Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pop Quiz—Who Rioted at the White House?

What may be the earliest photograph of the White House--an 1846 daguerreotype taken five years after the riot on the grounds of the mansion. 

The White House a/k/a The President’s Palace and Executive Mansion has seen its share of turmoil.

There was the time the British arrived uninvited and Dolly Madison had to abandon dinner and make a getaway with Washington’s Portrait rolled up in a rug.  The Redcoats burned the place requiring a fresh coat of white wash and earning the place a new name.

The Red Coats burning the Executive Mansion was a no-good-terrible-very-bad-day but it wasn't a riot.

It got pretty boisterous when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated and he invited the “plain people” over to the house.  Things got out of hand when thousands showed up, apparently very hungry.  They climbed through windows and broke furniture to get to the Enormous Cheese sent down from Vermont for the occasion.  But despite shocking the sensibilities of respectable folks, it was a friendly, if inebriated, crowd.

Then there was the day when Abraham Lincoln looked out the window and saw his Army running in a panic for their lives after being whipped at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Harry Truman was living across the street at Blair House while the old place was getting fixed up when Puerto Rican Nationalists tried to break in and shoot him.  They failed, but a White House Police Officer was killed.

This blog has covered all of those exciting events.

But today is the anniversary of the first, and as far as I can tell, only full scale riot on the White House grounds.  Can you guess who rioted and why?  Betcha can’t.

First let’s eliminate some possible candidates.

  • Coxey’s Army—The first greatmarch on Washington” by the unemployed in 1894 during one of the nation’s recurring financial Panics.  It dispersed peacefully at the Capital and never targeted the White House.
  • Suffrage ProtestsPicketing of Woodrow Wilson’s White House during World War I was a first for public demonstrations there, but was entirely orderly.  Irked, Wilson ordered the arrest of the women, many of whom were sent to jail where they went on a hunger strike and were force fed by hoses shoved down their throats.  But no riot.
  • The Bonus MarchWorld War I Veterans demanding early payment of a promised bonus in 1932 marching up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capital was dispersed by General Douglas MacArthur’s tanks and cavalry and chased across the river where he burned their shanty town.  Herbert Hoover, however, and the White House were never in any danger.
Since these events there have been many huge demonstrations in Washington for civil rights, for and against abortion rights, against several wars, and for numerous other causes.  The current Resident has drawn regular protests large, small, and creative.  But no riots at the White House.

Picketing now occurs almost daily for one cause or another and symbolic but peaceful civil disobedience there is so routine that it hardly merits any press attention.  The occasional loon tries to scale the fence or somehow gets on the grounds, but is always nabbed.

Give up?

On August 16, 1841 a mob of Whig Party members, likely fueled by generous supplies of alcohol by their backers, rioted on the grounds of the White House, pelting the building with stones and bricks breaking windows, fired guns into the air, and burned the President in effigy.  They never breached the doors, but John Tyler undoubtedly had some very anxious moments.

What were they so mad about?  Tyler had just, for the second time , vetoed a bill re-chartering the Second Bank of the United States.  This was a riot by business interests who had solidly backed the Whig’s against the firm Anti-bank policy of both Thomas Jefferson’s old Democratic Republicans and Andrew Jackson’s rebuilt Democratic Party.

Tyler was sitting in the White House, albeit accidently, as a Whig, so his opposition to the Bank was even more infuriating.

Tyler was a Virginia aristocrat and self-described “Old Republican”—a conservative opposed to creeping nationalism and an advocate of strict construction of the Constitution.  After a successful political career as a U.S. Representative, Governor, and Senator, like many southern politicians of his class, he broke with Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party when Jackson backed a controversial Tariff and threatened to send Federal troops to South Carolina when it threatened to nullify the law.
Henry Clay of Kentucky--perhaps the most powerful of the Whig's three great national leaders including old Federalist Daniel Webster and pro-slavery firebrand John C. Calhoun.  Each represented faction of the party at war with each other from the beginning.

He was left with little other option than to join with other Jackson haters in the Whig Party.  The Whigs were a new party made up of the fragmentary remnants of the old Federalists in New England led by Daniel Webster and the western Nationalists and advocates of internal improvements led by Henry Clay.  Disgruntled southern aristocrats like Tyler added to the mix and were generally led by firebrand former Vice President John C. Calhoun. 

