The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin Chapter XIV: The Hebrew Slave-Law Compared with the American Slave-Law.
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Having compared the American law with the Roman,
we will now compare it with one other code of slave-laws, to wit, the Hebrew.
This comparison is the more important, because American slavery has been
defended on the ground of God's permitting Hebrew slavery.
The inquiry now arises, What kind of slavery was it that was permitted
among the Hebrews? for in different nations very different systems have been
called by the general name of slavery.
That the patriarchal state of servitude which existed in the time of Abraham
was a very different thing from American slavery, a few graphic incidents
in the Scripture narrative show; for we read that when the angels came to
visit Abraham, although he had three hundred servants born in his house, it
is said that Abraham hasted, and took a calf, and
killed it, and gave it to a young man to dress; and that he told Sarah
to take three measures of meal and knead it into cakes; and that
when all was done, he himself set it before his guests.
From various other incidents which appear in the patriarchal narrative,
it would seem that these servants bore more the relation of the members of
a Scotch clan to their feudal lord than that of an American slave to his master;
thus it seems that if Abraham had died without children his head servant would
have been his heir.--Gen. xv. 3.
Of what species, then, was the slavery which God permitted among the Hebrews?
By what laws was it regulated?
In the New Testament the whole Hebrew system of administration is spoken
of as a relatively imperfect one, and as superseded by the Christian dispensation.--Heb.
We are taught thus to regard the Hebrew system as an educational
system, by which a debased, half-civilised race, which had been degraded by
slavery in its worst form among the Egyptians, was gradually elevated to refinement
As they went from the land of Egypt, it would appear that the most disgusting
personal habits, the most unheard-of and unnatural impurities, prevailed among
them; so that it was necessary to make laws with relations to things of which
Christianity has banished the very name from the earth.
Beside all this, polygamy, war, and slavery, were the universal custom
It is represented in the New Testament that God, in educating this people,
proceeded in the same gradual manner in which a wise father would proceed
with a family of children.
He selected a few of the most vital points of evil practice, and forbade
them by positive statute, under rigorous penalties.
The worship of any other god was, by the Jewish law, constituted high treason,
and rigorously punished with death.
As the knowledge of the true God and religious instruction could not then,
as now, be afforded by printing and books, one day in the week had to be set
apart for preserving in the minds of the people a sense of His being, and
their obligations to Him. The devoting of this day to any other purpose was
also punished with death; and the reason is obvious, that its sacredness was
the principal means relied on for preserving the allegiance of the nation
to their king and God, and its desecration, of course, led directly to high
treason against the head of the State.
With regard to many other practices which prevailed among the Jews, as
among other heathen nations, we find the Divine Being taking the same course
which wise human legislators have taken.
When Lycurgus wished to banish money and its attendant luxuries from Sparta,
he did not forbid it by direct statute-law, but he instituted a currency so
clumsy and uncomfortable that, as we are informed by Rollin, it took a cart
and pair of oxen to carry home the price of a very moderate estate.
In the same manner the Divine Being surrounded the customs of polygamy,
war, blood-revenge, and slavery, with regulations which gradually and certainly
tended to abolish them entirely.
No one would pretend that the laws which God established in relation to
polygamy, cities of refuge, &c., have any application to Christian nations
The following summary of some of these laws of the Mosaic code is given
by Dr. C. E. Stowe, Professor of Biblical Literature in Andover Theological
1. It commanded a Hebrew, even though a married
man, with wife and children living, to take the childless widow of a deceased
brother, and beget children with her.--Deut. xxv. 5-10.
2. The Hebrews, under certain restrictions, were allowed to make
concubines, or wives for a limited time, of women taken in war.--Deut.
3. A Hebrew who already had a wife was allowed to take another also,
provided he still continued his intercourse with the first as her husband,
and treated her kindly and affectionately.--Exodus xxi. 9-11.
4. By the Mosaic law, the nearest relative of a murdered Hebrew could
pursue and slay the murderer, unless he could escape to the city of refuge;
and the same permission was given in case of accidental homicide.--Num.
