All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter XV: Slavery is Despotism.
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
It is always important, in discussing a thing,
to keep before our minds exactly what it is.
The only means of understanding precisely what a civil institution is,
are an examination of the laws which regulate it. In different ages and nations,
very different things have been called by the name of slavery. Patriarchal
servitude was one thing, Hebrew servitude was another, Greek and Roman servitude
still a third; and these institutions differed very much from each other.
What, then, is American slavery, as we have seen it exhibited by law, and
by the decision of Courts?
Let us begin by stating what it is not:--
1. It is not apprenticeship.
2. It is not guardianship.
3. It is in no sense a system for the education of a weaker race
by a stronger.
4. The happiness of the governed is in no sense its object.
5. The temporal improvement or the eternal well-being of the governed
is in no sense its object.
The object of it has been distinctly stated in one sentence by Judge Ruffin--"The
end is the profit of the master, his security, and the public safety."
Slavery, then, is absolute despotism, of the most unmitigated form.
It would, however, be doing injustice to the absolutism of any
civilised country to liken American slavery to it. The absolute governments
of Europe none of them pretend to be founded on a property right of the
governor to the persons and entire capabilities of the
This is a form of despotism which exists only in some of the most savage
countries of the world; as, for example, in Dahomey.
The European absolutism or despotism, now, does, to some extent, recognise
the happiness and welfare of the governed as the foundation
of government; and the ruler is considered as invested with
power for the benefit of the people; and his right
to rule is supposed to be in somewhat predicated upon the idea that he better
understands how to promote the good of the people than they themselves do.
No government in the civilised world now presents
the pure despotic idea, as it existed in the old days of the Persian and Assyrian
The arguments which defend slavery must be substantially the same as those
which defend despotism of any other kind; and the objections which are to
be urged against it are precisely those which can be urged against despotism
of any other kind. The customs and practices to which it gives rise are precisely
those to which despotisms in all ages have given rise.
Is the slave suspected of a crime? His master has the power to examine
him by torture (see State v. Castleman). His master
has, in fact, in most cases, the power of life and death, owing to the exclusion
of the slave's evidence. He has the power of banishing the slave, at any time,
and without giving an account to anybody, to an exile as dreadful as that
of Siberia, and to labours as severe as those of the galleys. He has also
unlimited power over the character of his slave. He can accuse him of any
crime, yet withhold from him all right of trial or investigation, and sell
him into captivity, with his name blackened by an unexamined imputation.
These are all abuses for which despotic governments are blamed. They are
powers which good men who are despotic rulers are beginning to disuse; but,
under the flag of every slaveholding State, and under the flag of the whole
United States in the District of Columbia, they are committed indiscriminately
to men of any character.
But the worst kind of despotism has been said to be that which extends
alike over the body and over the soul; which can bind the liberty of the conscience,
and deprive a man of all right of choice in respect to the manner in which
he shall learn the will of God, and worship him. In other days, kings on their
thrones, and cottagers by their fire-sides, alike trembled before a despotism
which declared itself able to bind and to loose, to open and to shut the kingdom
Yet this power to control the conscience, to control the religious privileges,
and all the opportunities which man has of acquaintanceship with his Maker,
and of learning to do his will, is, under the flag of every slave State, and
under the flag of the United States, placed in the hands of any men of any
character who can afford to pay for it.
It is a most awful and most solemn truth that the greatest
republic in the world does sustain under her national flag the worst system
of despotism which can possibly exist.
With regard to one point to which we have adverted--the power of the
master to deprive the slave of a legal trial while accusing him of crime--a
very striking instance has occurred in the District of Columbia, within a
year or two. The particulars of the case, as stated at the time, in several
papers, were briefly these: A gentleman in Washington, our national capital--an
elder in the Presbyterian church--held a female slave, who had, for some
years, supported a good character in a Baptist church of that city. He accused
her of an attempt to poison his family, and immediately placed her in the
hands of a slave-dealer, who took her over and imprisoned her in the slave-pen
at Alexandria, to await the departure of a coffle. The poor girl had a mother,
who felt as any mother would naturally feel.
When apprised of the situation of her daughter she flew to the pen, and,
with tears, besought an interview with her only child; but she was cruelly
repulsed, and told to be gone! She then tried to see the elder, but failed.
She had the promise of money sufficient to purchase her daughter, but the
owner would listen to no terms of compromise.
In her distress, the mother repaired to a lawyer in the city, and begged
him to give form to her petition in writing. She stated to him what she wished
to have said, and he arranged it for her in such a form as she herself might
have presented it in, had not the benefits of education been denied her. The
following is the letter:--
Washington, July 25, 1851.
SIR,--I address you as a rich Christian
freeman and father, while I am myself but a poor slave-mother. I come to plead
with you for an only child whom I love, who is a professor of the Christian
religion with yourself, and a member of a Christian church; and who, by your
act of ownership, now pines in her imprisonment in a loathsome man-warehouse,
where she is held for sale. I come to plead with you for the exercise of that
blessed law, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye
even so to them."
With great labour, I have found friends who are willing to aid me in the
purchase of my child, to save us from a cruel separation. You, as a father,
can judge of my feelings when I was told that you had decreed her banishment
to distant as well as to hopeless bondage!
For nearly six years my child has done for you the hard labour of a slave;
from the age of sixteen to twenty-two she has done the hard work of your chamber,
kitchen, cellar, and stables. By night and by day, your will and your commands
have been her highest law; and all this has been unrequited toil. If in all
this time her scanty allowance of tea and coffee has been sweetened, it has
been at the cost of her slave-mother, and not at yours.
