Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

"Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of a man who wishes to take good of it by being slave himself."

Abraham Lincoln - Fragment of letter, July 1, 1854

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing over slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

Abraham Lincoln - Speech to 14th Indiana regiment, March 17, 1865

Source of book: I own this

Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1953 (Francis Holl)

I noted in my post about Banned Books Week that I believe it is vitally important that we read banned books, particularly those which were banned for political reasons. We need to read and understand the truths that despots and others in power wish to suppress. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was my selection for this year, both because was banned by the Confederate States during the American Civil War, and because it was this month’s selection for the Reading to Know Book Club.

This book was selected by Barbara at Stray Thoughts. Her review can be found here. Other reviews by those participating in the book club:

Carrie at Reading to Know
Beth at Starrweavings

Reading to Know - Book Club

I was also reminded of another reason to read older books. Pernicious and evil ideas do not die easily, but continue to be resurrected in a new form every few years. By reading from the past, we are better able to recognize and reject such ideas.

This book also falls in the category of “books I should have read in High School,” an ongoing series on this blog. I read excerpts, and had a good idea of the plot from those days, but had never read it cover to cover.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811, one of thirteen children of Lyman Beecher, an outspoken preacher and reformer. Lyman raised his children to understand that they had a mission in life, and that they were to practice and preach what was right. In addition, Lyman believed that his daughters should receive a “male” education: classic literature, mathematics, and foreign languages. This was rare and controversial at the time. Lyman’s approach worked well for his children. Seven of them, including Harriet, achieved national recognition for their work in their chosen fields.

Lyman had a special regard for Harriet, believing she was perhaps the most brilliant of his children. He often said that she was a genius, and that he would give a hundred dollars if she were a boy. (The implication being that as a woman, she would never be able to fulfil the promise of her talent. Marriage and babies were her future.)

Harriet would eventually marry, although her husband was more rich in intellectual than financial gifts. Her writing would eventually become necessary to provide for her growing family.

The impetus for Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, according to Stowe, the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. That law imposed criminal penalties on those (in the free states) who aided runaway slaves. Stowe and many others viewed this law as an offense against basic human decency. "I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak... I hope every woman who can write will not be silent." Several states passed laws countermanding the Act, and many citizens violated it as a matter of principle. Stowe and her husband also defied the law, harboring slaves at their home as part of the Underground Railroad. Thus, she put herself at risk for what she believed - hardly a case of moralizing from a safe distance.

Stowe wrote the book in installments (as was common in the era) beginning in 1851. The book was a phenomenal success, selling 300,000 copies in less than a year. (In terms of today’s population, this would be about 4 million copies.)  It also inspired some vicious hate mail: one day she received an envelope containing the severed ear of a slave.

While some abolitionists complained that the book did not denounce slavery strongly enough, the book had its effect. For all the sermons and screeds, scholarly articles, and well reasoned pamphlets that had been written and would continue to be written, it was Harriet’s book that succeeded in arousing the public outrage like no other work. She succeeded because she was able to make slavery real and slaves human to her readers, rather than an abstract political question.

There is no need to discuss the plot of the book itself. Most of us have at least a vague idea of the events recounted. Perhaps we are familiar, or think we are familiar, with Augustine St. Clare, little Eva, Topsy, Simon Legree, and Uncle Tom himself. However, I found that I had missed the most essential part of Stowe’s argument: slavery by its very nature destroys families. Children are separated from parents, husbands from wives. It is this fact, historically indisputable, that turned the tide in (Northern) public opinion.

Stowe brings out this issue from the beginning of the story by having the slave trader Haley voice a common opinion: “‘taint, you know, as if it was white folks, that’s brought up in the way of ‘spectin’ to keep their children and wifes, and all that. Niggers, you know, that’s feched up properly, ha’nt no kind of ‘spectations of no kind; so all these things comes easier.” This idea is gradually built up throughout the book by repetition. Various characters, major and minor, are separated from their families. All the while, there is a chatter, as if by the chorus, commenting on the issue from all sides.