5. The Israelites were commanded to exterminate the Canaanites, men,
women, and children.--Deut. ix. 12; xx. 16-18.
or all, of the above practices, can be justified by the Mosaic
Law, as well as the practice of slaveholding.
Each of these laws, although in its time it was an ameliorating law, designed
to take the place of some barbarous abuse, and to be a connecting link by
which some higher state of society might be introduced, belongs confessedly
to that system which St. Paul says made nothing perfect. They are a part of
the commandment which he says was annulled for the weakness and unprofitableness
thereof, and which, in the time which he wrote, was waxing old, and ready
to vanish away. And Christ himself says, with regard to certain permissions
of this system, that they were given on account of the "hardness of
their hearts"--because the attempt to enforce a more stringent
system at that time, owing to human depravity, would have only produced greater
The following view of the Hebrew laws of slavery is compiled from Barnes'
work on slavery, and from Professor Stowe's manuscript lectures.
The legislation commenced by making the great and common source of slavery--kidnapping--a
The enactment is as follows: "He that stealeth a man and selleth
him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death."--Exodus
The sources from which slaves were to be obtained were thus reduced to
two: first, the voluntary sale of an individual by himself, which certainly
does not come under the designation of involuntary servitude; second, the
appropriation of captives taken in war, and the buying from the heathen.
With regard to the servitude of the Hebrew by a voluntary sale of himself,
such servitude, by the statute-law of the land, came to an end once in seven
years; so that the worst that could be made of it was that it was a voluntary
contract to labour for a certain time.
With regard to the servants bought of the heathen, or of foreigners in
the land, there was a statute by which their servitude was annulled once in
It has been supposed, from a disconnected view of one particular passage
in the Mosaic code, that God directly countenanced the treating of a slave,
who was a stranger and foreigner, with more rigour and severity than a Hebrew
slave. That this was not the case will appear from the following enactments,
which have express reference to strangers:--
The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among
you and thou shalt love him as thyself.--Lev. xix. 34.
Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him; for ye were strangers
in the land of Egypt.--Exodus xxii. 21.
Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger.--Exodus
The Lord your God regardeth not persons. He doth execute the judgment of
the fatherless and the widow, and loveth the stranger in giving him food and
raiment; love ye therefore the stranger.--Deut. x. 17-19.
Judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that
is with him. Deut. i. 16.
Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger.--Deut.
Instead of making slavery an oppressive institution with regard to the
stranger, it was made by God a system within which heathen were adopted into
the Jewish state, educated and instructed in the worship of the true God,
and in due time emancipated.
In the first place, they were protected by law from personal violence.
The loss of an eye or a tooth, through the violence of his master, took the
slave out of that master's power entirely, and gave him his liberty. Then,
further than this, if a master's conduct towards a slave was such as to induce
him to run away, it was enjoined that nobody should assist in retaking him,
and that he should dwell wherever he chose in the land, without molestation.
Third, the law secured to the slave a very considerable portion of time, which
was to be at his own disposal. Every seventh year was to be at his own disposal.--Lev.
xxv. 4-6. Every seventh day was, of course, secured to him.--Ex. xx.
The servant had the privilege of attending the three great national festivals,
when all the males of the nation were required to appear before God in Jerusalem.--Ex.
Each of these festivals, it is computed, took up about three weeks. The
slave also was to be a guest in the family festivals. In Deut. xii. 12, it
is said, "Ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God, ye, and your sons,
and your daughters, and your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and the
Levite that is within your gates.
Dr. Barnes estimates that the whole amount of time which a
servant could have to himself would amount to about twenty-three years out
of fifty, or nearly one-half his time.
Again, the servant was placed on an exact equality with his master in all
that concerned his religious relations.
Now, if we recollect that in the time of Moses, the God and the king of
the nation were one and the same person, and that the civil and religious
relation were one and the same, it will appear that the slave and his master
stood on an equality in their civil relation with regard to the state.
