Wednesday 9 January 2019

Uncle Tom's Cabin and it's Cultural History

It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world's sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.
These words, penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the preface to the first edition of her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, expressed a hope that became a prophecy. The best-selling novel of the 19th century and second best-selling book of the century after the Bible itself, Stowe's fictionalized exposé of slavery in the United States was an epoch-making tome that accomplished its lofty ambition. Apocryphal accounts have Abraham Lincoln crediting Uncle Tom's Cabin with sparking the American Civil War. Whether or not that was true, it has taken a strange cultural arc: a radically progressive anti-slavery tract in the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin eventually came to be seen itself as an outdated reinforcement of racist caricatures in the 20th. In the 21st century, it has furnished one of the only remaining acceptable forms of racism, which is for white progressives (in Chinese: 白左 or báizuǒ) to label any person of colour who disagrees with them an "Uncle Tom"... An acceptable form of racism because it is perpetrated by conspicuously self-described "anti-racists." 

What could account for such a major shift in its reputation? Undoubtedly, one reason is that, like Disney's Song of the South after it, Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of those things that are controversial in direct proportion to how many people have not seen it. James Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his positive, sympathetic, paternal portrayal of Uncle Remus in the 1946 film, becoming the first African-American man to receive an Oscar... And today, that award-winning performance is locked away in the "Disney vault", because of its reputation as a racist film among people who have never had the chance or taken the initiative to watch it. While the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is widely available, it is less frequently on any primary or secondary academic curricula and has not had a Hollywood adaptation since the end of the silent era.

That may itself be symptomatic of the truism that the progressives of one era become the conservatives of the next. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a Victorian novel, published in 1852, and employs a vocabulary of imagery and archetypes that today seem like crude caricatures. The sort of "mammy" character made famous by Aunt Jemima and Hattie McDaniel (who was the first African-American to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actress, for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind) was popularized in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Likewise, the character Topsy is a "pickaninny" stereotype. Yet while seeming racist today, they were representatives of real sorts of people during the time period and would have been readily identifiable from actual experience. There were African-American maids like Mammy and storytellers like Uncle Remus. Furthermore, the same fictionalized shorthands were employed for the white American cast. It is the monstrous Simon Legree who bequeathed the image of the moustache-twirling villain satirized by The Great Race's Dr. Fate, Dudley Do-Right's Snidely Whiplash, and professional wrestler "The Villain" Marty Scurll. 

Film and Vaudeville did few favours for Uncle Tom's Cabin here either. Copyright law was virtually nonexistent when the novel was first published, allowing drama troupes free reign to interpret and reinterpret the text as they saw fit. Because the novel was controversial among those who supported the institution of slavery, pro-slavery "Tom Shows" were performed throughout the South, which valourized the white slavers and demeaned the African-American cast. These pro-slavery Tom Shows and even straightforward anti-slavery ones alike utilized actors in blackface, quickly merging with minstrel shows. Early film followed these traditions. Edwin S. Porter's 1903 adaptation for Thomas Edison is essentially a cinematic transcription of the Vaudeville shows, blackface and all. Disney also preserved this in the 1933 short Mickey's Mellerdrammer, in which Mickey and Minnie (in blackface) put on a Tom Show. It is a "vaulted" cartoon rarely released by Disney, but valuable in capturing an impression - amidst the cavorting characters for whom everything is going comically wrong - of how Tom Shows were produced, performed, and received by their audiences.

Edwin S. Porter's 1903 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Digging beneath its popular reputation, what do we find when actually reading Uncle Tom's Cabin? We find a poignant, surprisingly nuanced, and powerful book affirming the dignity of the human person that is still relevant wherever and however that dignity is erased by those who would exploit others as mere instruments of gain.

Uncle Tom's Cabin as a Christian Novel

The story begins with Mr. Shelby of Kentucky in earnest discussion with Haley, a slave trader who possessed "that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world." It seems that Mr. Shelby's debts have fallen into the hands of this character of gaudy fashion and mean language, and his only way to settle the debts is to sell off his most cherished slave, Uncle Tom, and little Harry, the child of his wife's most prized slave, Eliza.

The Shelbys considered themselves kindly administrators of that evil institution. They took it upon themselves to treat their slaves relatively well compared to those further South, to teach them grammar and writing and Christian faith. Yet they, and the reader through them, come to realize that no matter how humanely slavery is administered, it is still slavery. Even the best of slave masters is still a slave master and must eventually make hard decisions that lower them to the worst of their kind. It is a good reminder not only in the specific issue of slavery, but in matters of politics in general, wherever someone is tempted to say that things would have been different, better, more pure, if they were in charge.
Mrs. Shelby stood like one stricken. Finally, turning to her toilet, she rested her face in her hands, and gave a sort of groan. 
"This is God’s curse on slavery!—a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!—a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours,—I always felt it was,—I always thought so when I was a girl,—I thought so still more after I joined the church; but I thought I could gild it over,—I thought, by kindness, and care, and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom—fool that I was!"
This ejaculation by Mrs. Shelby came fast on the heels of her Christian critique. As a novel with a purpose, Uncle Tom's Cabin pauses at regular intervals to reflect on the theology of slavery.
"O, Mr. Shelby, I have tried—tried most faithfully, as a Christian woman should—to do my duty to these poor, simple, dependent creatures. I have cared for them, instructed them, watched over them, and know all their little cares and joys, for years; and how can I ever hold up my head again among them, if, for the sake of a little paltry gain, we sell such a faithful, excellent, confiding creature as poor Tom, and tear from him in a moment all we have taught him to love and value? I have taught them the duties of the family, of parent and child, and husband and wife; and how can I bear to have this open acknowledgment that we care for no tie, no duty, no relation, however sacred, compared with money? I have talked with Eliza about her boy—her duty to him as a Christian mother, to watch over him, pray for him, and bring him up in a Christian way; and now what can I say, if you tear him away, and sell him, soul and body, to a profane, unprincipled man, just to save a little money? I have told her that one soul is worth more than all the money in the world; and how will she believe me when she sees us turn round and sell her child?—sell him, perhaps, to certain ruin of body and soul!"
Though eagerly omitted, the historical fact remains that the abolition of slavery has largely been a Christian project, mirrored in virtually no other society. In 873, Pope John VIII commanded under penalty of sin that all Christians who hold other Christians as slaves must set them free. In 1080, William the Conqueror prohibited the sale of anyone to heathens. In 1102, trade in slaves and serfdom was condemned by the church at the Council of London. In 1215, the Magna Carta was signed, which introduced Habeas Corpus, and formed the basis of judgment against slavery in English common law. In 1220, the Sachsenspiegel, the most influential German code of law from the Middle Ages, condemned slavery as a violation of man's likeness to God. In 1537, Pope Paul III forbid slavery of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as well as of any other new population that would be discovered, indicating their right to freedom and property (Sublimis Deus). By 1600, slavery was outlawed in most of the major European states. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1807, after 20 years of advocacy by Quaker and Anglican activists lead by William Wilberforce, an Evangelical Christian politician. Pope Gregory XVI’s statement In supremo apostolates in 1839 explicitly denounced slavery. The very first people to condemn slavery in the United States were Mennonites and Quakers, and the abolitionist movement in the US was lead mainly by Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, were typically Christians. Racially polemic debates regularly neglect or downplay that this movement in the United States culminated in the Civil War, when over 2,200,000 predominately white men marched against the Confederacy to eradicate slavery, singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which has as its final verse:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on. 
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
While God is marching on.

