The Independent
New York: 16 June 1853

The "Senior Editor" Against Uncle Tom's Cabin.

  The last particular in the indictment of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the senior editor of the New York Observer remains to be considered. It is in these words.

  "5. The book is calculated to incite slaves to run away from their masters, and, if necessary to secure their escape, to shoot the officer of the law."

  We give this charge a distinct and deliberate examination for the sake of the principles which it involves and which the examination of it may illustrate. The accuser divides the charge into two parts;—first, the book incites slaves to run away from their masters, and even good slaves to run away from good masters; and secondly, it incites the runaway slave to defend himself against recapture by shooting, if necessary, the officer of the law.

  How does Uncle Tom's Cabin incite slaves to run away from their masters? Behold the proof.

  "Slavery is bad enough at best; but to exaggerate its evils, as they are exaggerated in this book, and especially to exaggerate the danger of good slaves being sold away forever from their best friends, * * is calculated to incite good slaves to run away from good masters. At this moment a story is circulating in our papers, that a slave on a farm in Kentucky, who had obtained a copy of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' read it to his fellow slaves, and, in consequence, 25 of them escaped to Ohio, and were passed on 'the underground railroad' to Canada. This is related exultingly in the Abolition papers as one of the good effects of the book. But will no bad effect follow? With such facts before them can we ponder that southern legislatures pass laws making it a penal offense to teach any slave to read? And if the slaves are not taught to read, when will they be prepared for liberty?"

  That the "evils" of slavery are exaggerated in the book is a position which some readers might deny. But the writer before us forestalls such denial by assertions like the following, assertions which we believe are by no means new to the readers of the Observer.

  "They ought to know, too, [that is, all men ought to know] that when the slaves are converted, the severance of the relation of the master by any sale of the slave, except with the slave's own consent, is an almost unheard of occurrence, and that the sale of a real Christian of Uncle Tom's character to such monsters as Haley and Legree is a mere figment of the novelist. The fact is that, in many large districts of the South, the humanity of the master and the public sentiment are almost as efficient as a law would be in protecting a slave from such a calamity," [as that of being separated from their friends by sale.]

  These are sweeping assertions, contradicted by the tables of the census, contradicted by the advertisements in almost every Southern newspaper, contradicted by undeniable facts almost constantly coming to the knowledge of those who are willing to know the realities of the American slave-trade. It is easy to throw out such assertions, but before doing so any man who values his reputation for accuracy, ought to ask himself what has become of almost the entire natural increase of the slave population of Virginia from 1830 to 1850. The census of 1830 shows in that proud old commonwealth 469,757 slaves. The natural increase of those slaves in twenty years supposing it to have been at the same rate with the increase of the slaves in all the United States, (or a fraction less) was no less than 631,000. But the actual increase in Virginia, as shown by the last census, is only 2,771. What has become of the difference? Are 30,000 slaves deported annually from Virginia alone, by the operation of the slave-trade; and are we to believe that the sale of a "converted" slave, except with his own consent, is "an almost unheard of occurrence"? Can even our respect for the "senior editor" compel us to believe, in the face of these statistical returns, that "the sale of a real Christian of Uncle Tom's character" to a slave-trader "is a mere figment"? Perhaps we might believe that "in many large districts of the South, the humanity of the master and the public sentiment are almost as efficient as a law would be" for the protection of the slave against the misery of being separated from his wife and children by sale. But the question remains, how efficient would a law be, as long as slaves are lawful merchandise? How efficient would a law be, as long as slaves are chattels, liable to be taken by the sheriff for the payment of the master's debts, and so long as slaves are more easily exchanged for money than any other sort of property? How efficient would a law be (if imposed from without) in that condition of "public sentiment" which forbids the enactment of such a law?

  Good pious slaves like Uncle Tom are never sold to slave-traders! At this very moment, a poor free woman is going about from house to house, and from street to street, in the neighborhood in which we are writing, begging the money with which to redeem her pious husband, (a member, like Uncle Tom, of the Methodist Episcopal Church,) out of the hands of a most respectable slave-trader, who had kindly consented to wait before putting him into the ordinary channel of that trade, till she can make her desperate experiment—an experiment as desperate and as heroic as that of Jeanie Deans for the deliverance of her sister. In her behalf we beg the senior editor to send us, from the Observer office, ten dollars. The Journal of Commerce is already on her subscription book for that amount, and will do as much more, rather than permit Uncle Tom to go under the hammer.

