HumanitiesWeb.org - The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter XIV: The Hebrew Slave-Law Compared with the American Slave-Law.) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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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In the New Testament the whole Hebrew system of administration is spoken of as a relatively imperfect one, and as superseded by the Christian dispensation.--Heb. viii. 13.

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 and humanity.

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 of nations.

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 now.

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 Seminary:--

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. xxi. 10-19.


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. xxxv. 9-39.


5. The Israelites were commanded to exterminate the Canaanites, men, women, and children.--Deut. ix. 12; xx. 16-18.

Any one, 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 abuses.

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 capital crime.

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 xxi. 16.

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 fifty years.

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 xxiii. 9.

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. xxvii. 19.

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. 10.

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. xxxiv. 23.

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 of mankind."

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 polity.

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 remarks:--

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 place."

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, to wife."

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.
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