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13 January, 2012
The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter VI: Protective Acts with Regard to Food and Raiment, Labour, Etc
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Illustrative Drama of Tom v. Legree, under the
Law of South Carolina.-- Separation of Parent and Child.
Having finished the consideration of the laws
which protect the life and limb of the slave, the reader may feel a curiosity
to know something of the provisions by which he is protected in regard to
food and clothing, and from the exactions of excessive labour. It is true,
there are multitudes of men in the Northern States who would say, at once,
that such enactments, on the very face of them, must be superfluous and absurd.
"What!" they say, "are not the slaves property? and is it
likely that any man will impair the market value of his own property by not
giving them sufficient food or clothing, or by overworking them?" This
process of reasoning appears to have been less convincing to the legislators
of Southern States than to gentlemen generally at the North; since, as Judge
Taylor says, [Wheeler, p. 220. State v. Sue, Cameron&
Norwood's C. Rep. 54.] "the Act of 1786 (Iredell's Revisal, p.
588) does, in the preamble, recognise the fact, that many persons,
by cruel treatment of their slaves, cause them to commit crimes
for which they are executed; and the judge further explains this language,
by saying, "The cruel treatment here alluded to must consist in withholding
from them the necessaries of life; and the crimes thus resulting are such
as are necessary to furnish them with food and raiment."
The State of South Carolina, in the Act of 1740 (see Stroud's Sketch, p.
28), had a section with the following language in its preamble: [Stroud, p.
Whereas many owners of slaves, and others who have the care, management,
and overseeing of slaves, do confine them so closely to hard labour that they
have not sufficient time for natural rest;--
and the law goes on to enact that the slave shall not work more than fifteen
hours a day in summer, and fourteen in winter. Judge Stroud
makes it appear that in three of the slave States the time allotted for work
to convicts in prison, whose punishment is to consist in hard labour, cannot
exceed ten hours, even in the summer months.
This was the protective Act of South Carolina, designed to reform the abusive
practices of masters who confined their slaves so closely that they had not
time for natural rest! What sort of habits of thought do these humane provisions
show, in the makers of them? In order to protect the slave from what they
consider undue exaction, they humanely provide that he shall be obliged to
work only four or five hours longer than the convicts in the prison of the
neighbouring State! In the Island of Jamaica, besides many holidays which
were accorded by law to the slave, ten hours a day was the extent to which
he was compelled by law ordinarily to work.--See Stroud, p. 29.
With regard to protective Acts concerning food and clothing, Judge Stroud
gives the following example from the legislation of South Carolina. The author
gives it as quoted by Stroud, p. 32.
In case any person, &c., who shall be the owner or who shall have the
care, government, or charge of any slave or slaves, shall deny, neglect, or
refuse to allow such slave or slaves, &c., sufficient clothing, covering,
or food, it shall and may be lawful for any person or persons, on behalf of
such slave or slaves, to make complaint to the next neighbouring justice in
the parish where such slave or slaves live, or are usually employed, * * *
and the said justice shall summon the party against whom such complaint shall
be made, and shall inquire of, hear, and determine the same; and if the said
justice shall find the said complaint to be true, or that such person will
not exculpate or clear himself from the charge, by his or her own oath, which
such person shall be at liberty to do in all cases where positive proof is
not given of the offence, such justice shall and may make such orders upon
the same, for the relief of such slave or slaves, as he in his discretion
shall think fit; and shall and may set and impose a fine or penalty on any
person who shall offend in the premises, in any sum not exceeding twenty pounds
current money, for each offence. --2 Brevard's
Dig. 241. Also Cobb's Dig. 827.
A similar law obtains in Louisiana.--(Rev. Stat. 1852, p. 557, ž
Now, would not anybody think, from the virtuous solemnity and gravity of
this Act, that it was intended in some way to amount to something? Let us
give a little sketch, to show how much it does amount to. Angelina GrimkÚ
Weld, sister to Sarah GrimkÚ, before quoted, gives the following account
of the situation of slaves on plantations:
And here let me say, that the treatment of plantation slaves cannot be
fully known, except by the poor sufferers themselves, and their drivers and
overseers. In a multitude of instances, even the master can know very little
of the actual condition of his own field-slaves, and his wife and daughters
far less. A few facts concerning my own family will show this. Our permanent
residence was in Charleston; our country seat (Bellemont) was two hundred
miles distant, in the north-western part of the State, where, for some years,
our family spent a few months annually. Our plantation was three miles from
this family mansion. There all the field-slaves lived and worked. Occasionally--once
a month, perhaps --some of the family would ride over to the plantation;
but I never visited the fields where the slaves were at work, and knew almost
nothing of their condition; but this I do know, that the overseers who had
charge of them were generally unprincipled and intemperate men. But I rejoice
to know that the general treatment of slaves in that region of country was
far milder than on the plantations in the lower country.
