Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of the most influential didactic novels of all time. It’s written from a Christian perspective—a certain type of Christian anyway—intended to inspire Christians to examine their lives and understand where their attitudes and actions as regards slavery do not match the ideals of their faith.

A book of that description could easily be a painfully simplistic story filled with caricatures, and indeed this book has been criticized in that way. That criticism is not without merit, but I mostly didn’t experience the book that way, at least not to an extreme.

Certainly you can tell, though, that the author included various types of people and situations so that she could weigh in on the moral and political issues of the day concerning slavery. Herewith, a few examples:

Were slave owners all bad people who mistreated their slaves? Stowe includes many slave owner characters who treat their slaves well—in fact, I would say if anything the proportion of slave owners in the book who are sympathetic characters is unrealistically high—but through her story she makes several rejoinders to the notion that this somehow makes slavery OK. One is that owning another human being is inherently objectionable even if you don’t compound the wrong by treating the slave unusually brutally.

But the point that gets the most emphasis is that circumstances beyond the control of even “good” owners can result in ill treatment of their slaves. Multiple owners in the book are portrayed not only as treating their slaves humanely but as intending to give them their freedom, but each time something intervenes—e.g., economic ruin compels them to sell their slaves, sudden death before they’ve gotten around to putting their intentions in writing leaves the slaves as part of their estate, etc.—that prevents that from happening. (It put me in mind of the comic cliché in mysteries where at precisely the moment a character announces they’ve solved the mystery—“And the murderer is…”—they’re instantly shot or otherwise prevented from completing the revelation. The slaves in this book are routinely right on the verge of freedom, only to have it yanked away from them at the last second.)

So having a “good” owner is an uncertain, potentially temporary state to be in.

Don’t slave owners have a powerful economic incentive to see to it that their slaves are treated so as to be healthy and long-lived, so that they will be able to provide quality labor for as long as possible? Stowe doesn’t deny that this can be a factor in how slave owners choose to treat slaves, but she presents at least two considerations that can lessen or overcome this factor.

One is that people, including slave owners, are not purely self-interested, economically rational, beings. Some might be sadists, they might have bad tempers, they might have other goals besides maximizing the monetary value of their property, etc. Just as on the flip side there may be owners who treat slaves better than whatever would be in their economic self-interest just because that’s the kind of people they are.

The other is that some slave owners may think the calculations come out quite differently. Such conclusions wouldn’t have to be true in order to motivate different behavior. The evil slave owner Simon Legree, for instance, is of the opinion that you come out ahead if you spend as little as possible on things like food, shelter, and medical care for your slaves. He acknowledges that that way even the strongest, healthiest of them obtained in the prime of life typically only last a few years before dying, but he thinks it’s still cheaper to just keep buying fresh ones rather than spending money on the ones you’ve got.

What effects did slavery have on slave families? One of the emotional points that Stowe hits hardest in the book is how the forced break-up of families—e.g., spouse from spouse, parent from child—was both routine and severely painful under slavery. There are many instances of this in the story. Some of the slave owners dismiss this as not important, any more than separating kin when selling livestock is all that big a deal, but Stowe encourages the reader to get to know and care about the slave characters enough to feel just how significant it is.

Do Northerners bear any responsibility for slavery? Stowe goes out of her way to avoid a simplistic message that Southerners are evil and Northerners are good. Not only does she include plenty of sympathetic Southern characters, but she makes several points that do not put Northerners in the best light as regards slavery.

She notes that Northerners sometimes come into ownership of slaves, say via a will or a bankruptcy proceeding. They may then immediately arrange to have the slaves sold because they don’t want the taint of being a slave owner, but obviously that’s of no help to the slaves.

Many Northerners were in favor of fugitive slave laws that required citizens of Northern states to cooperate in the capture and return of slaves to their owners. Stowe seeks to illustrate the gross immorality of this by placing an escaped slave at the doorstep of a state legislator who coincidentally had voted in favor of such a law, and showing that as a matter of conscience he himself is unable to abide by the law.

She also makes the point that many Northerners may be on the slaves’ side in the abstract, while not being at all comfortable with actual black people. Many Southerners in the book find it quite natural to have close, warm relationships with black people, as a consequence of being around them their whole lives. Many in fact were largely raised by black women working as child care providers. But a Northern character—firmly opposed to slavery—who comes down to live with a Southern family and is given a black child to mentor finds it very difficult to get over her instinctive revulsion toward the child as an unfamiliar “other.”

Is there any point to an individual waging a quixotic fight against a system that is so well-established and so interwoven into the fabric of Southern society as slavery? One of the central characters of the novel is slave owner Augustine St. Clare, who recognizes the evils of slavery and is certainly troubled by them, but who is mostly apathetic and fatalistic about the institution, contenting himself with the small things he can do in his own household to mitigate slave suffering.

Here again Stowe is recognizing that not every slave owner is a cartoon villain, that many realize at some level that slavery is wrong, but feel powerless to do anything about it. She has him undergo a moral awakening, though, where he decides that regardless of how much difference one individual can make, it’s still his duty to do his best. If all “good” slave owners made a commitment like that to do all that was in their power to oppose slavery—by freeing their own slaves, by advocating for changes in the law, etc.—instead of rationalizing their own inaction, maybe such efforts wouldn’t be as ineffectual as they might seem on an individual level.

