Sure, Thomas Jefferson was the sort of man who appreciated the French and their women, but in this case, the “broad” refers to a wide, flat ancient river. Lets review the river and the man towards our honoring both by living up to who we could yet be.
I’ve left the cold of an Oregon winter for the cold of North Carolina’s western mountains. I’m five miles out of Marshall, NC, former Madison County seat, now home to about 400 residents supporting three cafes, two bars, a health food store, a small community radio station (WART), and the core services of a small town. It’s small, friendly, and arty. It sits on a narrow flat squeezed in between the towering, crystal-laden cliffs of the high Appalachians and the ancient French Broad river. A railroad hauling 100-car loads of coal rumbles by every day, feeding the electric plant in Asheville.
On the plane and here I finished two books, Jon Meecham’s Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power, and Wilma Dikeman’s The French Broad. These two books, the town, and the river itself give me gist for this month’s blog.
The French Broad isn’t a woman, it’s the second or third oldest river in the world, the Nile being older. But it reportedly started out near the Nile, adjacent to what is now Ethiopia, when all the tectonic plates were collected in a single supercontinent, Pangea. The tectonic plate it rests upon migrated westward to jam in amongst other plates forming North America. The French Broad is so old, four hundred and fifty million years, the rocks contain no fossils. It predates sizable life. Springs now feed it with some of the purest water in the world.
The Cherokee had various names for it: Long Man River was fed by Chattering Children streams; Agiqua churned with white, dancing rapids – Tahkeyostee.
Different than the usual Appalachian rivers that flow southeast to the Atlantic, this one flows northwest from near the highest east coast mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, into what used to be called the French Territory, and from there to the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi. White and cream quartz veins six feet thick permeate the high, hard mountains.. Ms. Dikeman reports the more recent history of European-descended immigrants carving out a tough existence since moving in on the Cherokee. Regrettably, many natives were moved west to Oklahoma; fortunately, a few remain.
Dikeman also details the horrid tales of the Civil War, often called “The War Between the States” here in the South. Talk about hardship and cruelty! Mere boys were caught up in the “us and them” of mutual murder. In one attack of a fort, hundreds slipped into a steep-sided muddy moat filled with barb wire. Easily killed there, the bodies piled up by layers. Many soldiers had only summer clothes; no shoes for some over the icy, rocky ground. Farms were raided, and food, horses, and men were taken. Such conscription was assumed by both sides as part of each’s cause.
But the causes weren’t so simple and settled as we might assume. Just as now when our media distorts the complexity of our political differences into crude red or blue for whole states obscuring a wide variety of opinion, not all in the South were for succession. Here in Madison County a bully secessionist sheriff waved his big pistol at a crowd, declaring there’d be no talk of Union sympathy. When someone did express that, the sheriff tried to shoot him but hit the man’s son instead. The sheriff went to a second story window and tried to boss the crowd from there. The boy’s father shot the sheriff. The vote that day was 144 for the Union, 28 for the Confederacy.
Because it is so rugged in western North Carolina, there were no plantations and not many slaves, whereas those of the lowlands had both and fought to keep them. The locals here were more independent. Even today, the big town of Asheville has a different vibe than much of the South. Asheville feels like a big Ashland, Oregon. Marshall feels like a little one.
Similarly, Jon Meecham’s book on Thomas Jefferson reminds us of how conflicted the colonies were about breaking away from Mother England. New England clung to Old England. Nor did the democratic ideals of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine prevail in those times. Before and after the Revolution and the early Constitution, many longed for ties to England, the monarchy, and ruling family dynasties. It was a minority who opted for democratic self-government. If given widespread education and love of country, Jefferson had holy hope for what America could become. So do I.
That tension was structured into the early government. How easy to forget that the Republican Party of today is RINO, Republican In Name Only, for “the party of Lincoln,” (from the Revolution to well past Lincoln) was then made of the sort of person and ideology we now call Democrat. The Republicans of today are more like the Tories of England or the Federalists of the revolution and early government. They liked a king-like president, strong banks favoring bankers and the rich, and heredity of rule. They resisted the common man being elected to a changing, improving government.
Of course, “the common man” then meant propertied whites. Only later did slaves get 3/5ths vote, and women afforded their vote much later. Jefferson was bothered by slavery, but kept them, deeming it too contentious at the time to go to emancipation. He left that for others.
He also probably fathered many mixed-race children with Sally Hemmings. I had hoped theirs was a forbidden love they actually enjoyed, but it’s hard to prove that. Jefferson was kind and fatherly to his own white children. How he was with Sally and her’s is lost in history. He did grant them “their time” (free even from state government hassles) quietly and early, plus willed some benefits to her surviving children. I like to think she was his refuge from the endless pressures of his various posts.
Jefferson would wake at dawn, plunging his feet into cold water. He was truly a renaissance man. He insisted on freedom of and from religion. He liked company, even that of his adversaries. He collected a massive library and the bones and artifacts of the mysterious west. He loved horseback riding; when he fell with his horse in the river at 80 years old, he kept riding. He had pet mocking birds that would sing to soothe him. He needed it; he had frequent massive headaches and constant diarrhea. Like Tom Paine, he gave his whole adult life to his country, and he died broke.
Like Tom Paine, Jefferson was Deist – God is not known through the old writings of questionable authorship; God is known in and through Nature itself. It isn’t Jesus or Jove who are claimed for authority in the Declaration and Constitution; it is the Creator. Creation builds our inalienable rights in. They aren’t granted by governments, but they can be acknowledged and protected by them. Jefferson’s vision of humanistic, democratic governance went way beyond his own country. As with the French then with their declaration of rights, and later FDR’s hopes, such hope and nobility applied to all humanity. It is a holy hope, far grander than we’ve achieved so-far.
I’m glad the French Broad kept its name. It reminds us of the help the French gave us during the revolution and the deal-of-a-county’s-lifetime – The Louisiana Purchase. The river also reminds us how temporary we are. The river flowed before us and it will flow after us. But how cleanly will it flow and how we will live while it flows? Will we seek to love and protect it and Nature like Dikeman does in her book? (It was written near to when Rachel Carson alerted us to ecology in Florida’s River of Grass.) Will we love and protect pure waters and healthy soils? Will we generate leaders as skilled and dedicated as Jefferson? Will we, as advised in Genesis One, “replenish the earth”? Will we find ways to live creatively and freely together, all benefiting from the as yet untapped bounty of Nature and Nature’s God?”
We’re dimly aware of how old and precious life on earth is, yet we get embroiled in the shallow and showy glitz of con men and consumerism. We needn’t get lost in a phony, clunky red-blue divide, as potentially dangerous now as horridly tragic then. We can rely on rivers flowing by us and in us, ever refreshing as we gradually rise to our human potentials.