A Key to the Characters
"UNCLE TOM'S CABIN" is in form and purpose a work of fiction. It
was necessarily made so, for in no other way could it have attracted
the large measure of public attention desired and brought its lesson
fully before the minds of the people. But in its underlying purpose it
is far more than a work of fiction. Its novelistic form is but a cloak
to cover a body of solid facts within. It is intended as a picture of
actual life, a realistic panorama of a state of society then existing,
a photograph in life colors of the institution of slavery, revealed in
all its lights and shadows, its horrors and alleviations, to a world
that knew it not and was not fully ready to accept the revelations
concerning it. As a result, the work was bitterly assailed, its
statements questioned, its pictures of Southern life denied, its
characters called perversions of the truth, and Mrs. Stowe was forced
to come to the defense of her work in an extended supplementary volume
entitled "A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," in which she sustained her
statements by abundant documentary evidence; showed that the leading
incidents of her story were based on actual facts, and proved that her
characters were drawn from real life, being pen pictures of people she
had met or faithful reproductions of types of character and life
scenes of which she had read or been told. Her descrip-
tion of the source of her characters is of interest, as a proof of the care she took in making her work true to life, and we here present it in brief epitome. The remainder of her "Key" consists largely of documentary evidence of the treatment of and laws against slaves, too voluminous to be here presented.
She tells us herself that "Uncle Tom's Cabin " is a collection of real incidents, to a greater extent, perhaps, than any other work of fiction ever written; made up of actual facts, words and expressions, her share of the work being merely to put these facts artistically together in a frame of fiction, changing names, dates and scenes, but keeping true throughout to the living details of the state of society about which she wrote. It is a kaleidoscope of slavery, its parts rearranged, but all present and all evident. In reviewing the characters introduced we shall commence with him who gives his name to the work, Uncle Tom.
Uncle Tom. Critics of Mrs. Stowe's work have spoken of Uncle Tom as an improbable, almost an impossible, character; yet she assures us that her picture of this black-skinned Christian hero has been most abundantly confirmed. Many persons said to her, after reading the book, "I knew an Uncle Tom in such a Southern State," and the stories told her of these characters would have made a small volume. One of them was a negro slave in New Orleans of such remarkable honesty that his master trusted him to the most complete extent. He would give him a handful of bills without looking at them to purchase supplies for the family, quite confident that he would receive the proper change, saying to those who thought this action imprudent, that he had sufficient proofs of his servant's conscientiousness to freely trust him with all he owned. His brother, who was visiting him, was so struck with the man's evident and deep piety that he said, "I hope you will never do anything to deprive this man of his religious privileges, for I think a judgment will come upon you if you do." I The slaveholder replied that he was not quite foolish enough to do that, since he knew that the man's value was due to his religion.
Another of the Uncle Tom stamp was Josiah Henson, in his later years a well-known colored clergyman of Canada, but who in early life had been a slave, embittered against his master by cruel treatment of his father and brought up in a state of heathenism. He was converted at a camp meeting, became an ardent and conscientious Christian, and gradually, though he could not read a word of the Bible, developed into a negro preacher of great force and impressiveness. He became so valuable to his master that he was made overseer of the whole estate, which lie managed with unusual skill and prudence. Subsequently, the master's affairs becoming involved, he proposed to remove all his negroes from his Maryland estate to Kentucky, and left the performance of this entirely to Henson, who was to take the slaves alone, without other attendant, over the long intervening distance, on his simple promise to do so faithfully. Henson's honor was sorely tried. On his way he passed through a part of Ohio, and was told that he and his fellows were now free, if they chose to claim their freedom, which he was strongly urged to do. But he had given his promise, and no inducement could make him violate his Christian principle, while his influence over his followers was so great that they all willingly went with him to Kentucky. These two examples must suffice, out or the numerous instances of Christian conscientiousness that might be adduced.
