Of hills and liberty

By Andrew
Lexington, Virginia. Now this is more like it. The trees have slipped back from the road, allowing us to view the valleys and ranges we are riding on the ridge of, and occasionally dipping into. With its green farmland, you can understand why the European settlers identified with, and were willing to fight and die to claim these lush, prosperous hills.

In the currently fashionable interpretation of why the West prospered, (See J. Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel, N. Ferguson’s Civillisation or C. Kupchan’s Rise of the rest), the many valleys of Europe prevented oppressive large empires and spurred innovation in lifestyles and technology.  I’m not sure I entirely accept the thesis, but looking at Virginia’s rolling valleys, it provides a compelling logic for why this part of the north has had such a long standing and strong attachment to liberty.

For most local settlers in the 18th and well through the 19th century, you imagine many a farmer could ride from their back porch to the edge of their properties to work and never see another man or dwelling all day. Alternately, this essentially geographic explanation for western culture and prosperity also suggests why the long flat hot plains that surrounded southern plantations nourished the control of one man over many. Slaves on such land could run and run, but never escape the gaze of others.

Tomorrow we plan to visit the home of one of the central figures of western liberty — and a product of these vivid hills — Thomas Jefferson. A man as famous for his contradictions (writing “we declare all men are created equal” while a slave-holding gent) as for his contribution to the founding of America. I have to admit, I’m a little bit excited. Jefferson has always been the most fascinating of the US founding fathers for me. Washington was a distant figure, whose way of carrying himself, renunciation of title and office, and exploits on the battlefield created his fame. Almost a mirror opposite, the vain but loveable bulldog John Adams is the one I most like, in large part thanks to David McCullough’s empathetic biography. In between these and others is the languid, slightly awkward figure of Jefferson and his quill. For the two are inseparable. Jefferson was an inventor, farmer, legislator, diplomat and architect, but he was a writer above all. In a telling anecdote, he once passed his State of the Union Address to Congress as a letter to be read by another, stating that there were writers and speakers and they were not the same skill.

This view was indirectly disagreed with by the greatest writer of our era, the recently departed biographer of Jefferson, Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’ advice was to write as you speak, and any who had heard his British-American drawl could never get it out of their head as they read his many columns and books. Yet in this divide I take Jefferson’s side. My writing voice is quite different to my speaking one, and when I read back my words in my public voice  I cringe at the clash of pause, moment and rhyme. Think of the interviews with your own favourite authors, and most shy from the microphone and camera spotlight. For writers, writing is re-writing. For speakers, there is only one take and the high risk is part of the excitement. I love both forms, but I find the two utterly distant skills.

Anyway, tomorrow we journey to see the desk of a true American author, one whose own ability to pen out the immortal sentiment of the US Declaration of Independence was surely forged in the remote hills and valleys of this Virginia countryside.

(As a final note, check out this map from Crikey.com. We’d been surprised to learn most of the US is in drought, given the roadside conditions. Katina has helpfully drawn our route in blue. We swear it was unintentional.)


3 thoughts on “Of hills and liberty

  1. John [or, Dr Carr v1.1?] July 16, 2012 / 10:27 am

    Your writing voice is excellent and most appealing:- perhaps after you retire from politics/academia you could become an erudite travel-writer. I’m not entirely convinced that Hitchens differentiation of the two voices fits everybody, especially since you also speak quite eloquently.

    Re the flatness of America [the geography, not just the mainstram intellect] : have you travelled through any of Texas, and if so did you discover the obviously monstrous steamroller that you used on it.?

    You are in Virginia at the same time as Obama:- I hope that you have the chance to witness some of the political rallies over there, although they can be so dangerous.

    If your journeys would take into Oklahoma, then please let me know, as I would like to connect you with some people there. Similarly, Steve Brown, author of ‘Political Subjectivity’ is reasonably near to Chicago .

    I have had the privilige of seeing your Phd :- not for long enough to read anything more than that beautiful dedication you wrote, making you Dad so proud, and showing you as such a warm-hearted one

    Looking forward to more informative comment,
    travel well,
    john and Mary

  2. Andrew July 16, 2012 / 10:46 am

    Hi John and Mary, thanks for your comments.

    Thank you for the complements, though to prove they are far too generous, let me begin by noting I was not clear in my meaning. As anyone who has met me knows, I like to speak (and speak and speak), but I find how I speak and how I write, and the tone and tenor of the voice I project for each, quite different. Maybe others see it differently, but I find the two separate.

    Sadly we can’t make it to Oklahoma or Chicago. Would have loved to see both, and had meant to call to ask for recommendations, but ran out of time as we got everything ready for the trip.

    We’ve now made it to Washington D.C and then will head to NYC on Sunday, so unfortunately our chances of seeing either candidate are slim. There’s no electoral college votes up for grabs here, but we would still like to get along to a political rally, for really well anyone, if we get the chance.

    Thanks for the comments, we will be sure to post more. Make sure to go back and read/see the photos Katina and I have posted from this trip.

    Dr Carr 2.0

  3. whisperinggums July 20, 2012 / 9:02 pm

    Ah Virginia, so pretty … particularly in the west and south … and pretty hilly as you’ve discovered. I guess you didn’t get to Gettysburg? But, I bet you loved Monticello. One of my very favourite places. Did you get to Ash Lawn (Monroe’s home very near Monticello?) and Mt Vernon?

    Anyhow, am enjoying the blog and reminiscing, and thinking. Parts of America are very flat but not all is – the Appalachians in the east and the Rockies in the west are pretty hilly, mountainous. We visited the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in eastern California and suddenly found ourselves driving and walking at 10,000 feet at I recollect, much higher than Kosi!!

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