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As Long as We Remember...

January 10, 2006

Pulling Up the Moat

Roy Meachum

My first favorite George Delaplaine story: Shortly after moving to Frederick, I reintroduced myself to the News-Post editor and publisher, seeking guidance on the community I had just bought into.

We had met before, when Frederick columnist Richard Lebherz invited me to a newspaper bash held in the Stronghold on Sugar Loaf Mountain. At the time I was still on television. Our meeting had been downright jocular.

Sitting in his office, I encountered a more wary Mr. Delaplaine, whose suspicions surfaced in the pointed remark: "I hope you're not one of those people who want to pull up the moat after them."

Over the years I have repeated the story, sometimes to him; the usual reaction is a smile and nodding head. George's phrase seems vividly applicable to the raging rhubarb triggered by yelling from all those folks who want nobody else in. They want the national moat hauled up.

My former boss and I have never discussed immigrants, legal or otherwise. At the time our respective ancestors came over in creaking wooden ships, the British colonial powers-that-be welcomed anyone willing to stick around.

The Delaplaine pedigree can be found in Maryland history books; the family extends back at least as far as the pre-Revolution era, as confirmed by various local landmarks.

The Meachums came over in two batches: the northern branch through Massachusetts. They pronounce the name with "ch" sounding like "k," which comes closer to the original spelling: Meacum - Latin for "with my." Exactly "what" has been lost in time.

At any rate, I belong to the southern Meachums, who start the second syllable with a "ch" like chewing gum.

According to legend, two Meachum boys landed at Fredericksburg, VA. They were brothers who hired themselves out as 12-year-bond servants to escape Northern Ireland. They belonged to Protestant clans transported, many in prison ships, over from Scotland to hold back the Irish Catholics. We are America's Scotch-Irish, the original rednecks.

The brothers' name - still Meacum - was fixed to a river up in the Piedmont, hard-scrabble country unsuitable for tobacco and the other crops that required labor in large numbers, i.e. slaves. Bond servants differed from their African counterparts chiefly by the fact their servitude's years were fixed and temporary.

The Mechum (the present Southern-style pronunciation) River can be found on today's maps, outside Charlottesville, in Albemarle County. Apparently the brothers' progeny drifted south toward North Carolina; they appear on Civil War rosters as Confederates. Their northern cousins wore blue, of course.

The other side of my family can be traced to the parents of my great-grandfather. Samuel Brignac Thompson was born of a Cajun mother and her husband, who had left South Carolina for the California gold rush but went instead down to Louisiana where railroad construction had just gotten under way.

If this business of "begets" bores, I apologize but not very much. The subject here is immigration; not mine up from Louisiana by way of Washington but of the other kind: the appearance among us of so many folks who barely speak English and supposedly rob the public purse by demanding health, education and other benefits that some people strongly assert must be reserved for "real' Americans.

It seemed incumbent upon me to first lay out something of my personal record on who-got-here and when. By the way, I am also able to trace Welsh, German, English and Indians, Iroquois and Cherokee, blood connections.

Of my European forbears, I cannot say when they all showed up over here, but I know no relative came ashore after Abraham Lincoln swore his first presidential oath, in 1861.

My point simply put: Had the first American Meachums successfully pulled up the moat: many of today's anti-immigration voices would be sucking air in some foreign clime.

Having unloaded that peevish observation, I would like to make some more, hopefully of a helpful sort.

In the first place, the so-proclaimed Minute Men movement, which has been invited to organize in Frederick County, have even less chance of barring outsiders than their direct predecessors, the Know Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan.

Given my redneck origins, it's more than likely my forebears belonged to one or both. Members of the pre-Civil War American Party were notorious for their secrecy; when asked what their party was all about they claimed to know nothing.

They mounted notorious riots in the early 1850s against all foreigners but especially Catholics, which necessitated in the White House calling out Marines from the Washington Navy Yard. In that instance, cannons were used to disperse the mob intent on killing their prey, Irish families that had settled down in Swampoodle, along what is now North Capitol Street.

The Know Nothings actually named a presidential candidate in 1860. Famous explorer and even more notorious egoist, John C. Fremont, lost the electors in every state except where we live. Maryland provided his sole victory on the party's way out. Not the proudest moment in the history of this Land of Pleasant Living.

To be continued tomorrow.

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