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

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

It is with pleasure that we turn from the dark picture just presented, to the character of the generous and noble-hearted St. Clare, wherein the fairest picture of our Southern brother is presented.

It has been the writer's object to separate carefully, as far as possible, the system from the men. It is her sincere belief that, while the irresponsible power of slavery is such that no human being ought ever to possess it, probably that power was never exercised more leniently than in many cases in the Southern States. She has been astonished to see how, under all the disadvantages which attend the early possession of arbitrary power, all the temptations which every reflecting mind must see will arise from the possession of this power in various forms, there are often developed such fine and interesting traits of character. To say that these cases are common, alas! is not in our power. Men know human nature too well to believe us if we should. But the more dreadful the evil to be assailed, the more careful should we be to be just in our apprehensions, and to balance the horror which certain abuses must necessarily excite, by a consideration of those excellent and redeeming traits which are often found in individuals connected with the system.

The twin brothers, Alfred and Augustine St. Clare, represent two classes of men which are to be found in all countries. They are the radically aristocratic and democratic men. The aristocrat by position is not always the aristocrat by nature, and vice versā; but the aristocrat by nature, whether he be in a higher or lower position in society, is he who, though he may be just, generous, and humane, to those whom he considers his equals, is entirely insensible to the wants and sufferings, and common humanity of those whom he considers the lower orders. The sufferings of a countess would make him weep, the sufferings of a seamstress are quite another matter.

On the other hand, the democrat is often found in the highest position of life. To this man, superiority to his brother is a thing which he can never boldly and nakedly assert without a secret pain. In the lowest and humblest walk of life, he acknowledges the sacredness of a common humanity; and however degraded by the opinions and institutions of society any particular class may be, there is an instinctive feeling in his soul which teaches him that they are men of like passions with himself. Such men have a penetration which at once sees through all the false shows of outward custom which make one man so dissimilar to another, to those great generic capabilities, sorrows, wants, and weaknesses, wherein all men and women are alike; and there is no such thing as making them realize that one order of human beings have any prescriptive right over another order, or that the tears and sufferings of one are not just as good as those of another order.

That such men are to be found at the South in the relation of slave-masters, that when so found they cannot and will not be deluded by any of the shams and sophistry wherewith slavery has been defended, that they look upon it as a relic of a barbarous age, and utterly scorn and contemn all its apologists, we can abundantly show. Many of the most illustrious Southern men of the Revolution were of this class, and many men of distinguished position of later day have entertained the same sentiments.

Witness the following letter of Patrick Henry, the sentiments of which are so much an echo of those of St. Clare that the reader might suppose one to be a copy of the other:--

LETTER OF PATRICK HENRY.

Hanover, January 18th, 1773.

DEAR SIR,--I take this opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of Anthony Benezet's book against the slave-trade; I thank you for it. Is it not a little surprising that the professors of Christianity, whose chief excellence consists in softening the human heart, in cherishing and improving its finer feelings, should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong? What adds to the wonder is, that this abominable practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages. Times that seem to have pretensions to boast of high improvements in the arts and sciences, and refined morality, have brought into general use, and guarded by many laws, a species of violence and tyranny which our more rude and barbarous but more honest ancestors detested. Is it not amazing that at a time when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country above all others fond of liberty--that in such an age and in such a country we find men professing a religion the most mild, humane, gentle, and generous, adopting such a principle, as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible, and destructive to liberty? Every thinking, honest man rejects it in speculation. How free in practice from conscientious motives!

Would anyone believe that I am master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to Virtue as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and lament my want of conformity to them.

I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence for slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished-for reformation to practice, let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity. It is the furthest advance we can make towards justice. It is a debt we owe to the purity of our religion, to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.

I know not when to stop. I could say many things on the subject, a serious view of which gives a gloomy prospect to future times!

What a sorrowful thing it is that such men live an inglorious life, drawn along by the general current of society, when they ought to be its regenerators! Has God endowed them with such nobleness of soul, such clearness of perception, for nothing? Should they, to whom he has given superior powers of insight and feeling, live as all the world live?

Southern men of this class have often risen up to reprove the men of the North, when they are drawn in to apologize for the system of slavery. Thus, on one occasion, a representative from one of the Northern States, a gentleman now occupying the very highest rank of distinction and official station, used in Congress the following language:--

The great relation of servitude, in some form or other, with greater or less departure from the theoretic equality of men, is inseparable from our nature. Domestic slavery is not, in my judgment, to be set down as an immoral or irreligious relation. The slaves of this country are better clothed and fed than the peasantry of some of the most prosperous states of Europe.

He was answered by Mr. Mitchell, of Tennessee, in these words:--

Sir, I do not go the length of the gentleman from Massachusetts, and hold that the existence of slavery in this country is almost a blessing. On the contrary, I am firmly settled in the opinion that it is a great curse--one of the greatest that could have been interwoven in our system. I, Mr. Chairman, am one of those whom these poor wretches call masters. I do not task them; I feed and clothe them well; but yet, alas! they are slaves, and slavery is a curse in any shape. It is no doubt true that there are persons in Europe far more degraded than our slaves--worse fed, worse clothed, &c.; but, sir, this is far from proving that negroes ought to be slaves.

