The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin Chapter XIII: The Men Better than Their Laws.
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Judgment is turned away backward,
And Justice standeth afar off;
For Truth is fallen in the street,
And Equity cannot enter.
Yea, Truth faileth;
And HE THAT DEPARTETH FROM EVIL MAKETH HIMSELF A PREY.
ISAIAH lix. 14, 15.
THERE is one very remarkable class of laws yet
to be considered.
So full of cruelty and of unmerciful severity is the slave-code--such
an atrocity is the institution of which it is the legal definition--that
there are multitudes of individuals too generous and too just to be willing
to go to the full extent of its restrictions and deprivations.
A generous man, instead of regarding the poor slave as a piece of property,
dead, and void of rights, is tempted to regard him rather as a helpless younger
brother, or as a defenceless child, and to extend to him, by his own good
right arm, that protection and those rights which the law denies him. A religious
man, who, by the theory of his belief, regards all men as brothers, and considers
his Christian slave, with himself, as a member of Jesus Christ--as of
one body, one spirit, and called in one hope of his calling--cannot willingly
see him "doomed to live without knowledge," without the power
of reading the written Word, and to raise up his children after him in the
Hence, if left to itself, individual humanity would, in many cases, practically
abrogate the slave-code. Individual humanity would teach the slave to read
and write, would build school-houses for his children, and would, in very,
very many cases, enfranchise him.
The result of all this has been foreseen. It has been foreseen that the
result of education would be general intelligence; that the result of intelligence
would be a knowledge of personal rights; and that an inquiry
into the doctrine of personal rights would be fatal to the system. It has
been foreseen, also, that the example of disinterestedness and generosity,
in emancipation, might carry with it a generous contagion, until it should
become universal; that the example of educated and emancipated slaves would
prove a dangerous excitement to those still in bondage.
For this reason, the American slave-code, which, as we have already seen,
embraces, substantially, all the barbarities of that of ancient Rome, has
added to it a set of laws more cruel than any which ancient and heathen Rome
ever knew--laws designed to shut against the slave his last refuge--the
humanity of his master. The master, in ancient Rome, might give his slave
whatever advantages of education he chose, or at any time emancipate him,
and the State did not interfere to prevent.
But in America the laws, throughout all the slave States, most rigorously
forbid, in the first place, the education of the slave.
We do not profess to give all these laws, but a few striking specimens may
be presented. Our authority is Judge Stroud's "Sketch of the Laws of
The legislature of South Carolina, in 1740, enounced the following preamble:
[Stroud's Sketch, p. 88.]
"Whereas, the having of slaves taught to write, or suffering them
to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences;"
and enacted that the crime of teaching a slave to write, or of
employing a slave as a scribe, should be punished by a fine of
one hundred pounds, current money. If the reader will turn now to the
infamous "protective" statute, enacted by the same legislature,
in the same year, he will find that the same penalty
has been appointed for the cutting out of the tongue, putting out of the eye,
cruel scalding, &c., of any slave, as for the offence of teaching him
to write! That is to say, that to teach him to write, and to put out his eyes,
are to be regarded as equally reprehensible.
That there might be no doubt of the "great and fundamental policy"
of the State, and that there might be full security against the "great
inconveniences" of "having of slaves
taught to write," it was enacted, in 1800, "That assemblies of
slaves, free negroes, &c., * * * * * * * for the purpose of mental
instruction, in a confined or secret place, &c. &c., is
[are] declared to be an unlawful meeting;" and the officers
are required to enter such confined places, and disperse the "unlawful
assemblage," inflicting, at their discretion, "such corporal punishment,
not exceeding twenty lashes, upon such slaves,
free negroes, &c., as they may judge necessary for
deterring them from the like unlawful assemblage in future." [Stroud's
Sketch, p. 89. 2 Brevard's Digest, pp. 254-5.]
The statute-book of Virginia is adorned with a law similar to the one last
quoted. [Stroud, pp. 88, 89.]
The offence of teaching a slave to write was early punished, in Georgia
as in South Carolina, by a pecuniary fine. But the city of Savannah seems
to have found this penalty insufficient to protect it from "great
inconveniences," and we learn, by a quotation in the work
of Judge Stroud, from a number of The Portfolio, that
"the city has passed an ordinance, [Stroud's Sketch, pp. 89, 90.] by
which any person that teaches any person of colour, slave
or free, to read or write, or causes such person
to be so taught, is subjected to a fine of thirty dollars for each
offence; and every person of colour who shall keep a school, to
teach reading or writing, is subject to a fine of thirty dollars, or to be
imprisoned ten days, and whipped thirty-nine lashes."
