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The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter XII: Topsy.
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Topsy stands as the representative of a large
class of the children who are growing up under the institution of slavery--quick,
active, subtle and ingenious, apparently utterly devoid of principle and conscience,
keenly penetrating, by an instinct which exists in the childish mind, the
degradation of their condition, and the utter hopelessness of rising above
it; feeling the black skin on them, like the mark of Cain, to be a sign of
reprobation and infamy, and urged on by a kind of secret desperation to make
their "calling and election" in sin "sure."
Christian people have often been perfectly astonished and discouraged,
as Miss Ophelia was, in the attempt to bring up such children decently and
Christianly, under a state of things which takes away every stimulant which
God meant should operate healthfully on the human mind.
We are not now speaking of the Southern States merely, but of the New England
States; for, startling as it may appear, slavery is not
yet wholly abolished in the free States of the North. The most unchristian
part of it, that which gives to it all the bitterness and all the sting, is
yet, in a great measure, unrepealed; it is the practical denial to the negro
of the rights of human brotherhood. In consequence of this, Topsy is a character
which may be found at the North as well as at the South.
In conducting the education of negro, mulatto, and quadroon children, the
writer has often observed this fact--that, for a certain time, and up
to a certain age, they kept equal pace with, and were often superior to, the
white children with whom they were associated; but that there came a time
when they became indifferent to learning, and made no further progress. This
was invariably at the age when they were old enough to reflect upon life,
and to perceive that society had no place to offer them for which anything
more would be requisite than the rudest and most elementary knowledge.
Let us consider how it is with our own children; how few
of them would ever acquire an education from the mere love of learning.
In the process necessary to acquire a handsome style of handwriting, to
master the intricacies of any language, or to conquer the difficulties of
mathematical study, how often does the perseverance of the child flag, and
need to be stimulated by his parents and teachers by such considerations as
these: "It will be necessary for you, in such or such a position in
life, to possess this or that acquirement or accomplishment. How could you
ever become a merchant without understanding accounts? How could you enter
the learned professions without understanding languages? If you are ignorant
and uninformed, you cannot take rank as a gentleman in society."
Does not everyone know that, without the stimulus which teachers and parents
thus continually present, multitudes of children would never gain a tolerable
education? And is it not the absence of all such stimulus which has prevented
the negro child from an equal advance?
It is often objected to the negro race that they are frivolous and vain,
passionately fond of show, and are interested only in trifles. And who is
to blame for all this? Take away all high aims, all noble ambition, from any
class, and what is left for them to be interested in but trifles?
The present Attorney-General of Liberia, Mr. Lewis, is a man who commands
the highest respect for talent and ability in his position; yet, while he
was in America, it is said that, like many other young coloured men, he was
distinguished only for foppery and frivolity. What made the change in Lewis
after he went to Liberia? Who does not see the answer? Does anyone wish to
know what is inscribed on the seal which keeps the great stone over the sepulchre
of African mind? It is this--which was so truly said by poor Topsy--"NOTHING BUT A NIGGER!"
It is this, burnt into the soul by the branding-iron of cruel and unchristian
scorn, that is a sorer and deeper wound than all the physical evils of slavery
There never was a slave who did not feel it. Deep, deep down in the dark
still waters of his soul is the conviction, heavier, bitterer than all others,
that he is not regarded as a man. On this point may
be introduced the testimony of one who has known the wormwood and the gall
of slavery by bitter experience. The following letter has been received from
Dr. Pennington, in relation to some inquiries of the author:--
New York, 50, Laurens-street, November 30, 1852.
ESTEEMED MADAM,--I have duly received your
kind letter in answer to mine of the 15th instant, in which you state that
you "have an intense curiosity to know how far you have rightly divined
the heart of the slave." You give me your idea in these words: "There
lies buried down in the heart of the most seemingly careless and stupid slave
a bleeding spot that bleeds and aches, though he could
scarcely tell why; and that this sore spot is the degradation of his position."
After escaping from the plantation of Dr. Tilghman, in Washington County,
Md., where I was held as a slave, and worked as a blacksmith, I came to the
State of Pennsylvania, and, after experiencing there some of the vicissitudes
referred to in my little published narrative, I came into New York State,
bringing in my mind a certain indescribable feeling of wretchedness. They
used to say of me at Dr. Tilghman's, "That blacksmith Jemmy is a 'cute
fellow; still water runs deep." But I confess that "blacksmith
Jemmy" was not 'cute enough to understand the cause of his own wretchedness.
The current of the still water may have run deep, but it did not reach down
to that awful bed of lava.
At times I thought it occasioned by the lurking fear of betrayal. There
was no Vigilance Committee at the time--there were but anti-slavery men.
