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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Judge Alexander B. Meek

    Meek (1814-1865) is best known in the chess world as the president of the first American Chess Congress, but he had a very colorful history outside of chess.  A resident of Nashville, Tennessee, Judge Meek was born in Columbia, South Carolina and spent much of his life as a resident of Alabama where he was a prominent supporter of slavery.
      Meek had a distinguished career as a public servant. He served as Attorney General of Alabama in 1836-37, and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under U.S. President James K. Polk. He became Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives and is credited with leading the way for the passage of a bill guaranteeing Alabama students their first free public education. Today in his honor, there are A.B. Meek schools in Arley and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Meek trained for law and finished first in his class at the University of Alabama in 1833 at the age of 19.
      He was gifted in many areas including journalism, history, poetry, and politics. He was part of a group of poets called the “Tuscaloosa Bards.” Meek fought in the Seminole War and his best known poem (2000 lines long!) celebrates the bravery of the Indian chief, Red Eagle. Meek was the one who prepared the tombstone for Red Eagle, also known William Weatherford. Another poem, The Mocking-Bird, was later set to music and became one of a series of songs known as Songs of the South.
      As an historian Meek wrote book on the history of the Southwest and detail how in 1817, some of Napoleon’s generals were given a land grant in rural Alabama, and formed a small French colony. Things didn’t work out too well for the colonists, who eventually returned to France.
      Many contemporaries apparently had a high regard for Meek. An article appearing in the Southern Literary Messenger, February 1856, read “Meek, whether known as Alexander, as A.B. or Judge, has been guilty of good things. If we try to hum a song, ten to one that his ‘Mocking Bird’ or his ‘Come to the South’ …Friendship, Fidelity, Truth and Love have also made him their eloquent mouth-piece, and exhibited him the friend of the benevolent, no less than of literary enterprises.” Sounds like a nice guy, but his position on slavery was a blot even if it was a commonly accepted view. 
      Meek’s defense of slavery was based on the view that it was beneficial because it “has generated, upon the part of our white inhabitants, a spirit of superiority and self-esteem, a certain aristocracy of feeling, and a proud chivalry of character, which do not elsewhere so generally exist,” and that among a thousand other advantages it was necessary, in order to free people to devote their lives to the higher intellectual arts.” Typical of such people; no thought for the slaves, just themselves.
      Meek didn’t just pay lip service to slavery. As a prominent southern politician he also played a role in national politics. At the Republican convention of 1860 Meek was a Democratic delegate and he was the one who read to the convention the “Alabama Platform,” which declared that the territories (not the states) must be open to slavery with slave-owners’ rights vigorously enforced. The rejection of this proposal caused the Southern delegates to walk out of the convention and the Democratic Party splitting into the northern and southern factions. Short version: This resulted in a rather convoluted political mess that ended up allowing Abraham Lincoln to win the Presidency. Meek campaigned hard nationally for his candidate (John Breckenridge) and as a result took support away from Lincoln’s main adversary Senator Stephan Douglas. Meek was also involved in many, many other political issues of his day both locally and nationally.
      As a friend of the Morphy family, Meek was able to help persuade Paul Morphy to play in the First American Chess Congress in 1857. Morphy twice sent telegrams to the congress organizers saying he would not be able to attend however Meek brought a good deal of pressure to bear upon Morphy’s family and finally Morphy accepted the invitation about two weeks before the congress was scheduled to begin. Reporter Miron Hazeltine wrote in the Macon Telegraph (May 2nd, 1867) that it was evident that ties of honor and friendship existed between them. He described Meek’s attitude towards Morphy as that of a father watching over his son.
      In the following game from the 1st American Congress Meek adopts an unusual opening and quickly gets the upper hand against his apparently much weaker opponent. I don’t know what the opening is, but looking at it for a few minutes with Stockfish 4 suggests it’s not an entirely bad one. It might be worth experimenting with for the adventurous.

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