Thou Preparest a Table Before Me…

from Songs of Gentle Sadness

By Buie Seawell

When we covenant to constitute a commonwealth, we become by institution author of all the actions and judgments of the sovereign instituted.”  

T Hobbes, The Leviathan, Chapter xvii

About once a month, on Sundays, when I was a boy of 9 or 10, Mom, Dad, Terrell (my baby sister), and I would drive in the family’s pre-war DeSoto from Lumberton to Raleigh to visit my paternal grandparents. It took about two hours to get there, and I usually threw up somewhere along the way.  The road was just a two lane curvy highway back then, and went right through everything — Fayettville, around the old slave market in the middle of that small city, then through Lillington and across the Cape Fear River, and finally through Fuquay-Varina to Raleigh.  I usually got car sick somewhere between the slave market and the river.

1939 DeSoto

1939 DeSoto

Sunday dinner at Judge and Gran Seawell’s was wonderful. My grandfather served on the North Carolina Supreme Court, and he and my grandmother lived on the third floor of the old Carolina Hotel.   On Sundays Gran would put two extra leaves in the dinning room table filling almost all of the small living room of their apartment with table and chairs. If not too many grownups were there, I got to sit at the big table next to Gran Seawell.  My younger cousins had to eat at a small foldout card table in the kitchen. Usually one or more of my aunts or uncles would be there as well, and without fail the subject before, during and after dinner was politics.  I grew up thinking that this was mostly what all families talked about when they got together for family dinners.

In late April of 1948 we drove up to Raleigh to have Sunday Dinner with Judge and Gran.  A really intensely contested Democratic primary was taking place that spring for governor.  In those days, whoever won the Democratic nomination in May was always elected governor in November.  I didn’t know of but two Republicans in Lumberton — Mr. Sellers who ran the bicycle and gun shop at Chestnut and 4th Street downtown and Dr. Townsend a dentist who lived on 17th Street.  The candidates for the Democratic nomination in the May Primary were a very distinguished man named Johnson and a good ole boy from Haw River, NC, named W. Kerr (pronounced like “car”) Scott.

The conversation that Sunday around the long table was really exciting.  My Dad (who was Mayor of Lumberton then), my Uncle Ashley (a lawyer in the Department of Defense in Washington), my Aunt Beth (a school teacher) and my grandfather all declared they were supporting Mr. Johnson.  My grandmother didn’t say much at first.  Then to everybody’s surprise she just said, “I’m supporting Scott.” 

Gran Seawell was a very special person.  She was born in a little town near Sanford, NC, called Lemon Springs.  Her name was Betrha Smith.  And in 1904 at the age of 19 she was the switchboard operator for that part of what was then, Moore County.  One day a very distinguished voice asked for a number in Lemon Springs, and a very squeaky voiced operator said, “Just a moment, Sir, I’ll connect you.”  It was my forty year old grandfather, then a bachelor and lawyer in Sanford calling a client.  And as Dr. Frank Graham, the President of the University of North Carolina, would recall that moment in an address on the occasion of dedicating a portrait of Judge Seawell in the State Supreme Court building, “Attorney Seawell hung up the phone, got in his buggy and drove out to Lemon Springs and introduced himself to Miss Smith on the spot.”  That one telephone call had everything to do with why I’m on the planet!  And that goes for most of the rest of us Seawells as well.

My grandfather’s name was Aaron Ashley Flowers Seawell, Jr. but everybody in the family called him either Father or Judge Seawell except Gran Seawell, who called him Flowers.   Gran never attended college.  Yet she raised six children, all of whom attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  All had graduate degrees in either law (the boys) or education (the girls).  And she would, over my grandfather’s long political career, as the wife first of a State Representative and then of the State Attorney General and finally of a Supreme Court Associate Justice, meet fancy people of all sorts – Senators, Governors, Presidents (President Truman came to Raleigh that same year, 1948.). Nobody intimidated her. 

“Bertha,” Judge Seawell said, “You can’t do that.  Scott is an idiot.  He’ll ruin our state.  Johnson is my friend and the only choice. Period.  My Dad, Uncle Ashley and Aunt Beth nodded vigorously.”

“Flowers,” said Gran, “Let’s not argue in front of the children.  We’ll discuss this later.”

