Southern Slavery. A Glance at Uncle Tom's Cabin.
BY A SOUTHERNER
Mrs. STOWE’s book is not to be regarded as a literary performance. It unquestionably possesses extraordinary attractions in that way, but it was intended to accomplish much more than to create a sensation in literary circles, or earn increased reputation for the writer, who was already a celebrite; it was written with a view to political results. MONTESQUIEU’s great work was not written with a more decided political aim than Mrs. STOWE’s book; and we are by no means sure that the form which she has adopted in giving her views of Slavery through the pages of "Life among the Lowly," will not prove to be quite as effective as it could have been if the graver and more ambitious style of the "Spirit of Laws" had been imitated.
There is profound political wisdom in the remark, "Let me write the ballads of a people and I care not who makes their laws;" ballads take hold of the imagination, and move the heart, and thus control the life, while laws are often disregarded.
At some periods, when the popular mind is a certain state of excitement, the Marseilles Hymn, sung in the streets of Paris, would revolutionize France. At this very moment it is well understood that CHARLES DICKENS is writing against the Chancery system of England; and instead of preparing a grave essay, he produces the entertaining pages of Bleak House. It is in this philosophical spirit that Mrs. STOWE’s book is conceived. How many pages of grave argument would it require to produce the same detestation of the Slave-trade within the United States as has been excited by the scenes depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
Does not the whole world, unacquainted with the actual condition of the slave in the Southern States, glow with indignation at the mere thought of a cotton plantation, because the picture of Legree’s place is accepted as at least a sketch of the real horrors of that system of labor, tinged, it may be supposed, somewhat with the ideal?
Let the exaggerated description of the Slave-trade pass. We feel no inclination to scrutinize it. But we do desire that the actual condition of Slavery as it exists to-day in the Southern States, shall be somewhat better comprehended than it can be if Mrs. STOWE’s representation are permitted to pass without examination. Uncle Tom cruelly murdered, and old Prue expiring under inhuman treatment, must not be exhibited to the world as pictures illustrative of the real state of domestic servitude among us, without at least a remark as to the manner in which they are made up.
All works of art should be viewed under a strong light, if we wish to see how the artistic effect is produced.
A representation of Slavery as it exists at the South, might be given to the world so as to produce the happiest effect both at home and abroad; but the exaggerated, and we may say impassioned style which prevails in Mrs. STOWE’s sketches, will, we fear, give rise to misconceptions outside of our own limits; and create so much resentment among us as to hinder the good influence which a candid appeal, made by a woman of so much genius, would exert. With all its faults, we trust that the book will accomplish great good. Its extravagant descriptions of the abuses of Slavery will awaken inquiry at home as to their fidelity; and will give such an impulse to public sentiment in the Southern States, that even more stringent and potential laws than those already in existence, will be adopted for the protection of the slave.
In most of the States—we believe we may say in all of them—these laws are already very sound and effective. In some of them it is already provided that a white man, if he be not the owner, or some one having some official authority, cannot strike a slave without exposing himself to an indictment under the penal laws.
Masters protect their slaves, and they are prompt to redress any wrong committed upon them by others.
There is, too, a family feeling which grows up between the master and his slaves, which begets a mutual confidence,—the master looks after the physical comforts of the slave—his happiness in his home, and his well-being in every way; while the slave feels himself identified with the fortunes of his owner, rejoices in his prosperity, deplores his misfortunes, and is proud of his success, and jealous of his reputation.
The slave feels habitually that all about him belongs to him in common with his owner; and he actually uses the word "our" in a perfectly natural way, when speaking of any of the property which is in the possession of the family.
Few more pleasing spectacles can be witnessed, than a group of negroes enjoying a holiday on some plantation; the men dressed in their best clothes, the women with their gay head-shawls, the children rolling on the luxuriant grass; while songs, laughter, and the music of some rude instrument heighten the gayety of the scene.
Upon almost every plantation every slave enjoys the privilege of having his own family home—a cabin somewhat after the Uncle Tom’s fashion, around which he cultivates his own green patch, and rears his poultry.
It is quite clear, then, that while the authority of the master over the slave is very great—as great as any authority confided to one human being over another ought ever to be—yet the slave is protected by laws, by public opinion, by the interest of the owner in his well-being, and by a powerful family feeling, which springs up between persons holding this relation to each other. Such is Slavery, as it is to be seen any day in the Southern States.
While the American troops were engaged in carrying on the late war with Mexico, a young gentleman took with him, to that part of the country which was occupied by our forces, a supply of articles suited to the wants of the people in their belligerent state, and engaged in trade. He was accompanied by a body servant.
He fell victim to the climate, and, during his illness, he was nursed with unremitting attention by his faithful and attached slave.
