The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin Chapter I: Does Public Opinion Protect the Slave?
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The utter inefficiency of the law to protect
the slave in any respect has been shown.
But it is claimed that, precisely because the law affords the slave no
protection, therefore public opinion is the more strenuous in his behalf.
Nothing more frequently strikes the eye, in running over judicial proceedings
in the Courts of slave States, than announcements of the utter inutility of
the law to rectify some glaring injustice towards this unhappy race, coupled
with congratulatory remarks on that beneficent state of public sentiment
which is to supply entirely this acknowledged deficiency
of the law.
On this point it may, perhaps, be sufficient to ask the reader, whether
North or South, to review in his own mind the judicial documents which we
have presented, and ask himself what inference is to be drawn, as to the state
of public sentiment, from the cases there presented--from the pleas of
lawyers, the decisions of judges, the facts sworn to by witnesses, and the
general style and spirit of the whole proceedings.
In order to appreciate this more fully, let us compare a trial in a free
State with a trial in a slave State.
In the free State of Massachusetts, a man of standing, learning, and high
connexions, murdered another man. He did not torture him, but with one blow
sent him in a moment from life. The murderer had every advantage of position,
of friends; it may be said, indeed, that he had the sympathy of the whole
United States; yet how calmly, with what unmoved and awful composure, did
the judicial examination proceed! The murderer was condemned to die. What
a sensation shook the country! Even sovereign States assumed
the attitude of petitioners for him.
There was a voice of entreaty, from Maine to New Orleans. There were remonstrances,
and there were threats; but still, with what passionless calmness retributive
justice held on her way! Though the men who were her instruments were men
of merciful and bleeding hearts, yet they bowed in silence to her sublime
will. In spite of all that influence, and wealth, and power could do, a cultivated
and intelligent man, from the first rank of society, suffered the same penalty
that would fall on any other man who violated the sanctity of human life.
Now, compare this with a trial in a slave State. In Virginia, Souther also
murdered a man; but he did not murder him by one merciful blow, but by twelve
hours of torture so horrible that few readers could bear even the description
of it. It was a mode of death which, to use the language that Cicero in his
day applied to crucifixion, "ought to be for ever removed from the sight,
hearing, and from the very thoughts of mankind." And to this horrible
scene two white men were WITNESSES!
Observe the mode in which these two cases were tried, and the general sensation
they produced. Hear the lawyers, in this case of Souther, coolly debating
whether it can be considered any crime at all. Hear the decision of the inferior
Court, that it is murder in the second degree, and
apportioning as its reward five years of imprisonment. See the horrible butcher
coming up to the superior Court in the attitude of an injured man! See the
case recorded as that of Souther VERSUS The Commonwealth, and let us ask any intelligent
man, North or South, what sort of public sentiment does this show?
Does it show a belief that the negro is a man? Does it not show decidedly
that he is not considered as a man? Consider further
the horrible principle which, re-affirmed in the case, is the law of the land
in Virginia. It is the policy of the law, in respect to
the relation of master and slave, and for the sake of securing proper subordination
on the part of the slave, to protect the master from prosecution in all such
cases, even if the whipping and punishment be malicious, cruel, and excessive!
When the most cultivated and intelligent men in the State formally, calmly,
and without any apparent perception of saying anything inhuman, utter such
an astounding decision as this, what can be thought
of it? If they do not consider this cruel, what is cruel? And, if their feelings
are so blunted as to see no cruelty in such a decision, what hope is there
of any protection to the slave?
This law is a plain and distinct permission to such wretches as Souther
to inflict upon the helpless slave any torture they may choose, without any
accusation or impeachment of crime. It distinctly tells Souther, and the white
witnesses who saw his deed, and every other low, unprincipled man in the Court,
that it is the policy of the law to protect him in malicious, cruel, and excessive
What sort of an education is this for the intelligent and cultivated men
of a State to communicate to the lower and less-educated class? Suppose it
to be solemnly announced in Massachusetts, with respect to free labourers
or apprentices, that it is the policy of the law, for the sake of producing
subordination, to protect the master in inflicting any punishment, however
cruel, malicious, and excessive, short of death. We cannot imagine such a
principle declared, without a rebellion and a storm of popular excitement
to which that of Bunker Hill was calmness itself; but, supposing the State
of Massachusetts were so "twice dead and plucked up by the roots"
as to allow such a decision to pass without comment concerning her working
classes --suppose it did pass, and become an active, operative reality,
what kind of an educational influence would it exert upon the commonwealth?
