HumanitiesWeb.org - The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter VIII: Marie St. Clare.) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter VIII: Marie St. Clare.

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Marie St. Clare is the type of a class of women not peculiar to any latitude, nor any condition of society. She may be found in England or in America. In the northern free States we have many Marie St. Clares, more or less fully developed.

When found in a northern latitude, she is for ever in trouble about her domestic relations. Her servants never do anything right. Strange to tell, they are not perfect, and she thinks it a very great shame. She is fully convinced that she ought to have every moral and Christian virtue in her kitchen for a little less than the ordinary wages; and when her cook leaves her, because she finds she can get better wages and less work in a neighbouring family, she thinks it shockingly selfish, unprincipled conduct. She is of opinion that servants ought to be perfectly disinterested; that they ought to be willing to take up with the worst rooms in the house, with very moderate wages, and very indifferent food, when they can get much better elsewhere, purely for the sake of pleasing her. She likes to get hold of foreign servants, who have not yet learned our ways, who are used to working for low wages, and who will be satisfied with almost anything; but she is often heard to lament that they soon get spoiled, and want as many privileges as anybody else--which is perfectly shocking. Marie often wishes that she could be a slaveholder, or could live somewhere where the lower class are kept down, and made to know their place. She is always hunting for cheap seamstresses, and will tell you, in an under-tone, that she has discovered a woman who will make linen shirts beautifully, stitch the collars and wristbands twice, all for thirty-seven cents, when many seamstresses get a dollar for it; says she does it because she's poor, and has no friends; thinks you had better be careful in your conversation, and not let her know what prices are, or else she will get spoiled, and go to raising her price--these sewing-women are so selfish. When Marie St. Clare has the misfortune to live in a free State, there is no end to her troubles. Her cook is always going off for better wages and more comfortable quarters; her chambermaid, strangely enough, won't agree to be chambermaid and seamstress both for half wages, and so she deserts. Marie's kitchen-cabinet, therefore, is always in a state of revolution; and she often declares, with affected earnestness, that servants are the torment of her life. If her husband endeavour to remonstrate, or suggest another mode of treatment, he is a hard-hearted, unfeeling man; "he doesn't love her, and she always knew he didn't;" and so he is disposed of.

But when Marie comes under a system of laws which gives her absolute control over her dependants, which enables her to separate them, at her pleasure, from their dearest family connexions, or to inflict upon them the most disgraceful and violent punishments, without even the restraint which seeing the execution might possibly produce--then it is that the character arrives at full maturity. Human nature is no worse at the South than at the North; but law at the South distinctly provides for and protects the worst abuses to which that nature is liable.

It is often supposed that domestic servitude in slave-states is a kind of paradise; that house-servants are invariably pets; that young mistresses are always fond of their "mammies," and young masters always handsome, good-natured, and indulgent.

Let anyone in Old England or New England look about among their immediate acquaintances, and ask how many there are who would use absolute despotic power amiably in a family, especially over a class degraded by servitude, ignorant, indolent, deceitful, provoking, as slaves almost necessarily are, and always must be.

Let them look into their own hearts, and ask themselves if they would dare to be trusted with such a power. Do they not find in themselves temptations to be unjust to those who are inferiors and dependants? Do they not find themselves tempted to be irritable and provoked, when the service of their families is negligently performed? And if they had the power to inflict cruel punishments, or to have them inflicted by sending the servant out to some place of correction, would they not be tempted to use that liberty?

With regard to those degrading punishments to which females are subjected, by being sent to professional whippers, or by having such functionaries sent for to the house--as John Caphart testifies that he has often been in Baltimore--what can be said of their influence both on the superior and on the inferior class? It is very painful indeed to contemplate this subject. The mind instinctively shrinks from it; but still it is a very serious question whether it be not our duty to encounter this pain, that our sympathies may be quickened into more active exercise. For this reason we give here the testimony of a gentleman whose accuracy will not be doubted, and who subjected himself to the pain of being an eye-witness to a scene of this kind in the calaboose in New Orleans. As the reader will perceive from the account, it was a scene of such every-day occurrence as not to excite any particular remark, or any expression of sympathy from those of the same condition and colour with the sufferer.

