Friday, April 03, 2009

This 'Vale of Humility'

With all due respect to our neighbors to the north and south of us, one of my favorite quotes about North Carolina is this one, that our fair state is "A vale of humility between two mountains of conceit."

This quote has been attributed to Civil War-era Gov. Zebulon Vance as well as Alexander Hamilton and John Andrew Rice; however, sources also think it goes back further. (It's also the name of a literary compilation that explores the "lives of plain folk in contemporary North Carolina fiction.")

The meaning of the quote, in this instance, at least, is that -- particularly "back in the day" -- poor old North Carolina was sandwiched between the plantation aristocracy of South Carolina to the south and the "Birthplace of Presidents" (and the most powerful of the young states) Virginia to the north -- the two "mountains of conceit," so to speak.

But in 21st Century North Carolina, does this quote still have meaning?

Charlotte Observer political expert Jack Betts pondered this last year. Wrote Betts:

It's worth remembering that North Carolina until fairly recently was regarded as a poor state, especially in comparison to wealthier plantation-culture states to our north and south. North Carolina was in such a somnolent state at one point that it was derided as "The Rip Van Winkle State" before it began making serious improvements that would boost its fortunes. The prosperity that came in the latter half of the 20th century came as a result of significant investments in higher education, the Research Triangle and a great many other areas.

As to whether the state is still a vale of humility, I dunno. We were often said to be mighty proud of not being proud, but in the modern era I think humility has taken a back seat.

I expect if Winston Churchill were around, he might say, as he did in another context, that North Carolina has much to be humble about.

So what do you think? Does modern North Carolina enjoy or even suffer from any since of humility? Have we, as a state, read our own press clippings and drank the proverbial Kool-Aid about how great we are? Or should we just enjoy this time in the spotlight -- because you don't know how fleeting it can be.

(Monticello image from; Charleston image from; Rip Van Winkle from


Nocturnal Queen said...

"A vale of humility between two mountains of conceit" is one of my favorite quotes. :-)

As for modern North Carolina and humility, I think it depends on what city or metro you're in. Charlotte and the Triangle don't really seem to have an air of humility about them. (Nothing against those areas.) Smaller communities do though. I think even the Triad still has a bit of humility left in it.

Just my humble opinion, of course. :-)

M. Lail said...

I think you're probably spot-on.