Freedom and Exploitation in These United States

Not all of Stowe's objections and insights are strictly theological. Early on we also meet George, husband of Eliza and father of Harry. Contrary to the law and custom of the time, the Shelbys felt it their Christian duty to ensure that the couple could have a proper wedding and honour their vows, though George was owned by another slave master. His slave master had, in turn, loaned him out to a factory where he had many many labour and cost-saving inventions that benefited the factory much. Rather than reward his intelligence and ingenuity, his slave master decided that George was getting too "uppity" and brought him back to the plantation. There he was made to endure the most taxing and degrading labour imaginable, until he could endure it no longer. In an evening visit to Eliza, he exclaimed:
"My master! and who made him my master? That’s what I think of—what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,—and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,—I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?—to take me from things I can do, and do better than he can, and put me to work that any horse can do? He tries to do it; he says he’ll bring me down and humble me, and he puts me to just the hardest, meanest and dirtiest work, on purpose!"
Not the least of slavery's evils is the way in which it spoils the potential of every person bound under it, wasting the good use of their intellect and labour. I would not consider myself any kind of defender of capitalism, but I can recognize that the ideal form of capitalism is the pure meritocracy, where reward is distributed on the basis of labour, resourcefulness, industriousness, and intelligence. Degraded forms of capitalism frustrate the principles of meritocracy by treating human beings as mere instruments of gain to be exploited. When one of the workers of the factory entreated George's slave master by pointing out his labour-saving inventions, he replies that slaves "are all labor-saving machines themselves, every one of 'em." 

As an admitted outsider, being Canadian, I think this is the focal point of a critical error in American (un)civil discourse. Even with its history of slavery, it is a grotesque mischaracterization to suggest that the United States is anything like a "white supremacist" society. The arc of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution is towards the equality of all persons, regardless of religion, background, or skin colour, even if it has taken time and tears to progress towards that "more perfect union." The history of slavery in the US is also a history of slavery's abolition, and it dishonours the country's best accomplishments to ignore that.

Furthermore, that discussion obfuscates the manner in which the United States is an exploitation-based society. It's not uncommon for foreigners visiting the USA to complain that everyone who touches a piece of luggage, a gas pedal, or a plate of food seems to have a hand out. Employers don't want to pay their employees, so employees are driven to exploit customers for tips. Companies like Wal-Mart are notorious for "passing the savings along" by paying employees so little that they must go on the government dole. Slavery was itself a symptom of everyone trying to make a buck off of everyone else. The poor black American and poor white American alike have the same foe - exploitation by the corporate and cultural elites - and are kept in their poverty by being kept at each other's throats with narratives of racism and privilege for which affluent, left-wing, so-called radicals are as much collaborators as their right-wing fellow reactionaries. Is it any surprise that those most involved in perpetuating that narrative - corporate media, academic elites, and those paternalistically class privileged enough to afford colleges with "safe spaces" - have the most to gain from it? Uncle Tom's Cabin has as much to say about wage-slavery today as it did about unhyphenated slavery in the past.

Uncle Tom's Cabin as an Encounter with Humanity

Nevertheless, after his meeting with Eliza, George flees for Canada. Eliza is not far behind, when she discovers that her Harry is going to be torn away from her. In the face of Haley's protestations that "These critters ain’t like white folks, you know; they gets over things, only manage right", Eliza very much normal human feelings for her child. Together they make for Canada themselves, crossing the icy Ohio River in one of the most iconic scenes in all literature.

An 1881 theatre poster depicting Eliza's flight across the frozen Ohio.

On the Ohio side, Eliza and Harry come into the household of Senator Bird. The senator, to his wife's chagrin, has spent many a day in the Ohio legislature advocating for the Fugitive Slave Law. Passed in 1850, this law was meant to find a compromise between free states and slave states by which the government was obliged to help slave owners recover fleeing slaves, even if they escaped to free states. To the senator, who otherwise esteems himself a good and caring man, this is strictly a matter of political necessity.

The Fugitive Slave Law was part of the larger "Compromise of 1850" that was designed to settle issues that would eventually lead to the American Civil War. It was deeply unpopular in Ohio, where it was commonly referred to as the "Kidnap Law". A veritable cottage industry sprung up of people disobeying it. Stowe provides us with a glimpse into the whys and wherefores, as Senator Bird finds himself politically powerless before the human reality of a fugitive slave.
What a situation, now, for a patriotic senator, that had been all the week before spurring up the legislature of his native state to pass more stringent resolutions against escaping fugitives, their harborers and abettors! 
Our good senator in his native state had not been exceeded by any of his brethren at Washington, in the sort of eloquence which has won for them immortal renown! How sublimely he had sat with his hands in his pockets, and scouted all sentimental weakness of those who would put the welfare of a few miserable fugitives before great state interests! 
He was as bold as a lion about it, and “mightily convinced” not only himself, but everybody that heard him;—but then his idea of a fugitive was only an idea of the letters that spell the word,—or at the most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bundle with “Ran away from the subscriber” under it. The magic of the real presence of distress,—the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony,—these he had never tried. He had never thought that a fugitive might be a hapless mother, a defenceless child,—like that one which was now wearing his lost boy’s little well-known cap; and so, as our poor senator was not stone or steel,—as he was a man, and a downright noble-hearted one, too,—he was, as everybody must see, in a sad case for his patriotism. And you need not exult over him, good brother of the Southern States; for we have some inklings that many of you, under similar circumstances, would not do much better. We have reason to know, in Kentucky, as in Mississippi, are noble and generous hearts, to whom never was tale of suffering told in vain. Ah, good brother! is it fair for you to expect of us services which your own brave, honorable heart would not allow you to render, were you in our place?
The encounter with the humanity of slaves is Stowe's main purpose, and weapon, in Uncle Tom's Cabin. More literary-minded critics will often complain that it is a melodramatic book, written in the style common to women magazine writers of the 19th century. That complaint in itself has a whiff of academic misogyny and modernist chauvinism, as it looks down its nose at forms of literature that happened to be popular among women, written by women, of a certain era. More than that, the "melodrama" is the point... Stowe is trying to push beyond mere sociological theories, beyond statistics and pieties, to depict African-Americans as human beings, sometimes with warts and all. There are many times that a slaver decrees that African-American slaves do not feel the bonds of kinship as keenly as do white people, only for Stowe to prove them wrong. These are individuals, these are people, these are our neighbours. She then implicitly invokes the teachings of Jesus: if these are our neighbours, how are we to love them as we love ourselves?

These portraits painted by Stowe occupy only the first hundred pages or so. Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published in the Abolitionist newspaper The National Era in 40 parts. Each part was a compelling narrative of its own, with definite purpose, adding to the greater narrative while at the same time driving home a particular point. Each episode has a theme or sheds some light on the conditions of some aspect of slavery in the United States. We have seen into the houses of the "good" slave masters, and the dens of the slave traders. We have also seen into Uncle Tom's cabin. Just beyond that first 100 pages, we see George on the run, and another chapter later, see him reunited with Eliza and Harry in the bosom of a Quaker household acting as a way-stop on the Underground Railroad.

Uncle Tom's New Owners

Bateaux A Vapeur Géants by Hippolyte Sebron (1853)

While they get to enjoy a reunion, Tom is being brought down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Going "down south" is the worst fate for a slave from upriver. Plantations of the South had a reputation for brutality that would easily claim the life of a more aged man like Uncle Tom. The river didn't even wait to claim its victims: on the steamboat down, Tom had the misfortune of watching a slave mother throw herself into the Mississippi after her young son was sold away from her... A less fortunate parallel to Eliza and Harry. But it is also on the boat that Tom meets little Evangeline, the ethereal and pious daughter of Augustine St. Clare.

