To sell a son… Uncle Tom’s Cabin
On 5 June 1851, the abolitionist journal National Era began running a serial by the wife of a professor at Bowdoin College. A deeply religious and well-educated white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe was an ardent opponent of slavery. As she wrote to the journal editor, Gamaliel Bailey: “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.” The work, eventually titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or Life Among the Lowly, became a national sensation.
“S’pose not; you Kentucky folks spile your niggers. You mean well by ’em, but ’tan’t no real kindness, arter all. Now, a nigger, you see, what’s got to be hacked and tumbled round the world, and sold to Tom, and Dick, and the Lord knows who, ’tan’t no kindness to be givin’ on him notions and expectations, and bringin’ on him up too well, for the rough and tumble comes all the harder on him arter. Now, I venture to say, your niggers would be quite chop-fallen in a place where some of your plantation niggers would be singing and whooping like all possessed. Every man, you know, Mr. Shelby, naturally thinks well of his own ways; and I think I treat niggers just about as well as it’s ever worth while to treat ’em.”
“It’s a happy thing to be satisﬁed,” said Mr. Shelby, with a slight shrug, and some perceptible feelings of a disagreeable nature.
“Well,” said Haley, after they had both silently picked their nuts for a season, “what do you say?”
“I’ll think the matter over, and talk with my wife,” said Mr. Shelby. “Meantime, Haley, if you want the matter carried on in the quiet way you speak of, you’d best not let your business in this neigh-borhood be known. It will get out among my boys, and it will not be a particularly quiet business getting away any of my fellows, if they know it, I’ll promise you.”
“O! certainly, by all means, mum! of course. But I’ll tell you, I’m in a devil of a hurry, and shall want to know, as soon as possible, what I may depend on,” said he, rising and putting on his overcoat.
“Well, call up this evening, between six and seven, and you shall have my answer,” said Mr. Shelby, and the trader bowed himself out of the apartment.
“I’d like to have been able to kick the fellow down the steps,” said he to himself, as he saw the door fairly closed, “with his impudent assurance; but he knows how much he has me at advantage. If anybody had ever said to me that I should sell Tom down south to one of those rascally traders, I should have said, ‘Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?’ And now it must come, for aught I see. And Eliza’s child, too! I know that I shall have some fuss with wife about that; and, for that matter, about Tom, too. So much for being in debt, — heigho! The fellow sees his advantage, and means to push it.”
Perhaps the mildest form of the system of slavery is to be seen in the State of Kentucky. The general prevalence of agricultural pursuits of a quiet and gradual nature, not requiring those periodic seasons of hurry and pressure that are called for in the business of more southern districts, makes the task of the negro a more healthful and reasonable one; while the master, content with a more gradual style of acquisition, has not those temptations to hardheartedness which always overcome frail human nature when the prospect of sudden and rapid gain is weighed in the balance, with no heavier counterpoise than the interests of the helpless and unprotected.
Whoever visits some estates there, and witnesses the good-humored indulgence of some masters and mistresses, and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves, might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend of a patriarchal institution, and all that; but over and above the scene there broods a portentous shadow — the shadow of law. So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master,—so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil, — so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.Mr. Shelby was a fair average kind of man, good-natured and kindly, and disposed to easy indulgence of those around him, and there had never been a lack of anything which might contribute to the physical comfort of the negroes on his estate. He had, however, speculated largely and quite loosely; had involved himself deeply, and his notes to a large amount had come into the hands of Haley; and this small piece of information is the key to the preceding conversation.
Now, it had so happened that, in approaching the door, Eliza had caught enough of the conversation to know that a trader was making offers to her master for somebody.
She would gladly have stopped at the door to listen, as she came out; but her mistress just then calling, she was obliged to hasten away.
Still she thought she heard the trader make an offer for her boy; — could she be mistaken? Her heart swelled and throbbed, and she involuntarily strained him so tight that the little fellow looked up into her face in astonishment.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has proven a controversial work. While integral to stirring up the slavery debate before the Civil War, later writers and historians have called it a touchstone for racial stereotypes, particularly for creating the insult of ‘Uncle Tom‘. The work is more often considered for its historical place, rather than literary merits despite being one of the bestselling works of the 19th century. While Abraham Lincoln may never have uttered the words “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” Harriet Beecher Stowe certainly proved the power of words. To capitalize on the book’s success the publisher released a lavishly illustrated gift version for the Christmas season. Widely known as the “Splendid Edition,” the deluxe offering included over one hundred detailed engravings by Hammatt Billings, who had done six pictures for the original printing. Reissued for the first time, a facsimile edition from Oxford World’s Classics gives general readers the chance to experience Uncle Tom’s Cabin in this most revealing form. It includes a substantial introduction by Bancroft-winning historian David S. Reynolds that situates the novel within the world of ideas and images operative at the time. David S. Reynolds is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His newest book is Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America.