Celebrating Uncle Tom – He Isn’t Nearly What You Think He Is

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/02/14/celebrating-uncle-tom-he-isnt-nearly-what-you-think-he-is/

In preparation for a talk on the life and import of Frederick Douglass, I was encouraged by my daughter, Katie, to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like many of us, I knew about the importance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great novel in the cause of abolition of slavery. And I could even quote President Abraham Lincoln’s perhaps apocryphal line when he greeted her in the White House, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war. Sit down, please.”

What I didn’t know was that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first serialized in The Nation Era in 1851-1852 and published in book form in 1852, sold more copies than any book other than the Bible in 19th century America. It was also an international sensation, which was translated into 37 languages. It has never gone out of print.

Deeply Christian, complex, and melodramatic, it had the capacity to galvanize, outrage, and inspire its readers. It made a huge contribution in putting to an end to America’s original sin – slavery.

In 1807, the United Kingdom passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act — a bill for which the great Christian social reformer, William Wilberforce, had fought for more than twenty years. A month later, the U.S. Congress also passed a law outlawing the importation of slaves from foreign lands, which went into effect in 1808. President Thomas Jefferson had called for this legislation in his 1806 State of the Union address.

What the U.S. Congress did not outlaw was the internal slave trade – within a state or between states. And this brutal practice of selling slaves in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland to slaveowners in the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana is one of the main themes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  When slaveowners in the northern slave-owning states died, went bankrupt, or just wanted to enrich themselves, they would often put whole families on the slave auction block, which often led to separating husbands from wives and mothers from children. Entire families disintegrated.

This is how Uncle Tom’s Cabin begins – with a great and evil paradox. Arthur Shelby, faced with the loss of his Kentucky farm due to his debts, decides to sell two of his slaves to a trader, who will bring them to a slave auction in the Deep South. One of the slaves is Uncle Tom, a godly and accomplished married man with children. The other is Harry, the little son of Eliza, who is Emily Shelby’s personal maid. Emily had promised Eliza that neither she nor her son would ever be sold. But Shelby, who treats his slaves well and has good intentions, nevertheless sells Tom and Harry despite his wife’s strong objections. And selling slaves to plantation owners in the Deep South was often a death sentence.

Eliza learns of the plan to sell her son to the slimy, mercenary slave trader, Haley, and flees with her son. Pursued by Haley and a fearsome slave hunter, Tom Loker, Eliza risks death rather than capture, crossing the partly frozen Ohio river with her son to seek her freedom. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that escaped slaves be returned to their owners and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate, meant that Eliza and Harry would not really be free until they reached Canada. This is perhaps the most action-packed and exciting part of the novel, as Tom Loker and his gang track Harry and Eliza as well as her husband with whom she is re-united while on the run.

The main reason their bolt for Canada is plausible is an Ohio community of Quakers who are an integral part of the Underground Railway. The Quakers give them shelter and food as well as instructions about how to evade the slave hunters. Despite their help and advice, however, Loker and his gang trap Eliza and her family. Eliza’s husband, who is now armed, shoots Loker in the side. As an evangelical Christian, Eliza, rather than leaving Loker to die, brings the slave hunter to a nearby Quaker settlement for medical care before undertaking the dangerous final leg of the trip with her husband and son in disguise on a steamer across Lake Erie to Amherstberg, Canada.

While Eliza flees, Uncle Tom accepts his fate, even though it means leaving his wife and children. He is sold and is placed on a Mississippi riverboat meant to take him to a slave auction in far-off New Orleans.

On the boat, Tom meets and befriends a lovely young white girl, Eva, who is traveling with her father, Augustine St. Claire. At one point, Eva falls overboard, and without hesitation Tom jumps into the Mississippi River to save her. Her father ends up buying Tom from the slave trader and takes him with them to their family home in New Orleans. Eva, who despite her young age has a deep Christian faith, develops a close friendship with Tom.

The author uses the middle portion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to debate the morality and reality of the institution of slavery in America. St. Clair believes that he is not prejudiced against blacks and endeavors to treat his slaves well. His daughter, Eva, however, is strongly opposed to slavery and thinks that her father should free his slaves. Nevertheless, St. Clair, although knowing in his heart that slavery is wrong, does not have the willpower to do what he knows is right and free his slaves. He does ultimately promise Eva, who becomes mortally sick, that he will free Tom and speak out against slavery. Eva is a saintly figure in the novel, and Stowe uses her to proclaim the Christian gospel. Her dying words are: “O, love – joy – peace.” 