Eva takes a compassionate interest in Tom, and in turn he is the first in the water to rescue her after she fell into the Mississippi. As she moved among the slaves in beatific vision, she and Tom got to know each other, and the day after saving her life she set her heart upon making him happy by compelling her father to purchase him. Augustine is a soft hand who cannot bring himself to wield the whip, much to the chagrin of his wife, Eva's vulgar mother, Marie.

Little Eva and Uncle Tom by English artist Edwin Longsden Long (1866).

Sardonic and satirical, Augustine has little faith in God and no faith in man. In his youth he had fallen madly in love with a fine woman. Despite the two making arrangements to marry, he found his letters coming back to him with a notice from the young lady's guardian that she was to marry someone else with whom she was more determinately in love. Augustine threw himself with abandon into New Orleans' social scene and married the most eligible woman of the lot, only to finally receive word after the fact that cruel trick had been played. It was the machinations of others, not her own lack of affection, that drove a wedge between her and Augustine. With his new marriage, there was nothing for it but to forget, which of course Augustine never did. That alone embittered him, nevermind the discovery that his wife Marie was a selfish, shrewish, superficial woman, self-absorbed and narcissistic, shallow in her reasoning and religion, jealous in her need for attention. Her great hobby was the feigning of perpetual illnesses that kept Augustine and the slaves of his household on constant high alert to her endless needs. The only light for Augustine was the birth of Eva. If there seems to be an echo of that in Rhett Butler, Scarlett O'Hara, and their daughter, that probably isn't unintentional.

Augustine's cynicism and Devil-may-care attitude towards life in the wake of this crushing past prohibits him for tolerating the pieties under which slavery is justified. He goes along with the flow but is nonetheless too indulgent and generous to his slaves than his wife would care for. "But it's no use to complain to St. Clare," she moans, "He talks the strangest stuff. He says we have made them what they are, and ought to bear with them. He says their faults are all owing to us, and that it would be cruel to make the fault and punish it too. He says we shouldn't do any better, in their place; just as if one could reason from them to us, you know." Marie is conventional in every possible sense except for beauty, whose conventional religious attitudes allow for a conventional approval of slavery.

Bayou Plaquemines by Joseph Rusling Meeker (1881)

Báizuǒ (/ˈbaɪˌtswɔː/; Chinese: 白左 báizuǒ, literally "white left")

As a bit of a lark, and to take the pressure to raise Eva off himself, Augustine imported his cousin Ophelia from Vermont, a holy rolling Methodist abolitionist though being decidedly racist towards African-Americans in her personal attitudes. At one moment, Ophelia decrees "You ought to educate your slaves, and treat them like reasonable creatures,—like immortal creatures, that you've got to stand before the bar of God with" but moments later calls it "so dreadful!" that Eva and Tom play together. To this Augustine observes "You would think no harm in a child's caressing a large dog, even if he was black; but a creature that can think, and reason, and feel, and is immortal, you shudder at; confess it, cousin. I know the feeling among some of you northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having it; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do,—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels north, how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don't want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously."

Over the dinner table one Sunday evening, they have a bit of a debate over religion and slavery, in which Augustine expresses his practicality:
"Well, ladies," said St. Clare, as they were comfortably seated at the dinner-table, "and what was the bill of fare at church today?" 
"O, Dr. G—— preached a splendid sermon," said Marie. "It was just such a sermon as you ought to hear; it expressed all my views exactly." 
"It must have been very improving," said St. Clare. "The subject must have been an extensive one." 
"Well, I mean all my views about society, and such things," said Marie. "The text was, 'He hath made everything beautiful in its season;' and he showed how all the orders and distinctions in society came from God; and that it was so appropriate, you know, and beautiful, that some should be high and some low, and that some were born to rule and some to serve, and all that, you know; and he applied it so well to all this ridiculous fuss that is made about slavery, and he proved distinctly that the Bible was on our side, and supported all our institutions so convincingly. I only wish you'd heard him." 
"O, I didn't need it," said St. Clare. "I can learn what does me as much good as that from the Picayune, any time, and smoke a cigar besides; which I can't do, you know, in a church." 
"Why," said Miss Ophelia, "don't you believe in these views?" 
"Who,—I? You know I'm such a graceless dog that these religious aspects of such subjects don't edify me much. If I was to say anything on this slavery matter, I would say out, fair and square, 'We're in for it; we've got 'em, and mean to keep 'em,—it's for our convenience and our interest;' for that's the long and short of it,—that's just the whole of what all this sanctified stuff amounts to, after all; and I think that it will be intelligible to everybody, everywhere." 
"I do think, Augustine, you are so irreverent!" said Marie. "I think it's shocking to hear you talk." 
"Shocking! it's the truth. This religious talk on such matters,—why don't they carry it a little further, and show the beauty, in its season, of a fellow's taking a glass too much, and sitting a little too late over his cards, and various providential arrangements of that sort, which are pretty frequent among us young men;—we'd like to hear that those are right and godly, too." 
"Well," said Miss Ophelia, "do you think slavery right or wrong?" 
"I'm not going to have any of your horrid New England directness, cousin," said St. Clare, gayly. "If I answer that question, I know you'll be at me with half a dozen others, each one harder than the last; and I'm not a going to define my position. I am one of the sort that lives by throwing stones at other people's glass houses, but I never mean to put up one for them to stone." 
"That's just the way he's always talking," said Marie; "you can't get any satisfaction out of him. I believe it's just because he don't like religion, that he's always running out in this way he's been doing." 
"Religion!" said St. Clare, in a tone that made both ladies look at him. "Religion! Is what you hear at church, religion? Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, religion? Is that religion which is less scrupulous, less generous, less just, less considerate for man, than even my own ungodly, worldly, blinded nature? No! When I look for a religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath." 
"Then you don't believe that the Bible justifies slavery," said Miss Ophelia. 
"The Bible was my mother's book," said St. Clare. "By it she lived and died, and I would be very sorry to think it did. I'd as soon desire to have it proved that my mother could drink brandy, chew tobacco, and swear, by way of satisfying me that I did right in doing the same. It wouldn't make me at all more satisfied with these things in myself, and it would take from me the comfort of respecting her; and it really is a comfort, in this world, to have anything one can respect. In short, you see," said he, suddenly resuming his gay tone, "all I want is that different things be kept in different boxes. The whole frame-work of society, both in Europe and America, is made up of various things which will not stand the scrutiny of any very ideal standard of morality. It's pretty generally understood that men don't aspire after the absolute right, but only to do about as well as the rest of the world. Now, when any one speaks up, like a man, and says slavery is necessary to us, we can't get along without it, we should be beggared if we give it up, and, of course, we mean to hold on to it,—this is strong, clear, well-defined language; it has the respectability of truth to it; and, if we may judge by their practice, the majority of the world will bear us out in it. But when he begins to put on a long face, and snuffle, and quote Scripture, I incline to think he isn't much better than he should be." 
"You are very uncharitable," said Marie. 
"Well," said St. Clare, "suppose that something should bring down the price of cotton once and forever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market, don't you think we should soon have another version of the Scripture doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way!" 
"Well, at any rate," said Marie, as she reclined herself on a lounge, "I'm thankful I'm born where slavery exists; and I believe it's right,—indeed, I feel it must be; and, at any rate, I'm sure I couldn't get along without it." 
"I say, what do you think, Pussy?" said her father to Eva, who came in at this moment, with a flower in her hand. 
"What about, papa?" 
"Why, which do you like the best,—to live as they do at your uncle's, up in Vermont, or to have a house-full of servants, as we do?" 
"O, of course, our way is the pleasantest," said Eva. 
"Why so?" said St. Clare, stroking her head. 
"Why, it makes so many more round you to love, you know," said Eva, looking up earnestly. 
"Now, that's just like Eva," said Marie; "just one of her odd speeches." 
"Is it an odd speech, papa?" said Eva, whisperingly, as she got upon his knee. 
"Rather, as this world goes, Pussy," said St. Clare.    