George Harris. The incidents of the life
of this character are again far from exceptional, Mrs. Stowe giving a
number of parallel cases of which she had personal knowledge. One of
the persons spoken of, Lewis Clark by name, was a handsome quadroon,
chosen as her servant by a married daughter of the family, whose
ungovernable temper and violence had already reduced one servant to a
state of idiocy. Her outbreaks of wrath were now visited upon him, and
only flight saved him from being reduced to the state of his
predecessor. As for the tale which George Harris gives of the sale of
his mother and her children, Josiah Henson, whom we have already
mentioned, has published a parallel one. His master having died, all
the slaves of the plantation
were sold to the highest bidder, his brothers and sisters being bid off separately, while the mother stood by in an agony of grief at the coming separation from her children. Then the mother was sold, the purchaser being a Mr. R., of Montgomery County, Maryland. Finally, Josiah, a mere child, was offered for sale, when the distracted mother pushed through the crowd to her purchaser, fell at his feet and clung to his knees, entreating him in heart-breaking tones to buy her baby as well as herself, and spare her at least one of her little ones. The man thus appealed to not only refused her request, but was brutal enough to accompany his refusal with such violent blows and kicks that the poor mother was forced to creep out of his reach, her sobs of grief being mingled with groans of pain. This incident would be almost past belief but that it is attested by one of such known probity as Henson.
As regards the advertisement for the recapture of George Harris, "dead or alive," which has been called in question, it was an incident of common occurrence, such advertisements being frequent in the newspapers of the time described. We could give a considerable list of them if necessary, but one must suffice. The Wilmington (N. C.) Advertiser, of July 13, 1838, contains two such advertisements, of which we quote the following:
RAN AWAY, my negro man RICHARD. A reward of $25 will be paid for his apprehension, dead or alive. Satisfactory proof will only be required of his being Killed He has with him, in all probability, his wife Eliza, who ran away from Col. Thompson, now a resident of Alabama, about the time he commenced his journey to that State.
DURANT H. RHODES.
Eliza. The story of Eliza is founded on a well-authenticated fact. Mrs. Stowe saw at a church in Kentucky a beautiful quadroon girl, whom she was told was a slave, and was further told that her master had refused to sell her. "A Southern gentleman," her informant said. "not long ago offered her master a thousand dollars for her; but he told him that she was too good to be his wife, and he certainly should not have her for a mistress."
This girl became the Eliza of the work, the incidents
of her story being of a character that could have abundant corroboration. As for her crossing the Ohio on the ice, which has been disputed, such a circumstance actually happened. Mrs. Stowe had read of such an occurrence, and its truth was confirmed by a Presbyterian clergyman whom she met, and who said: "I understand that they dispute that fact about the woman's crossing the river. Now I know all about that, for I got the story from the very man that helped her up the bank. I know it is true, for she is now living in Canada." The plot formed by Haley, Marks and Loker to kidnap Eliza from Ohio has been stated to caricature the way in which justice was administered in that State; but in this instance Mrs. Stowe only paraphrased an incident in the life of a servant in her own family, who was saved from being delivered up by a venal magistrate only by a midnight flitting, aided by Professor Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher.
Topsy. We have only one more slave character to speak of, the inimitable Topsy, whose impish pranks make much of the humor of the book, but who truthfully represents, in her ignorance and impishness, numbers of children in slave households. Devoid of principle, quick, active and subtle in mind, penetrating as by instinct the degradation of their condition, feeling their black skin to be an outward sign of inferiority, they were urged on by a kind of inner desperation to demonstrate their utter sinfulness of thought and action. "Nothing but a nigger," was to poor Topsy the brand of hopeless worthlessness, and Miss Ophelia's effort to bring up such a child as a Christian, had to contend with the absence of every suitable inducement in the mind of the genuine Topsy.
Miss Ophelia. Miss Oplielia was the very
last person to control such a child as Topsy, whose small but keen
intelligence saw through her sham Christianity, tainted as it was with
a prejudice against the black skin of her would-be neophyte. Miss
Ophelia is one of a numerous class who imagine that they can reform
the world without reforming themselves, who are hedged in by a thick
crust Of prejudices and narrow views of life and its
duties. Honest and well-intentioned they are, no doubt, but deeply self-ignorant, and unaware that the narrowness which is hidden from themselves is patent to all whom they meet. The love sentiment of genuine Christianity is wanting, and without it Miss Ophelia could not hope to find anything but rebellion in her pupil.
