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Excerpt from Lives Less Valuable

The Gordons (p. 14)

From chapter "Part One"

Of course the story doesn’t really begin at that meeting, which was merely about the refinery’s expansion. It didn’t even start fifty years before, with a similar planning commission meeting where people similarly opposed the refinery’s construction, and were similarly ignored.

The truth is that there are as many starting points as there are atrocities committed by this culture. In other words, there are a lot of starting points, both distant and proximate. If we really want to go to the starting point, we need to go to the start of this culture.

But what if we use this as a starting point for the story? The Gordon family fortune began in paradox, in the blood-red days of early American history. By all accounts Miles Gordon, the progenitor of the fortune, was a good man. He was a Christian. He did not beat his wife. He did not beat his children. He did not beat his horses or cattle, and once intervened to stop a neighbor from beating to death an exhausted mule. He did not drink strong spirits. He rarely smoked. He did not read novels. He did not dance. He spoke out, to whomever would listen, against slavery. He attempted, when possible, to Christianize the savages who crossed his path. When this was not possible, when Indians attacked or did not keep their bargains by staying off his land, he was swift in retribution and swifter afterward in forgiveness, allowing the vanquished to live so long as they removed themselves from this new land he had, as he recorded each time in his diary, “justly won by the sword in defensive warfare.” By 1790, his fortieth year, he had thus justly won some quarter million acres of forest, much of it so dense with cedar, chestnut, elm, and heart pine he doubted the soil had seen the sun since God created the world. Thus he became one of America’s richest settlers, which meant one of its most respected.

Miles Gordon passed on his virtues and his land to his children, who multiplied them both, until by 1830 the family controlled an abolitionist newspaper, a bank, an insurance company, a mining company, a chemical company, and a good portion of both the state and federal legislatures. That was the year the family bought controlling interest in Northeast Transport, a company that shipped cotton—planted, raised, harvested, and processed by slaves—to all parts of the globe.

The paradoxicality of the Gordons’ position—that without businessmen like them, slavery would never have been possible— never occurred to them, just as Miles’s paradoxicality regarding his own amassing of wealth had never occurred to him. Why should it? They did nothing wrong.

But their ignorance went beyond mere willfulness. It was a gift. For as well as having been given a gift for acquiring money, the Gordons had been given an even greater gift: a lack of imagination. It was no more possible for them to see the connections between their wealth and the poverty, enslavement, murder, or dispossession of others on which it was based than it was for them to see the backs of their own heads. The Gordons balanced their ledger sheets, watched their stocks rise and fall and rise again, increased their inventory, and paid their bills. Life was simple, and guided by two tenets: use your gifts, and take care of your family.

During the Civil War the Gordons speculated in US bonds, which rose and fell when the Union won or lost battles. Lawrence Gordon installed a telegraph wire in his office over which he personally received up-to-the-minute accounts from General Grant’s private telegrapher. He often knew results of battles before President Lincoln did. The Battle of the Wilderness, with about 50,000 casualties, netted him a cool million. He made a quarter million off Cold Harbor, where those who died had pinned their names and addresses to their shirts before the battle. His son, Joseph Gordon III, never had to pin his name to his shirt. Early in the war his father had written to him, in a letter that crystallized both of the family’s gifts, “In time you will understand and believe that a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health. There are plenty of other lives less valuable.” Soon after, young Joseph developed fainting spells.

The family gifts did not end with the Civil War. Strikebreaking, land fraud, child labor: through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, if there was money to be made, the Gordons were there. This was not to say the Gordons had no conscience, nor even that their collective conscience had been erased by money, power, or any other strong anesthetic, because to do so would be to suggest that on some level the Gordons perceived their actions as wrong. They did not. Just as increased prosperity for slaveowners meant better living conditions for slaves, and just as a certain amount of control over slaveholder profits provided the Gordons with leverage to ameliorate the worst of slaveholder excesses—both of which were, after all, the real reasons the Gordons entered the lucrative business of transporting cotton—so too all of the Gordon family’s economic activities were ultimately beneficial to all concerned, if only one had the right perspective. And the Gordons, generation after generation, always had the right perspective. Take child labor. In the late 1870s Joseph Gordon III, who, with the war safely over, no longer suffered fainting spells, commented, “The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor. As early as he may be set at labor the more beautiful, the more useful does his life get to be.” Thus did the Gordons share their gifts.

The family continued to share these gifts by investing in armaments during the First World War, German ball-bearing plants in World War II, and oil exploration in South America and Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. And, of course, by investing in chemical refineries in American inner cities.

Larry Gordon IV, CEO and primary owner of Vexcorp, is by all accounts a good man. He is a Christian. He loves his wife and dotes on his children. He has never struck anyone in anger. He does not drink. He does not smoke. He is an outspoken advocate of affirmative action, and his companies were among the first to offer full benefits to the partners of homosexual employees. He contributes heavily to both the Sierra Club and Audubon. He is liked by nearly all who know him, and lionized by many who don’t. Larry Gordon is a good man.