To further goad Ophelia, Augustine buys Topsy, the picaninny stereotype who Stowe introduces to show the morally corrupting effects of slavery on the enslaved, as well as comment on the hypocrisy of Northerners who deplore slavery in practice but harbour contempt for slaves as members of a different race. It's another of the novel's commentaries that are sadly relevant today. For example, the most racially segregated school district in the United States is not in the Deep South... It's in New York. The Chinese term 白左 or báizuǒ referenced previously is a slur singling out white progressives who harbour thinly-veiled racist, sexist, homophobic, and American cultural imperialist attitudes towards non-white people (like using "Uncle Tom" as a slur), women, LGBTQ persons, and non-Americans who disagree with them. Then there is the complex and uncomfortable debate over whether issues of criminality in African-American communities are a consequence of overpolicing by a white supremacist political system and prison-industrial complex or whether it is the result of a culture of crime and poverty in African-American communities, and the extent to which the latter is itself a consequence of slavery and segregation's intergenerational effects.

Unfortunately it doesn't work out so well for Ophelia, which initially reduces her to taking up the whip that her abolitionist upbringing and Augustine would never bear to.
Topsy was smart and energetic in all manual operations, learning everything that was taught her with surprising quickness. With a few lessons, she had learned to do the proprieties of Miss Ophelia's chamber in a way with which even that particular lady could find no fault. Mortal hands could not lay spread smoother, adjust pillows more accurately, sweep and dust and arrange more perfectly, than Topsy, when she chose,—but she didn't very often choose. If Miss Ophelia, after three or four days of careful patient supervision, was so sanguine as to suppose that Topsy had at last fallen into her way, could do without over-looking, and so go off and busy herself about something else, Topsy would hold a perfect carnival of confusion, for some one or two hours. Instead of making the bed, she would amuse herself with pulling off the pillowcases, butting her woolly head among the pillows, till it would sometimes be grotesquely ornamented with feathers sticking out in various directions; she would climb the posts, and hang head downward from the tops; flourish the sheets and spreads all over the apartment; dress the bolster up in Miss Ophelia's night-clothes, and enact various performances with that,—singing and whistling, and making grimaces at herself in the looking-glass; in short, as Miss Ophelia phrased it, "raising Cain" generally. 
On one occasion, Miss Ophelia found Topsy with her very best scarlet India Canton crape shawl wound round her head for a turban, going on with her rehearsals before the glass in great style,—Miss Ophelia having, with carelessness most unheard-of in her, left the key for once in her drawer. 
"Topsy!" she would say, when at the end of all patience, "what does make you act so?" 
"Dunno, Missis,—I spects cause I 's so wicked!" 
"I don't know anything what I shall do with you, Topsy." 
"Law, Missis, you must whip me; my old Missis allers whipped me. I an't used to workin' unless I gets whipped." 
"Why, Topsy, I don't want to whip you. You can do well, if you've a mind to; what is the reason you won't?" 
"Laws, Missis, I 's used to whippin'; I spects it's good for me." 
Miss Ophelia tried the recipe, and Topsy invariably made a terrible commotion, screaming, groaning and imploring, though half an hour afterwards, when roosted on some projection of the balcony, and surrounded by a flock of admiring "young uns," she would express the utmost contempt of the whole affair. 
"Law, Miss Feely whip!—wouldn't kill a skeeter, her whippins. Oughter see how old Mas'r made the flesh fly; old Mas'r know'd how!" 
Topsy always made great capital of her own sins and enormities, evidently considering them as something peculiarly distinguishing. 
"Law, you n****rs," she would say to some of her auditors, "does you know you 's all sinners? Well, you is—everybody is. White folks is sinners too,—Miss Feely says so; but I spects n****rs is the biggest ones; but lor! ye an't any on ye up to me. I 's so awful wicked there can't nobody do nothin' with me. I used to keep old Missis a swarin' at me half de time. I spects I 's the wickedest critter in the world;" and Topsy would cut a summerset, and come up brisk and shining on to a higher perch, and evidently plume herself on the distinction.
Stowe makes the point that when a person is raised only to know the hand of violence, you cannot reasonably expect anything but chaos. Moral sensibilities aren't organically produced from within the person's conscience. Rather, there is simply what will get them whipped or not get them whipped, what they can get away with and what they cannot get away with. Nietzsche came after Uncle Tom's Cabin, but Stowe almost perfectly prefigures his ideas of "master morality". He prophesied that when God dies, morality dies with him, after which all that remains is what you can do and what you cannot do. Those who can become masters. Those cannot become slaves. Ironically, it is the slave in Uncle Tom's Cabin that has the "will to power". Topsy thinks only in terms of what she can do and what she cannot do, because to her God has been killed by the slave master.

Eva, Topsy, and Death as Evangelism

The only person who can seem to make any real headway with Topsy is wispy, ethereal Eva, who wafts through the St. Clare household like a Heavenly vision. No force proves as effective in cultivating faith, morality, and human sentiment in the slaves as Eva's Christ-like kindness. "Eva always was disposed to be with servants" describes her mother, "and I think that well enough with some children. Now, I always played with father's little negroes—it never did me any harm. But Eva somehow always seems to put herself on an equality with every creature that comes near her. It's a strange thing about the child. I never have been able to break her of it. St. Clare, I believe, encourages her in it." (adding in conclusion "The fact is, St. Clare indulges every creature under this roof but his own wife.")

After a particularly egregious offense, Eva speaks with Topsy:
"O, Topsy, poor child, I love you!" said Eva, with a sudden burst of feeling, and laying her little thin, white hand on Topsy's shoulder; "I love you, because you haven't had any father, or mother, or friends;—because you've been a poor, abused child! I love you, and I want you to be good. I am very unwell, Topsy, and I think I shan't live a great while; and it really grieves me, to have you be so naughty. I wish you would try to be good, for my sake;—it's only a little while I shall be with you." 
The round, keen eyes of the black child were overcast with tears;—large, bright drops rolled heavily down, one by one, and fell on the little white hand. Yes, in that moment, a ray of real belief, a ray of heavenly love, had penetrated the darkness of her heathen soul! She laid her head down between her knees, and wept and sobbed,—while the beautiful child, bending over her, looked like the picture of some bright angel stooping to reclaim a sinner. 
"Poor Topsy!" said Eva, "don't you know that Jesus loves all alike? He is just as willing to love you, as me. He loves you just as I do,—only more, because he is better. He will help you to be good; and you can go to Heaven at last, and be an angel forever, just as much as if you were white. Only think of it, Topsy!—you can be one of those spirits bright, Uncle Tom sings about."
The conversation and the expression of love and compassion is not only transformation for Topsy, but also for Ophelia, who was listening in with Augustine.
St. Clare, at this instant, dropped the curtain. "It puts me in mind of mother," he said to Miss Ophelia. "It is true what she told me; if we want to give sight to the blind, we must be willing to do as Christ did,—call them to us, and put our hands on them." 
"I've always had a prejudice against negroes," said Miss Ophelia, "and it's a fact, I never could bear to have that child touch me; but, I don't think she knew it." 
"Trust any child to find that out," said St. Clare; "there's no keeping it from them. But I believe that all the trying in the world to benefit a child, and all the substantial favors you can do them, will never excite one emotion of gratitude, while that feeling of repugnance remains in the heart;—it's a queer kind of a fact,—but so it is." 
"I don't know how I can help it," said Miss Ophelia; "they are disagreeable to me,—this child in particular,—how can I help feeling so?" 
"Eva does, it seems." 
"Well, she's so loving! After all, though, she's no more than Christ-like," said Miss Ophelia; "I wish I were like her. She might teach me a lesson." 
"It wouldn't be the first time a little child had been used to instruct an old disciple, if it were so," said St. Clare.

