Uncle Tom's Cabin Chapter I: In Which the Reader Is Introduced to a Man of Humanity
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two
gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished
dining parlor, in the town of P----, in Kentucky. There were no
servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching,
seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.
For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen.
One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not
seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short,
thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering
air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his
way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest
of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow
spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with
the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were
plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain,
with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of
colors, attached to it,--which, in the ardor of conversation, he
was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction.
His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray's Grammar,[English Grammar
(1795), by Lindley Murray (1745-1826),
the most authoritative American grammarian of his day.]
and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane
expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account
shall induce us to transcribe.
His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman;
and the arrrangements of the house, and the general air of the
housekeeping, indicated easy, and even opulent circumstances. As we
before stated, the two were in the midst of an earnest conversation.
"That is the way I should arrange the matter," said Mr. Shelby.
"I can't make trade that way--I positively can't, Mr. Shelby,"
said the other, holding up a glass of wine between his
eye and the light.
"Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow; he is
certainly worth that sum anywhere,--steady, honest, capable, manages
my whole farm like a clock."
"You mean honest, as niggers go," said Haley, helping
himself to a glass of brandy.
"No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow.
He got religion at a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe
he really did get it. I've trusted him, since then, with
everything I have,--money, house, horses,--and let him come and go
round the country; and I always found him true and square in everything."
"Some folks don't believe there is pious niggers Shelby,"
said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, "but I do. I
had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans--'t was
as good as a meetin, now, really, to hear that critter pray; and
he was quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too,
for I bought him cheap of a man that was 'bliged to sell out; so
I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable
thing in a nigger, when it's the genuine article, and no mistake."
"Well, Tom's got the real article, if ever a fellow had,"
rejoined the other. "Why, last fall, I let him go to Cincinnati
alone, to do business for me, and bring home five hundred dollars.
'Tom,' says I to him, 'I trust you, because I think you're a
Christian--I know you wouldn't cheat.' Tom comes back, sure enough;
I knew he would. Some low fellows, they say, said to him--Tom,
why don't you make tracks for Canada?' 'Ah, master trusted me, and
I couldn't,'--they told me about it. I am sorry to part with Tom,
I must say. You ought to let him cover the whole balance of the
debt; and you would, Haley, if you had any conscience."
"Well, I've got just as much conscience as any man in
business can afford to keep,--just a little, you know, to swear
by, as 't were," said the trader, jocularly; "and, then, I'm ready
to do anything in reason to 'blige friends; but this yer, you see,
is a leetle too hard on a fellow--a leetle too hard." The trader
sighed contemplatively, and poured out some more brandy.
"Well, then, Haley, how will you trade?" said Mr. Shelby,
after an uneasy interval of silence.
"Well, haven't you a boy or gal that you could throw in
"Hum!--none that I could well spare; to tell the truth,
it's only hard necessity makes me willing to sell at all.
I don't like parting with any of my hands, that's a fact."
Here the door opened, and a small quadroon boy, between four
and five years of age, entered the room. There was something
in his appearance remarkably beautiful and engaging. His black
hair, fine as floss silk, hung in glossy curls about his round,
dimpled face, while a pair of large dark eyes, full of fire and
softness, looked out from beneath the rich, long lashes, as he
peered curiously into the apartment. A gay robe of scarlet and
yellow plaid, carefully made and neatly fitted, set off to advantage
the dark and rich style of his beauty; and a certain comic air of
assurance, blended with bashfulness, showed that he had been not
unused to being petted and noticed by his master.
"Hulloa, Jim Crow!" said Mr. Shelby, whistling, and snapping
a bunch of raisins towards him, "pick that up, now!"
The child scampered, with all his little strength, after
the prize, while his master laughed.
"Come here, Jim Crow," said he. The child came up, and
the master patted the curly head, and chucked him under the chin.
"Now, Jim, show this gentleman how you can dance and sing."
The boy commenced one of those wild, grotesque songs common among
the negroes, in a rich, clear voice, accompanying his singing with
many comic evolutions of the hands, feet, and whole body, all in
perfect time to the music.
"Bravo!" said Haley, throwing him a quarter of an orange.
"Now, Jim, walk like old Uncle Cudjoe, when he has the
rheumatism," said his master.
Instantly the flexible limbs of the child assumed the
appearance of deformity and distortion, as, with his back humped
up, and his master's stick in his hand, he hobbled about the room,
his childish face drawn into a doleful pucker, and spitting from
right to left, in imitation of an old man.
Both gentlemen laughed uproariously.
"Now, Jim," said his master, "show us how old Elder Robbins
leads the psalm." The boy drew his chubby face down to a formidable
length, and commenced toning a psalm tune through his nose, with
"Hurrah! bravo! what a young 'un!" said Haley; "that chap's
a case, I'll promise. Tell you what," said he, suddenly clapping
his hand on Mr. Shelby's shoulder, "fling in that chap, and I'll
settle the business--I will. Come, now, if that ain't doing the
thing up about the rightest!"
