All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The New York Courier and
Inquirer, of November 5th, contained an article which has been quite
valuable to the author, as summing up, in a clear, concise, and intelligible
form, the principal objections which may be urged to "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
It is here quoted in full, as the foundation of the remarks in the following
The author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," that writer states, has
committed false witness against thousands and millions of her fellow-men.
She has done it [he says] by attaching to them as slaveholders, in the
eyes of the world, the guilt of the abuses of an institution of which they
are absolutely guiltless. Her story is so devised as to present slavery in
three dark aspects: first, the cruel treatment of
the slaves; second, the separation of families; and,
third, their want of religious instruction.
To show the first, she causes a reward to be offered for the recovery of
a runaway slave, "dead or alive," when no reward with such an
alternative was ever heard of, or dreamed of, south of Mason and Dixon's line,
and it has been decided over the over again in Southern courts that "a
slave who is merely flying away cannot be killed." She puts such language
as this into the mouth of one of her speakers:--"The master who
goes furthest and does the worst only uses within limits the power that the
law gives him;" when, in fact, the civil code of the very State where
it is represented the language was uttered--Louisiana--declares
"The slave is entirely subject to the will of his master, who may
correct and chastise him, though not with unusual rigour,
nor so as to maim or mutilate him, on to expose him to the danger of loss
of life, or to cause his death."
And provides for a compulsory sale--
"When the master shall be convicted of cruel treatment of his slaves,
and the judge shall deem proper to pronounce, besides the penalty established
for such cases, that the slave be sold at public auction, in order to
place him out of the reach of the power which the master has abused."
"If any person whatsoever shall wilfully kill his slave, or the slave
of another person, the said person, being convicted thereof, shall be tried
and condemned agreeably to the laws."
In the General Court of Virginia, last year, in the case of Souther
v. Commonwealth, it was held that the killing of a slave
by his master and owner, by wilful and excessive whipping, is murder in the
first degree, though it may not have been the purpose of
the master and owner to kill the slave! And it is not six months since
Governor Johnson, of Virginia, pardoned a slave who killed his master, who
was beating him with brutal severity.
And yet, in the face of such laws and decisions as these, Mrs. Stowe winds
up a long series of cruelties upon her other black personages, by causing
her faultless hero, Tom, to be literally whipped to death in Louisiana, by
his master, Legree; and these acts, which the laws make criminal, and punish
as such, she sets forth in the most repulsive colours, to illustrate the institution
So, too, in reference to the separation of children from their parents.
A considerable part of the plot is made to hinge upon the selling, in Louisiana,
of the child Eliza, "eight or nine years old," away from her mother;
when, had its inventor looked in the statute-book of Louisiana, she would
have found the following language:--
"Every person is expressly prohibited from selling separately from
their mothers the children who shall not have attained
the full age of ten years.
"Be it further enacted, That if any person
or persons shall sell the mother of any slave child or children under the age of
ten years, separate from said child or children, or shall,
the mother living, sell any slave child or children of ten years of age, or
under, separate from said mother, said person or persons shall be fined
not less than one thousand nor more than two thousand dollars, and be imprisoned
in the public jail for a period of not less than six months nor more than
The privation of religious instruction, as represented by Mrs. Stowe, is
utterly unfounded in fact. The largest churches in the Union consist entirely
of slaves. The first African church in Louisville, which numbers fifteen hundred
persons, and the first African church in Augusta, which numbers thirteen hundred,
are specimens. On multitudes of large plantations in the different parts of
the South, the ordinances of the gospel are as regularly maintained, by competent
ministers, as in any other communities, north or south. A larger proportion
of the slave population are in communion with some Christian church than of
the white population in any part of the country. A very considerable portion
of every Southern congregation, either in city or country, is sure to consist
of blacks; whereas, of our Northern churches, not a coloured person is to
be seen in one out of fifty.
The peculiar falsity of this whole book consists in making exceptional
or impossible cases the representatives of the system. By the same process
which she has used, it would not be difficult to frame a fatal argument against
the relation of husband and wife, or parent and child, or of guardian and
ward; for thousands of wives and children, and wards, have been maltreated,
and even murdered. It is wrong, unpardonably wrong, to impute to any relation
of life those enormities which spring only out of the worst depravity of human
nature. A ridiculously extravagant spirit of generalisation pervades this
fiction from beginning to end. The Uncle Tom of the authoress is a perfect
angel, and her blacks generally are half angels; her Simon
Legree is a perfect demon, and her whites generally are half demons. She has
quite a peculiar spite against the clergy; and, of the many she introduces
at different times into the scenes, all, save an insignificant exception,
are Pharisees or hypocrites. One who could know nothing of the United States
and its people, except by what he might gather from this book, would judge
that it was some region just on the confines of the infernal world. We do
not say that Mrs. Stowe was actuated by wrong motives in the preparation of
this work, but we do say that she has done a wrong which no ignorance can
excuse, and no penance can expiate.