Sadly, Eva's fall into the Mississippi catches up with her. Eva's health deteriorates, leading to a death worthy of the saints. The passing of such a young and holy life brings transformations to nearly everyone around her (her mother excepting, of course). Of Ophelia and Topsy, the former "was more softened, more gentle; and, though equally assiduous in every duty, it was with a chastened and quiet air, as one who communed with her own heart not in vain. She was more diligent in teaching Topsy,—taught her mainly from the Bible,—did not any longer shrink from her touch, or manifest an ill-repressed disgust, because she felt none... Topsy did not become at once a saint; but the life and death of Eva did work a marked change in her. The callous indifference was gone; there was now sensibility, hope, desire, and the striving for good,—a strife irregular, interrupted, suspended oft, but yet renewed again." Ophelia even asks for the ownership of Topsy to be transferred to her, with the idea that it's the only way she can ensure Topsy's safety and the continuation of her education should anything happen to Augustine. In due time, back home in New England, she would free her young charge.

Uncle Tom and Little Eva by Robert Seldon Duncan, a free
African-American artist born to former slaves from Virginia (1853).

Augustine and Tom Debate Slavery

Augustine agrees to this, the death of Eva having moved him to an increased seriousness about his behaviour, his religion, and his relationship with his slaves and the institution of slavery. He even puts in motion the wheels for Tom's eventual liberty, leading to a discussion on how the greatest gift a slave owner can give to his slave is freedom.
"Well, Tom," said St. Clare, the day after he had commenced the legal formalities for his enfranchisement, "I'm going to make a free man of you;—so have your trunk packed, and get ready to set out for Kentuck." 
The sudden light of joy that shone in Tom's face as he raised his hands to heaven, his emphatic "Bless the Lord!" rather discomposed St. Clare; he did not like it that Tom should be so ready to leave him. 
"You haven't had such very bad times here, that you need be in such a rapture, Tom," he said drily. 
"No, no, Mas'r! 'tan't that,—it's bein' a freeman! that's what I'm joyin' for." 
"Why, Tom, don't you think, for your own part, you've been better off than to be free?" 
"No, indeed, Mas'r St. Clare," said Tom, with a flash of energy. "No, indeed!" 
"Why, Tom, you couldn't possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you." 
"Knows all that, Mas'r St. Clare; Mas'r's been too good; but, Mas'r, I'd rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have 'em mine, than have the best, and have 'em any man's else,—I had so, Mas'r; I think it's natur, Mas'r."   
No matter what a slave is given, no matter how good their treatment, the essential fact is that the most essential good and gift is still withheld and therein lies the crime. Augustine's thoughts on religion lead him to the most dreadful place which any critic of Christianity assiduously avoids at all costs, which is to turn that same criticism upon themselves.
"My view of Christianity is such," he added, "that I think no man can consistently profess it without throwing the whole weight of his being against this monstrous system of injustice that lies at the foundation of all our society; and, if need be, sacrificing himself in the battle. That is, I mean that I could not be a Christian otherwise, though I have certainly had intercourse with a great many enlightened and Christian people who did no such thing; and I confess that the apathy of religious people on this subject, their want of perception of wrongs that filled me with horror, have engendered in me more scepticism than any other thing." 
"If you knew all this," said Miss Ophelia, "why didn't you do it?" 
"O, because I have had only that kind of benevolence which consists in lying on a sofa, and cursing the church and clergy for not being martyrs and confessors. One can see, you know, very easily, how others ought to be martyrs."
When asked what he will do now, he declares  "My duty, I hope, to the poor and lowly, as fast as I find it out... beginning with my own servants, for whom I have yet done nothing; and, perhaps, at some future day, it may appear that I can do something for a whole class; something to save my country from the disgrace of that false position in which she now stands before all civilized nations." Unfortunately, he never gets to live up to these words... Seeking the evening air to clear his head and contemplate his new course in life, Augustine found himself breaking up a drunken brawl that resulted in him being stabbed in the abdomen. Rejecting the priestly confessor and the last rights of the institutional church, it was Uncle Tom's simple prayers that he requested on his deathbed, both for their genuine piety and his own repentance.

From this point on, Uncle Tom's Cabin speeds to the tragic conclusion of its last 100 pages. Augustine died leaving the business of Tom's freedom unfinished. When Ophelia went to Marie to see to it that Augustine's last wishes were met, Marie feigned inconsolable grief that Ophelia should remind her of such terrible tragedy that has befallen her as has no other person, thus ending any and all discussion on the matter. The slaves of the household were liquidated to the warehouse in New Orleans, whereupon Tom and a handful of others were bought by the vile Simon Legree.

Slaves Waiting for Sale - Richmond, Virginia by Eyre Crowe (1861)

The Evil Institution Laid Bare

Arrival on the Legree plantation was a sight worthy of a Dante. Stowe depicts it with all the forlorn decay of a circle of Hell. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Legree had been drinking to that degree that he was inclining to be very gracious; and it was about this time that the enclosures of the plantation rose to view. The estate had formerly belonged to a gentleman of opulence and taste, who had bestowed some considerable attention to the adornment of his grounds. Having died insolvent, it had been purchased, at a bargain, by Legree, who used it, as he did everything else, merely as an implement for money-making. The place had that ragged, forlorn appearance, which is always produced by the evidence that the care of the former owner has been left to go to utter decay. 
What was once a smooth-shaven lawn before the house, dotted here and there with ornamental shrubs, was now covered with frowsy tangled grass, with horseposts set up, here and there, in it, where the turf was stamped away, and the ground littered with broken pails, cobs of corn, and other slovenly remains. Here and there, a mildewed jessamine or honeysuckle hung raggedly from some ornamental support, which had been pushed to one side by being used as a horse-post. What once was a large garden was now all grown over with weeds, through which, here and there, some solitary exotic reared its forsaken head. What had been a conservatory had now no window-shades, and on the mouldering shelves stood some dry, forsaken flower-pots, with sticks in them, whose dried leaves showed they had once been plants. 
The wagon rolled up a weedy gravel walk, under a noble avenue of China trees, whose graceful forms and ever-springing foliage seemed to be the only things there that neglect could not daunt or alter,—like noble spirits, so deeply rooted in goodness, as to flourish and grow stronger amid discouragement and decay. 
The house had been large and handsome. It was built in a manner common at the South; a wide verandah of two stories running round every part of the house, into which every outer door opened, the lower tier being supported by brick pillars. 
But the place looked desolate and uncomfortable; some windows stopped up with boards, some with shattered panes, and shutters hanging by a single hinge,—all telling of coarse neglect and discomfort. 
The plantation is a reflection of Legree's character and the character he instills into his slaves. Speaking of Legree's two overseers, Stowe describes how "Legree had trained them in savageness and brutality as systematically as he had his bull-dogs; and, by long practice in hardness and cruelty, brought their whole nature to about the same range of capacities. It is a common remark, and one that is thought to militate strongly against the character of the race, that the negro overseer is always more tyrannical and cruel than the white one. This is simply saying that the negro mind has been more crushed and debased than the white. It is no more true of this race than of every oppressed race, the world over. The slave is always a tyrant, if he can get a chance to be one."