This is hardly the only evil that Stowe tackles head-on in her book. She also unveils the prejudice of the North - an attitude which remains a problem today. (As Alfred Kazin noted in his essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “The record of the American government in regard to racism is far better than that of the American people.”) In the book, cousin Ophelia is initially horrified that southerners allow their children to touch slave children. While she is vehemently opposed to slavery, she has to learn to think of slaves as actual people. There still is this feeling of horror in far too many hearts today. I would have to ask of all my white friends if they would truly accept a black son-in-law. As an equal. I think many of them would not. I have a friend who ashamedly admitted that years ago, he bullied his teenaged daughter into an abortion largely because the father was black. Plenty of preachers talk about racial reconciliation, but few actually embrace the attitude changes necessary for it to occur. As I note below in my note, the trend in the most conservative Christian groups is the opposite, from the recent refusal of a Southern Baptist church to marry an African American couple to a fascination with the Antebellum South. Fortunately, I think that there is some progress being made. One in twelve marriages are now interracial. Members of my extended family have adopted children from other continents, countries, and races, as have numerous friends. Still, there is much work to be done at the level of the individual heart, including my own.

One by one, Stowe addresses each of the justifications for slavery. The supposed scriptural justification for the enslavement of the African race was popular at the time, and Stowe uses her background as a preacher’s daughter to refute misused scripture with scripture. When one preacher says, “It pleased Providence for some inscrutable reason to doom the race to bondate ages ago; and we must not set up our opinion against that,” another counters with, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”

Scars of a whipped slave (1863)

There is one argument in particular that has been made from the dawn of slavery to the present that simply refuses to be killed. (See my note below.) It is the idea that slaves were better off as slaves. I first heard this idea as a kid, and I had my doubts. I think Lincoln’s quotes above pretty well dispose of the argument, but Uncle Tom himself illustrates this in a conversation with his master, St. Clare.

“Why, Tom, don’t you think, for your part, you’ve been better off than to be free?”
No, indeed, Mas’r St. Clare,” said Tom, with a flash of energy. “No, indeed!”
“Why, Tom, you couldn’t possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you.”
“Knows all that, Mas’r St. Clare; Mas’r’s been too good; but, Mas’r, I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ‘em mine, than have the best, and have ‘em any man’s else - I had so, Mas’r; I think it’s natur, Mas’r.”

The author draws the natural parallel here between the thirst for freedom from tyranny which drove the American Revolution and the natural human desire for freedom from bondage.

To your fathers, freedom was the right of a nation to be a nation. To him [escaped slave George Harris], it is the right of a man to be a man, and not a brute; the right to call the wife of his bosom his wife, and to protect her from lawless violence; the right to protect and educate his child; the right to have a home of his own, a religion of his own, a character of his own, unsubject to the will of another.

I think that encapsulates the essence of Freedom, the human aversion to bondage, which has motivated so many of the historical heroes.

Stowe’s writing has its strong points and its flaws. I found myself thinking throughout about the difference between great writing and effective writing. Stowe shows some flashes of greatness, but it is mixed with much which is cringe-worthy. On the other hand, there is no doubt that her writing was and remains effective. It accomplished its mission, and the writing itself was a key factor in its effectiveness.

What did I dislike about the writing? First, I know that the angelic fair haired female child is a common trope of Victorian literature. I also know that the death scene with pathos and transcendance is also of its time. Still, I cannot bring myself to like them. Little Eva’s tubercular death - and her life for that matter - were irritating to me. I have three daughters, who are sweet and kind and all that, but they are not angelic. Eva is not intended to be human, but a divine emissary, of course, but I still found the whole thing cloying and distracting from the main point.

Stowe also has a tendency to preach. And by “a tendency” I mean that she does so at every possible opportunity. I find it amusing that some abolitionists criticised it as being too soft on slavery. As it is, the preaching bogs the book down in several places. I would admit, however, that she delivered some good sermons, better than many I have heard in my lifetime. Perhaps this is why her father wished she had been a man. Stowe is not unusual for her time in this respect either. Dickens also tended to preach, as did many others. And both were highly effective in ridding their nations of the evils they preached against.

Finally, the book suffers from some unfortunate racial stereotyping. As with Mark Twain, she shows the symptoms of her time in history. Both can cause discomfort with their generalizations, but both were also far ahead of their times.

On the positive side, Stowe created some memorable characters. Marie St. Clare strikes me as having a certain kinship with Austin’s Mrs. Bennett - and resembles a few people I know in real life. Cousin Ophelia is unforgettable, as are Cassie and Simon Legree. I had read the chapter on Topsy previously, but I loved her character even more now that I am a parent. My second daughter shares many of Topsy’s personality traits, not least of which are her sceptical nature and her imperviousness to most forms of punishment. As Ophelia discovers, such a one can only be won with love.

