HumanitiesWeb.org - The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter I: Does Public Opinion Protect the Slave?) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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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 punishments.

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 animals.

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 brother?

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 the matter?"

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 about?"

"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," says Europe.

"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.
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