  But what if the evil is exaggerated by the book now in question? How will that exaggeration incite slaves to run away from their masters? And especially how can it incite "good slaves to run away from good masters"? Surely if the exaggeration is so gross and palpable as our friend alleges, it cannot impose upon the slaves. Surely they, of all the people in the world, have the best opportunity of knowing what slavery is in its certainties and in its contingencies. Those twenty-five who are said to have run away from a farm in Kentucky after the reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin—did not they know that the sale of Uncle Tom from so good a master and mistress as his is a mere figment, a thing that never happens in real life? Did not they know that the peril from which Eliza Harris snatched her child, is a mere impossibility? Did not they know that "when the slaves are converted the severance of the relation of the master by any sale of the slave, except with the slave's own consent, is an almost unheard of occurrence"? Did not they know that "the humanity of the master and the public sentiment are almost as efficient as a law would be in protecting the slave from such a calamity"? If they did not know, who does? Mrs. Stowe's exaggerations may impose upon ignorant and credulous people in the free states; but surely the slaves themselves, with all their advantages in respect to exactness of knowledge, are not to be imposed upon in that way. And if there were danger of their being imposed upon, and made to believe what they know to be false, is it not the easiest thing in nature to undeceive them? Give them the New York Observer. Let them read that; and will it be possible for them, when they compare the exactness of its statements with their own experience, not to know that the sale of slaves to traders, and especially the separation of families, is a thing that very rarely happens, and that the chances of it in any particular case are not worth running away from! How preposterous is it for the Southern people to make laws against the slaves learning to read, for fear of their becoming discontented in consequence of reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, when the first thought of every slave in reading it would naturally be, "God be thanked that my lot is not that which is represented in this book! God be thanked that the Observer is right, and Mrs. Stowe all wrong! My cabin is safe! There is no danger of my being parted from my wife or my children! There is no Haley in these parts!"

  But we have not yet touched upon what the accuser considers as the gravest part of his accusation. His charge is not only that the book incites the slave to run away, but also that it incites the runaway slave to make good his escape by shooting, if necessary, the officer of the law.

  "That the book is calculated to incite slaves to run away from their masters is not however the chief charge we bring against it. In some cases almost every man would justify a slave in quietly making his escape. But the book goes farther. It is calculated to incite the slave, to shoot, if necessary to secure his escape, the officer of the law.

  "George Harris, a high-spirited Kentucky slave, is represented as running away, and deliberately shooting one who has a legal warrant to arrest him; and every slave who reads 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' is left to understand that this is all right, and that if he should do the same thing, and kill the officer, good Christians would not condemn him, but would applaud him for such an act: and if he should be captured and hung, that the public sentiment of Christendom would pronounce him not a murderer, but a martyr!

  "We condemn this doctrine. It strikes at the foundation of all law and social order. We hold it to be the duty of every man in this country to submit quietly to every law of the land however oppressive. We do not hold to the duty of obeying the precept of every law. We will obey no law which our conscience tells us in in conflict with the law of God; (for we are 'higher law' men, as our readers well know, although we do not, like some other higher law men, believe that there is a conflict between that law and the constitution of the United States,) but we will never forcibly resist any law; and we must condemn as anti-Christian every book, and must class with dangerous disorganizers the author of every book, that encourages any man to resist any law of the land. On this law, in this country, are suspended the dearest interests of more than 25,000,000 people; and no one man, or one thousand men, or one million men, have any right to resist it, unless they are prepared to overthrow the government and establish a better government on its ruins."

  Some things in this are worthy of commendation. Such are the following.

  1. "In some cases almost every man would justify a slave in quietly making his escape." Why not in every case in which a quiet escape to another country is practicable, without violating the duties of any natural relation?

  2. "We will obey no law which our conscience tells us is in conflict with the law of God;" "but we will never forcibly resist any law." This is sound doctrine—just the doctrine which we ourselves have always professed and maintained.

  But does Mrs. Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, teach anything contrary to the principles thus avowed by the critic who condemns her?