“No,” said my grandfather, “I can see you’ve made up your mind.  And when your mind’s made up . . . well there’s not much sense in talking about it later.  Let’s make a deal, our votes are just going to cancel each other out, so you agree not to vote for Scott and I’ll not vote for Johnson.”  And thus, to the relief of everyone at the table, they agreed, and desert was served.

On May 8, 1948, the North Carolina Primaries were held.  And to the amazement of the News and Observer and almost everyone else W. Kerr Scott was nominated, and in November was elected Governor of North Carolina.  On Sunday, May 13, we drove up to Raleigh to have Sunday dinner.  Now after we were all seated and before we passed everything around and served ourselves, my grandfather always would “say grace.”  He was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Raleigh and spoke his prayers like he and God were on a first name basis.  There was a long pause that Sunday while the food sat waiting on the table and I sat wanting to dive into the mashed potatoes and gravy.  Finally, Judge Seawell cleared his throat and said, “Before I pray there’s something I need to get off my conscience.  Bertha, last Tuesday I voted for Johnson. I broke my word.  I hope you will forgive me.”

Her head still bowed, Gran said in a crystal clear voice, “Flowers, that’s all right.  I voted for Scott.” 

And that was all that was said that Sunday about the primary election.  In years to come, however, Governor W. Kerr Scott would do some interesting things.  He paved the dirt roads of eastern North Carolina so farmers could get their crops to market better.  And my Gran would say, “Now that’s my Governor!”  And then he appointed a bunch of his old Haw River buddies (Who had not just not gone to Chapel Hill to law school, they’d never been within ten miles of any law school.) to state judgeships.  And Judge Seawell and Dad were furious about this stupidity.  And Gran knew it was stupid too.  But she’d just shake her head when the subject came up at Sunday dinner and say, “That’s my Governor.” 

In those days you could only be governor of North Carolina for one four year term.  So when his term was up, W. Kerr Scott of Haw River ran for the United States Senate.  Gran supported him again.  And again he won.  And again the blessings were mixed.  The stupidest thing he, or maybe anybody else who ever served in the U.S. Senate ever did (though that covers a lot of territory) was to introduce a bill to deal with the problem of hurricanes hitting the Carolina coast.  It was during that wonderful period of American history when federal officials were trying to find something good to do with the atom bomb.  They called it Project Plowshare.  “And Behold, the Lord sayeth, ‘In that day they shall beat their shields into plowshares and their swords into pruning hooks.'”  And W. Kerr Scott believed in the Bible.

So his bill directed the Department of Defense to develop feasibility studies on how nuclear (Or as he pronounced it, “new-clur”) bombs could be deployed to break up hurricanes over the North Atlantic Ocean before they had a chance to reached the shores of the Tar Heel State.  Talk about our tobacco giving people cancer(!), that weed after a few good new-clur rain storms would light up your chest like ET’s in the movie about the cute alien who wanted to phone home.

But you know what?  My Grandmother would still say, “Well, that’s my Senator.”  She voted for him, and she owned up to it.  Today when folks vote for a politician, who later ends up doing something stupid, their memories go absolutely blank: Who?  Maybe the problem came along with the flush toilet.  Bertha Seawell grew up in an old farm house with an outhouse.  We treat our votes like, well, flush and forget.  Not our problem.  It’s those damn politicians.  Now I’m pretty sure this is not what Jefferson and Madison had in mind, exactly.  Bertha Smith Seawell never got to go to college, but she understood the meaning of “democratic republic” better than a lot of office holders I’ve known over the years.  “That’s my Senator,” she would nod and say.  And that was that.

Post script: As I tell this story, I am in the process of writing an essay on Thomas Hobbes’s theories of representation, authorization and sovereignty.  When I worked for a U.S. Senator some years ago, I would often despair over members of the Congress – especially in the Colorado delegation – who would excuse their less than stalwart postures on difficult issues, by saying, “Well I’m here to represent the people in my district . . . and they just don’t want whatever (higher taxes for education, rational gun control laws, paying the extra cost of effective pollution control, etc.)”  Hobbes believed that the Social Contract ran from each person directly to the Sovereign.  Not interest groups, not political parties, not the body politic, but one to one, citizen to king or parliament or congress or court.  Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices are elected or appointed as singular in their duty – a duty to the Republic — as the individual citizens they represent, citizens who themselves authorize and are actual party to the acts and consequences thereof of their representatives.  My grandmother gave me the metaphor to explain that subtle, often ignored, but absolutely essential link of republican governance.

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