At this moment, the door was pushed gently open, and a young
quadroon woman, apparently about twenty-five, entered the room.
There needed only a glance from the child to her, to identify
her as its mother. There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with
its long lashes; the same ripples of silky black hair. The brown
of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush,
which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon
her in bold and undisguised admiration. Her dress was of the
neatest possible fit, and set off to advantage her finely moulded
shape;--a delicately formed hand and a trim foot and ankle were
items of appearance that did not escape the quick eye of the trader,
well used to run up at a glance the points of a fine female article.
"Well, Eliza?" said her master, as she stopped and looked
hesitatingly at him.
"I was looking for Harry, please, sir;" and the boy bounded
toward her, showing his spoils, which he had gathered in the skirt
of his robe.
"Well, take him away then," said Mr. Shelby; and hastily
she withdrew, carrying the child on her arm.
"By Jupiter," said the trader, turning to him in admiration,
"there's an article, now! You might make your fortune on that ar
gal in Orleans, any day. I've seen over a thousand, in my day,
paid down for gals not a bit handsomer."
"I don't want to make my fortune on her," said Mr. Shelby, dryly;
and, seeking to turn the conversation, he uncorked a bottle of
fresh wine, and asked his companion's opinion of it.
"Capital, sir,--first chop!" said the trader; then turning,
and slapping his hand familiarly on Shelby's shoulder, he added--
"Come, how will you trade about the gal?--what shall I say
for her--what'll you take?"
"Mr. Haley, she is not to be sold," said Shelby. "My wife
would not part with her for her weight in gold."
"Ay, ay! women always say such things, cause they ha'nt no
sort of calculation. Just show 'em how many watches, feathers,
and trinkets, one's weight in gold would buy, and that alters the
case, I reckon."
"I tell you, Haley, this must not be spoken of; I say no,
and I mean no," said Shelby, decidedly.
"Well, you'll let me have the boy, though," said the trader;
"you must own I've come down pretty handsomely for him."
"What on earth can you want with the child?" said Shelby.
"Why, I've got a friend that's going into this yer branch
of the business--wants to buy up handsome boys to raise for the
market. Fancy articles entirely--sell for waiters, and so on, to
rich 'uns, that can pay for handsome 'uns. It sets off one of yer
great places--a real handsome boy to open door, wait, and tend.
They fetch a good sum; and this little devil is such a comical,
musical concern, he's just the article!'
"I would rather not sell him," said Mr. Shelby, thoughtfully;
"the fact is, sir, I'm a humane man, and I hate to take the boy
from his mother, sir."
"O, you do?--La! yes--something of that ar natur. I
understand, perfectly. It is mighty onpleasant getting on with
women, sometimes, I al'ays hates these yer screechin,' screamin'
times. They are mighty onpleasant; but, as I manages business,
I generally avoids 'em, sir. Now, what if you get the girl off
for a day, or a week, or so; then the thing's done quietly,--all
over before she comes home. Your wife might get her some ear-rings,
or a new gown, or some such truck, to make up with her."
"I'm afraid not."
"Lor bless ye, yes! These critters ain't like white folks,
you know; they gets over things, only manage right. Now, they
say," said Haley, assuming a candid and confidential air,
"that this kind o' trade is hardening to the feelings; but I never
found it so. Fact is, I never could do things up the way some
fellers manage the business. I've seen 'em as would pull a woman's
child out of her arms, and set him up to sell, and she screechin'
like mad all the time;--very bad policy--damages the article--makes
'em quite unfit for service sometimes. I knew a real handsome gal
once, in Orleans, as was entirely ruined by this sort o' handling.
The fellow that was trading for her didn't want her baby; and she
was one of your real high sort, when her blood was up. I tell you,
she squeezed up her child in her arms, and talked, and went on real
awful. It kinder makes my blood run cold to think of 't; and when
they carried off the child, and locked her up, she jest went ravin'
mad, and died in a week. Clear waste, sir, of a thousand dollars,
just for want of management,--there's where 't is. It's always
best to do the humane thing, sir; that's been my experience."
And the trader leaned back in his chair, and folded his arm, with
an air of virtuous decision, apparently considering himself a
The subject appeared to interest the gentleman deeply; for
while Mr. Shelby was thoughtfully peeling an orange, Haley broke
out afresh, with becoming diffidence, but as if actually driven by
the force of truth to say a few words more.
"It don't look well, now, for a feller to be praisin' himself;
but I say it jest because it's the truth. I believe I'm
reckoned to bring in about the finest droves of niggers that is
brought in,--at least, I've been told so; if I have once, I reckon
I have a hundred times,--all in good case,--fat and likely, and I
lose as few as any man in the business. And I lays it all to my
management, sir; and humanity, sir, I may say, is the great pillar
of my management."
Mr. Shelby did not know what to say, and so he said, "Indeed!"
"Now, I've been laughed at for my notions, sir, and I've
been talked to. They an't pop'lar, and they an't common; but I
stuck to 'em, sir; I've stuck to 'em, and realized well on 'em;
yes, sir, they have paid their passage, I may say," and the trader
laughed at his joke.
