Small towns, strong values
COLUMBIA CITY, Ind.—The historic marker in front of the Whitley County courthouse remembers the life of a man who would have stood out in today’s era of provocative politics and culture of entitlement as an abomination of sorts, because he held true to his values ahead of power.
The man once held the office of the vice presidency of the United States and refused to insert himself to power when he had every right to do so. This was because he feared the precedence doing so might set in the future.
The deep-blue and gold marker reads in part, “Thomas Riley Marshall is likely best remembered as the man who refused to assume the U.S. Presidency during Woodrow Wilson’s serious incapacity.”
It’s funny how we forget the impact and influence small-town residents have had on governing our country. Ninety-six years ago Marshall was vice president to a man who didn’t much care for him. That never really bothered Marshall, who saw his role as governing and working with the U.S. Senate.
Marshall was well known and well liked for his wit, easy-going nature and sense of humor. His humor was a small-town trait that eased many tensions during strident Senate deliberations, but Wilson so disliked it that he had the vice president’s office removed from the White House.
Despite the rift and animosity that Wilson incurred with Marshall, he is remembered among historians as the man who refused to take the power of the presidency because of the future impact it might have on the country and it would have on the executive branch.
In the fall of 1919, Wilson collapsed in Colorado and never fully recovered. Both his wife and his advisers attempted to keep Marshall uninformed of the graveness of the Wilson’s condition—to keep Marshall from attempting to assume the presidency.
But Washington, D.C., being Washington, D.C., the word quickly leaked to Marshall as well as the rest of Congress and the Cabinet. Everyone urged him to become at least acting president until it was understood how incapacitated Wilson was. Marshall refused. It took 50 years for the country to recognize just how weakened the presidency had become because of Wilson’s incapacity. Finally, in 1967 the nation ratified the 25th Amendment to allow the forcible replacement of an unable or unwilling incumbent.
Unless you are a student of Indiana history or a presidential historian, the Marshalls have never come onto your radar. We rarely scrutinize the people who did the right thing and focus too much on who did the controversial thing.
America is going through a cultural civil war between the urbanites and small-town residents that’s very similar to the one when Wilson and Marshall left office after the 1920 election.
Back then marked the first time more Americans lived in urban America than rural America, and urban influences on rural America made rural Americans uncomfortable.
Today it is the reverse: Rural America’s influence and rise back to the center of national attention because of the election of Donald Trump makes urban America uncomfortable.
But because urban America has more power in culture, rural America becomes the butt of jokes in entertainment and scorn in national politics.
We need to do a better job in this country of tolerating differentness, and that includes rural and small-town America. Great men and women have come from towns like Columbia City, and we need to accept them just as robustly as we would if they had come from New York City.