I came North with my counsels in my own cautious breast. I married a wife,
and did not tell her I was a fugitive. None of my friends knew it. I knew
not the means of safety, and hence I was constantly in fear of meeting with
some one who would betray me.
It was fully two years before I could hold up my head; but still that feeling
was in my mind. In 1846, after opening my bosom as a fugitive to John Hooker,
Esq., I felt this much relief--"Thank God, there is one brother
man in hard old Connecticut that knows my troubles."
Soon after this, when I sailed to the island of Jamaica, and on landing
there saw coloured men in all the stations of civil, social, commercial life,
where I had seen white men in this country, that feeling of wretchedness experienced
a sensible relief, as if some feverish sore had been just reached by just
the right kind of balm. There was before my eye evidence that a coloured man
is more than "a nigger." I went into the House of Assembly at
Spanishtown, where fifteen out of forty-five members were coloured men. I
went into the courts, where I saw in the jury-box coloured and white men together,
coloured and white lawyers at the bar. I went into the Common Council of Kingston;
there I found men of different colours. So in all the counting-rooms, &c.&
But still there was this drawback. Somebody says, "This is nothing
but a nigger island." Now, then, my old trouble came back again, "a
nigger among niggers is but a nigger still."
In 1849, when I undertook my second visit to Great Britain, I resolved
to prolong and extend my travel and intercourse with the best class of men,
with a view to see if I could banish that troublesome old ghost entirely out
of my mind. In England, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany, Belgium, and Prussia,
my whole power has been concentrated on this object: "I'll be a man,
and I'll kill off this enemy which has haunted me these twenty years and more."
I believe I have succeeded in some good degree; at least, I have now no more
trouble on the score of equal manhood with the whites. My European tour was
certainly useful, because there the trial was fair and honourable.
I had nothing to complain of. I got what was due to man, and I was expected
to do what was due from man to man. I sought not to be treated as a pet. I
put myself into the harness, and wrought manfully in the first pulpits, and
the platforms in peace congresses, conventions, anniversaries, commencements,&
c.; and in these exercises that rusty old iron came out of my soul, and
went "clean away."
You say again you have never seen a slave, however careless and merryhearted,
who had not this sore place, and that did not shrink or get angry if a finger
was laid on it. I see that you have been a close observer of negro nature.
So far as I understand your idea, I think you are perfectly correct in
the impression you have received, as explained in your note.
O Mrs. Stowe, slavery is an awful system! It takes man as God made him;
it demolishes him, and then mis-creates him, or perhaps I should say mal-creates
Wishing you good health and good success in your arduous work,
I am yours, respectfully, J. W. C. PENNINGTON.
Mrs. H. B. Stowe.
People of intelligence, who have had the care of slaves, have often made
this remark to the writer: "They are a singular, whimsical people; you
can do a great deal more with them by humouring some of their prejudices than
by bestowing on them the most substantial favours." On inquiring what
these prejudices were, the reply would be, "They like to have their
weddings elegantly celebrated, and to have a good deal of notice taken of
their funerals, and to give and go to parties dressed and appearing like white
people; and they will often put up with material inconveniences, and suffer
themselves to be worked very hard, if they are humoured in these respects."
Can anyone think of this without compassion? Poor souls! willing to bear
with so much for simply this slight acknowledgment of their common humanity.
To honour their weddings and funerals is, in some sort, acknowledging that
they are human, and therefore they prize it. Hence we see the reason of the
passionate attachment which often exists in a faithful slave to a good master;
it is, in fact, a transfer of his identity to his master. A stern law, and
an unchristian public sentiment, has taken away his birthright of humanity,
erased his name from the catalogue of men, and made him an anomalous creature--neither
man nor brute. When a kind master recognises his humanity, and treats him
as a humble companion and a friend, there is no end to the devotion and gratitude
which he thus excites. He is to the slave a deliverer and a saviour from the
curse which lies on his hapless race. Deprived of all legal rights and privileges,
all opportunity or hope of personal advancement or honour, he transfers, as
it were, his whole existence into his master's, and appropriates
his rights, his position, his honour, as his own; and thus enjoys a kind of
reflected sense of what it might be to be a man himself. Hence it is that
the appeal to the more generous part of the negro character is seldom made
An acquaintance of the writer was married to a gentleman in Louisiana,
who was the proprietor of some eight hundred slaves. He, of course, had a
large train of servants in his domestic establishment. When about to enter
upon her duties, she was warned that the servants were all so thievish that
she would be under the necessity, in common with all other housekeepers, of
keeping everything under lock and key. She, however, announced her intention
of training her servants in such a manner as to make this unnecessary. Her
ideas were ridiculed as chimerical, but she resolved to carry them into practice.
The course she pursued was as follows:--She called all the family servants
together; told them that it would be a great burden and restraint upon her
to be obliged to keep everything locked from them; that she had heard that
they were not at all to be trusted, but that she could not help hoping that
they were much better than they had been represented. She told them that she
should provide abundantly for all their wants, and then that she should leave
her stores unlocked, and trust to their honour.
