of the Revolution.

The sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. For example, states like Virginia and New York, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands would have helped offset mounting expenditures. And Congress, nearly bankrupt, with no real clout, could do little beyond promise to help Washington’s Army.

Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from desperate scarcity, the General admitted privately he believed “the game was nearly up.”

Drifting, rudderless, Congress fretted, begging for loans from abroad, and printing worthless paper money.

Worse, states such as New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with the coin-rich Brits, filling their personal coffers in pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked grim, each state dug in, defending their own interests first.

Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real prestige, inevitable bloodshed quickly ensued among the thirteen quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over currency exchange, nearly dissolved the fragile union.

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 dump them for a new, stronger plan.

A recently retired George Washington chaired a new convention assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied many 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 grasping for themselves.

The events of January 6, 2021 raises a similar question. Do we come out of this unrest a weakened and vulnerable rope of sand? Or does this Constitution sustain itself in this moment?

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