The character of Uncle Tom warrants some discussion. It is truly unfortunate that “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet used to describe a cowering, toadying sycophant. Uncle Tom as a character was the antithesis of the stereotype. If anything, Uncle Tom is unrealistic, an ideal. This was, I am sure, intentional. Tom is allowed to have his moments of doubt, but he must do what is right under all circumstances so as to serve as a stark contrast to his various masters. The reader must want Tom to live to be reunited with his family.

Tom may always be respectful and obedient to the reasonable requests of his masters, but he is not governed by them so much as he is by his own conscience. Thus, he refuses to beat other slaves, and helps Cassie and Emmeline escape, even at the cost of his own life.

There are two conversations with Legree that show Tom’s true character.

“An’t I yer master? Didn’t I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An’t yer mine, now, body and soul?”

“No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven’t bought it - ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for by one that is able to keep it; no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!”

And later, when Legree has threatened to kill Tom unless he “gives in,” Tom stands strong.

“Mas’r Legree, as ye bought me, I’ll be a true and faithful servant to ye. I’ll give ye all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength; but my soul I won’t give up to mortal man.”

With all those around us who seem so eager to sell their souls for so little, Tom stands as that reminder of that truth spoken in a still small voice, in the words of a songwriting friend of mine, “Don’t sell yourself for too small a price.”

As a final word on this book, Stowe had high hopes that slavery would be ended within her lifetime. History records that within a decade of the publication of the book, the nation would be involved in a great war to determine whether it would acknowledge in deed as well as word that all men are created equal. Stowe would indeed live to see the “peculiar institution” ended, at the cost of more than a half million lives. (The slave trade itself cost the lives of many times as many slaves.) It is gratifying that she accomplished her goal, and that this evil was ended. It is particularly poignant to read the following from her introduction to the book:

It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.

Note on the history of defending and excusing slavery:

Although the idea of racial superiority (and the inferiority of women, by the way) dates at least to the writings of Aristotle, it was not until modern times that slavery took on a truly racist nature. Previously, skin color was less important than the use of force. If your country was conquered, you became a slave, and it sucked to be you. Might proved superiority.

From the beginning of the African slave trade in the Fifteenth Century, there have been those who have sought to justify slavery on the basis of racial superiority. Sadly, the clergy were all too willing to twist scripture to provide a religious justification for a vile practice.

I find it greatly distressing that from that time to the present, there have always been those who look back on the antebellum South with nostalgia, continuing to justify - or at least sugarcoat - slavery. This, and the idea of White supremacy which is philosophically necessary to justify racial slavery, are still being promulgated today by certain religious leaders. I am embarrassed, both as a person of European descent (even though my ancestors immigrated well after the Civil War), and as a Christian that slavery ever occurred and that religious leaders used the name of Christ to justify that brutal institution.

As I noted in my review of
Sweetness and Power, slavery was the economic engine that drove the sugar and rum trades. There were great fortunes to be made on the backs of the Africans, and this greed was the original reason for the slave trade. As William Cowper put it in a memorable verse:

"I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
for how could we do without sugar and rum?"

Many, like Cowper, had some pricks of conscience about the whole affair. “Fortunately,” there were plenty of preachers eager to step in and salve the sore conscience with a justification. The Black race was cursed, they said, as a result of an incident involving a drunk Noah, and ever since, God destined the Black man to serve the White man, who was destined to rule. The Black man could never adequately govern himself, and was therefore better off under the benign leadership of the superior White man.

The notable clergy who promoted this view and owned slaves themselves in the Puritan era are many: George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, among others. Later, after the Civil War, evangelist Billy Sunday also promoted the KKK.

Perhaps worst of all, the Southern Baptist Convention officially claimed in its publications that, “Negroes have ever been and must continue to be throughout time subject to the superior intellect of the white man, for the history of the race proves clearly his inferiority, and the more feeble the mind or intellect, the lower the sphere in society must he occupy.”

As late as 1935, the president of a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary wrote approvingly of a book by one Anna Hope, which stated:  “Niggers are hopelessly inferior, both in disposition and lack of intellect. To retain the respect of a Negro you must always avoid placing yourself on the same level with him. Negroes are not fit for self-government. For their own benefit they must be controlled by others. In slaveholding days flogging was unavoidable if lazy Negroes were to be disciplined. Their natural order is repellent.”