Thus in Deuteronomy xxix. is described a solemn national convocation, which
took place before the death of Moses, when the whole nation were called upon,
after a solemn review of their national history, to renew their constitutional
oath of allegiance to their supreme Magistrate and Lord.
On this occasion, Moses addressed them thus:--"Ye stand this
day, all of you, before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your
elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your
wives, and thy stranger that is in thy camp, from the hewer
of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water; that thou shouldest enter into
covenant with the Lord thy God, and into his oath,
which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day."
How different is this from the cool and explicit declaration of South Carolina
with regard to the position of the American slave!--"A slave is
not generally regarded as legally capable of being within
the peace of the State. He is not a citizen, and is not in that character
entitled to her protection." [Wheeler's Law of Slavery, p. 243.]
In all the religious services, which, as we have seen by the constitution
of the nation, were civil services, the slave and the master mingled on terms
of strict equality. There was none of the distinction which appertains to
a distinct class or caste. "There was no special service appointed for
them at unusual seasons. There were no particular seats assigned to them,
to keep up the idea that they were a degraded class. There was no withholding
from them the instruction which the Word of God gave about the equal rights
Fifthly. It was always contemplated that the slave
would, as a matter of course, choose the Jewish religion, and the service
of God, and enter willingly into all the obligations and services of the Jewish
Mr. Barnes cites the words of Maimonides, to show how this was commonly
understood by the Hebrews.--Inquiry into the Scriptural
Views of Slavery, by Albert Barnes, p. 132.
Whether a servant be born in the power of an Israelite, or whether he be
purchased from the heathen, the master is to bring them both into the covenant.
But he that is in the house is entered on the eighth day; and he that is
bought with money, on the day on which his master receives him, unless the
slave be unwilling. For if the master receive a grown slave, and he be unwilling,
his master is to bear with him, to seek to win him over by instruction, and
by love and kindness, for one year. After which, should he refuse so long,
it is forbidden to keep him longer than a year. And the master must send him
back to the strangers from whence he came; for the God of Jacob will not accept
any other than the worship of a willing heart. --Maimon. Hilcoth
Miloth, chap. i. sec. 8.
A sixth fundamental arrangement with regard to the Hebrew slave was that
he could never be sold. Concerning this Mr. Barnes
A man, in certain circumstances, might be bought by a Hebrew; but when
once bought, that was an end of the matter. There is not the slightest evidence
that any Hebrew ever sold a slave; and any provision contemplating that was
unknown to the constitution of the commonwealth. It is said of Abraham that
he had "servants bought with money;" but there is no record of
his having ever sold one, nor is there any account of its ever having been
done by Isaac or Jacob. The only instance of a sale of this kind among the
patriarchs is that act of the brothers of Joseph, which is held up to so strong
reprobation, by which they sold him to the Ishmaelites. Permission is given
in the law of Moses to buy a servant, but none is given to sell him again;
and the fact that no such permission is given is full proof that it was not
contemplated. When he entered into that relation it became certain that there
could be no change, unless it was voluntary on his part (comp. Ex. xxi. 5,
6), or unless his master gave him his freedom, until the not distant period
fixed by law when he could be free. There is no arrangement in the law of
Moses by which servants were to be taken in payment of their master's debts,
by which they were to be given as pledges, by which they were to be consigned
to the keeping of others, or by which they were to be given away as presents.
There are no instances occurring in the Jewish history in which any of these
things were done. This law is positive in regard to the Hebrew servant, and
the principle of the law would apply to all others. Lev. xxv. 42 "They
shall not be sold as bondmen." In all these respects there was a marked
difference, and there was doubtless intended to be, between the estimate affixed
to servants and to property. --Inquiry,&
c., pp. 133, 134.