What kind of an estimate of the working classes would it show in the minds
of those who make and execute the law?
What an immediate development of villany and brutality would be brought
out by such a law, avowedly made to protect men in cruelty! Cannot men be
cruel enough, without all the majesty of law being brought into operation
to sanction it, and make it reputable?
And suppose it were said, in vindication of such a law, "Oh, of course,
no respectable, humane man would ever think of taking advantage of it!"
Should we not think the old State of Massachusetts sunk very low, to have
on her legal records direct assurances of protection to deeds which no decent
man would ever do?
And, when this shocking permission is brought in review at the judgment-seat
of Christ, and the awful Judge shall say to its makers, aiders, and abettors,
Where is thy brother?--when all the souls that have called from under
the alter, "How long, O Lord, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood,"
shall arise around the judgment-seat as a great cloud of witnesses, and the
judgment is set and the books are opened--what answer will be made for
such laws and decisions as these?
Will they tell the great Judge that it was necessary to preserve the slave
system--that it could not be preserved without them?
Will they dare look upon those eyes, which are as a flame of fire, with
any such avowal?
Will he not answer, as with a voice of thunder, "Ye have killed the
poor and needy, and ye have forgotten that the Lord was his helper?"
The deadly sin of slavery is its denial of humanity to man. This has been
the sin of oppression, in every age. To tread down, to vilify and crush the
image of God, in the person of the poor and lowly, has been the great sin
of man since the creation of the world. Against this sin all the prophets
of ancient times poured forth their thunders. A still stronger witness was
borne against this sin, when God in Jesus Christ took human nature, and made
each human being a brother of the Lord. But the last and most sublime witness
shall be borne when a MAN shall judge the whole
earth--a Man who shall acknowledge for His brother the meanest slave,
equally with the proudest master.
In most singular and affecting terms it is asserted in the Bible that the
Father hath committed all judgment to the Son, BECAUSE HE
IS THE SON OF MAN. That human nature, which, in the person of the poor slave, has been
despised and rejected, scoffed and scorned, scourged and tortured, shall in
that day be glorified; and it shall appear the most fearful of sins to have
made light of the sacredness of humanity, as these laws and institutions of
slavery have done. The fact is, that the whole system of slave-law, and the
whole practice of the slave-system, and the public sentiment that is formed
by it, are alike based on the greatest of all heresies, a denial of equal
human brotherhood. A whole race has been thrown out
of the range of human existence, their immortality disregarded, their dignity
as children of God scoffed at, their brotherhood with Christ treated as a
fable, and all the law and public sentiment and practice with regard to them
such as could be justified only on supposition that they were a race of inferior
It is because the negro is considered an inferior animal, and
not worthy of any better treatment, that the system which relates
to him and the treatment which falls to him are considered humane
Take any class of white men, however uneducated, and place them under the
same system of laws, and make their civil condition in all respects like that
of the negro, and would it not be considered the most outrageous cruelty?
Suppose the slave-law were enacted with regard to all the
Irish in our country, and they were parcelled off as the property of any
man who had money enough to buy them. Suppose their right to vote, their right
to bring suit in any case, their right to bear testimony in courts of justice,
their right to contract a legal marriage, their right to hold property or
to make contracts of any sort, were all by one stroke of law blotted out.
Furthermore, suppose it was forbidden to teach them to read and write, and
that their children to all ages were "doomed to live without knowledge."
Suppose that, in judicial proceedings, it were solemnly declared, with regard
to them, that the mere beating of an Irishman, "apart
from any circumstances of cruelty, or any attempt to kill," was no offence
against the peace of the State. Suppose that it were declared that, for the
better preservation of subjection among them, the law would protect the master
in any kind of punishment inflicted, even if it should appear to be malicious,
cruel, and excessive; and suppose that monsters like Souther, in availing
themselves of this permission, should occasionally torture Irishmen to death,
but still this circumstance should not be deemed of sufficient importance
to call for any restriction on the part of the master. Suppose it should be
coolly said, "Oh, yes, Irishmen are occasionally tortured to death,
we know; but it is not by any means a general occurrence;
in fact, no men of position in society would do it; and when cases of the
kind do occur, they are indignantly frowned upon."
Suppose it should be stated that the reason that the law restraining the
power of the master cannot be made any more stringent is, that the general
system cannot be maintained without allowing this extent of power to the master.