A much valued correspondent of the author, writing from Richmond, Virginia,
also uses the following language:--
I will venture this morning to make a few suggestions which have occurred
to me in regard to future editions of your work, "Uncle Tom's Cabin,"
which I desire should have all the influence of which your genius renders
it capable, not only abroad, but in the local sphere of slavery, where it
has been hitherto repudiated. Possessing already the great requisites of artistic
beauty and of sympathetic affection, it may yet be improved in regard to accuracy
of statement, without being at all enfeebled. For example, you do less than
justice to the formalised laws of the Southern States, while you give more
credit than is due to the virtue of public or private sentiment in restricting
the evil which the laws permit.
I enclose the following extracts from a Southern paper:--
" 'I'll manage that ar; they's young in the business, and must 'spect
to work cheap,' said Marks, as he continued to read. 'Thar's three on 'em
easy cases, 'cause all you've got to do is to shoot 'em, or swear they is
shot; they couldn't, of course, charge much for that.'
"The reader will observe that two charges against the South are involved
in this precious discourse; one, that it is the habit of Southern masters
to offer a reward, with the alternative of 'dead or alive,' for their fugitive
slaves; and the other, that it is usual for pursuers to shoot them. Indeed,
we are led to infer that, as the shooting is the easier mode of obtaining
the reward, it is the more frequently employed in such cases. Now, when a
Southern master offers a reward for his runaway slave, it is because he has
lost a certain amount of property, represented by the negro which he wishes
to recover. What man of Vermont, having an ox or an ass that had gone astray,
would forthwith offer half the full value of the animal, not for the carcass,
which might be turned to some useful purpose, but for the unavailing satisfaction
of its head? Yet are the two cases exactly parallel. With regard to the assumption
that men are permitted to go about, at the South, with double-barrelled guns,
shooting down runaway negroes, in preference to apprehending them, we can
only say that it is as wicked and wilful as it is ridiculous. Such Thugs there
may have been as Marks and Loker, who have killed negroes in this unprovoked
manner; but, if they have escaped the gallows, they are probably to be found
within the walls of our State Penitentiaries, where they are comfortably provided
for at public expense. The laws of the Southern States, which are designed,
as in all good governments, for the protection of persons and property, have
not been so loosely framed as to fail of their object where person and property
"The law with regard to the killing of runaways is laid down with
so much clearness and precision by a South Carolina judge,
that we cannot forbear quoting his dictum as directly in point. In the case
of Witsell v. Earnest and Parker Colcock, J., delivered
the opinion of the court:
"By the statute of 1740, any white man may apprehend, and moderately
correct, any slave who may be found out of the plantation at which he is employed;
and if the slave assaults the white person, he may be killed; but a slave
who is merely flying away cannot be killed. Nor can the defendants be justified
by the common law if we consider the negro as a person; for they were not
clothed with the authority of the law to apprehend him as a felon, and without
such authority he could not be killed.'
[Jan. Term, 1818. 1 Nott. & M'Cord's S. C. Rep., 182.]
" 'It's commonly supposed that the property
interest is a sufficient guard in these cases. If people choose to ruin their
possessions, I don't know what's to be done. It seems the poor creature was
a thief and a drunkard; and so there won't be much hope to get up sympathy
" 'It is perfectly outrageous--it is horrid, Augustine! It will
certainly bring down vengeance upon you.'
" 'My dear cousin, I didn't do it, and I can't help it; I would,
if I could. If low-minded, brutal people will act like themselves, what am
I to do? They have absolute control; they are irresponsible
despots. There would be no use in interfering; there
is no law that amounts to anything practically, for such a case. The
best we can do is to shut our eyes and ears, and let it alone. It's the only
re source left us.'
"In a subsequent part of the same conversation St. Clare says--
" 'For pity's sake, for shame's sake, because we are men born of
women, and not savage beasts, many of us do not, and dare not--we would
scorn to use the full power which our savage laws put
into our hands. And he who goes furthest and does the worst
only uses within limits the power that the law gives him.'
"Mrs. Stowe tells us, through St. Clare, that 'there is no law that
amounts to anything' in such cases, and that he who goes furthest in severity
towards his slave--that is, to the deprivation of an eye or a limb, or
even the destruction of life--'only uses within limits the power that
the law gives him.' This is an awful and tremendous charge, which, lightly
and unwarrantably made, must subject the maker to a fearful accountability.