The Whigs were an inherently unstable alliance with the first two groups backing Northern business interests, strong central government, and Federal spending on infrastructure.  The old Federalists were generally opposed to slavery, or at least its expansion, while the Westerners were eager to add new states, slave or free.  The agrarian Southerners fought New England business interests tooth and nail, opposed spending on infrastructure as unconstitutional and likely to lead to Federal taxation, and were passionate advocates of slavery and its expansion.

An 1840 Whig ticket poster.

 Desperate to win the Presidency for the first time after failing to dislodge them under Martin Van Buren in 1836, the Whigs passed over their big three  leaders to run a military hero and “Man of the People” in the mold of Jackson in 1840.  They tapped William Henry Harrison, the vanquisher of Tecumseh and his federation of the tribes, hero of  the War of 1812 and former Governor of Indiana Territory.  The old general, although born a Virginia aristocrat, was portrayed as a simple frontiersman content to sit on his log cabin front porch with a jug of cider.  He was expected to be compliant to the wishes of Party leaders, especially Henry Clay.  Tyler was added to the ticket for balance and to attract votes in the South, where Democrats were the strongest.  The ticket prevailed under the banner of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!

Tyler was expected to sink into honorable obscurity as Vice President.  But the old Indian fighter came down with pneumonia after giving the longest inaugural address in history in freezing rain and died just a few weeks later.  Tyler became the first accidental president.  He beat back attempts to characterize him as “The Vice President acting in lieu of the President” or as “Acting President” and insisted on assuming the full powers and title of the office.  He moved into the Executive Mansion and inherited Harrison’s Whig Cabinet.

The romance between the new president and his party was short lived.  Tyler remained ever an Old Republican at heart.  When Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, as leader of Congressional Whigs, tried to move key elements of the party platform, he found himself stymied again and again by Tyler, who vetoed cherished internal improvement projects.  But the number one objective of the Party was re-chartering the Second National Bank of the United States which Jackson had killed in his first term with the strong support at that time from Senator Tyler of Virginia.

The bank was seen by commercial and industrial interests as key to stabilizing the chaotic currency system, becoming a repository for Federal funds, and having enough capital to invest in both infrastructure and private industry.  Tyler, in the tradition of Jefferson and Jackson, hated banks as usurers and deeply distrusted the power of a central bank to subvert republican virtues.  He vetoed the first attempt at a re-charter and sent Congress a list of his objections.

Clay re-crafted the charter incorporating many of Tyler’s objections and expected that he would sign it.  Tyler vetoed it for a second time.

John Tyler--a much un-loved President without a party.

 It was that veto that set off the riot on the White House lawn.  It was not the only outlet for Whig rage.  On September 11, Tyler’s entire Cabinet with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned in mass at the urging of Clay.  Webster refused to resign citing on-going treaty negotiations with Britain over establishing an agreed upon northern boundary and probably to tweak his party rival Clay.  The resignations were expected to force Tyler himself to resign.  He did not.  Days later he was officially expelled from the Whigs by the Congressional caucuses.

Tyler was now despised equally by most Whigs and Democrats who viewed him as a turn coat.  He managed to survive an attempted impeachment promoted in the House of Representatives by John Quincy Adams.  But government was essentially in stalemate.  Congress rejected 11 of his appointments to the Cabinet until he was able to attract Southern Democrats to back his choice of Calhoun for Secretary of State.

Tyler lost two members of the Cabinet he did manage to put together—and nearly his own life—when a cannon exploded on the deck of the U.S. Princeton in February 1844.  Many regretted that the President was not among the dead.

Tyler’s major accomplishment was the Treaty of Annexation of Texas.  Tyler, who was usually lukewarm to western expansion, was eager to add a slave state.  Northern Whigs were adamantly opposed and even the usually pro-expansion Clay was worried about upsetting the delicate balance of power between slave and non-slave states.  The Senate at first rejected the treaty.

Meanwhile, Tyler, a man without a party, attempted to create one around himself for a run for the Presidency on his own.  He patched together a party of sorts from the few loyalists he had in Congress, conservative southern Whigs, and officeholders who he had appointed.  They even held a convention and nominated Tyler.

The Whigs put up Clay, who was opposed to the treaty, but the Democrats abandoned early favorite Van Buren, also a treaty opponent, for Speaker of the House James Knox Polk of Tennessee, an ardent expansionist and supporter of Texas.  Tyler withdrew from the race and threw his support to Polk.  Polk won the election and pro-Texas Democrats picked up seats in Congress.