Suppose that, having got all the Irishmen in the country down into this
condition, they should maintain that such was the public sentiment of humanity
with regard to them as abundantly to supply the want of all legal rights,
and to make their condition, on the whole, happier than if they were free.
Should we not say that a public sentiment which saw no cruelty in thus depriving
a whole race of every right dear to manhood could see no cruelty in anything,
and had proved itself wholly unfit to judge upon the subject? What man would
not rather see his children in the grave than see them slaves? What man, who,
should he wake to-morrow morning in the condition of an American slave, would
not wish himself in the grave? And yet all the defenders of slavery start
from the point that this legal condition is not of itself a
cruelty! They would hold it the last excess of cruelty with regard
to themselves, or any white man; why do they call it no cruelty
at all with regard to the negro?
The writer in defence of slavery in Fraser's Magazine
justifies this depriving of a whole class of any legal rights, by urging
that "the good there is in human nature will supply the deficiencies
of human legislation." This remark is one most significant, powerful
index of the state of public sentiment, produced even in a generous mind,
by the slave-system. This writer thinks the good there is in human nature
will supply the absence of all legal rights to thousands and millions of human
beings. He thinks it right to risk their bodies and their souls on the good
there is in human nature; yet this very man would not send a fifty-dollar
bill through the post-office, in an unsealed letter, trusting to "the
good there is in human nature."
Would this man dare to place his children in the position of slaves, and
trust them to "the good in human nature?"
Would he buy an estate from the most honourable man of his acquaintance,
and have no legal record of the deed, trusting to "the good in human
nature?" And if "the good in human nature" will not suffice
for him and his children, how will it suffice for his brother and his brother's
children? Is his happiness of any more importance in God's sight than his
brother's happiness, that his must be secured by legal bolts, and bonds, and
bars, and his brother's left to "the good there is in human nature?"
Never are we so impressed with the utter deadness of public sentiment to protect
the slave, as when we see such opinions as these uttered by men of a naturally
generous and noble character.
The most striking and the most painful examples of the perversion of public
sentiment, with regard to the negro race, are often given in the writings
of men of humanity, amiableness, and piety.
That devoted labourer for the slave, the Rev. Charles C. Jones, thus expresses
his sense of the importance of one African soul:--
Were it now revealed to us that the most extensive system of instruction
which we could devise, requiring a vast amount of labour and protracted through
ages, would result in the tender mercy of our God in the salvation of the
soul of one poor African, we should eel warranted in cheerfully entering upon
our work, with all its costs and sacrifices.
What a noble, what a sublime spirit, is here breathed! Does it not show
a mind capable of the very highest impulses?
And yet, if we look over his whole writings, we shall see painfully how
the moral sense of the finest mind may be perverted by constant familiarity
with such a system.
We find him constructing an appeal to masters to have their slaves
orally instructed in religion. In many passages he speaks
of oral instruction as confessedly an imperfect species of instruction, very
much inferior to that which results from personal reading and examination
of the world of God. He says in one place, that in order to do much good it
must be begun very early in life; and intimates that people in advanced years
can acquire very little from it; and yet he decidedly expresses his opinion
that slavery is an institution with which no Christian has cause to interfere.
The slaves, according to his own showing, are cut off from the best means
for the salvation of their souls, and restricted to one of a very inferior
nature. They are placed under restriction which makes their souls as dependent
upon others for spiritual food as a man without hands is dependent upon others
for bodily food. He recognises the fact, which his own experience must show
him, that the slave is at all times liable to pass into the hands of those
who will not take the trouble thus to feed his soul; nay, if we may judge
from his urgent appeals to masters, he perceives around him many who, having
spiritually cut off the slave's hands, refuse to feed him. He sees that, by
the operation of this law as a matter of fact, thousands are placed in situations
where the perdition of the soul is almost certain, and yet he declares that
he does not feel called upon at all to interfere with their civil condition!
But if the soul of every poor African is of that inestimable worth which
Mr. Jones believes, does it not follow that he ought to have the very best
means for getting to heaven which it is possible to give him? And is not he
who can read the Bible for himself in a better condition than he who is dependent
upon the reading of another? If it be said that such teaching cannot be afforded,
because it makes them unsafe property, ought not a clergyman like Mr. Jones
to meet this objection in his own expressive language?--
Were it now revealed to us that the most extensive system of instruction
which we could devise, requiring a vast amount of labour and protracted through
ages, would result in the tender mercy of our God in the salvation of the
soul of one poor African, we should feel warranted in cheerfully entering
upon our work, with all its costs and sacrifices.