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, America was a profoundly Christian nation. In previous decades, the Second Great Awakening with its enthusiastic revival meetings had a great impact on the culture, and millions came to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of a leading evangelical minister in Connecticut and married a professor of religion. Her husband, Calvin Stowe, was born in Natick, Massachusetts. After his first wife died, he married Harriet Beecher, and they lived in Cincinnati for almost twenty years.

They learned much about slavery, as Kentucky, a slave state, was directly across the Ohio River. Later Calvin Stowe taught at Bowdoin College in Maine, where his wife wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He later became a professor at Andover Theological Seminary, teaching there from 1852 to 1854. He and his wife were both strong abolitionists and believed that the Christian worldview was incompatible with slavery, despite the many attempts by Southern church leaders to prove that Christianity allowed for slavery.

Through the character of Augustine St. Clair, Harriet Beecher Stowe depicts the slaveowner in the best possible light, and finds him urbane and witty and sympathetic — and yet wanting.

The final third of the novel shows the enormity of the evil of slavery in America.

Before St. Clair can act on his promise to free Tom, he dies after he is stabbed during an incident outside a tavern near his home. St. Clair’s wife disregards her husband’s pledge to free Tom and instead puts him up for auction, along with the other slaves of the house. Tom is sold to a plantation owner, a transplanted New Englandler named Simon Legree, who owns a plantation in rural Louisiana amid the swamps.

The name Simon Legree has come down in our culture to mean an overbearing brutal employer — a wicked person. However, I did not understand how this term had come into the American vocabulary before I read the book – or its full import.

Legree is a monster – the personification of evil. He buys Tom, intending for him to become one of his overseers, who will relentlessly drive the slaves to ever-more work in return for some slight material rewards now and then. Instead, Legree soon begins to hate Tom because he refuses to whip his fellow slaves. Legree then beats Tom mercilessly and pledges that he will crush Tom’s faith in God — even though Tom is among his best workers.

Amid terrible suffering, Tom’s faith in God wavers. But two visions – one of the deceased Eva and one of Jesus Christ – stiffen his resolve to maintain his faith even until death. Tom encourages two female slaves, Cassy and Emmaline, a beautiful 15-year old girl whom Legree intends to make his sex slave, to escape rather than succumb to Legree’s commands. They flee and then hide, and when Tom refuses to tell Legree where they have gone, Legree orders his two black overseers to beat Tom to make him talk – even if they kill him.

Stowe lets us imagine Tom’s torture rather than drawing it out, but we get a sense of it. It is slow, and ugly.

As he is dying, Tom forgives the two overseers who have savagely beaten him. Both become Christians. Just before Tom dies, Arthur Shelby’s son arrives from Kentucky to buy Tom’s freedom, but it is too late.

While the title of the book is well known, the story is much less so in modern-day America, which leads to some important misunderstandings that ought to be corrected.

Since the civil rights movement in the United States began in the 1950s, “Uncle Tom” has become a term of derision, a derogatory epithet for a subservient African-American. It also has come to mean a person who betrays his people. It usually has ugly racial overtones.

Yet when it comes to the term’s origin, nothing could be further from the truth. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom doesn’t betray anybody. Instead, Uncle Tom is a Christ-like figure — strong, loving, wise, brave, good, and willing to sacrifice his life for others.

Just as Christ was reviled and crucified by his enemies yet while suffering on the cross forgave them, so does Tom. Everyone who comes into contact with Tom loves him. Only mean-spirited and evil people hate him – and they hate him mostly for his goodness. After reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the current politically correct usage of the term “Uncle Tom” just won’t wash with me. What Uncle Tom stands for in the book needs to be recaptured in American culture.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand the trajectory of race, abolitionism, and the Civil War in America. It is a book that moved millions towards radical abolitionism – a conviction that slavery must not merely be contained but must be ended. That conviction was perhaps the major factor that led to the war that ended slavery (and, it must be said, preserved the union) – a war that killed more Americans that all her other wars combined. 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is sometimes presented as anti-slavery propaganda. It isn’t. It is not a simplistic condemnation of the South. Stowe tries to understand Southerners and present them in a human (and even humane) light. She also goes out of her way to make it clear that slavery wasn’t just a Southern phenomenon. As she notes, the North had plenty of blame, as well — for indifference toward blacks and prejudice against them. Some Northerners profited off the human misery of slavery in the South.

Our political and social culture today are awash with the term “racism” – even in absurd contexts. All Americans would do well to read this book to see what racism really means.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $4.2 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.