Although his treaty could not get through the Senate, the new Congress, with the support of the President, voted to accept Texas into the union by resolution.  Tyler signed the act three days before leaving office.

Rejected and unloved by anyone but his brand new bride, Julia Gardiner, the daughter of a New York Congressman also killed on the Princeton, Tyler returned to his Virginia plantation expecting to live out his days in obscurity.  He surely would have succeeded in this aim had he not sided with the Confederacy and been elected to the Rebel Congress from Virginia.  He died shortly after taking office in January of 1861.

Considered a traitor to the country he once led, he was the only former president not to be memorialized in Washington upon his death.

A frequent denizen of worst president lists, John Tyler, top row center, and all of the rest have new competition.

 Most historians place Tyler close to the top of any list of worst presidents.  He is certainly among the most obscure.  History relegates him to a virtual footnote.
But once upon a time he stirred enough passions to earn the only riot ever at the White House.  That ought to count for something.
And, by the way, the riot had one other lasting effect. It led Congress to form the Auxiliary Guard, the predecessor to today’s Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.  Prior to that the only law enforcement in Washington was the single U.S. Marshall for the District.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Tree of Life UU Congregation Welcomes Kevin DeBeck as Minister

Kevin DeBeck.

Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry, will welcome its new contract Minister Kevin DeBeck this Sunday, August 19 at 10:45 am services.  He will discuss his call to ministry and what he hopes to accomplish in his time with the congregation. 
“I’m looking forward to my time in McHenry and at Tree of Life. My ministerial formation seems to be tied to Illinois, as my chaplaincy training was in Normal, and my internship was in Evanston.  I’m excited about this opportunity to serve Tree of Life in an effort to bring full time UU ministry back to McHenry County,” Rev. DeBeck said.
DeBeck was born in Bangor, Maine, in November of 1972 and graduated from Brewer High School in Brewer, Maine, in 1991. He met his UU Minister wife Amy in 1996 when cast in the same community theater show. They were married in August of 1998 and they have two children, Henry and Eliza.  He has been communicating his whole adult life, starting with his days as being a DJ in several central and eastern Maine radio stations.  He then moved on to television production and worked for the oldest television station in the state of Maine, WABI-TV in Bangor.
DeBeck got his BS in Education from the University of Maine in 2002 and worked as a middle school teacher in Maine and Annandale, Virginia.  In 2008 his wife’s call led her and the family to move to Elkhart, Indiana where she serves the UU Fellowship of Elkhart. He heard his call to ministry in 2013 and graduated from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago this May. Tree of Life UU Church will be his first congregation.

Congregation Board President Carrie MacDonald wrote in his introduction to the membership, “One thing that really stood out to us in the interview process with Kevin is his fervent commitment to social justice. He considers his personal theology to be based in the lesson that comes from James 2:14-26, which can be summarized as ‘faith without works is dead.’  We believe he is someone who will encourage us all to truly live our Unitarian Universalist faith through our works and deeds.”
Tree of Life has been lay led since the resignation of the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison two years ago.  DeBeck will serve half time and be in the pulpit twice a month. Other services will continue to be coordinated by the church Worship Committee.
For more information call the church at 815 322-2464, e-mail  or visit  .

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Birth of a Nation, Charlottesville, Spike Lee, and Murfin Verse

Counter protesters confronted White Racists in Charlottesville last year.

Sunday was the first anniversary of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina that erupted into confrontations with thousands of outraged local residents and activists which resulted in multiple arrests, scores of injuries, and the murder by auto of anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer.  I covered Charlottesville, the background to the action, players on both sides, and the implications of the events in a three part series on this blog that you can read here, here, and here.

Anti-fascist martyr Heather Heyer commemorated in a Charlottesville mural.

Blocked from returning to the scene of the crime, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Alt-Right strutters opted to march this year in Washington, D.C. to rally in Lafayette Park across from the White House.  The man that they recognize as wink-and-nod supporter and inspiration was conveniently playing golf and Twitter raging—but not at them—at his New Jersey resort.
They managed to turn out a pathetic corporal’s guard—maybe a couple of dozen—instead of the hundreds touted to the media in advance.  They were protected by a sizable army of Metropolitan Police and personnel from other Federal law enforcement agencies.  They needed the protraction—thousands turned out to oppose them and there were multiple rallies and vigils in other parts of the Capital.  Although the protests were raucous, no violence beyond some minor push-back against police lines was reported and there were no arrests.
In Charlottesville, where the Confederate monuments that were at the heart of last year’s confrontations still stand despite the city’s efforts to remove them because they are now protected under a hastily passed state law,  thousands more turned out against fascism and racism in marches and rallies.  Things got more heated there and there was more serious scuffling with police.  Four were arrested.