This same moral affliction is trained into the masses of his slaves. "It was late in the evening when the weary occupants of the shanties came flocking home,—men and women, in soiled and tattered garments, surly and uncomfortable, and in no mood to look pleasantly on new-comers. The small village was alive with no inviting sounds; hoarse, guttural voices contending at the hand-mills where their morsel of hard corn was yet to be ground into meal, to fit it for the cake that was to constitute their only supper... Tom looked in vain among the gang, as they poured along, for companionable faces. He saw only sullen, scowling, imbruted men, and feeble, discouraged women, or women that were not women,—the strong pushing away the weak,—the gross, unrestricted animal selfishness of human beings, of whom nothing good was expected and desired; and who, treated in every way like brutes, had sunk as nearly to their level as it was possible for human beings to do. To a late hour in the night the sound of the grinding was protracted; for the mills were few in number compared with the grinders, and the weary and feeble ones were driven back by the strong, and came on last in their turn."

Belle Grove in Ruin by Felix Kelly.

More than simply Legree's character, Legree and the plantation are slavery laid bare. Previously, in the book, we've seen the softer faces of slavery, the kindly plantation in Kentucky and the affluent household in New Orleans. Now we see the desolate, forsaken reality that underlain those prettier facades. Just as the plantation manor was once a fine house now dilapidated under the carelessness of Simon Legree, so too have all the fine pretenses of slavery been left to rot. Those readers, if they could be called that, who see in Uncle Tom's Cabin a defense of slavery would seem to distinguish the "good" slave masters from the "bad" ones like Legree. That is clearly not the author's intent, for the book has been moving inexorably in this direction. In the end, Stowe exposes us to the coldest, hardest, most vicious, most real face of the evil institution.

Uncle Tom the Evangelist

Legree had a mind to turn Tom into an overseer, but the first task on that road was to break him of his religion. Easier said than done. When caught out helping others with their cotton picking, Tom was sentenced to punish them with the lash. Refusing to do so, he was himself lashed with glee by the existing overseers. The daily lashings and tauntings had their effect on Tom, sending him on a his own long, dark night of the soul: "When a heavy weight presses the soul to the lowest level at which endurance is possible, there is an instant and desperate effort of every physical and moral nerve to throw off the weight; and hence the heaviest anguish often precedes a return tide of joy and courage. So was it now with Tom. The atheistic taunts of his cruel master sunk his before dejected soul to the lowest ebb; and, though the hand of faith still held to the eternal rock, it was a numb, despairing grasp. Tom sat, like one stunned, at the fire. Suddenly everything around him seemed to fade, and a vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted and bleeding. Tom gazed, in awe and wonder, at the majestic patience of the face; the deep, pathetic eyes thrilled him to his inmost heart; his soul woke, as, with floods of emotion, he stretched out his hands and fell upon his knees,—when, gradually, the vision changed: the sharp thorns became rays of glory; and, in splendor inconceivable, he saw that same face bending compassionately towards him, and a voice said, “He that overcometh shall sit down with me on my throne, even as I also overcome, and am set down with my Father on his throne.”"

The only one to offer him succor is Cassy, a "quadroon" (one quarter African-American) who was raised as a daughter in the household of her father but who discovered that she was nonetheless property. After being passed around a bit, she ended up in the household of a generally good man with whom she had two children. Thanks to mounted debts, all three were sold and separated. Unable to bear the loss of another child, she killed her third. Eventually she came to the Legree plantation as, not to mince words, a sex slave. The irresistible force of Cassy's atheism stumbles against the immovable object of Tom's faith, and it begins to wear away at her little by little. Filled with unquenchable hatred, Cassy approaches Tom with a proposition that few, in her circumstance (and most of us today not in it) would believe to be at all unjustified:
“Come!” said she, in a whisper, fixing her black eyes on him. “Come along! He’s asleep—sound. I put enough into his brandy to keep him so. I wish I’d had more,—I shouldn’t have wanted you. But come, the back door is unlocked; there’s an axe there, I put it there,—his room door is open; I’ll show you the way. I’d a done it myself, only my arms are so weak. Come along!” 
“Not for ten thousand worlds, Misse!” said Tom, firmly, stopping and holding her back, as she was pressing forward. 
“But think of all these poor creatures,” said Cassy. “We might set them all free, and go somewhere in the swamps, and find an island, and live by ourselves; I’ve heard of its being done. Any life is better than this.” 
“No!” said Tom, firmly. “No! good never comes of wickedness. I’d sooner chop my right hand off!” 
“Then I shall do it,” said Cassy, turning. 
“O, Misse Cassy!” said Tom, throwing himself before her, “for the dear Lord’s sake that died for ye, don’t sell your precious soul to the devil, that way! Nothing but evil will come of it. The Lord hasn’t called us to wrath. We must suffer, and wait his time.” 
“Wait!” said Cassy. “Haven’t I waited?—waited till my head is dizzy and my heart sick? What has he made me suffer? What has he made hundreds of poor creatures suffer? Isn’t he wringing the life-blood out of you? I’m called on; they call me! His time’s come, and I’ll have his heart’s blood!” 
“No, no, no!” said Tom, holding her small hands, which were clenched with spasmodic violence. “No, ye poor, lost soul, that ye mustn’t do. The dear, blessed Lord never shed no blood but his own, and that he poured out for us when we was enemies. Lord, help us to follow his steps, and love our enemies.” 
“Love!” said Cassy, with a fierce glare; “love such enemies! It isn’t in flesh and blood.” 
“No, Misse, it isn’t,” said Tom, looking up; “but He gives it to us, and that’s the victory. When we can love and pray over all and through all, the battle’s past, and the victory’s come,—glory be to God!” And, with streaming eyes and choking voice, the black man looked up to heaven. 
And this, oh Africa! latest called of nations,—called to the crown of thorns, the scourge, the bloody sweat, the cross of agony,—this is to be thy victory; by this shalt thou reign with Christ when his kingdom shall come on earth. 
The deep fervor of Tom’s feelings, the softness of his voice, his tears, fell like dew on the wild, unsettled spirit of the poor woman. A softness gathered over the lurid fires of her eye; she looked down, and Tom could feel the relaxing muscles of her hands, as she said,
“Didn’t I tell you that evil spirits followed me? O! Father Tom, I can’t pray,—I wish I could. I never have prayed since my children were sold! What you say must be right, I know it must; but when I try to pray, I can only hate and curse. I can’t pray!” 
“Poor soul!” said Tom, compassionately. “Satan desires to have ye, and sift ye as wheat. I pray the Lord for ye. O! Misse Cassy, turn to the dear Lord Jesus. He came to bind up the broken-hearted, and comfort all that mourn.” 
Cassy stood silent, while large, heavy tears dropped from her downcast eyes. 
“Misse Cassy,” said Tom, in a hesitating tone, after surveying her in silence, “if ye only could get away from here,—if the thing was possible,—I’d ’vise ye and Emmeline to do it; that is, if ye could go without blood-guiltiness,—not otherwise.” 
“Would you try it with us, Father Tom?” 
“No,” said Tom; “time was when I would; but the Lord’s given me a work among these yer poor souls, and I’ll stay with ’em and bear my cross with ’em till the end. It’s different with you; it’s a snare to you,—it’s more’n you can stand,—and you’d better go, if you can.” 
“I know no way but through the grave,” said Cassy. “There’s no beast or bird but can find a home some where; even the snakes and the alligators have their places to lie down and be quiet; but there’s no place for us. Down in the darkest swamps, their dogs will hunt us out, and find us. Everybody and everything is against us; even the very beasts side against us,—and where shall we go?” 
Tom stood silent; at length he said, 
“Him that saved Daniel in the den of lions,—that saved the children in the fiery furnace,—Him that walked on the sea, and bade the winds be still,—He’s alive yet; and I’ve faith to believe he can deliver you. Try it, and I’ll pray, with all my might, for you.” 
By what strange law of mind is it that an idea long overlooked, and trodden under foot as a useless stone, suddenly sparkles out in new light, as a discovered diamond? 
Cassy had often revolved, for hours, all possible or probable schemes of escape, and dismissed them all, as hopeless and impracticable; but at this moment there flashed through her mind a plan, so simple and feasible in all its details, as to awaken an instant hope. 
“Father Tom, I’ll try it!” she said, suddenly. 
“Amen!” said Tom; “the Lord help ye!” 
One of the most oft-neglected points of Christianity, even too-often by Christians, is the call to love one's enemies even to one's own death, even when killing one's enemies might seem the most morally expedient course of action. In Matthew 5:38-46, Jesus commands: "You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and do good for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" In Romans 12:17-21, Paul taught: "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,' says the Lord. 'BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." The earliest Christians interpreted these teachings and those like them (Matthew 5:3-12, Matt. 16:24-26, Matt. 26:50-52, Romans 14:17-19, Ephesians 6:12, James 3:17-4:4, I Peter 2:21-24, I Peter 3:8-17) as a very straightforward command to nonviolence. For example, Origen in his response to the Roman critic Celsus, wrote "And to those who inquire of us whence we come, or who is our founder, we reply that we are come, agreeably to the counsels of Jesus, to cut down our hostile and insolent worldly swords into plows, and to convert into pruning-hooks the spears formerly employed in war. For we no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of those who our fathers followed, among whom we were strangers to the covenant." (Against Celsus 5 33) That exact imagery of Christians beating their swords into plows was also used by Church Fathers Irenaeus, Clement, and Justin Martyr.