Throughout all the eastern and middle portions of the State, the planters
very rarely reside permanently on their plantations. They have almost invariably
two residences, and spend less than half the year on their
estates. Even while spending a few months on them, politics, field-sports,
races, speculations, journeys, visits, company, literary pursuits, &c.,
absorb so much of their time, that they must, to a considerable extent, take
the condition of their slaves on trust, from the reports
of their overseers. I make this statement, because these slaveholders (the
wealthier class) are, I believe, almost the only ones who visit the North
with their families; and Northern opinions of slavery are based chiefly on
With regard to overseers, Miss GrimkÚ's testimony is further borne
out by the universal acknowledgment of Southern owners. A description of this
class of beings is furnished by Mr. Wirt, in his life of Patrick Henry, page
34. "Last and lowest," he says [of different classes of society],
"a feculum of beings called overseers--a
most abject, degraded, unprincipled race." Now, suppose, while the master
is in Charleston, enjoying literary leisure, the slaves on some Bellemont
or other plantation, getting tired of being hungry and cold, form themselves
into a committee of the whole, to see what is to be done. A broad-shouldered,
courageous fellow, whom we will call Tom, declares it is too bad, and he won't
stand it any longer; and having by some means become acquainted with this
benevolent protective Act, resolves to make an appeal to the horns of this
legislative altar. Tom talks stoutly, having just been bought on to the place,
and been used to better quarters elsewhere. The women and children perhaps
admire, but the venerable elders of the plantation-- Sambo, Cudge, Pomp,
and old Aunt Dinah--tell him, "he better mind himself, and keep
clar o' dat ar." Tom, being young and progressive, does not regard these
conservative maxims; he is determined that, if there be such
a thing as justice to be got, he will have it. After considerable research,
he finds some white man in the neighbourhood verdant enough to enter the complaint
for him. Master Legree finds himself, one sun-shiny, pleasant morning, walked
off to some Justice Dogberry's, to answer to the charge of not giving his
niggers enough to eat and wear. We will call the infatuated white man who
has undertaken this fool's errand Master Shallow. Let us imagine a scene:
Legree standing carelessly with his hands in his pockets, rolling a quid of
tobacco in his mouth; Justice Dogberry, seated, in all the majesty of law,
reinforced by a decanter of whiskey and some tumblers, intended to assist
in illuminating the intellect in such obscure cases.
Justice Dogberry. Come, gentlemen, take a little
something, to begin with. Mr. Legree, sit down; sit down, Mr.--a what's-your-name?--Mr.
Mr. Legree and Mr. Shallow each sit down, and take their tumbler of whiskey
and water. After some little conversation, the justice introduces the business
"Now, about this nigger business. Gentlemen, you know the Act of --um--um--where
the deuce is that Act? [Fumbling
an old law-book.] How plagued did you ever hear of that Act, Shallow?
I'm sure I'm forgot all about it; Oh! here 'tis. Well, Mr. Shallow, the Act
says you must make proof, you observe.
Mr. Shallow. [Stuttering and
hesitating.] Good laud! why, don't everybody see that them ar niggers
are most starved? Only see how ragged they are!
Justice. I can't say as I've observed it particular.
Seem to be very well contented.
Shallow. [Eagerly.] But
just ask Pomp, or Sambo, or Dinah, or Tom!
Justice Dogberry. [With dignity.] I'm astonished at you,
Mr. Shallow! You think of producing negro testimony?
I hope I know the law better than that! We must have direct proof, you know.
Shallow is posed; Legree significantly takes another tumbler of whiskey
and water, and Justice Dogberry gives a long ahe-a-um. After a few moments
the justice speaks:--
"Well, after all, I suppose, Mr. Legree, you wouldn't have any objections
to swarin' off; that settles it all, you know."
As swearing is what Mr. Legree is rather more accustomed to do than anything
else that could be named, a more appropriate termination of the affair could
not be suggested; and he swears, accordingly, to any extent,
and with any fulness and variety of oath that could be desired; and thus the
little affair terminates. But it does not terminate thus for Tom or Sambo,
Dinah, or any others who have been alluded to for authority. What will happen
to them, when Mr. Legree comes home, had better be left to conjecture.
It is claimed, by the author of certain paragraphs quoted at the commencement
of Part II., that there exist in Louisiana ample protective Acts to prevent
the separation of young children from their mothers. This writer appears to
be in the enjoyment of an amiable ignorance and unsophisticated innocence
with regard to the workings of human society generally, which is, on the whole,
rather refreshing. For, on a certain incident in "Uncle Tom's Cabin,"
which represented Cassy's little daughter as having been sold from her, he
makes the following na´ve remark:--
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
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 Acts of Louisiana,
1 Session, 9th Legislature, 1828-9, No. 24, section 16. (Rev. Stat. 1850,
p. 550, sec. 143.)
What a charming freshness of nature is suggested by this assertion! A thing
could not have happened in a certain State, because there is a law against
Has there not been for two years a law forbidding to succour fugitives,
or to hinder their arrest? and has not this thing been done thousands of times
in all the Northern States, and is not it more and more likely to be done
every year? What is a law against the whole public sentiment
of society? and will anybody venture to say that the public sentiment
of Louisiana practically goes against separation of families?
But let us examine a case more minutely, remembering the bearing on it
of two great foundation principles of slave jurisprudence: namely, that a
slave cannot bring a suit in any case, except in a suit for personal freedom,
and this in some States must be brought by a guardian; and that a slave cannot
bear testimony in any case in which whites are implicated.
Suppose Butler wants to sell Cassy's child of nine years. There is a statute
forbidding to sell under ten years; what is Cassy to do? She cannot bring
suit. Will the State prosecute? Suppose it does; what then? Butler says the
child is ten years old; if he pleases, he will say she is ten and a half,
or eleven. What is Cassy to do? She cannot testify; besides, she is utterly
in Butler's power. He may tell her that if she offers to stir in the affair,
he will whip the child within an inch of its life; and she knows he can do
it, and that there is no help for it; he may lock her up in a dungeon, sell
her on to a distant plantation, or do any other despotic thing he chooses,
and there is nobody to say--Nay.
How much does the protective statute amount to for Cassy? It may be very
well as a piece of advice to the public, or as a decorous expression of opinion;
but one might as well try to stop the current of the Mississippi with a bulrush
as the tide of trade in human beings with such a regulation.
We think that, by this time, the reader will agree with us that the less
the defenders of slavery say about protective statutes the better.