As to the practical workings of this system, as they are developed in the
incidents of sacred history, they are precisely what we should expect from
such a system of laws. For instance, we find it mentioned incidentally in
the ninth chapter of the first book of Samuel, that when Saul and his servant
came to see Samuel, that Samuel, in anticipation of his being crowned king,
made a great feast for him; and in verse twenty-second the history says, "And
Samuel took Saul and his servant, and brought them
into the parlour, and made them sit in the chiefest
We read, also, in 2 Samuel ix. 10, of a servant of Saul who had large estates,
and twenty servants of his own.
We find in 1 Chron. ii. 34, the following incident related: --"Now,
Sheshan had no sons, but daughters. And Sheshan had a servant, an Egyptian,
whose name was Jarha. And Sheshan gave his daughter to Jarha, his servant,
Does this resemble American slavery?
We find, moreover, that this connexion was not considered at all disgraceful,
for the son of this very daughter was enrolled among the valiant men of David's
army.--1 Chron. ii. 41.
In fine, we are not surprised to discover that the institutions of Moses
in effect so obliterated all the characteristics of slavery, that it had ceased
to exist among the Jews long before the time of Christ. Mr. Barnes asks:--
On what evidence would a man rely to prove that slavery existed at all
in the land in the time of the later prophets of the Maccabees, or when the
Saviour appeared? There are abundant proofs, as we shall see, that it existed
in Greece and Rome; but what is the evidence that it existed in Judea? So
far as I have been able to ascertain, there are no declarations that it did
to be found in the canonical books of the Old Testament or in Josephus. There
are no allusion to laws and customs which imply that it was prevalent; there
are no coins or medals which suppose it; there are no facts which do not admit
of an easy explanation on the supposition that slavery had ceased. --Inquiry, &c., p. 226.
Two objections have been urged to the interpretations which have been given
of two of the enactments before quoted.
1. It is said that the enactment, "Thou shalt not return to his master
the servant that has escaped," &c., relates only to servants escaping
from heathen masters to the Jewish nation.
The following remarks on this passage are from Professor Stowe's lectures:
Deuteronomy xxiii. 15, 16.--These words make a statute which, like
every other statute, is to be strictly construed. There is nothing in the
language to limit its meaning; there is nothing in the connexion in which
it stands to limit its meaning; nor is there anything in the history of the
Mosaic legislation to limit the application of this statute to the case of
servants escaping from foreign masters. The assumption that it is thus limited
is wholly gratuitous, and, so far as the Bible is concerned, unsustained by
any evidence whatever. It is said that it would be absurd for Moses to enact
such a law while servitude existed among the Hebrews. It would indeed be absurd,
were it the object of the Mosaic legislation to sustain and perpetuate slavery;
but if it were the object of Moses to limit and to restrain,
and finally to extinguish slavery, this statute was admirably adapted to his
purpose. That it was the object of Moses to extinguish and not to perpetuate
slavery is perfectly clear from the whole course of his legislation on the
subject. Every slave was to have all the religious privileges and instruction
to which his master's children were entitled. Every seventh year released
the Hebrew slave, and every fiftieth year produced universal emancipation.
If a master, by an accidental or an angry blow, deprived the slave of a tooth,
the slave, by that act, was for ever free. And so by the statute, in question,
if the slave felt himself oppressed, he could make his escape, and, though
the master was not forbidden to retake him if he could, every one was forbidden
to aid his master in doing it. This statute, in fact, made the servitude voluntary,
and that was what Moses intended.
Moses dealt with slavery precisely as he dealt with polygamy and with war--without
directly prohibiting, he so restricted as to destroy it; instead of cutting
down the poison-tree, he girdled it, and left it to die of itself. There is
a statute in regard to military expeditions precisely analogous to this celebrated
fugitive slave-law. Had Moses designed to perpetuate a warlike spirit among
the Hebrews, the statute would have been pre-eminently absurd; but, if it
was his design to crush it, and to render foreign wars almost impossible,
the statute was exactly adapted to his purpose. It rendered foreign military
service, in effect, entirely voluntary, just as the fugitive-law rendered
domestic servitude, in effect, voluntary.