Secondly. In regard to religious privileges:--
The State of Georgia has enacted a law, "to protect
religious societies in the exercise of their religious duties."
This law, after appointing rigorous penalties for the offence of interrupting
or disturbing a congregation of white persons, concludes
in the following words:--
No congregation or company of negroes, shall, under pretence of divine
worship, assemble themselves, contrary to the Act regulating patrols. [Stroud,
p. 92. Prince's Digest, p. 342.]
"The Act regulating patrols," as quoted by the editor of Prince's
Digest, empowers every justice
of the peace to disperse ANY assembly or meeting of slaves which
the peace, &c., of His Majesty's subjects, and permits that every slave
found at such a meeting shall "immediately be
corrected, WITHOUT TRIAL, by receiving
on the bare back twenty-five stripes with a whip, switch, or cow-skin."
[Stroud, p. 93. Prince's Digest, p. 447.]
The history of legislation in South Carolina is significant. An Act was
passed in 1800, containing the following section:--
[Stroud, p. 93. 2 Brevard's Digest, 254, 255.]
It shall not be lawful for any number of slaves, free negroes, mulattoes,
or mestizoes, even in company with white persons, to meet together and assemble
for the purpose of mental instruction or religious worship, either before
the rising of the sun, or after the going down of the same. And all magistrates,
sheriffs, militia officers &c., &c., are hereby invested with power,&
c., for dispersing such assemblies, &c.
The law just quoted seems somehow to have had a prejudicial effect upon
the religious interests of the "slaves, free negroes," &c.,
specified in it; for, three years afterwards, on the petition of certain religious
societies, a "protective Act," was passed,
which should secure them this great religious privilege; to wit, that
it should be unlawful, before nine o'clock, "to break
into a place of meeting, wherein shall be assembled the members of any religious
society of this State, provided a majority of them shall
be white persons, or otherwise to disturb their devotion, unless
such person shall have first obtained * * * a warrant, &c."
Thirdly. It appears that many masters, who are
disposed to treat their slaves generously, have allowed them to accumulate
property, to raise domestic animals for their own use, and, in the case of
intelligent servants, to go at large, to hire their own time, and to trade
upon their own account. Upon all these practices the law comes down with unmerciful
severity. A penalty is inflicted on the owner, but, with a rigour quite accordant
with the tenor of slave-law, the offence is considered, in law, as that of
the slave, rather than that of the master; so that, if the master is generous
enough not to regard the penalty which is imposed upon himself, he may be
restrained by the fear of bringing a greater evil upon his dependant. These
laws are, in some cases, so constructed as to make it for the interest of
the lowest and most brutal part of society that they be enforced, by offering
half the profits to the informer. We give the following, as specimens of slave
legislation on this subject:--
The law of South Carolina.
It shall not be lawful for any slave to buy, sell, trade, &c., for
any goods, &c., without a license from the owner, &c.; nor shall any
slave be permitted to keep any boat, periauger, or canoe, or raise and breed,
for the benefit of such slave, any horses, mares, cattle, sheep, or hogs,
under pain of forfeiting all the goods, &c., and all the boats, periaugers,
or canoes, horses, mares, cattle, sheep, or hogs. [Stroud, pp. 46, 47. James'
Digest, 385, 386, Act of 1740.] And it shall be lawful for any person whatsoever
to seize and take away from any slave all such goods, &c., boats, &c.,&
c., and to deliver the same into the hands of any justice of the peace,
nearest to the place where the seizure shall be made; and such justice shall
take the oath of the person making such seizure concerning the manner thereof;
and if the said justice shall be satisfied that such seizure has been made
according to law, he shall pronounce and declare the goods so seized to be
forfeited, and order the same to be sold at public outcry, one half of the
money arising from such sale to go to the State, and the other half to him
or them that sue for the same.
The laws in many other States are similar to the above; but the State of
Georgia has an additional provision [2 Cobbs, Sig. 284.], against permitting
the slave to hire himself to another for his own benefit; a penalty of thirty
dollars is imposed for every weekly offence on the part of the master, unless
the labour be done on his own premises. Savannah, Augusta, and Sunbury, are
In Virginia, "if the master shall permit his slave to hire himself
out," the slave is to be apprehended, &c.
[Stroud, p 47.], and the master to be fined.