There was something so piquant and original in these
elucidations of humanity, that Mr. Shelby could not help laughing
in company. Perhaps you laugh too, dear reader; but you know
humanity comes out in a variety of strange forms now-a-days, and
there is no end to the odd things that humane people will say and do.
Mr. Shelby's laugh encouraged the trader to proceed.
"It's strange, now, but I never could beat this into people's heads.
Now, there was Tom Loker, my old partner, down in Natchez; he was
a clever fellow, Tom was, only the very devil with niggers,--on
principle 't was, you see, for a better hearted feller never broke
bread; 't was his system, sir. I used to talk to Tom. 'Why,
Tom,' I used to say, 'when your gals takes on and cry, what's the
use o' crackin on' em over the head, and knockin' on 'em round?
It's ridiculous,' says I, 'and don't do no sort o' good. Why, I
don't see no harm in their cryin',' says I; 'it's natur,' says I,
'and if natur can't blow off one way, it will another. Besides, Tom,'
says I, 'it jest spiles your gals; they get sickly, and down
in the mouth; and sometimes they gets ugly,--particular yallow gals
do,--and it's the devil and all gettin' on 'em broke in. Now,' says I,
'why can't you kinder coax 'em up, and speak 'em fair? Depend on it,
Tom, a little humanity, thrown in along, goes a heap further than
all your jawin' and crackin'; and it pays better,' says I, 'depend on 't.'
But Tom couldn't get the hang on 't; and he spiled so many for me,
that I had to break off with him, though he was a good-hearted fellow,
and as fair a business hand as is goin'"
"And do you find your ways of managing do the business
better than Tom's?" said Mr. Shelby.
"Why, yes, sir, I may say so. You see, when I any ways
can, I takes a leetle care about the onpleasant parts, like selling
young uns and that,--get the gals out of the way--out of sight, out
of mind, you know,--and when it's clean done, and can't be helped,
they naturally gets used to it. 'Tan't, you know, as if it was
white folks, that's brought,up in the way of 'spectin' to keep
their children and wives, and all that. Niggers, you know, that's
fetched up properly, ha'n't no kind of 'spectations of no kind; so
all these things comes easier."
"I'm afraid mine are not properly brought up, then," said
"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 neighborhood 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
"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
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
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.
"Eliza, girl, what ails you today?" said her mistress, when
Eliza had upset the wash-pitcher, knocked down the workstand, and
finally was abstractedly offering her mistress a long nightgown in
place of the silk dress she had ordered her to bring from the wardrobe.
Eliza started. "O, missis!" she said, raising her eyes; then,
bursting into tears, she sat down in a chair, and began sobbing.
"Why, Eliza child, what ails you?" said her mistress.
"O! missis, missis," said Eliza, "there's been a trader
talking with master in the parlor! I heard him."
"Well, silly child, suppose there has."
"O, missis, do you suppose mas'r would sell my Harry?"
And the poor creature threw herself into a chair, and sobbed
"Sell him! No, you foolish girl! You know your master never
deals with those southern traders, and never means to sell any of
his servants, as long as they behave well. Why, you silly child,
who do you think would want to buy your Harry? Do you think all
the world are set on him as you are, you goosie? Come, cheer up,
and hook my dress. There now, put my back hair up in that pretty
braid you learnt the other day, and don't go listening at doors
"Well, but, missis, you never would give your consent--to--to--"
"Nonsense, child! to be sure, I shouldn't. What do you
talk so for? I would as soon have one of my own children sold.
But really, Eliza, you are getting altogether too proud of that
little fellow. A man can't put his nose into the door, but you
think he must be coming to buy him."
Reassured by her mistress' confident tone, Eliza proceeded
nimbly and adroitly with her toilet, laughing at her own fears, as
Mrs. Shelby was a woman of high class, both intellectually
and morally. To that natural magnanimity and generosity of mind
which one often marks as characteristic of the women of Kentucky,
she added high moral and religious sensibility and principle,
carried out with great energy and ability into practical results.
Her husband, who made no professions to any particular religious
character, nevertheless reverenced and respected the consistency
of hers, and stood, perhaps, a little in awe of her opinion.
Certain it was that he gave her unlimited scope in all her
benevolent efforts for the comfort, instruction, and improvement
of her servants, though he never took any decided part in them
himself. In fact, if not exactly a believer in the doctrine of
the efficiency of the extra good works of saints, he really seemed
somehow or other to fancy that his wife had piety and benevolence
enough for two--to indulge a shadowy expectation of getting into
heaven through her superabundance of qualities to which he made no
The heaviest load on his mind, after his conversation with
the trader, lay in the foreseen necessity of breaking to his wife
the arrangement contemplated,--meeting the importunities and
opposition which he knew he should have reason to encounter.
Mrs. Shelby, being entirely ignorant of her husband's
embarrassments, and knowing only the general kindliness of his
temper, had been quite sincere in the entire incredulity with which
she had met Eliza's suspicions. In fact, she dismissed the matter
from her mind, without a second thought; and being occupied in
preparations for an evening visit, it passed out of her thoughts