None of this is difficult to find from well-documented sources, and should be a source of distress to all of us.

Each of these ideas is noted by Stowe in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And she had the courage to name a few preachers of her day that defended slavery. (Such as Dr. Joel Parker of Philadelphia.) It made her a few enemies, to be sure.

Lest anyone think that this sentiment has disappeared as we have moved into the enlightened Twenty-first Century, I have one more, rather modern example. Recently, I got into a heated discussion with a friend of a friend online over a quotation by Douglas Wilson. I feel strongly that each of us should be careful who we choose to quote, as we will be judged by our choice of who to venerate. Thus, I would never quote Christopher Columbus in a positive way to a Native American. His slaughter is well known, and indefensible. Why would I try to justify it to the descendents of his victims?

I already know that I have sparked some serious controversy by calling out a popular preacher, so I am sure that I will offend some of my readers in this case.

In 1996, Wilson wrote and published a pamphlet entitled
Southern Slavery As It Was, along with Steven Wilkins, another clergyman, and a former board member of the League of the South, a group that favors the secession of the southern States, and is generally considered to be a White Supremacist hate group. The pamphlet was written with the express intent of combating the supposed lies about slavery promulgated by the Abolitionists, who are described as a godless bunch. Not at all like the godly slave owners. This vile work can be found easily online, although I will not dignify it with a link. In addition, there are many scholarly rebuttals that illustrate the utter disregard for historical fact that Wilson and Wilkins show. Among many ludicrous claims is that it was extremely rare for masters to take sexual advantage of their “property.” Wilson and Wilkins claim, and I quote directly from them:

It would have been much easier, and less risky, for owners of large plantations to keep a mistress in town than to risk the possibility of the destruction of his own family by taking up with a slave woman.”

Really? In a society where a master could beat a slave to death without repercussions? In a society where a “negro’s” testimony was inadmissible in court against a white person? That would be a higher risk than an affair with a White woman who had civil rights? Of course, they never address the fact that the vast majority of African Americans have some degree of European ancestry. This has been shown through DNA testing innumerable times. On a related note, how would the terms “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” have arisen? From a few consensual affairs in the northern States? Really?

This isn’t even the most outrageous claim, however. How about this one?

"Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since...Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world."

As I found out, supporters of Wilson are even willing to defend this statement as not meaning what it clearly means. In order to believe that race relations, in the entire history of the world, were best when the writer’s race enslaved the other race, one must believe that one race is superior to the other. There is no other rational explanation for writing such a statement, in a pamphlet defending slavery, with the centuries-long history of the use of this very justification for slavery.

You cannot use the words and ideas of the defenders of slavery and those who believed and believe in the supremacy of the White Man, and then claim that you are not defending slavery. You cannot claim that racial relations were at their
best when one race ruled the other, and then claim that there is a non-racist “explanation.” Your words speak for themselves.

And really, I dare those who have argued to me that Wilson has adequately “explained” himself to read the pamphlet to their African American friends. And try to keep a straight face.

I do not want to get too far off track in this note, but I do want to note that the use of the term “patriarchal” by a man prominent in the modern patriarchy movement is interesting to me. Others with better skills than I have drawn interesting parallels in the two thoughts, which are based on the idea of congenital superiority of one class of person over another. (Again, this idea dates at least to Aristotle, and influenced Greek and Roman society for centuries thereafter.)

Those who read my post earlier this year know that my wife and I each spent some time in our teens in cult-like patriarchal groups. These groups - particularly the one my wife’s family became involved with - have philosophical and personal ties to Wilson, and also strongly promote patriarchal ideals. As I have grown and distanced myself from this part of my past, I have reacted with increasing distaste for the way certain Christian groups idolise a mythical past. They revere, as a friend put it, “a quirky combination of antebellum femininity, 1950’s homemaking, and Jane Austen drama.” I would go further than that. Those like Wilson and Wilkins - and plenty of others - wish to return to their sugarcoated image of the Antebellum South: a time when men were more "manly" and godly, women were more “feminine,” before all of the corruptions of modern life, when White men ruled, and when women and “Negroes” knew their place.


  1. After writing this post, I discovered some significant additional information on the connection between Patriarchy and the Secessionist/White Supremacist movements. I hope to address this in an extended blog post next month, so stay tuned. Teaser: search for R. L. Dabney...