The law may be found at length in Deuteronomy xx. 5-10; and let it be carefully
read and compared with the fugitive slave-law already adverted to. Just when
the men are drawn up ready for the expedition--just at the moment when
even the hearts of brave men are apt to fail them--the officers are commanded
to address the soldiers thus:--
What man of you is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated
it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another
man dedicate it.
And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard and hath not yet eaten
of it? Let him also go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle,
and another man eat of it.
And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her?
Let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another
man take her.
And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say,
What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go and return
unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint, as well as his heart.
Now, consider that the Hebrews were exclusively an agricultural people,
that warlike parties necessarily consist mainly of young men, and that by
this statute every man who had built a house which he had not yet lived in,
and every man who had planted a vineyard from which he had not yet gathered
fruit, and every man who had engaged a wife whom he had not yet married, and
everyone who felt timid and faint-hearted, was permitted and commanded to
go home--how many would there probably be left? Especially when the officers,
instead of exciting their military ardour by visions of glory and of splendour,
were commanded to repeat it over and over again, that they would probably
die in the battle and never get home, and hold this idea up before them as
if it were the only idea suitable for their purpose, how excessively absurd
is the whole statute considered as a military law--just as absurd as
the Mosaic fugitive-law, understood in its widest application, is, considered
as a slave-law!
It is clearly the object of this military law to put an end to military
expeditions; for, with this law in force, such expeditions must always be
entirely volunteer expeditions. Just as clearly was it the object of the fugitive
slave-law to put an end to compulsory servitude; for, with that law in force,
the servitude must in effect be, to a great extent, voluntary--and that
is just what the legislator intended. There is no possibility of limiting
the law, on account of its absurdity, when understood in its widest sense,
except by proving that the Mosaic legislation was designed to perpetuate and
not to limit slavery; and this certainly cannot be proved, for it is directly
contrary to the plain matter of fact.
I repeat it, then, again--there is nothing in the language of this
statute, there is nothing in the connexion in which it stands, there is nothing
in the history of the Mosaic legislation on this subject, to limit the application
of the law to the case of servants escaping from foreign masters; but every
consideration from every legitimate source leads us to a conclusion directly
the opposite. Such a limitation is the arbitrary, unsupported stet voluntas
pro ratione assumption of the commentator, and nothing
else. The only shadow of a philological argument that I can see, for limiting
the statute, is found in the use of the words to thee, in the fifteenth
verse. It may be said that the pronoun thee is used in a national
and not individual sense, implying an escape from some other nation to the Hebrews.
But examine the statute immediately preceding this, and observe the use of
the pronoun thee in the thirteenth verse. Most obviously, the pronouns
in these statutes are used with reference
to the individuals addressed, and not in a collective
or national sense exclusively; very rarely, if ever, can this sense be given
to them in the way claimed by the argument referred to.
2. It is said that the proclamation, "Thou shalt proclaim liberty
through the land to all the inhabitants thereof," related only to Hebrew
slaves. This assumption is based entirely on the supposition that the slave
was not considered in Hebrew law as a person, as an inhabitant of the land,
and a member of the State; but we have just proved that in the most solemn
transaction of the State the hewer of wood and drawer of water is expressly
designated as being just as much an actor and participator as his master;
and it would be absurd to suppose that, in a statute addressed to all the
inhabitants of the land, he is not included as an inhabitant.
Barnes enforces this idea by some pages of quotations from Jewish writers,
which will fully satisfy anyone who reads his work.
From a review, then, of all that relates to the Hebrew slave-law, it will
appear that it was a very well-considered and wisely adapted system of education
and gradual emancipation. No rational man can doubt that if the same laws
were enacted and the same practices prevailed with regard to slavery in the
United States, that the system of American slavery might be considered, to
all intents and purposes, practically at an end. If there is any doubt of
this fact, and it is still thought that the permission of slavery among the
Hebrews justifies American slavery, in all fairness the experiment of making
the two systems alike ought to be tried, and we should then see what would
be the result.