Let us see how the matter stands upon the statute-book of Louisiana. By referring
to the civil code of that State, chapter 3rd, article 173, the reader will
find this general declaration:--
" 'The slave is entirely subject to the will of his master, who may
correct and chastise him, though not with unusual rigour,
nor so as to maim or mutilate him, or to expose him to the danger of loss
of life, or to cause his death.'
"On a subsequent page of the same volume and chapter, article 192,
we find provision made for the slave's protection against his master's cruelty,
in the statement that one of two cases, in which a master can be compelled
to sell his slave, is--
" 'When the master shall be convicted of cruel treatment of his slave,
and the judge shall deem proper to pronounce, besides the
penalty established for such cases, that the slave shall be sold at public
auction, in order to place him out of the reach of the
power which the master has abused.'
"A code thus watchful of the negro's safety in life and limb confines
not its guardianship to inhibitory clauses, but proscribes extreme penalties
in case of their infraction. In the Code
Noir (Black Code) of Louisiana, under head of Crimes and Offences, No.
55, sec. xvi., it is laid down that--
" 'If any person whatsoever shall wilfully kill his slave, or the
slave of another person, the said person, being convicted thereof, shall be
tried and condemned agreeably to the laws.'
"And because negro testimony is inadmissible in the court of the
State, an therefore the evidence of such crimes might be with difficulty supplied,
it is further provided that--
" 'If any slave be mutilated, beaten, or ill-treated, contrary to
the true intent and meaning of this Act, when no one shall be present, in
such case the owner, or other person having the management of said slave thus
mutilated, shall be deemed responsible and guilty of the said offence, and
shall be prosecuted without further evidence, unless the said owner, or other
person so as aforesaid, can prove the contrary by means of good and sufficient
evidence, or can clear himself by his own oath, which said oath every court,
under the cognisance of which such offence shall have been examined and tried,
is by this Act authorised to administer.'
[Code Noir. Crimes and Offences, 56, xvii.]
"Enough has been quoted to establish the utter falsity of the statement,
made by our authoress through St. Clare, that brutal masters are 'irresponsible
despots' --at least, in Louisiana. It would extend our review to a most
unreasonable length, should we undertake to give the law, with regard to the
murder of slaves, as it stands in each of the Southern States. The crime is
a rare one, and therefore the reporters have had few cases to record. We may
refer, however, to two. In Fields v. The State of
Tennessee, the plaintiff in error was indicted in the Circuit Court of Maury
county for the murder of a negro slave. He pleaded not guilty; and at the
trial was found guilty of wilful and felonious slaying of the slave. From
this sentence he prosecuted his writ of error, which was disallowed by the
court affirming the original judgment. The opinion of the court, as given
by Peck J. overflows with the spirit of enlightened humanity. He concludes
" 'It is well said by one of the judges of North Carolina, that the
master has a right to exact the labour of his slave; thus far, the rights
of the slave are suspended; but this gives the master no right over the life
of his slave. I add to the saying of the judge, that law which says Thou shalt
not kill, protects the slave; and he is within its very letter. Law, reason,
Christianity, and common humanity, all point but one way.'
[1 Yerger's Tenn. Rep. 156.]
"In the General Court of Virginia, June Term, 1851, in Souther v.
The Commonwealth, it was held that 'the killing of
a slave by his master and owner, by wilful and excessive whipping, is murder
in the first degree; though it may not have been the purpose
of the master and owner to kill the slave. The writer shows, also, an
ignorance of the law of contracts, as it affects slavery in the South, in
making George's master take him from the factory against the proprietor's
consent. George, by virtue of the contract of hiring, had become the property
of the proprietor for the time being, and his master could no more have taken
him away forcibly than the owner of a house in Massachusetts can dispossess
his lessee, at any moment, from mere whim or caprice. There is no court in
Kentucky, where the hirer's rights, in this regard, would not be enforced.
[7 Grattan's Rep. 673.]
" 'No. Father bought her once, in one of his trips to New Orleans,
and brought her up as a present to mother. She was about eight
or nine years old then. Father would never tell mother what he gave for her;
but, the other day, in looking over his old papers, we came across the bill
of sale. He paid an extravagant sum for her, to be sure. I suppose, on account
of her extraordinary beauty.'
" 'George sat with his back to Cassy, and did not see the absorbed
expression of her countenance, as he was giving these details.
" 'At this point in the story, she touched his arm, and, with a face
perfectly white with interest, said, 'Do you know the names of the people
he bought her of?'
" 'A man of the name of Simmons, I think, was the principal in the
transaction. At least, I think that was the name in the bill of sale.'