The idea that they were supposed capable of having any honour struck a
new chord at once in every heart. The servants appeared most grateful for
the trust, and there was much public spirit excited, the older and graver
ones exerting themselves to watch over the children, that nothing might be
done to destroy this new-found treasure of honour.
At last, however, the lady discovered that some depredations had been made
on her cake by some of the juvenile part of the establishment; she, therefore,
convened all the servants, and stated the fact to them. She remarked that
it was not on account of the value of the cake that she felt annoyed, but
that they must be sensible that it would not be pleasant for her to have it
indiscriminately fingered and handled, and that, therefore, she should set
some cake out upon a table, or some convenient place, and beg that all those
who were disposed to take it would go there and help themselves, and allow
the rest to remain undisturbed in the closet. She states that the cake stood
upon the table and dried, without a morsel of it being touched, and that she
never afterwards had any trouble in this respect.
A little time after, a new carriage was bought, and one night the leather
boot of it was found to be missing. Before her husband had time
to take any steps on the subject, the servants of the family had called a
convention among themselves, and instituted an inquiry into the offence. The
boot was found and promptly restored, though they would not reveal to their
master and mistress the name of the offender.
One other anecdote which this lady related illustrates that peculiar devotion
of a slave to a good master, to which allusion has been made. Her husband
met with his death by a sudden and melancholy accident. He had a personal
attendant and confidential servant who had grown up with him from childhood.
This servant was so overwhelmed with grief as to be almost stupified. On the
day of the funeral a brother of his deceased master inquired of him if he
had performed a certain commission for his mistress. The servant said that
he had forgotten it. Not perceiving his feelings at the moment, the gentleman
replied, "I am surprised that you should neglect any command of your
mistress, when she is in such affliction."
This remark was the last drop in the full cup. The poor fellow fell to
the ground entirely insensible, and the family were obliged to spend nearly
two hours employing various means to restore his vitality. The physician accounted
for his situation by saying that there had been such a rush of all the blood
in the body towards the heart, that there was actual danger of a rupture of
that organ--a literal death by a broken heart.
Some thoughts may be suggested by Miss Ophelia's conscientious but unsuccessful
efforts in the education of Topsy.
Society has yet need of a great deal of enlightening as to the means of
restoring the vicious and degraded to virtue.
It has been erroneously supposed that with brutal and degraded natures
only coarse and brutal measures could avail; and yet it has been found, by
those who have most experience, that their success with this class of society
has been just in proportion to the delicacy and kindliness with which they
have treated them.
Lord Shaftesbury, who has won so honourable a fame by his benevolent interest
in the efforts made for the degraded lower classes of his own land, says,
in a recent letter to the author:--
You are right about Topsy; our ragged schools will afford you many instances
of poor children, hardened by kicks, insults and neglect, moved to tears and
docility by the first word of kindness. It opens new feelings, develops,
as it were a new nature, and brings the wretched outcast into the family of
Recent efforts which have been made among unfortunate females in some of
the worst districts of New York show the same thing. What is
it that rankles deepest in the breast of fallen woman, that makes her so hopeless
and irreclaimable? It is that burning consciousness of degradation which stings
worse than cold or hunger, and makes her shrink from the face of the missionary
and the philanthropist. They who have visited these haunts of despair and
wretchedness have learned that they must touch gently the shattered harp of
the human soul, if they would string it again to divine music; that they must
encourage self-respect, and hope, and sense of character, or the bonds of
death can never be broken.
Let us examine the gospel of Christ, and see on what principles its appeals
are constructed. Of what nature are those motives which have melted our hearts
and renewed our wills? Are they not
appeals to the most generous and noble instincts of our nature? Are we not
told of One fairer than the sons of men--One reigning in immortal glory,
who loved us so that he could bear pain, and want, and shame, and death itself,
for our sake?
When Christ speaks to the soul, does he crush one of its nobler faculties?
Does he taunt us with our degradation, our selfishness, our narrowness of
view, and feebleness of intellect, compared with his own? Is it not true that
he not only saves us from our sins, but saves us in a way most considerate,
most tender, most regardful of our feelings and sufferings? Does not the Bible
tell us that, in order to fulfil his office of Redeemer the more perfectly,
he took upon him the condition of humanity, and endured the pains, and wants,
and temptations of a mortal existence, that he might be to us a sympathising,
appreciating friend, "touched with the feelings of our infirmities,"
and cheering us gently on in the hard path of returning virtue?
Oh, when shall we, who have received so much of Jesus Christ, learn to
repay it in acts of kindness to our poor brethren? When shall we be Christ-like,
and not man-like, in our efforts to reclaim the fallen and wandering?