Should not a clergyman like Mr. Jones tell masters that they should risk
the loss of all things seen and temporal, rather than incur the hazard of
bringing eternal ruin on these souls? All the arguments which Mr. Jones so
eloquently used with masters to persuade them to give their
slaves oral instruction, would apply with double force to show their obligation
to give the slave the power of reading the Bible for himself.
Again, we come to hear Mr. Jones telling masters of the power they have
over the souls of their servants, and we hear him say--
We may, according to the power lodged in our hands, forbid religious meetings
and religious instruction on our own plantations; we may forbid our servants
going to church at all, or only to such churches as we may select for them.
We may literally shut up the kingdom of heaven against men, and suffer not
them that are entering to go in.
And when we hear Mr. Jones say all this, and then consider that he must
see and know this awful power is often lodged in the hands of wholly irreligious
men, in the hands of men of the most profligate character, we can account
for his thinking such a system right only by attributing it to that blinding,
deadening influence which the public sentiment of slavery exerts even over
the best-constituted minds.
Neither Mr. Jones nor any other Christian minister would feel it right
that the eternal happiness of their own children should be thus placed in
the power of any man who should have money to pay for them. How, then, can
they think it right that this power be given in the case of their African
Does this not show that, even in the case of the most humane and Christian
people, who theoretically believe in the equality of all souls before God,
a constant familiarity with slavery works a practical infidelity on this point;
and that they give their assent to laws which practically declare that the
salvation of the servant's soul is of less consequence than the salvation
of the property relation?
Let us not be thought invidious or uncharitable in saying, that where slavery
exists there are so many causes necessarily uniting to corrupt public sentiment
with regard to the slave, that the best-constituted minds cannot trust themselves
in it. In the Northern and free States public sentiment has been, and is to
this day, fatally infected by the influence of a past and the proximity of
a present system of slavery. Hence the injustice with which the negro in many
of our States is treated. Hence, too, those apologies for slavery, and defences
of it, which issue from Northern presses, and even Northern pulpits. If even
at the North the remains of slavery can produce such baleful effects in corrupting
public sentiment, how much more must this be the case where this institution
is in full force!
The whole American nation is, in some sense, under a paralysis of public
sentiment on this subject. It was said by a heathen writer, that the gods
gave us a fearful power when they gave us the faculty of becoming accustomed
to things. This power has proved a fearful one indeed in America. We have
got used to things which might stir the dead in their graves.
When but a small portion of the things daily done in America has been told
in England, and France, and Italy, and Germany, there has been a perfect shriek
and outcry of horror. America alone remains cool, and asks, "What is
Europe answers back, "Why, we have heard that men are sold like cattle in your country."
"Of course they are," says America; "but what then?"
"We have heard," says Europe, "that millions of men are
forbidden to read and write in your country."
"We know that," says America; "but what is this outcry
"We have heard," says Europe, "that Christian girls are
sold to shame in your markets!"
"That isn't quite as it should be," says America; "but
still what is this excitement about?"
"We hear that three millions of your people can have no legal marriage-ties,"
"Certainly, that is true," returns America; "but you
made such an outcry, we thought you saw some great cruelty going on."
"And you profess to be a free country!" says indignant Europe.
"Certainly, we are the freest and most enlightened country in the
world! What are you talking about?" says America.
"You send your missionaries to Christianise us," says Turkey;
"and our religion has abolished this horrible system."
"You! you are all heathen over there--what business have you
to talk?" answers America.
Many people seem really to have thought that nothing but horrible exaggerations
of the system of slavery could have produced the sensation which has recently
been felt in all modern Europe. They do not know that the thing they have
become accustomed to, and handled so freely in every discussion, seems to
all other nations the sum and essence of villany. Modern Europe, opening her
eyes and looking on the legal theory of the slave system, on the laws and
interpretations of law which define it, says to America, in the language of
the indignant Othello, If thou wilt justify a thing like this--
Never pray more; abandon all remorse;
On Horror's head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make Heaven weep, all earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than this.
There is an awful state of familiarity with evil which the apostle calls
being "dead in trespasses and sins," where truth has been resisted,
and evil perseveringly defended, and the convictions of conscience stifled,
and the voice of God's Holy Spirit bidden to depart. There is an awful paralysis
of the moral sense, when deeds unholiest and crimes most fearful cease any
longer to affect the nerve. That paralysis, always a fearful indication of
the death and dissolution of nations, is a doubly-dangerous disease in a republic
whose only power is in intelligence, justice, and virtue.