The celebrated John Randolph, of Roanoke, said in Congress, on one occasion:--

Sir, I envy neither the heart nor the head of that man from the North who rises here to defend slavery on principle.

The following lines from the will of this eccentric man show that this clear sense of justice, which is a gift of superior natures, at last produced some appropriate fruits in practice:--

I give to my slaves their freedom, to which my conscience tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me, that the circumstances under which I inherited them, and the obstacles thrown in the way by the laws of the land, have prevented my emancipating them in my lifetime, which it is my full intention to do in case I can accomplish it.

The influence on such minds as these of that kind of theological teaching which prevails in the majority of the pulpits at the South, and which justifies slavery directly from the Bible, cannot be sufficiently regretted. Such men are shocked to find their spiritual teachers less conscientious than themselves; and if the Biblical argument succeeds in bewildering them, it produces scepticism with regard to the Bible itself. Professor Stowe states that, during his residence in Ohio, he visited at the house of a gentleman who had once been a Virginian planter, and during the first years of his life was an avowed sceptic. He stated that his scepticism was entirely referable to this one cause --that his minister had constructed a scriptural argument in defence of slavery which he was unable to answer, and that his moral sense was so shocked by the idea that the Bible defended such an atrocious system, that he became an entire unbeliever, and so continued until he came under the ministration of a clergyman in Ohio, who succeeded in presenting to him the true scriptural view of the subject. He immediately threw aside his scepticism and became a member of a Christian church.

So we hear the Baltimore Sun, a paper in a slave State, and no way suspected of leaning towards abolitionism, thus scornfully disposing of the scriptural argument:--

Messrs. Burgess, Taylor, and Co., Sun Iron Building, send us a copy of a work of imposing exterior, a handsome work of nearly six hundred pages, from the pen of the Rev. Josiah Priest, A.M., and published by Rev. W. S. Brown, M.D., at Glasgow, Kentucky, the copy before us conveying the assurance that it is the "fifth edition, stereotyped." And we have no doubt it is; and the fiftieth edition may be published, but it will amount to nothing, for there is nothing in it. The book comprises the usually quoted facts associated with the history of slavery, as recorded in the Scriptures, accompanied by the opinions and arguments of another man in relation thereto. And this sort of thing may go on to the end of time. It can accomplish nothing towards the perpetuation of slavery. The book is called "Bible Defence of Slavery; and Origin, Fortunes, and History of the Negro Race." Bible defence of slavery! There is no such thing as a Bible defence of slavery at the present day. Slavery in the United States is a social institution, originating in the convenience and cupidity of our ancestors, existing by State laws, and recognised to a certain extent--for the recovery of slave property--by the constitution. And nobody would pretend that, if it were inexpedient and unprofitable for any man or any State to continue to hold slaves, they would be bound to do so on the ground of a "Bible defence" of it. Slavery is recorded in the Bible, and approved, with many degrading characteristics. War is recorded in the Bible, and approved, under what seems to us the extreme of cruelty. But are slavery and war to endure for ever because we find them in the Bible? or are they to cease at once and for ever because the Bible inculcates peace and brotherhood?

The book before us exhibits great research, but is obnoxious to severe criticism, on account of its gratuitous assumptions. The writer is constantly assuming this, that, and the other. In a work of this sort a "doubtless" this, and "no doubt" the other, and "such is our belief," with respect to important premises, will not be acceptable to the intelligent reader. Many of the positions assumed are ludicrous; and the fancy of the writer runs to exuberance in putting words and speeches into the mouths of the ancients, predicated upon the brief record of Scripture history. The argument from the curse of Ham is not worth the paper it is written upon. It is just equivalent to that of Blackwood's Magazine, we remember examining some years since, in reference to the admission of Rothschild to Parliament. The writer maintained the religious obligation of the Christian public to perpetuate the political disabilities of the Jews because it would be resisting the Divine will to remove them, in view of the "curse" which the aforesaid Christian Pharisee understood to be levelled against the sons of Abraham. Admitting that God has cursed both the Jewish race and the descendants of Ham, He is able to fulfil His purpose, though the "rest of mankind" should in all things act up to the benevolent precepts of the "Divine law." Man may very safely cultivate the highest principles of the Christian dispensation, and leave God to work out the fulfilment of His curse.

According to the same book and the same logic, all mankind being under a "curse," none of us ought to work out any alleviation for ourselves, and we are sinning heinously in harnessing steam to the performance of manual labour, cutting wheat by McCormick's diablerie, and laying hold of the lightning to carry our messages for us, instead of footing it ourselves, as our father Adam did. With a little more common sense, and much less of the uncommon sort, we should better understand Scripture, the institutions under which we live, the several rights of our fellow-citizens in all sections of the country, and the good, sound, practical, social relations which ought to contribute infinitely more than they do to the happiness of mankind.

