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The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter X: Principles Established--State v. Legree; A Case Not in the Books.

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

From a review of all the legal cases which have hitherto been presented, and of the principles established in the judicial decisions upon them, the following facts must be apparent to the reader:--

First. That masters do, now and then, kill slaves by the torture.

Second. That the fact of so killing a slave is not of itself held presumption of murder in slave jurisprudence.

Third. That the slave in the act of resistance to his master may always be killed. >

From these things it will be seen to follow that, if the facts of the death of Tom had been fully proved by two white witnesses in open court, Legree could not have been held by any consistent interpreter of slave-law to be a murderer, for Tom was in the act of resistance to the will of his master. His master had laid a command on him in the presence of other slaves. Tom had deliberately refused to obey the command. The master commenced chastisement, to reduce him to obedience. And it is evident, at the first glance, to every one, that if the law does not sustain him in enforcing obedience in such a case, there is an end of the whole slave power. No Southern Court would dare to decide that Legree did wrong to continue the punishment as long as Tom continued the insubordination. Legree stood by him every moment of the time, pressing him to yield, and offering to let him go as soon as he did yield. Tom's resistance was insurrection. It was an example which could not be allowed for a moment on any Southern plantation. By the express words of the constitution of Georgia, and by the understanding and usage of all slave-law, the power of life and death is always left in the hands of the master, in exigencies like this. This is not a case like that of Souther v. the Commonwealth. The victim of Souther was not in a state of resistance or insurrection. The punishment, in his case, was a simple vengeance for a past offence, and not an attempt to reduce him to subordination.

There is no principle of slave jurisprudence by which a man could be pronounced a murderer, for acting as Legree did, in his circumstances. Everybody must see that such an admission would strike at the foundations of the slave system. To be sure, Tom was in a state of insurrection for conscience's sake. But the law does not, and cannot, contemplate that the negro shall have a conscience independent of his master's. To allow that the negro may refuse to obey his master whenever he thinks that obedience would be wrong, would be to produce universal anarchy. If Tom had been allowed to disobey his master in this case, for conscience's sake, the next day Sambo would have had a case of conscience, and Quimbo the next. Several of them might very justly have thought that it was a sin to work as they did. The mulatto woman would have remembered that the command of God forbade her to take another husband. Mothers might have considered that it was more their duty to stay at home and take care of their children, when they were young and feeble, than to work for Mr. Legree in the cotton-field. There would be no end to the havoc made upon cotton-growing operations, were the negro allowed the right of maintaining his own conscience on moral subjects. If the slave system is a right system, and ought to be maintained, Mr. Legree ought not to be blamed for his conduct in this case; for he did only what was absolutely essential to maintain the system; and Tom died in fanatical and foolhardy resistance to "the powers that be, which are ordained of God." He followed a sentimental impulse of his desperately depraved heart, and neglected those "solid teachings of the written word," which, as recently elucidated, have proved so refreshing to eminent political men.
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