Uncle Tom's Cabin

People who disagree with me often claim that my historical views do not conform with “modern” interpretations. For my enlightenment, they recommend "modern" history books, books written after the 1960s. However, one correspondent took the opposite approach insisting that I needed to read a book from the past, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Of course, like most of you, I read the book years ago when I was younger. And, although I thought I remembered it, I decided to read it again; this time slowly and analytically.

Its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister, and wife of ministers and fervent Abolitionists who used New England pulpits to passionately proselytize against slavery. So it is not surprising that she became an Abolitionist and wrote her influential novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the book is the most famous of all anti-slavery polemics, I suspect most people are not aware of many of the opinions held by its author.

In rereading her book, I was first struck by Mrs. Stowe insistence that slavery in the South was no worse than slavery in the North had been. Furthermore, Stowe did not condemn Southern plantation owners but rather placed the onus of slavery on the slave system itself; especially New England slave traders, New York bankers, and other Northern entrepreneurs who profited from slave commerce.

Writer and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin was incensed by her position, stating: "It was her object to show that the evils of slavery were the inherent evils of a bad system, and not always the fault of those who had become involved in it and were its actual administrators." To Baldwin this opinion was racist and absolved slave owners of personal responsibility.

Civil rights activists were also irritated by Mrs. Stowe’s support of the American Colonization Society’s belief that slaves should be returned to Africa, support she shared with Abraham Lincoln.

Although an Abolitionist, Stowe belonged to the "gradual emancipation" school. She believed that slaves must receive at least a basic education before being freed. And she insisted that they be converted to Christianity. After these two conditions were met, they should be recolonized to Africa.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published two years after the Compromises of 1850. During a hectic two-month period, Congress enacted several laws designed to placate both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. The law that especially rankled Mrs. Stowe was the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that all run-away slaves be returned to their owners. She thought it was hypocrisy for Northern congressmen, who publicly condemned slavery, to enact the Compromises of 1850.

Harriet Beecher Stowe decided that she could make her point more dramatically by using a fiction format. Her goal was not to write the great American novel, but, like Charles Dickens, create sympathy for members of an underclass of society, slaves.

The character "Uncle Tom" grew up on the plantation of his first master, Mr. Shelby, a Southerner who was kindly disposed toward his slaves. In the course of events, Mr. Shelby incurs such large debts that he must either sell Tom, his most valuable slave, or sell all the others. This dilemma allows Mrs. Stowe to demonstrate how the economic realities of the slave system itself often precluded humanitarian considerations.

Uncle Tom’s second master, Mr. St. Clare, was also a Southerner and a compassionate slave owner. Mrs. Stowe uses St. Clare’s Vermont cousin, Miss Ophelia, to illustrate the Northern view of slavery. Miss Ophelia chastises St. Clare: "It’s a perfect abomination for you to defend such a system — you all do — all you southerners." But, annoyed by the slipshod manner in which the house servants conduct themselves; she calls them "shiftless." Miss Ophelia is also offended by the close companionship of St. Clare’s daughter, Little Eva, with Tom and the other slaves, which she deems inappropriate.

Uncle Tom’s third and final master is perhaps the most famous villain in American literature — Simon Legree: a New England Yankee. Legree amasses enough money pirating to purchase a plantation in Louisiana. As a plantation owner, he regularly beats, curses and abuses his slaves. In one of his beatings of Tom, Legree’s rage boils over and he accidentally kills the noble slave.

Toward the end of the book, an escaped slave, George Harris, realizes he can now achieve his dream of joining the colony in Liberia: "Let me go to form part of a nation, which shall have a voice in the councils of nations, and then we can speak. We have the claim of an injured race for reparation. But, then, I do not want it. I want a country, a nation, of my own."

In a postscript to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe catalogues the evils of the slavery system and then addresses Southerners:

“The author hopes she has done justice to that nobility, generosity, and humanity which in many cases characterizes individuals at the South. Such instances save us from utter despair of our kind. To you, generous, noble-minded men and women of the South — you, whose virtue, and magnanimity, and purity of character are the greater for the severer trial it has encountered — to you is her appeal.”

Next she turns her attention to Northerners:

“Do you say that the people of the free states have nothing to do with it? The people of the free states have defended, encouraged, and participated; and are more guilty for it, before God, than the South. There are multitudes of slaves temporarily owned, and sold again, by merchants in Northern cities; and shall the whole guilt or obloquy of slavery fall only on the South? Northern men, Northern mothers, Northern Christians, have something more to do than denounce their brethren at the South; they have to look to the evil among themselves.”

Gail Jarvis Archives