If the reader wishes to know what kind of preaching it is that St. Clare alludes to, when he says he can learn what is quite as much to the purpose from the Picayune, and that such scriptural expositions of their peculiar relations don't edify him much, he is referred to the following extract from a sermon preached in New Orleans, by the Rev. Theophilus Clapp. Let our reader now imagine that he sees St. Clare seated in the front slip, waggishly taking notes of the following specimen of ethics and humanity:--

Let all Christian teachers show our servants the importance of being submissive, obedient, industrious, honest, and faithful to the interests of their masters. Let their minds be filled with sweet anticipations of rest eternal beyond the grave. Let them be trained to direct their views to that fascinating and glorious futurity where the sins, sorrows, and troubles of earth will be contemplated under the aspect of means indispensable to our everlasting progress in knowledge, virtue, and happiness. I would say to every slave in the United States, "You should realise that a wise, kind, and merciful Providence has appointed for you your condition in life; and, all things considered, you could not be more eligibly situated. The burden of your care, toils, and responsibilities is much lighter than that which God has imposed on your master. The most enlightened philanthropists, with unlimited resources, could not place you in a situation more favourable to your present and everlasting welfare than that which you now occupy. You have your troubles; so have all. Remember how evanescent are the pleasures and joys of human life.

But, as Mr. Clapp will not, perhaps, be accepted as a representation of orthodoxy, let him be supposed to listen to the following declarations of the Rev. James Smylie, a clergyman of great influence in the Presbyterian Church, in a tract upon slavery, which he states in the introduction to have been written with particular reference to removing the conscientious scruples of religious people in Mississippi and Louisiana with regard to its propriety.

If I believed, or was of opinion, that it was the legitimate tendency of the gospel to abolish slavery, how would I approach a man, possessing as many slaves as Abraham had, and tell him I wished to obtain his permission to preach to his slaves?

Suppose the man to be ignorant of the gospel, and that he would inquire of me what was my object; I would tell him candidly (and every minister ought to be candid) that I wished to preach the gospel, because its legitimate tendency is to make his slaves honest, trusty, and faithful; not serving "with eye-service, as men-pleasers," "not purloining, but showing all good fidelity." "And is this," he would ask, "really the tendency of the gospel?" I would answer, "Yes." Then I might expect that a man who had a thousand slaves, if he believed me, would not only permit me to preach to his slaves, but would do more. He would be willing to build me a house, furnish me a garden, and ample provision for a support; because he would conclude, verily that this preacher would be worth more to him than a dozen overseers. But suppose, them, he would tell me that he understood the tendency of the gospel was to abolish slavery, and inquire of me if that was the fact. Ah! this is the rub. He has now cornered me. What shall I say? Shall I, like a dishonest man, twist and dodge, and shift and turn, to evade an answer? No; I must, Kentuckian like, come out broad, flat-footed, and tell him that abolition is the tendency of the gospel. What am I now to calculate upon? I have told the man that it is the tendency of the gospel to make him so poor as to oblige him to take hold of the maul and wedge himself; he must catch, curry, and saddle his own horse; he must black his own brogans (for he will not be able to buy boots). His wife must go herself to the wash-tub, take hold of the scrubbing-broom, wash the pots, and cook all that she and her rail- mauler will eat.

Query.--Is it to be expected that a master, ignorant heretofore of the tendency of the gospel, would fall so desperately in love with it, from knowledge of its tendency, that he would encourage the preaching of it among his slaves? Verily, NO.

But suppose, when he put the last question to me as to its tendency, I could and would, without a twist or quibble, tell him plainly and candidly that it was a slander on the gospel to say that emancipation or abolition was its legitimate tendency. I would tell him that the commandments of some men, and not the commandments of God, made slavery a sin.--Smylie on Slavery, p. 71.

One can imagine the expression of countenance and tone of voice with which St. Clare would receive such expositions of the gospel. It is to be remarked that this tract does not contain the opinions of one man only, but that it has in its appendix a letter from two ecclesiastical bodies of the Presbyterian Church, substantially endorsing its sentiments.

Can any one wonder that a man like St. Clare should put such questions as these?

"Is what you hear at church religion? Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, religion? Is that religion which is less scrupulous, less generous, less just, less considerate for man, than even my own ungodly, worldly, blinded nature? No! When I look for a religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath."

The character of St. Clare was drawn by the writer with enthusiasm and with hope. Will this hope never be realised? Will those men at the South, to whom God has given the power to perceive and the heart to feel the unutterable wrong and injustice of slavery, always remain silent and inactive? What nobler ambition to a Southern man than to deliver his country from this disgrace? >From the South must the deliverer arise. How long shall he delay? There is a crown brighter than any earthly ambition has ever worn--there is a laurel which will not fade: it is prepared and waiting for that hero who shall rise up for liberty at the South, and free that noble and beautiful country from the burden and disgrace of slavery.
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