In an early Act of the Legislature of the orthodox and Presbyterian State
of North Carolina, it is gratifying to see how the judicious course of public
policy is made to subserve the interests of Christian charity--how, in
a single ingenious sentence, provision is made for punishing the offender
against society, rewarding the patriotic informer, and feeding the poor and
All horses, cattle, hogs, or sheep that, one month after the passing of
this Act, shall belong to any slave, or be of any slave's mark, in this State,
shall be seized and sold by the county wardens, and by them applied, the one
half to the support of the poor of the county, and the other half to the informer.
[Stroud's Sketch, 47.]
In Mississippi, a fine of fifty dollars is imposed upon the master who
permits his slave to cultivate cotton for his own use; or who licences his
slave to go at large and trade as a freeman; or who is convicted of
permitting his slave to keep "stock of any description." [Stroud, p. 48.]
To show how the above law has been interpreted by the highest judicial
tribunal of the sovereign State of Mississippi, we repeat here a portion of
a decision of Chief Justice Sharkey, which we have elsewhere given more in
Independent of the principles laid down in adjudicated cases, our statute-law
prohibits slaves from owning certain kinds of property; and it may be inferred
that the legislature supposed they were extending the Act as far as it could
be necessary to exclude them from owning any property, as the prohibition
includes that kind of property which they would most likely be permitted to
own without interruption, to wit: hogs, horses, cattle, &c. They cannot
be prohibited from holding such property, in consequence of its being of a
dangerous or offensive character, but because it was deemed impolitic for
them to hold property of any description.
It was asserted, at the beginning of this head, that the permission of
the master to a slave to hire his own time is, by law, considered the offence
of the slave; the slave being subject to prosecution therefore,
not the master. This is evident from the tenor of some of the laws quoted
and alluded to above. It will be still further illustrated by the following
decisions of the Courts of North Carolina. They are copied from the Supplement
to the U.S. Digest, vol. ii. p. 798:--
139. An indictment charging that a certain negro did hire her own time
[The State v. Clarissa, 5 Iredell,221.], contrary
to the form of the statute, &c., is defective, and must be quashed, because
it was omitted to be charged that she was permitted by her master to go at
large, which is one essential part of the offence.
140. Under the first clause of the thirty-first section of the 111th chapter
of the Revised Statutes, prohibiting masters from hiring to slaves their own
time, the master is not indictable; he is only subject to a penalty of forty
dollars. Nor is the master indictable under the second clause of that section;
the process being against the slave, not against the master.--Ib.
142. To constitute the offence under section 32 (Rev. Stat. c. xi. §
32) it is not necessary that the slave should have hired his time; it is sufficient
if the master permits him to go at large as a freeman.
This is maintaining the ground that "the master
can do no wrong" with great consistency and thoroughness. But it
is in perfect keeping, both in form and spirit, with the whole course of slave-law,
which always upholds the supremacy of the master, and always depresses the
Fourthly. Stringent laws against emancipation exist
in nearly all the slave States.
In four of the States--South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi--
cannot be effected, except by a special act of the legislature of the State.
In Georgia, the offence of setting free "any
slave, or slaves, in any other manner and form than the one prescribed,"
was punishable, according to the law of 1801, by the forfeiture of two hundred
dollars, to be recovered by action or indictment;
the slaves in question still remaining, "to all intents
and purposes, as much in a state of slavery as before they were manumitted."
Believers in human progress will be interested to know that since the law
of 1801 there has been a reform introduced into this part of the legislation
of the republic of Georgia. In 1818 a new law was passed, which, as will be
seen, contains a grand remedy for the abuses of the old. In this it is provided,
with endless variety of specifications and synonyms, as if to "let suspicion
double-lock the door" against any possible evasion, that, "All
and every will, testament, and deed, whether by way of trust
or otherwise, contract, or agreement, or stipulation, or other instrument
in writing or by parole, made and executed for the purpose of effecting, or
endeavouring to effect, the manumission of any slave or slaves, either directly
* * * or indirectly, or virtually, &c., &c., shall be, and the same
are hereby declared to be, utterly null and void." And the guilty author
of the outrage against the peace of the State, contemplated in such deed,
&c., &c., "and all and every person or persons concerned in
giving or attempting to give effect thereto * * * in any way or manner whatsoever,
shall be severally liable to a penalty not exceeding one thousand dollars."