" 'O my God!' said Cassy, and fell insensible on the floor of the
"Of course Eliza turns out to be Cassy's child, and we are soon entertained
with the family meeting in Montreal, where George Harris is living, five or
six years after the opening of the story, in great comfort.
"Now, the reader will perhaps be surprised to know that such an incident
as the sale of Cassy apart from Eliza, upon which the whole interest of the
foregoing narrative hinges, never could have taken place in Louisiana, and
that the bill of sale for Eliza would not have been worth the paper it was
written on. Observe. George Shelby states that Eliza was eight or nine years
old at the time his father purchased her in New Orleans.
Let us again look at the statute-book of Louisiana.
"In the Code Noir we find it set down that--
" 'Every person is expressly prohibited from selling separately from
their mothers the children who shall not have attained
the full age of ten years.'
"And this humane provision is strengthened by a statute, one clause
of which runs as follows:--
" 'Be it further enacted, That if any person or persons shall sell
the mother of any slave child or children under the age
of ten years, separate from said child or children, or shall, the mother living,
sell any slave child or children of ten years of age or under, separate from
said mother, such person or persons shall incur the penalty of the sixth
section of this Act.'
"This penalty is a fine of not less than one thousand nor more than
two thousand dollars, and imprisonment in the public jail for a period of
not less than six months, nor more than one year.--Vide Act of Louisiana, 1
Session, 9th Legislature, 1828, 1829, No. 24, Section 16."
The author makes here a remark. Scattered through all the Southern States
are slaveholders who are such only in name. They have no pleasure in the system,
they consider it one of wrong altogether, and they hold the legal relation
still, only because not yet clear with regard to the best way of changing
it, so as to better the condition of those held. Such are most earnest advocates
for State emancipation, and are friends of anything, written in a right spirit,
which tends in that direction. From such the author ever receives criticisms
She has endeavoured to lay before the world, in the fullest
manner all that can be objected to her work, that both sides may have an
opportunity of impartial hearing.
When writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin," though entirely unaware and
unexpectant of the importance which would be attached to its statements and
opinions, the author of that work was anxious, from love of consistency, to
have some understanding of the laws of the slave system. She had on hand for
reference, while writing, the Code Noir of Louisiana,
and a sketch of the laws relating to slavery in the different States, by Judge
Stroud of Philadelphia. This work, professing to have been compiled with great
care from the latest editions of the statute-books of the several States,
the author supposed to be a sufficient guide for the writing of a work of
fiction. As the accuracy of
those statements which relate to the slave-laws has been particularly contested,
a more especial inquiry has been made in this direction. Under the guidance
and with the assistance of legal gentlemen of high standing, the writer has
proceeded to examine the statements of Judge Stroud with regard to statute-law,
and to follow them up with some inquiry into the decisions of Courts. The
result has been an increasing conviction on her part that the impressions
first derived from Judge Stroud's work were correct; and the author now can
only give the words of St. Clare, as the best possible expression of the sentiments
and opinion which this course of reading has awakened in her mind.
This cursed business, accursed of God and man--what is it? Strip it
of all its ornament, run it down to the root and nucleus of the whole, and
what is it? Why, because my brother Quashy is ignorant and weak, and I am
intelligent and strong --because I know how, and can do it--
therefore I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him
only such and so much as suits my fancy! Whatever is too hard, too dirty,
too disagreeable for me, I may set Quashy to doing. Because I don't like work,
Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun.
Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it. Quashy shall lie down in
every puddle, that I may walk over dry-shod. Quashy shall do my will, and
not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such a chance of getting
to heaven at last as I find convenient. This I take to be about what slavery
is. I defy anybody on earth to read our slave-code, as it stands in our law
books, and make anything else of it. Talk of the abuses of slavery!
Humbug! The thing itself is the
essence of all abuse. And the only reason why the land don't sink under it,
like Sodom and Gomorrah, is because it is used in
a way infinitely better than it is. For pity's sake, for shame's sake, because
we are men born of women, and not savage beasts, many of us
do not, and dare not--we would scorn to use the
full power which our savage laws put into our hands. And he who goes the furthest,
and does the worst, only uses within limits the power that the law gives him!
The author still holds to the opinion that slavery in itself, as legally
defined in law-books and expressed in the records of Courts, is the
SUM AND ESSENCE OF ALL ABUSE; and she still
clings to the hope that there are many men at the
South infinitely better than their laws; and after
the reader has read all the extracts which she has to make, for the sake of
a common humanity they will hope the same. The author must state, with regard
to some pages which she must quote, that the language of certain enactments
was so incredible that she would not take it on the authority of any compilation
whatever, but copied it with her own hand from the latest edition of the statute-book
where it stood and still stands.