Over time, Christians began making more and more exceptions to the rule of nonviolence. Self-defense became an exception, as did mass violence (despite the observation by Cyprian in To Donatus 6 that "The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale."). Initiating interpersonal violence was frowned upon of course, as it is in most societies and moral systems. The more radical posture against causing any harm to others, even if it means harm coming to you, has been largely dropped. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe takes the command against interpersonal violence very seriously, by preventing Tom from becoming embroiled in what would otherwise be an entirely justifiable assassination. Cassy's rationale is not wrong, but neither is it good. For Tom, killing Legree would have been a violation of God's commands and Legree's own likeness of God. Forgetting that shared Divine likeness is what permitted the institution of slavery itself, and to give in would be Tom's concession to become the morally deformed subhuman that Legree wanted to fashion him into to begin with. For Tom, in that den of viciousness and inhumanity, the only victory is to love with Divine magnanimity as both the means and the end. 

Cassy opts instead to flee with the aforementioned Emmeline, a young slave girl bought alongside Tom to serve as Legree's new sex slave. Her plot is decidedly creative, but puts Tom in a difficult situation. He knows the plot, and the hateful Legree knows that Tom knows. Legree's native contempt for slaves was stoked by the peculiar hatred of the blasphemous for the devout, and the disappearance of his sex slaves has caused it to explode.
“Well, Tom!” said Legree, walking up, and seizing him grimly by the collar of his coat, and speaking through his teeth, in a paroxysm of determined rage, “do you know I’ve made up my mind to KILL YOU?” 
“It’s very likely, Mas’r,” said Tom, calmly. 
“I have,” said Legree, with a grim, terrible calmness, “done—just—that—thing, Tom, unless you’ll tell me what you know about these yer gals!” 
Tom stood silent. 
“D’ye hear?” said Legree, stamping, with a roar like that of an incensed lion. “Speak!” 
I han’t got nothing to tell, Mas’r,” said Tom, with a slow, firm, deliberate utterance. 
“Do you dare to tell me, ye old black Christian, ye don’t know?” said Legree. 
Tom was silent. 
“Speak!” thundered Legree, striking him furiously. “Do you know anything?” 
“I know, Mas’r; but I can’t tell anything. I can die!” 
Legree drew in a long breath; and, suppressing his rage, took Tom by the arm, and, approaching his face almost to his, said, in a terrible voice, “Hark ’e, Tom!—ye think, ’cause I’ve let you off before, I don’t mean what I say; but, this time, I’ve made up my mind, and counted the cost. You’ve always stood it out again’ me: now, I’ll conquer ye, or kill ye!—one or t’ other. I’ll count every drop of blood there is in you, and take ’em, one by one, till ye give up!” 
Tom looked up to his master, and answered, “Mas’r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I’d give ye my heart’s blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ’em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ’t will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end!” 
Like a strange snatch of heavenly music, heard in the lull of a tempest, this burst of feeling made a moment’s blank pause. Legree stood aghast, and looked at Tom; and there was such a silence, that the tick of the old clock could be heard, measuring, with silent touch, the last moments of mercy and probation to that hardened heart. 
It was but a moment. There was one hesitating pause,—one irresolute, relenting thrill,—and the spirit of evil came back, with seven-fold vehemence; and Legree, foaming with rage, smote his victim to the ground. 
At the risk of spoilers, Tom meets his end as a great martyr. He dies with nothing but forgiveness in his heart for those striking him, resisting the temptation of Satan to damn them (and himself in the process). Such a worthy death it was that it even wins over the overseers that Legree succeeded into twisting into his cruel image. George Shelby, son of Tom's original owners, arrives just too late. Retrieving his body, George buries him in an anonymous grave and returns to the family plantation in Kentucky whereupon he frees his slaves in the book's final chapter.

Who is Uncle Tom? 

An astute reader might notice that up to this point in this review, we've heard from Tom himself relatively little. From that one might get the erroneous opinion that he is the docile black man to whom things happen rather than an actor of his own accord. What it actually reflects is the fact that it is everyone around Tom who is reacting to him. It's the slave owners, the slave catchers, and the other slaves who all change around him. They're the ones having the debates. Tom himself is a rock. He is not docile at all, but rather, drawing from quiet reserves of strength imparted by an unshakable confidence in God Himself.