Mr. and Mrs. Shelby. Mrs. Stowe, while painting in lurid colors the dark side of slave-life, was anxious to paint its bright side as well, and has done so in the Shelbys, of whom there must have been abundant examples in the era of slavery. Had all been like them, the institution of slavery would have been much less of an evil, and the agitation for its removal would have found far fewer advocates. With this class, easy indulgence and good-natured forbearance were combined with just discipline and carefully-imparted religious instruction, and the plantation became a patriarchal establishment, where happiness and order reigned. The one over-shadowing evil was the always present danger of death or misfortune to these well-meaning slave-owners, followed by sale into possibly far less favorable conditions.
St. Clare. In St. Clare, we meet with another type of those calculated to make the slave system a patriarchate. Mrs. Stowe tells us that she drew his character with enthusiasm and hope. At heart an abolitionist, convinced of the utter wrong and injustice of slavery, fortune had made him a slave-holder, and forced him to feel his weakness as such. He was one at heart with John Randolph, Patrick Henry, and other Southerners of Revolutionary times. From Patrick Henry, we may quote. After expressing his abhorrence of the whole system, he continues: "Would anyone believe that I am master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. . . . . . I know not when to stop. I would say many things on the subject, a serious view of which gives a gloomy prospect to future times."
John Randolph said in Congress: "I envy neither the heart nor the
hand of that man who rises here to
defend slavery on principle;" and his will contains the following words: "I give to my slaves their freedom, to which my conscience tells me they are justly entitled." These were the St. Clairs of an earlier date.
Marie St. Clare. In Marie St. Clare, we come to another type of people, an example of a class of women who may be found everywhere, but whose besetting weakness becomes a terror when they are entrusted with uncontrolled authority. In the North the Marie St. Clares are always in domestic hot water. Their servants cannot be trusted to do anything right. They ought to be glad to have the worst rooms in the house at the lowest possible wages, and should possess the whole series of Christian virtues on a scant weekly pittance, the lack of perfection and gratitude to their benefactor being shamefully selfish and unprincipled. The Marie St. Clare of the South, under the slave regime, became a household tyrant. The least disrespect or failure in obedience to orders led to condign punishment. She had no hesitation to sever her servants from their nearest kindred, there being only one person in her household to be considered—herself; and she had as little hesitation in visiting them with disgraceful and violent punishments, such as have often been described by eye-witnesses, as inflicted by the public whipper in the calaboose at New Orleans.
Legree. But the Shelbys and St. Clares
represent but one side of slave-life. Even Marie St. Clare, with her
utter selfishness, is an estimable character as compared with Legree,
the type of the soulless slave-holder, of whom the South held far too
large a number, and whom Mrs. Stowe depicts in the darkest colors, but
no darker than the truth demands. The Legree of the book is ugly,
coarse and profane. These qualities were not the only ones found in
bad masters. There were men of some degree of culture and refinement
whose cold-blooded selfishness led them to almost the brutal conduct
of a Legree. There were men who worked their plantations on the
principle of getting all that was possible out of their negroes in a
few years, and then exchanging them for others, and of this type
was simply an extreme representative. To these the horrors of the slave system were principally due, and to them we may largely ascribe the development of the final class to be considered.
Haley. Haley, the negro-trader, is given, in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," as the representative of a large class, including, in addition, the negro-catcher. the kidnapper, the whipper, and the other auxiliaries of the institution. These men were the dregs of the white society of the South, despised by those who employed them, necessary but abhorrent elements of a system which could not well be sustained without such brutal and soulless accessories. Of course, the Haleys, the Tom Lokers, and that genus, form but one species out of a large class. There were all varieties of negro-traders, downward from those who conducted the business by wholesale, who were gentlemanly and courteous, and who deplored the necessity of the institution of which they availed themselves. From these, down to the Haleys, there were many grades, but the highest rank of dealers could not avoid, from the exigencies of the situation, occasional acts of inhumanity.
With these few pages, describing the source of the characters of the work, we shall leave the reader to the perusal of the book itself, satisfied that its inherent truthfulness cannot but impress itself on his mind.