  There are distinct methods of estimating the duty of a slave in respect to the attainment of his liberty—methods that differ with the different points of view from which the subject is regarded. There are two sorts of manliness, (a lower and a higher,) either of which may be exhibited by the slave in the conflict with the miseries of his condition. One is the merely human manliness of the hero; the other is the Divine manliness, the Christlikeness, of the martyr. Judging from the human point of view—looking at the question of the slave's duty as a question of mere justice, or of right under the law of nature and of nations—looking at it as a merely ethical question in the light of moral philosophy, the right of the slave to assert his liberty is perfect against the state that enslaves him. Of course, we have no occasion to inquire how far the question is modified, when it includes those modifications of slavery which may exist, where the state, recognizing the slave as a member of the body politic, has taken him under its protection, mediates between him and his master, guards his human rights, and is taking measures which are to result in his complete emancipation. We have to do only with absolute slavery such as exists in our slaveholding states; and we do not hesitate to say, that under such slavery, the slave has a complete right to assume his freedom and that of his wife and children, and that while quietly migrating with them to another country, he may rightfully defend their persons and his own, even with deadly weapons, if only he can do it with success. His relation to the state is not that of a citizen, nor does it at all resemble citizenship. The state disowns him, refuses to protect him, does nothing for his welfare, cares only to enslave him. He owes no allegiance to the state; he is not of it. He has no country. Nor is his condition that of a foreigner who, while within the state and under the protection of its hospitality, is bound to obey its laws. His relation to the state has nothing of the sanctity of hospitality. The state found him within its borders, a helpless infant, thrown like a wrecked mariner upon its shore; and it made war upon him; it seized him for a prey; it decreed upon him in his innocence and as the penalty of his helplessness a sentence which none but a coward would ask for as a substitute for death. The state holds him simply as a captive; it regards him only as an enemy with whom no peace is to be made; the state is only his enemy; and against the state he has all the rights of an enemy. Against the state which, for no offense whatever, has doomed him to absolute and hopeless slavery, he has all the belligerent rights which the senior editor of the Observer would have against some robber tribe in Kurdistan, if they had seized him and were holding him captive. In such a case, all the world, except the Quakers and the abhorred "abolitionists of the Garrison School," would justify our friend in shooting a Kurd or two, if the act were necessary to his escape, and would ensure his safety.

  But after all there is, as we have said, a nobler sort of manliness than this. A man inspired with the highest Christian views and affections, may find himself in circumstances in which he shall feel that while he has a perfect human right, a perfect right under the law of nature and of nations, to flee from the wrong and to resist it, God is calling him to a higher and more Christlike duty, even to suffer the wrong from which he might perhaps escape. There may be circumstances in which such a man shall feel, as by a Divine inspiration, that though he might resist the wrong and play the hero in defense of his inalienable manhood, it is his higher privilege to take up his cross, and to yield himself to every indignity and to death as one of Christ's suffering witnesses.

  Now what is the truth in regard to Uncle Tom's Cabin? With exquisite art—rather let us say, with the admirable tact of genius, the author has woven the threads of two distinct stories into one. How affecting and impressive the contrast between the story of George Harris, the hero, with his merely human principles and aspirations, and the story of Uncle Tom, the martyr, glorified in suffering, in sorrow, and in agony, by the indwelling Spirit and the invisible companionship of Christ. Who can read the book and not feel that the higher level of character, the higher style of virtue, the more majestic and admirable manliness, is not that of the hero but that of the martyr? The character of "the Saintly Slave," a character so original in literature, so true to nature, so impressive and instinctive with the beauty of holiness, would not have been adequately appreciated but for the relief which it gets by being constantly though unobtrusively contrasted with the more commonplace character of the hero slave. George Harris is not represented as a model, nor as a man of Christian principles and spirit, but only as a man. He does not pretend to be a Christian; he has no higher inspiration than that of the instinctive sense of justice; and if the senior editor finds it impossible not to sympathize with the hunted fugitive standing at bay to defend himself and his wife and child—if he finds an irrepressible instinct within him which leaps up at the crack of the pistol and exults as the human blood-hound rolls wounded down the rock—let him remember that the blame may belong not to the author but to the system of horrors and crimes which he has portrayed so effectively. The "disorganizer" that so perplexes the moral sense of timid formulists and arrays the instinct of justice with the inalienable right of self-defense against what bears the sacred name of law—is not Mrs. Stowe, but slavery.