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New Serfdom — Intertwined Lives

Consider this post a continuation of the one on character development. I’ve said that the important issue for Nolan Graves, the owner of a large holding and the people living on it, is personal responsibility. Recent reading has highlighted this for me, with the reviews of two books about America’s early heroes. The first one I came across was a biography of Thomas Jefferson: Master of the Mountain. It’s one of those books that changes our entire view of a historical figure. It shows that Jefferson’s early dislike of slavery and his wish to abolish it went by the wayside when he discovered how profitable his ownership of slaves was, and how necessary to the living standard he enjoyed.

But he didn’t want to be directly responsible for the methods that ensured his profits.

“Jefferson, Wiencek writes, “hated conflict, disliked having to punish people and found ways to distance himself from the violence his system required.” His unfortunate (and rather tormented) son-in-law, Col. Thomas Mann Randolph, usually acted as the great man’s factotum in this department. In the 1950s, when a historian came across a report from Randolph to Jefferson mentioning that children were being whipped at Monticello, the document was suppressed. (Randolph was so troubled by these experiences that he banned the whip from his own lands.)”

George Washington was also guilty of avoiding personal responsibility, though no slaves were involved, and it was a matter of what was proper in the conduct of a war. From the New York Times review of Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History: “In 1754 George Washington, then an officer in the Virginia militia, found himself hotly debating charges that he had committed what today we would call a war crime.”

“During a campaign against the French in the Ohio Valley, Washington was said to have stood by while his troops killed a captive ambassador . . .”

Jefferson actively delegated others to carry out the discipline of his slaves, while Washington apparently stood by and did nothing to interfere with a murder. Different circumstances and attitudes, but both, at heart, were an abdication of responsibility.

Nolan and Gil have both had to deal with a past in which Nolan’s father had Gil’s father whipped and then hung, another case of delegating responsibility. Nolan swore to reverse his father’s cruelty and lack of concern for other humans, but never anticipated that he might someday be forced to function as executioner as well as judge and jury. Gil, on the other hand, never anticipated that he might have to watch his lifelong friend and protector carry out an execution, or that he might even have reason to urge Nolan to accept that responsibility.

So what I’m working out now is how their background affects their current decisions and how those decisions affect their relationship.

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