“In my view, the Enlightenment, which inspired the birth of your America, reduced complex moral issues to such a superficial level that you and your countrymen are helpless to critically assess your lot.”
“Clearly you’re trying to tell me something but I must admit I’m having a hard time figuring out what it is.”
“Your lot, Abby, I’m talking about your lot.”
“Must be the wine.” Her fingers slipped through his hair. “I’m not usually so dense.”
“One of the primary assumptions of the Enlightenment was that man is infinitely malleable – able to be moulded to another man’s ideal.”
“Am I being moulded?”
“So I should think.”
“Take your pick.”
“Are you in the game?”
He stroked the dog. This might be harder than he’d thought.
“What’s your take on the connection between Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen?” She pointed to the roughhewn bookcase in the shape of a boat. “For if there’s to be any rhyme or reason to your universe, there must be a connection between them. Why else would those trying to mould me stock my bookcase thus?”
“Mansfield Park’s and Sir Thomas’s difficulties in Antigua have never been academically linked to Jefferson and besides, I don’t like Fanny Price.”
“Your research is sound and Price isn’t my favourite of Austen’s heroines either.” He laughed. “But what you fail to remember is that as Socrates tells us, at its most basic, slavery is that which (1) reduces a man to a usable object and (2) deprives him, however subtly, of his free will. If you think that you or the citizens of New York or Rhode Island or California or whatever…are any less commodities being bought and sold than Fanny Price or the men and women whose labours improved Jefferson’s plantations, then you’re mistaken.”
Excerpt from my new novel, The Curve of Capricorn, in progress, 2013.
So goes the conversation between Abby, my 21st century heroine, and her love interest, Alex.
Of course, Alex and Abby have their reasons for being interested in slavery. That’s part of their story.
It’s part of your story too.
As Alex reminds us, the bottom line of slavery is loss of ‘free will’. Yet contrary to popular belief, “free will” means a good deal more than simply doing whatever one wants when one wants. From the beginning, ‘free will’ has been intimately connected with (1) a rational and deliberate ‘choice’ and (2) the assumption of the ‘moral responsibility’ for the choices made.
For the characters of Jane Austen like Fanny Price, ‘moral responsibility’ came easily – perhaps too easily. In Abby’s view, it’s not without reason that critic Kingsely Amis called Fanny “morally detestable” and a ‘monster of complacency and pride”.
It was her (Fanny’s) intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness, in her affection for Edmund. To call or to fancy it a loss, a disappointment, would be a presumption for which she had not words strong enough to satisfy her own humility. Chapter 27, Mansfield Park.
For others like Thomas Jefferson, ‘moral responsibility’ is a bit harder to pin down:
“God has formed us moral agents… that we may promote the happiness of those with whom He has placed us in society, by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights, bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own.” Thomas Jefferson to Miles King, 1814.
This is a bit rich coming a man who continued to own about 130 slaves until his death – but there you have it.
What constitutes morality isn’t easy to define much less pin down.
But what constitutes slavery most certainly is… right?