Just a day earlier my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin and I took in a rare Saturday matinee to see Spike Lee’s new joint, BlacKkKlansman.  The movie was based on a real undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan by Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth, the first Black Officer on the force.  The film stars John David Washington as Stallworth, Adam Driver as his White partner Flip Zimmerman, Laura Harrier as Black student activist Patrice Dumas, Topher Grace as Imperial Wizard David Duke, and Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen as the nearly psychotic Klansman Felix Kendrickson.
Lee’s strongest effort in years typically plays homage to diverse cinema genres.  It is by turns a buddy cop flick, meet-cute romcom, police procedural, suspenseful thriller, and a send-up of ‘80’s Blaxploitation films.  It follows the actual details of the real investigation pretty closely until it adopts a cinematic race-against-time bomb plot standard to action movies.  Yet it all hung together resulting in near unanimous audience approval, critical acclaim, and international film festival laurels.

Ku Klux Klan terrorism was celebrated and romanticized powerfully in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. 

But it is how Lee framed his film that raised it to a whole other level.  It begins with footage from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, an epic homage to the origins of the original Ku Klux Klan and then cuts to Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard—a cameo by Alex Baldwin—making a film of a pseudo-scientific argument for White Supremacy.  The film is punctuated with a lengthy verbatim speech by Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael and the casual racist rants of the Klansmen.  As tension builds Lees cuts between a Klan initiation where Birth of a Nation is shown as the bomb plot unfolds and Harry Bellefonte as an elderly witness to a horrific real-life lynching by burning conducted by the revived Klan which was energized by the Griffith's picture.  At the end of the narrative to meant-to-be happy reunion of star crossed lovers Ron Stallworth and Patrice Dumas is interrupted by a burning cross on a near-by hillside.  
But it is the epilogue that frankly exposes the poisonous connections between deeply engrained American White racism, the power of the media and propaganda, and the rise of demagoguery and Donald Trump.  In less than five minutes a montage of clips covered the last 30 years climaxing with footage of the Charlottesville events and then ends in a close-up portrait of Heather Heyer with the simple inscription Rest in Power.”
No one leaves the theater unmoved.
A year ago the Social Justice Team of Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry took part in a national response to Charlottesville by organizing a rally and candlelight vigil on its grounds and along Bull Valley Road.  Well over 100 people turned out for a moving event organized in just two days by the power of social media.  Our gathering was reverent and reflective.  But I was struggling with the violence in Charlottesville, and the sometimes clashing themes of assertive and active anti-fascism and the traditional values of non-violence.  I read the following poem composed the day after the deadly struggle.

The Old Man in the gloaming at the Tree of Life candle light vigil for Charlottesville last year.  Photo by Gregory Shaver from the Northwest Herald.

Munich and Charlottesville
August 13, 2017

So is this how it felt on the streets of Munich
            when the strutting Brown Shirts
            in their polished jackboots,
            Sam Browne belts, and scarlet arm bands
            faced the scruffy Commies
            in their cloth caps
            and shirtsleeves rolled up
            and battled in the beerhalls,
            parks and streets.

All of the good people, the nice people
            cowered behind closed doors
            and wished it would go away—
                        all of the liberals, the Catholics,
                        the new-bred pacifists of the Great War,
                        the professors and doctors,
                        editors and intellectuals,
                        the Social Democrats,
                        even—my God!—the Jews
                        who had not gone Red—
            a pox on both your houses they solemnly intoned.

Hey, buddy, in retrospect those damn Bolshi’s
            look pretty good,
            like heroes even.
Things look a little different in Charlottesville,
            in brilliant color not grainy black and white
            and the Fascists can’t agree on a
            Boy Scout uniform and array themselves
            golf shirts and khakis, rainbow Klan hoods,
            biker black and studs and strutting camo.

But the smell, you know, that stench,
            is just the same.

The question is—do you dare be a Red today
            or will you close your doors
            and go back to your game consoles
            and cat videos.

Which will it be, buddy?

—Patrick Murfin