Does anyone call murder a kind deed? Would anyone consider splitting children from their parents and ripping apart families benevolent? The author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 to show how evil slavery was and how it was not the ‘civilizing’ and ‘paternalistic’ institution that some racist people in the South claimed it was.
Stowe came up with the idea to write a realistic story with relatable characters who were slaves. She thought that by doing this, many readers would empathize with enslaved people and would join the abolitionist fight. Her target audience was the people living in the North, especially white mothers, and she makes frequent direct appeals to them in the book, asking them if they would like it if they were in the place of the characters.
Stowe does a good job of coming up with many egregious, but realistic, things that happen to the characters in order to prove her point. In the book, enslaved people, including the protagonist Uncle Tom, are sold away from their families, despise their lack of liberty, and are murdered without consequence. By portraying Uncle Tom’s experiences with three very different slave owners, Harriet Beecher Stowe shows how there is nothing good about slavery.
Through Uncle Tom’s experiences with Mr. Shelby, it is shown that slavery is evil because masters have the power to split families and sell people away when they need money. One day, in the beginning of the storyline, Mr. Shelby tells his wife about what he did to get out of debt. He says, “I have agreed to sell Tom and Harry both; and I don’t know why I am to be rated as if I were a monster, for doing what every one does every day” (63). Mr. Shelby tries to be kind and good to his slaves, but he ends up selling two of them to pay off debts. If he had been truly kind, he would have sold his slaves a long time ago.
This horrible sale shows how slavery is evil because it causes two humans to be separated from their family and traded like objects. Mr. Shelby agrees to sell a child away from his mother and a father away from his wife and children. There is nothing good about that. It is also problematic how Mr. Shelby normalizes the sale. He just thinks of it as an unpleasant part of business, which contributes to the problem of slavery.
After hearing about the sale, Mrs. Shelby talks about what she thinks of this system of owning people. She says “I thought, by kindness, and care and instruction, I could make the condition of [my slaves] better than freedom – fool that I was!” (63). Mrs. Shelby illustrates the point that although people can try to make the lives of slaves better by educating them and being kind, as long as they are slaves they are not free, emotionally, mentally, and physically. They do not have control over their life, and they are living under a shadow of fear due to the fact that they could be sold at any moment.
Mrs. Shelby realizes that if she and her husband truly want the best for the people that they have enslaved, they need to free them. Slavery is an evil that is always present because it dehumanizes people by treating them like property and not taking into account their feelings. This sale shows that slavery is not a kind institution, it is one that terrorizes the people living in its chains.
Augustine St. Claire
Uncle Tom’s time with St. Claire shows how there is no such thing as good slavery because everyone wants to be free and no one enjoys being enslaved. One day, near the end of Augustine St. Claire’s short life, he tells Uncle Tom, “I’m going to make a free man out of you” (492), to which Uncle Tom exclaims, “Bless the Lord!” (492). St. Claire is perhaps the kindest master in the story. He thinks that slavery should be abolished, and he knows that slavery is terrible, but he cannot bring himself to lose the comfort of having servants. This is certainly a flaw, but one that he readily admits.
Despite this, St. Claire is nice to Uncle Tom and supports him, even his writing. He gives him nice living quarters and clothes. But, St. Claire realizes that he is keeping Uncle Tom from his family, so he decides to free him. Uncle Tom is overjoyed to hear that he will be free, despite St. Claire’s good treatment. This is because freedom is more important than anything else, except maybe family. As a result, no one is better off without liberty.
Liberty is Better Than Wealth
St. Claire then asks “Why, Tom, don’t you think, for your own part, you’ve been been better off than to be free?” (492). To this, Uncle Tom replies “No, indeed!” (493). He then adds, “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” (493). Any enslaved person is less happy than a person with the feeling of owning their life and possessions, however little they have. This combats the common racist theory that slaves were better off being enslaved. They obviously were not, due to their joyous reaction when freed. Harriet Beecher Stowe disproved that misconception, and gave a taste of slaves’ real feelings.
Simon Legree shows how the system of slavery allows men as horrible as Legree to have way to much power over human beings and that slavery is an atrocity, not a kind institution. One day, St. Claire goes on a rant to his cousin about how he hates slavery, and how he hates himself for not having the strength to free his slaves. He says that it is bad, and that, “Every brutal, disgusting, mean, low-lived fellow I met, was allowed by our laws to become absolute despot of as many men, women and children, as he could cheat, steal, or gamble money enough to buy” (361-362). These words turn out to be all too true.
The Despicable Character of Legree
Simon Legree is a horrible man, and he should not even be allowed to hire people, let alone buy them. But he is able to purchase Uncle Tom and many other slaves just because he has the cash. There are no background checks, no protections.
After he purchases Uncle Tom, Legree quickly makes it clear what type of person he is. He declares that, “Ye won’t find no soft spot in me, nowhere. So, now, mind yourselves; for I don’t show now mercy!” (545). Later, he says, “I shall put her through for what she’s worth; she may last a year or two. I don’t go for savin’ [slaves]. Use up, and buy more, ’s my way;-makes you less trouble, and I’m quite sure it comes cheaper in the end;” (546).
Simon Legree is very mean and cruel. But, the worst part is that he purposefully causes people to die quickly on his plantation. Simon Legree is a murderer and he readily admits to it. He is a despicable and malevolent person and everyone who sees him agrees. But under the laws of slavery, he is allowed to buy other people, as Augustine St. Claire said, and mistreated them. There is no way to look at slavery under Simon Legree as something that is kind.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher shows how there is nothing ‘kind’ ‘paternalistic’ or ‘benevolent’, about slavery. This is because slaves are afforded no protections (like from being sold or murdered). And, they do not get to enjoy true freedom. Legree is a man who exemplifies the cruelty of some slave owners. He does not care at all when he causes his slaves to die. For him, it is just time to buy more. How could slavery be a kind institution if people like Legree are the slaveholders?
People like Mr. Shelby who try to be kind are enabling the institution of slavery. As a smart young man says, “It is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foot-hold for an hour” (547 – 548). This is very true. Mr. Shelby and even St. Clare are enabling the whole thing by owning slaves. And Northerners are not exempt either, because some of them are just as racist, like Ms. Ophelia.
All slave owners, no matter how they treat their slaves, are depriving people of their liberty and are, at some point, engaging in the slave trade. Stowe shows the extent of complicity and how all slavery is bad. Stowe’s portrayal of this phenomenon of selling human beings appeals to mothers who cannot bear to lose their children. And the murder of a kind, loyal, and goodhearted man outrages all who read of it. This book had the power to make an abolitionist out of a person who never before thought of slavery as unacceptable and inhumane. The world is so fortunate that she wrote this text, because if she had not, slavery might still exist.
Featured image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.
For reference, the page numbers in this essay are from the large print edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in Boston by G.K. Hall & Co. The year of publication is 1993.