On the discovery that he was being old by Mr. Shelby, Tom refused the opportunity to escape: "No, no—I an’t going. Let Eliza go—it’s her right! I wouldn’t be the one to say no—‘tan’t in natur for her to stay; but you heard what she said! If I must be sold, or all the people on the place, and everything go to rack, why, let me be sold. I s’pose I can bar it as well as any on ’em... Mas’r always found me on the spot—he always will. I never have broke trust, nor used my pass no ways contrary to my word, and I never will. It’s better for me alone to go, than to break up the place and sell all." His staying was not a matter of docility or seeking the approval of slaveowners. It was fidelity to his own word, a matter of his own character, and a self-sacrificial act for the good of the other slaves. On the day of departure, Tom comforts his wife by saying "I’m in the Lord’s hands... nothin’ can go no furder than he lets it;—and thar’s one thing I can thank him for. It’s me that’s sold and going down, and not you nur the chil’en. Here you’re safe;—what comes will come only on me; and the Lord, he’ll help me,—I know he will." Tom's feelings about this episode come up again in a discussion with Augustine St. Clare, in the wake of Eva's death and his long, dark night of the soul.
“Tom, I don’t believe,—I can’t believe,—I’ve got the habit of doubting,” said St. Clare. 
“I want to believe this Bible,—and I can’t.” 
“Dear Mas’r, pray to the good Lord,—‘Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.’” 
“Who knows anything about anything?” said St. Clare, his eyes wandering dreamily, and speaking to himself. “Was all that beautiful love and faith only one of the ever-shifting phases of human feeling, having nothing real to rest on, passing away with the little breath? And is there no more Eva,—no heaven,—no Christ,—nothing?” 
“O, dear Mas’r, there is! I know it; I’m sure of it,” said Tom, falling on his knees. “Do, do, dear Mas’r, believe it!” 
“How do you know there’s any Christ, Tom! You never saw the Lord.” 
“Felt Him in my soul, Mas’r,—feel Him now! O, Mas’r, when I was sold away from my old woman and the children, I was jest a’most broke up. I felt as if there warn’t nothin’ left; and then the good Lord, he stood by me, and he says, ‘Fear not, Tom;’ and he brings light and joy in a poor feller’s soul,—makes all peace; and I ’s so happy, and loves everybody, and feels willin’ jest to be the Lord’s, and have the Lord’s will done, and be put jest where the Lord wants to put me. I know it couldn’t come from me, cause I ’s a poor, complainin’ cretur; it comes from the Lord; and I know He’s willin’ to do for Mas’r.” 
Tom spoke with fast-running tears and choking voice. St. Clare leaned his head on his shoulder, and wrung the hard, faithful, black hand. 
“Tom, you love me,” he said. 
“I ’s willin’ to lay down my life, this blessed day, to see Mas’r a Christian.” 
“Poor, foolish boy!” said St. Clare, half-raising himself. “I’m not worth the love of one good, honest heart, like yours.” 
“O, Mas’r, dere’s more than me loves you,—the blessed Lord Jesus loves you.” 
“How do you know that Tom?” said St. Clare. 
“Feels it in my soul. O, Mas’r! ’the love of Christ, that passeth knowledge.’”
It was this stalwart faith that led to Tom's death, when it placed him in conflict with the opposite force of Simon Legree. It is difficult for people who aren't Christian to understand Tom's character. Some even take it as evidence that Christianity is a religion of slavery designed to mollify slaves. But again, that is a secular interpretation looking in from the outside, and it shouldn't need to be said that there are fundamental differences between religious and secular worldviews. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an overtly Christian writer creating an overtly Christian character in an overtly Christian book. It can't be properly understood outside of a Christian context, in which Tom's steadfastness is immediately and clearly understood as Christ-like faithfulness and sacrifice. Tom isn't docile at all. He is a saint in the mission field, evangelizing slave and master alike.

Uncle Tom's Cabin and Colonialism

What of George Harris, Eliza, and Harry? There are happy reunions and the whole family moves on to Liberia, the new republic established in Africa by the American Colonization Society for the return of African slaves and their descendants to their home continent. While established with good intentions, placing an American-style republic filled with culturally American people on top of several traditional territories of Indigenous African peoples led to a less than ideal situation. Political power became concentrated in the hands of an Americo-Liberian cultural elite, apart from Indigenous Basa, Gio, Kru, Lorma, Krahn, Gola, Kissi, Grebo, Mano, and Kpelle tribes. These tribes were denied citizenship rights until 1904 and were the subject of Americo-Liberian assimilation efforts. Through the 20th century, Liberia was the regular field of dictatorships, civil wars, and ethnic enmity. Sadly the lesson hasn't really been learned: one of the most popular Marvel Cinematic Universe films has been Black Panther (2018), in which American romantic fantasies were written overtop of Africa. Speaking out of turn as a non-American, the persistence of divisions between "white" Americans and "black" Americans are foolish, because they have in common the fact of being American, which makes them more like each other in politics and culture than they have in common with people of Europe or Africa.

Uncle Tom's Cabin could itself be argued to be a colonial venture of a type. There are questions it raises about activists using their voice to speak for the oppressed versus speaking overtop of the oppressed, and those debates form much of the backdrop to current thoughts on the book. Stowe wrote an epilogue outlining the factual basis for her book against pro-slavery critics, and followed that up in 1853 with A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin describing even more sources for the incidents in the text. A reader today would do well to add to their own understanding of Uncle Tom's Cabin with a reading of actual historical slave narratives like Twelve Years a Slave, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. They carry the potency of being slaves' own voice, which is not to detract from Stowe's accomplishment but rather to recognize the importance of primary sources.

To quote G.K. Chesterton:
We read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer.  Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys — instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies.  That is what makes one so impatient with that type of pessimistic rebel who is always complaining of the narrowness of his life, and demanding a larger sphere.  Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to.  All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions.  What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity: people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side.  By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humourist, or a murderer, or a man who has seen a ghost.
Uncle Tom's Cabin takes the multitude of authentic slave narratives (many of which, keep in mind, were published after 1852), synthesizes them and distilled them into a compelling story accessible by Stowe's status and connections. The historical impact of her work is undeniable.

Uncle Tom's Cabin on Screen

The novel's fame in the 19th century lead it to be one of the most oft-filmed stories of the silent era. The first was Edwin S. Porter's 1903 version, followed in 1910 by a three reel version directed by J. Stuart Blackton. This was significant as the first three reel dramatic subject in American film. Up to this time, most films were only one reel in length or less, about 15 minutes. Two more versions were released in 1913 and another in 1914. This 1914 version, directed by William Robert Daly, was enshrined in the National Film Registry in 2012 for having the first African-American lead actor in American film, rather than a European-American in blackface. 

The 1914 feature version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was released, the controversies surrounding which cooled interest in antebellum films a bit. Another version of Uncle Tom's Cabin came out in 1918. The last Hollywood adaptation to be released was in 1927 and, at two hours long and $1.8 million to make, was the third most expensive movie of the silent era. With two hours in running time, the film was able to be more thorough and accurate to the novel, but not without some changes. Certain characters were shuffled around, and the film climaxes with the Civil War. Though praised by African-American reviewers of the time, Universal Studios feared backlash in the South and excised some of the more graphically anti-slavery scenes.

The winds of political change made Uncle Tom's Cabin an unappealing subject for films of the sound era. One was most likely to find Uncle Tom imagery in cartoons and comedic shorts, like several Tex Avery cartoons and the Bugs Bunny short Southern Fried Rabbit (1953). A 1946 version planned by MGM was scuttled by an NAACP protest, reflecting how a once progressive book could become targeted as a backwards artefact of the past. A German version was produced in 1965, but the only American version to be made in the last 90 years was a 1987 television film starring Avery Brooks, Phylicia Rashad, and Samuel L. Jackson. Brooks does an excellent job portraying Tom as a character of immense personal, moral strength. Unfortunately the script is more of a rough summary of the book's events without the book's actual themes or debates (especially miscast was Bruce Dern as Augustine, without any of Augustine's charisma nor his lines).


Taken together, the three best-selling novels of the Victorian Era paint an interesting picture. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, and Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy are all overtly works of social consciousness. One might even call them all "Utopian" in the sense that each deals with the subject of reforming an existing order. Looking Backward is obviously so, setting about to describe a future society ideal to the author's convictions. Ben Hur is an evangelistic novel, placing a fictional character into the origins of Christianity in Roman Palestine as a proxy for the reader, presenting them with an engaging vision of how Christ could transform their lives. Uncle Tom's Cabin provides a ruthless critique of slavery's inhumanity, overtly shaped by the author's Christian faith, in the hope that it would awaken the sentiments of Northerner and Southerner alike against the evil institution, abolish it, and create a better future society.

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