It would be quite anomalous in slave-law, and contrary to the "great
and fundamental policy" of slave States, if the negroes who, not having
the fear of God before their eyes, but being instigated by the devil, should
be guilty of being thus manumitted, were suffered to go unpunished; accordingly,
the law very properly and judiciously provides [Stroud's Sketch, pp. 147-8.
Prince's Dig. 466.] that "each and every slave or slaves in whose behalf
such will or testament, &c., &c., shall have been made, shall be liable
to be arrested by warrant, &c.; and, being thereof convicted,
&c., shall be liable to be sold as a slave
or slaves by public outcry; and the proceeds of such slaves shall be
Judge Stroud gives the following account of the law of Mississippi:--
The emancipation must be by an instrument in writing, a last will or deed,
&c., under seal attested by at least two credible witnesses, or acknowledged
in the court of the county or corporation where the emancipator resides [Stroud's
Sketch, p. 149. Miss. Rev. Code, p. 385-6 (Act June 18, 1822).]; proof satisfactory
to the General Assembly must be adduced that the slave has done some meritorious
act for the benefit of his master, or rendered some distinguished service
to the State; all which circumstances are but prerequisites, and are of no
efficacy until a special Act of Assembly sanctions the emancipation; to which
may be added, as has been already stated, a saving of the rights of creditors,
and the protection of the widow's thirds.
The same pre-requisite of "meritorious services, to be adjudged
of and allowed by the county court,"
is exacted by an Act of the General Assembly of North Carolina; and all slaves
emancipated contrary to the provisions of this Act are to be committed to
the jail of the county, and at the next court held for that county are to
be sold to the highest bidder.
But the law of North Carolina does not refuse opportunity for repentance,
even after the crime has been proved: accordingly--
The sheriff is directed [Stroud's Sketch, 148. Haywood's Manual, 525, 526,
529, 537.], five days before the time for the sale of the emancipated negro,
to give notice, in writing, to the person by whom
the emancipation was made, to the end--
and with the hope that, smitten by remorse of conscience, and brought to
a sense of his guilt before God and man--
such person may, if he thinks proper, renew his claim to the negro so emancipated
by him; on failure to do which, the sale is to be made by the sheriff, and
one-fifth part of the net proceeds is to become the property of the freeholder
by whom the apprehension was made, and the remaining four-fifths are to be
paid into the public treasury.
It is proper to add that we have given examples of the laws of States whose
legislation on this subject has been most severe. [Stroud, pp. 148-154.] The
laws of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Louisiana, are much less
A Striking case, which shows how inexorably the law contends with the kind
designs of the master, is on record in the reports of legal decisions in the
State of Mississippi. The circumstances of the case have been thus briefly
stated in the New York Evening Post, edited by Mr.
William Cullen Bryant. They are a romance of themselves.
A man of the name of Elisha Brazealle, a planter in Jefferson County, Mississippi,
was attacked with a loathsome disease. During his illness he was faithfully
nursed by a mulatto slave, to whose assiduous attentions he felt that he owed
his life. He was duly impressed by her devotion, and soon after his recovery
took her to Ohio, and had her educated. She was very intelligent, and improved
her advantages so rapidly that when he visited her again he determined to
marry her. He executed a deed for her emancipation, and had it recorded both
in the States of Ohio and Mississippi, and made her his wife.
Mr. Brazealle returned with her to Mississippi, and in process of time
had a son. After a few years he sickened and died, leaving a will, in which,
after reciting the deed of emancipation, he declared his intention to ratify
it, and devised all his property to this lad, acknowledging him in the will
to be such.
Some poor and distant relations in North Carolina, whom he did not know,
and for whom he did not care, hearing of his death, came on to Mississippi,
and claimed the property thus devised. They instituted a suit for its recovery,
and the case (it is reported in Howard's Mississippi Reports, vol. ii.,.p.
837) came before Judge Sharkey, our new consul at Havana. He decided it, and
in that decision declared the act of emancipation an offence against morality,
and pernicious and detestable as an example. He set aside the will; gave the
property of Brazealle to his distant relations, condemned Brazealle's son,
and his wife, that son's mother, again to bondage, and made them the slaves
of these North Carolina kinsmen, as part of the assets of the estate.
Chief Justice Sharkey, after narrating the circumstances of
the case, declares the validity of the deed of emancipation to be the main
question in the controversy. He then argues that, although according to principles
of national comity "contracts are to be construed according to the laws
of the country or State where they are made," yet these principles are
not to be followed when they lead to conclusions in conflict with "the
great and fundamental policy of the State." What this "great and
fundamental policy" is, in Mississippi, may be gathered from the remainder
of the decision, which we give in full.