When our missionaries first went to India, it was esteemed a duty among Christian nations to make themselves acquainted with the cruelties and atrocities of idolatrous worship, as a means of quickening our zeal to send them the gospel.

If it be said that we in the free States have no such interest in slavery, as we do not support it, and have no power to prevent it, it is replied that slavery does exist in the district of Columbia, which belongs to the whole United States; and that the free States are, before God, guilty of the crime of continuing it there, unless they will honestly do what in them lies for its extermination.

The subjoined account was written by the benevolent Dr. Howe, whose labours in behalf of the blind have rendered his name dear to humanity, and was sent in a letter to the Hon. Charles Summer. If anyone think it too painful to be perused, let him ask himself if God will hold those guiltless who suffer a system to continue, the details of which they cannot even read. That this describes a common scene in the calaboose we shall by and by produce other witnesses to show.

I have passed ten days in New Orleans, not unprofitably, I trust, in examining the public institutions--the schools, asylums, hospitals, prisons, &c. With the exception of the first, there is little hope of amelioration. I know not how much merit there may be in their system; but I do know that, in the administration of the penal code, there are abominations which should bring down the fate of Sodom upon the city. If Howard or Mrs. Fry ever discovered so ill-administered a den of thieves as the New Orleans prison, they never described it. In the negroes' apartment I saw much which made me blush that I was a white man, and which, for a moment, stirred up an evil spirit in my animal nature. Entering a large paved court-yard, around which ran galleries filled with slaves of all ages, sexes, and colours, I heard the snap of a whip, every stroke of which sounded like the sharp crack of a pistol. I turned my head, and beheld a sight which absolutely chilled me to the marrow of my bones, and gave me, for the first time in my life, the sensation of my hair stiffening at the roots. There lay a black girl flat upon her face, on a board, her two thumbs tied, and fastened to one end, her feet tied and drawn tightly to the other end, while a strap passed over the small of her back, and, fastened around the board, compressed her closely to it. Below the strap she was entirely naked. By her side, and six feet off, stood a huge negro, with a long whip, which he applied with dreadful power and wonderful precision. Every stroke brought away a strip of skin, which clung to the lash, or fell quivering on the pavement, while the blood followed after it. The poor creature writhed and shrieked, and, in a voice which showed alike her fear of death and her dreadful agony, screamed to her master who stood at her head, "Oh, spare my life! don't cut my soul out!" But still fell the horrid lash; till strip after strip peeled off from the skin; gash after gash was cut in her living flesh, until it became a livid and bloody mass of raw and quivering muscle. It was with the greatest difficulty I refrained from springing upon the torturer, and arresting his lash; but, alas! what could I do, but turn aside to hide my tears for the sufferer, and my blushes for humanity? This was in a public and regularly-organised prison; the punishment was one recognised and authorised by the law. But think you the poor wretch had committed a heinous offence, and had been convicted thereof, and sentenced to the lash? Not at all. She was brought by her master to be whipped by the common executioner, without trial, judge or jury, just at his beck or nod, for some real or supposed offence, or to gratify his own whim or malice. And he may bring her day after day, without cause assigned, and inflict any number of lashes he pleases, short of twenty-five, provided only he pays the fee. Or, if he choose, he may have a private whipping-board on his own premises, and brutalise himself there. A shocking part of this horrid punishment was its publicity, as I have said; it was in a court-yard surrounded by galleries, which were filled with coloured persons of all sexes--runaways, slaves committed for some crime, or slaves up for sale. You would naturally suppose they crowded forward, and gazed, horror-stricken, at the brutal spectacle below; but they did not; many of them hardly noticed it, and many were entirely indifferent to it. They went on in their childish pursuits, and some were laughing outright in the distant parts of the galleries; so low can man, created in God's image, be sunk in brutality.
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