  2. I read UTC for the first time earlier this year and can't believe it took me so long to read it. I now understand why it was so influential. I thought it was a book about Christianity as much as it was about slavery and I also thought the points about family separation were extremely effective and heart wrenching. I would take any physical punishment rather than have my children wrenched from my arms. I also thought she made the point well that even if the majority of slave owners were kind and just, that doesn't negate the fact that some grievously abused slaves in an utterly inhumane fashion. And if the kind slave owner died unexpectedly without making provisions in his will to free his slaves, they would be completely vulnerable. The book was powerful and thought provoking. I think every American, and especially Christians should read it.

    1. I agree with you, Amy. It is vitally important that all Americans, particularly Christians, should read it. I believe that there is a battle going on right now for the soul of conservative Christianity, particularly in homeschool circles. I hope to shed some light on this when I get the time to write up my research.

  3. I appreciate the thoroughness of the background information and related notes you've incorporated.

    When I read Roots (review here: http://barbarah.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/book-review-roots-the-saga-of-an-american-family/), I was surprised that there was slavery within Kunta's culture as well, but it was usually either through battle, as you mentioned, or through debt -- someone in debt with no way to repay would become a slave for a length of time.

    I don't know how anyone could read either of these books and still justify slavery. I wonder if Wilson has?

    I wouldn't toss all of the Puritans out because they were wrong on this issue. If we tossed out everybody because they were wrong on something...we wouldn't have anyone left. I don't think we can judge them by modern sensibilities -- I think this issue was a blind spot that took time for people to fully awaken to.

    I also don't see much resemblance between Marie St. Clare and Mrs. Bennett. They were both manipulative, but Mrs. B. was silly and Marie was cruel. Mrs. B. was motivated by the desperation of staving off what she thought would be sure economic ruin if her girls didn't marry and marry well. That doesn't justify her actions but it helps understand them. But Marie was totally self-absorbed.

    1. Excellent points regarding Roots and the Puritans. As Propaganda says in his song, God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.

      What I hoped to show is that there is a history of Christians twisting scripture to justify slavery, and that it continues today. I hope to post the results of my research on the continuing fascination that Confederate theologian R. L. Dabney and White Supremacist Rousas Rushdoony have for modern day "Patriarchists" such as Douglas Wilson and Douglas Phillips. It should be eye opening information.

      Regarding Pride and Prejudice, I found Mrs. Bennett to be every bit as self-absorbed as Marie St. Clare, rude to the servants, and rather indifferent to the effects she had on others. I would agree that Marie is perhaps more truly cruel. The main similarity to me is that both have difficulty seeing beyond themselves, and both think that the world is so grossly unfair to them.

      Good stuff to think about and ponder with all three books, I might add.

    2. I should say as well, regarding the Puritans, that it is one thing to take the good of what they said about our relationship with God, and it is another to be quick to cite their ideas about how to order a society. After all, it is in their view of society that this glaring blind spot exists. I would be particularly hesitant to wax eloquent about the glories of the Puritan civilization, and advocate a return to that era.

  4. I'm going to skip commenting on Wilson except to note that I'm skipping it. :)

    As for your thoughts on the book, I really enjoying reading through the history and background you gave us on Stowe. I intentionally did not want to read anything about her or the book this time but just wanted to read the story and see how I reacted to it. Now that I've written down my impressions, I'm curious about the background. The story about Stowe receiving the severed ear of a slave in the mail is perfectly grotesque.

    I agree with Amy in saying that this is absolutely a book that Americans - and Christians - should still be reading. And talking about.

  5. I did read Uncle Tom's Cabin in high school (of my own free will, not for a class assignment), but I recall not being terribly impressed with the book.

    Now that I'm an adult and am more familiar with the history of the South, in addition to having a family of my own, I'm willing to reread this book again. I wonder how much my perspective will change, if at all

    1. It is often hard to evaluate Victorian era literature. Books like this (and to an extent, ones by Dickens as well) are melodramatic, shamelessly manipulating the emotions of the reader. This hasn't worn particularly well.

      Still, it is worth remembering that Uncle Tom's Cabin probably did more to shift public opinion (in the North) against slavery than all the tracts and sermons. Likewise, Dickens was crucial in changing the laws regarding child labor and workhouses.