Aren’t there plenty of other injustices in the world at least as bad as slavery? Stowe acknowledges the argument that the lot of workers in a capitalist system can be pretty horrific too. And there’s something to that: If you eliminate slavery and then selectively hire who you want for as long as you want, plenty of the people having to sell their labor to survive will starve because no one hires them, or will accept untold indignities in exchange for someone hiring them. (Plus, there’s the advantage that you can’t really put your finger on a group to hate for causing the suffering, since the suffering is a “natural” consequence of everyone’s “free” choices taking place in a “free” market. There’s no Simon Legree, there’s just the Market. And the Market is unquestionable.) Whether their lives are worse than those of slaves is a matter of interpretation. They’re both bad, in different ways.

I don’t think Stowe ever implicitly disagrees with this criticism in the sense of denying that workers are sometimes treated unjustly or of asserting that the suffering of slavery is fundamentally much worse than the suffering imposed by capitalism. But nor does she accept the criticism. If I had to infer her position from the novel I would guess it was “two wrongs don’t make a right,” that is, however accurate and morally appropriate it may be to denounce certain forms of injustice that occur under capitalism, that in no way lessens the obligation to oppose slavery.

If slavery is wrong, does that imply that slaves are good, i.e., is it the fact that slaves are such good people that makes slavery objectionable? I think Stowe can be faulted for being a little too simplistic on this point. Certainly the overwhelming majority of slaves in the book are presented as good, practically angelic, characters. (Then again, not quite as big a majority, but still a majority, of white people, and even of slave owners specifically, are presented as being basically good people. The idea being that it’s the institution we should hate and not the individuals.) There’s some propagandistic fudging going on here to make it easier for readers to identify with the slaves, and rouse them to oppose slavery.

There are occasional exceptions where a slave is portrayed as mistreating another slave, or as otherwise manifesting a lack of emotional or moral evolution, but this is then always explained as being a product of their being brutalized. Again the emphasis is on the ill consequences of the institution, not the flaws of individuals, whether slave owners or slaves.

As much as anything, though, the novel addresses the question of how a Christian should respond to slavery, or as it might be put today, “What would Jesus do?”

Related to that, I want to talk about the character Uncle Tom.

As I read this book, I found myself thinking a lot about “Uncle Tom” as a term of abuse for a black person who sides with the oppressors of his people. I think the concept itself is very useful. If anything, there should be comparable terms for Phyllis Schlafly-types who favor the oppression of women, and so on. (I guess there already is the “self-hating Jew” concept.) Not that such terms are always used justly, but there is indeed something especially loathsome about, say, the black person who sells himself to conservatives to propagandize for their cause.

The problem is that the Uncle Tom of this book is not even vaguely like that. Uncle Tom is the Christ figure of the story. He loves and prays for everybody, be they friends or enemies, people who treat him well or people who abuse him. He will accept whatever suffering comes his way, but he will not willingly wrong anyone. When he is pressured to whip a fellow slave, or inform on a fellow slave, he refuses, and his defiance cannot be overcome even by torture to the point of death.

He is very much the hero of the book, presented as someone so morally strong and admirable as to be unrealistic.

He’s very much a forerunner of historical figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Far from being an oppressor of his people or a traitor to his people, he refuses to cooperate with wrongdoing, regardless of the consequences to himself.

That to me is not an “Uncle Tom” in the pejorative sense.

I can certainly understand more militant blacks, say, criticizing Martin Luther King and the nonviolence of the civil rights movement of which he was a part. I’m a big believer in Gandhi and others who have sought to use nonviolence to oppose evil, but I don’t think that philosophy is above criticism, and indeed I fully expect it to be controversial.

But in keeping with the actual character in the novel, the “Uncle Tom” epithet really should be reserved for figures like Martin Luther King, not sellout blacks who side with the Establishment in keeping other blacks down. Referring to someone as an “Uncle Tom” should mean something like “I recognize and respect that we’re on the same side of this struggle, and that you’re doing what you think is right in opposing racism and injustice. But I differ with you on tactics. I believe we need to be willing to use violence in opposing those who oppress us.” It should be a way of setting oneself apart from a certain type of ally, not a denunciation of a traitor.

Though, again, there’s some utility to also having a term of abuse for such traitors. I just think that that term of abuse should be something other than “Uncle Tom,” because based on its literary roots, “Uncle Tom” better fits a different type of person entirely.

As a Gandhian, I see Uncle Tom as an admirable and inspiring figure. I don’t think his unwillingness to hate and use violence makes him a sellout or a traitor. At the same time, I don’t agree with his philosophy a hundred percent. I would tinker with it.

Gandhi spoke of his use of nonviolent political activism as his “experiments with truth.” King and others have similarly taken a humble, fallible approach to discerning the most effective nonviolent tactics.

I view Uncle Tom as an early—in this case fictional—exemplar of a philosophy of love and nonviolence, but one that Gandhi and others have worked to improve on.

For example, should Uncle Tom’s defiance have embraced a wider range of cases? He refuses to whip a fellow slave—a fellow human being—because it would violate his conscience and Christian sense of right and wrong. But are there earlier points at which he should have taken such a stand? Once he was enlightened as to the brotherhood of all men, should he have more fully refused to cooperate with slavery?

He could have still been unfailingly nonviolent, loving, dignified, etc., but besides “I will not inform on someone regardless of what you do to me,” or “I will not whip someone regardless of what you do to me,” he could have added, “I will not act so as to acknowledge that one human being is capable of owning another, that you have authority over me or anyone else you consider your slave regardless of what you do to me.”

It’s interesting and important to consider just where a good person needs to be willing to take a stand, and what taking a stand entails. If you want to criticize, or disagree with, or debate with Uncle Tom or his real life analogues on those grounds, that’s totally appropriate. But I disagree with condemning him or them as having taken the side of the oppressors against their own people.

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