You are an office-bearer in the church, and a man of prayer. As such, and
as the absolute owner of my child, I ask candidly whether she has enjoyed
such mild and gentle treatment, and amiable example, as she ought to have
had, to encourage her in her monotonous bondage? Has she received at your
hands, in faithful religious instruction in the Word of God, a full and fair
compensation for all her toil? It is not to me alone that you must answer
these questions. You acknowledge the high authority of His laws who preached
a deliverance to the captive, and who commands you to give to your servant
"that which is just and equal." Oh, I entreat you, withhold not,
at this trying hour, from my child that which will cut off her last hope,
and which may endanger your own soul!
It has been said that you charge my daughter with crime. Can this be really
so? Can it be that you would set aside the obligations of honour and good
citizenship--that you would dare to sell the guilty one away for money,
rather than bring her to trial, which you know she is ready to meet? What
would you say, if you were accused of guilt and refused a trial? Is not her
fair name as precious to her, in the church to which she belongs, as yours
can be to you?
Suppose, now, for a moment, that your daughter, whom you love, instead
of mine, was in these hot days incarcerated in a negro-pen, subject to my
control, fed on the coarsest food, committed to the entire will of a brute,
denied the privilege commonly allowed even to the murderer--that of seeing
the face of his friends? Oh, then you would FEEL!--feel
soon, then, for a poor slave-mother and her child, and do for us as you shall
wish you had done when we shall meet before the Great Judge, and when it shall
be your greatest joy to say, "I did let the
ELLEN BROWN. Mr.--
The girl, however, was sent off to the Southern market.
The writer has received these incidents from the gentleman who wrote the
letter. Whether the course pursued by the master was strictly legal is a point
upon which we are not entirely certain; that it was a course in which the
law did not in fact interfere, is quite plain, and it is also very apparent
that it was a course against which public sentiment did not remonstrate. The
man who exercised this power was a professedly religious man, enjoying a position
of importance in a Christian church; and it does not appear, from any movements
in the Christian community about him, that they did not consider his course
a justifiable one.
Yet is not this kind of power the very one at which we are so shocked when
we see it exercised by foreign despots?
Do we not read with shuddering that in Russia, or in Austria, a man accused
of crime is seized upon, separated from his friends, allowed no opportunities
of trial or of self-defence, but hurried off to Siberia, or some other dreaded
Why is despotism any worse in the governor of a State than in a private
There is a great controversy now going on in the world between the despotic
and the republican principle. All the common arguments used in support of
slavery are arguments that apply with equal strength to despotic government,
and there are some arguments in favour of despotic governments that do not
apply to individual slavery.
There are arguments, and quite plausible ones, in favour of despotic government.
Nobody can deny that it possesses a certain kind of efficiency, compactness,
and promptness of movement, which cannot, from the nature of things, belong
to a republic. Despotism has established and sustained much more efficient
systems of police than ever a republic did. The late King of Prussia, by the
possession of absolute despotic power, was enabled to carry out a much more
efficient system of popular education than we ever have succeeded in carrying
out in America. He districted his kingdom in the most thorough manner, and
obliged every parent, whether he would or not, to have his children thoroughly
If we reply to all this, as we do, that the possession of absolute power
in a man qualified to use it right is undoubtedly calculated for the good
of the state, but that there are so few men that know how to use it, that
this form of government is not, on the whole, a safe one, then we have stated
an argument that goes to over-throw slavery as much as it does a despotic
government; for certainly the chances are much greater of finding one man,
in the course of fifty years, who is capable of wisely using this power, than
of finding thousands of men every day in our streets, who can be trusted with
such power. It is a painful and most serious fact, that America trusts to
the hands of the most brutal men of her country, equally with the best, that
despotic power which she thinks an unsafe thing even in the hands of the enlightened,
educated, and cultivated Emperor of the Russias.
With all our republican prejudices, we cannot deny that Nicholas is a man
of talent, with a mind liberalised by education; we have been informed, also,
that he is a man of serious and religious character; he certainly, acting
as he does in the eye of all the world, must have great restraint upon him
from public opinion, and a high sense of character. But who is the man to
whom American laws intrust powers more absolute than those of Nicholas of
Russia, or Ferdinand of Naples? He may have been a pirate on the high seas;
he may be a drunkard; he may, like Souther, have been convicted of a brutality
at which humanity turns pale; but, for all that, American slave-law
will none the less trust him with this irresponsible power,--power
over the body, and power over the soul.
On which side, then, stands the American nation, in the great controversy
which is now going on between self-government and despotism? On which side
does America stand, in the great controversy for liberty of conscience?
Do foreign governments exclude their population from the reading of the
Bible? The slave of America is excluded by the most effectual means possible.
Do we say, "Ah! but we read the Bible to our slaves, and present the
gospel orally?" This is precisely what religious despotism in Italy
says. Do we say that we have no objection to our slaves reading the Bible,
if they will stop there; but that with this there will come in a flood of
general intelligence, which will upset the existing state of things? This
is precisely what is said in Italy.
Do we say we should be willing that the slave should read his Bible, but
that he, in his ignorance, will draw false and erroneous conclusions from
it, and for that reason we prefer to impart its truths to him orally? This,
also, is precisely what the religious despotism of Europe says.
Do we say in our vainglory that despotic government dreads the coming in
of anything calculated to elevate and educate the people? And is there not
the same dread through all the despotic slave governments of America?
On which side, then, does the American nation stand, in the great,
last QUESTION of the age?