This man, after the death of his master, brought his remains back to his family, saw them interred in the family burying ground, and entered as naturally once more into a state of servitude, as a wandering child would have returned to the sheltering protection of the paternal roof. Surely, a system which produces a powerful attachment of this kind, on the part of the slave to his master, cannot be regarded as a system of unmixed evil. It is plain that in some instances, at least—and we think not rare ones—the great example to which Mrs. STOWE has so beautifully pointed as, has been followed—the slaveholder has called to him the blind ones committed to his care, and has laid hands on them, and has taught them to regard him as their benefactor.
There is a great moral question that lies underneath all this actual working of the system of Slavery in the Southern States. The whole civilized world presses the question upon us: Is it right to hold human beings in bondage? All over the Northern States, all over the British Empire, all over the Continent of Europe, this is regarded as a settled question. The whole world has decided the question against us.
The opinion of mankind upon this subject seems to be as fixed as the Eternal Hills; and the voice of mankind uttering its denunciations against the system, roused as it sometimes is, under such appeals as the book which we are now reviewing makes to the heart of mankind, is like the roar of the ocean’s surge against some rocky coast which defies its power. This is the question which Mrs. STOWE sometimes brings up in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and in nothing does she display such a want of generosity—we might even say such a want of fairness—as in the discussions which she gives us in regard to this topic.
With extraordinary tact, she makes Miss Ophelia press this moral question upon Augustine St. Clare, who undertakes to state the case with great fairness, and who is represented as offering the best vindication of Slavery which an amiable and intelligent gentleman can make. Miss Ophelia takes the affair of Prue’s death very much to heart; and resolves to draw St. Clare out upon the whole subject. Taking her seat, she pulled out her knitting-work, and sat there with grim indignation. She knit and knit, but while she mused the fire burned; at last she broke out:
"I tell you, Augustine, I can’t get over these things so, if you can. It’s a perfect abomination for you to defend such a system—that’s my mind!"
"What now?" said St. Clare, looking up. "At it again, hey?"
"I say it’s perfectly abominable for you to defend such a system!" said Miss Ophelia, with increasing warmth.
"I defend it, my dear lady! Who ever said I did defend it?" said St. Clare.
"Of course you defend it—you all do—all you Southerners. What do you have slaves for, if you don’t?"
"Are you such a sweet innocent as to suppose nobody in this world ever does what they don’t think is right? Don’t you, or did’nt you ever do anything that you did not think quite right?"
"If I do, I repent of it, I hope," said Miss Ophelia, rattling her needles with energy.
"So do I," said St. Clare, peeling his orange; "I’m repenting of it all the time."
"Didn’t you ever keep on doing wrong, after you’d repented, my good cousin?"
"Well, only when I’ve been very much tempted," said Miss Ophelia.
"Well, I’m very much tempted," said St. Clare, "that’s just my difficulty."
"But I always resolve I won’t, and I try to break off."
"Well, I have been resolving I won’t off and on these ten years," said St. Clare; "but I haven’t, somehow, got clear. Have you got clear of all your sins, cousin?"
If the discussion had been limited to this playful parrying on the part of St. Clare of the troublesome questions put by Miss Ophelia, we could not have complained of it. But we presently find St. Clare throws off his playfulness, and takes up the question seriously. He undertakes to discuss the whole moral ground upon which the institution of Slavery rests. Every one sees that the positions assumed by St. Clare are utterly untenable; and if this system of domestic servitude in the Southern States was not defended by more powerful barriers than those which he shows up, it would give way in a single day before the assaults of its enemies. Miss Ophelia plies her knitting-needle and her arguments with equal activity, and reproaches Augustine with being a sad rattle-brain, because he dodges the question; but he promises for once to be serious, and calls for a basket of oranges, that he may be stayed with flagons and comforted with apples in making the effort.
"The short of the matter is, cousin," said he, his handsome face suddenly settling into an earnest and serious expression, "on this abstract question of Slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters who have money to make by it, clergymen who have planters to please, politicians who want to rule by it, may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle more. It comes from the devil, that’s the short of it; and to my mind, it’s a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line."
Miss Ophelia stopped her knitting, and looked surprised; and St. Clare, apparently enjoying her astonishment, went on:
"You seem to wonder, but if you will get me fairly at it, I’ll make a clean breast of it. This cursed business, accursed of God and man, what is it? Why, because my brother Quashy is weak, and ignorant, and I am intelligent and strong,—because I know how and can do it,—therefore I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him only so much and such as suits my fancy. Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable for me, I may set Quashy to doing. Because I don’t like work, Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun. Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it. Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dry shod. Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such change of getting to heaven at last as I find convenient. This I take to be about what Slavery is; I defy any one on earth to read our Slave code, as it stands in our law-books, and make anything else of it. Talk of the abuses of Slavery? Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse! And the only reason why the land don’t sink under it like Sodom and Gomorrah, is because it is used in a way infinitely better than it is. For pity’s sake, for shame’s sake, because we are men born of women, and not savage beasts, many of us do not, and dare not,—we would scorn to use the full power which our savage laws put into our hands. And he who goes the furthest and does the worst, only uses within limits the power that the law gives him."