Let us apply these principles to the deed of emancipation. To give it validity
would be, in the first place, a violation of the declared policy, and contrary
to a positive law of the State.
The policy of a State is indicated by the general course of legislation
on a given subject; and we find that free negroes are deemed offensive, because
they are not permitted to emigrate to or remain in the State. They are allowed
few privileges, and subject to heavy penalties for offences. They are required
to leave the State within thirty days after notice, and in the meantime give
security for good behaviour; and those of them who can lawfully remain must
register and carry with them their certificates, or they may be committed
to jail. It would also violate a positive law, passed by the legislature,
expressly to maintain this settled policy, and to prevent emancipation. No
owner can emancipate his slave, but by deed or will properly attested, or
acknowledged in Court, and proof to the legislature that such slave has performed
some meritorious act for the benefit of the master, or some distinguished
service for the State; and the deed or will can have no validity until ratified
by special act of legislature. It is believed that this law and policy are
too essentially important to the interests of our citizens to permit them
to be evaded.
The state of the case shows conclusively that the contract had its origin
in an offence against morality, pernicious and detestable as an example. But,
above all, it seems to have been planned and executed with a fixed design
to evade the rigour of the laws of the State. The acts of the party in going
to Ohio with the slaves, and there executing the deed, and his immediate return
with them to this State, point with unerring certainty to his purpose and
object. The laws of this State cannot be thus defrauded of their operation
by one of our own citizens. If we could have any doubts about the principle,
the case reported in 1 Randolph, 15, would remove them.
As we think the validity of the deed must depend upon the laws of this
State, it becomes unnecessary to inquire whether it could have any force by
the laws of Ohio. If it were even valid there, it can have no force here.
The consequence is, that the negroes, John Monroe and his mother, are still
slaves, and a part of the estate of Elisha Brazealle. They have not acquired
a right to their freedom under the will; for, even if the clause in the will
were sufficient for that purpose, their emancipation has not been consummated
by an act of the legislature.
John Monroe, being a slave, cannot take the property as devisee; and I
apprehend it is equally clear that it cannot be held in trust for him. 4 Desans.
Rep. 266. Independent of the principles laid down in adjudicated cases, our
statute law prohibits slaves from owning certain kinds of property; and it
may be inferred that the legislature supposed they were extending
the act as far as it could be necessary to exclude them from owning any property,
as the prohibition includes that kind of property which they would most likely
be permitted to own without interruption, to wit, hogs, horses, cattle, &c.
They cannot be prohibited from holding such property in consequence of its
being of a dangerous or offensive character, but because it was deemed impolitic
for them to hold property of any description. It follows, therefore, that
his heirs are entitled to the property.
As the deed was void, and the devisee could not take under the will, the
heirs might, perhaps, have had a remedy at law; but, as an account must be
taken for the rents and profits, and for the final settlement of the estate,
I see no good reason why they should be sent back to law. The remedy is, doubtless,
more full and complete than it could be at law. The decree of the Chancellor
overruling the demurrer must be affirmed, and the cause remanded for further
The Chief Justice Sharkey who pronounced this decision is stated by
the Evening Post to have been a principal agent in the passage
of the severe law under which this horrible inhumanity was perpetrated.
Nothing more forcibly shows the absolute despotism of the slave-law over
all the kindest feelings and intentions of the master, and the determination
of courts to carry these severities to their full length, than this cruel
deed, which precipitated a young man who had been educated to consider himself
free, and his mother, an educated woman, back into the bottomless abyss of
slavery. Had this case been chosen for the theme of a novel, or a tragedy,
the world would have cried out upon it as a plot of monstrous improbability.
As it stands in the law-book, it is only a specimen of that awful kind of
truth, stranger than fiction, which is all the time evolving, in one form
or another, from the workings of this anomalous system.
This view of the subject is a very important one, and ought to be earnestly
and gravely pondered by those in foreign countries, who are too apt to fasten
their condemnation and opprobrium rather on the person of the slave-holder
than on the horrors of the legal system. In some
slave States it seems as if there was very little that the benevolent owner
could do which should permanently benefit his slave, unless he should seek to
alter the laws. Here it is that the highest obligation
of the Southern Christian lies. Nor will the world or God hold
them guiltless who, with the elective franchise in their hands, and the
full power to speak, write, and discuss, suffer this monstrous system of legalised
cruelty to go on from age to age.* I. e.,Porigua.