We have quoted this entire passage, because we did not wish to mutilate the argument which Mrs. STOWE has been pleased to put into the lips of the slaveholder; and because we were unwilling to undertake the state of the argument in any language but her own. It must be borne in mind that this statement of the question of Slavery in its moral aspect, comes from a slaveholder; and in all fairness it is to be supposed that Mrs. STOWE has prepared the very best defence of the system which she could construct for it. To suppose that she has done otherwise, would be to make her disingenuous to the last degree.
Now, we do not hesitate to say that this scathing denunciation from the lips of St. Clare, of the principle upon which slave property is held, may be applied with equal force to the principle upon which any description of property is held, in any part of the civilized world.
Upon what does the exclusive right to property depend, if it be not that another is "weak and ignorant, and I am intelligent and strong, that I know how and can do it;" and therefore I may take from the weak man his earnings? Who does not see that the principle set up here would overturn the whole fabric of society? Who toils in the sun? Who exposes himself to the Winter’s cold? Who submits to the coarsest and meanest drudgery? Who drives the coach of the millionaire and sits upon the box through the long hours of the drifting snow-storm, while his master, in well-warmed and brilliantly-lighted apartments, sits at a table spread with the most costly luxuries which wealth can supply?
Who sweeps the crossings of filthy streets that dainty feet may pass over dry shod? Who! who does all this but the ignorant and weak man, condemned by the laws to a state of servitude, more cheerless than that of the slave; with less to make it tolerable at present, and with nothing to gild it with the hope of an old age of comfort? The argument that would prostrate Slavery—we mean the fact of Slavery as it exists to-day in the Southern States, would overthrow the whole social system all over the world, and abolish the distinctions between the rich and the poor, and reduce all the ranks of human life to a dead level, under a cry more appalling even than the ideal words of French Republicanism, in their most unlicensed sense—Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite! The whole fabric of society, viewed in its most fortunate circumstances, exhibits great inequalities. The physical world does not present to us a more varied picture of hill and dale, and mountain and valley, than the moral world exhibits in the condition of mankind.
If we should stand upon some high peak of a mountain overlooking a great city, the eye would take in the dwellings of the rich, the habitations of the poor, the gorgeous bazaars, the mean shops, and the countless number of buildings in which men toil through the weary hours of long Summer days; and if we should permit ourselves to inquire why the condition of the crowded population at our feet was so infinitely diversified, to what should we attribute all this inequality?
What name should we give to that invisible but resistless power which fixed every one of these beings in his happier or darker state? We should call it law—the law of society—the law of civilization, which secures to the strong and the intelligent incalculable advantages over the weak and the ignorant; which lavishes upon the rich all the gifts of fortune, and compels the poor, hungry, and almost naked laborer to survey through a pane of glass every thing which would supply his wants, but sends him on his weary way to a half-starved family without bearing in his hand a single loaf of bread for the evening meal.
To very many of those who undertake to depict the toils of Southern Slavery, we might say, in the words of JOHN RANDOLPH, "The Greeks are at your doors."
All over the world there must be labor, and there is too often suffering; but, instead of attempting to overthrow the fabric of society, we must content ourselves with reforming its abuses, with ameliorating the condition of those upon whom its laws press too hardly; and we must seek to give full power and effect to the great law of love, as it came from the lips of the Great Teacher.
The present race are not responsible for the existence of Slavery, and to represent them as avowing the sentiments attributed to St. Clare, is to do them a stupendous wrong. With the question of Slavery in the abstract, they do not undertake to deal; nor can they be expected to engage in the discussion of the speculative, moral proposition, while they are employing themselves in the management of a great fact.
In the order of Providence,—a Providence whose purposes and movements are infinitely beyond the range of human vision,—a portion of the African race torn from their native land, and from a state of the grosses and most debasing barbarism, have been brought to our shores, placed under our control, and brought under the influence of the highest civilization which the world exhibits.
We are responsible for a just and humane administration of the great authority which we find in our hands. Beyond this we cannot be held responsible.
We rest upon the great fact that Slavery, as an institution, exists in our midst. What are we to do? If, under the influence of a rash and speculative sentiment, we should, tomorrow, set these people free, the whole world would presently pronounce it to be not only the wildest, but the most unhappy experiment ever made in the fortunes of our race. We must confide this great question to that Providence, under whose inscrutable, but ever-wise and good, administration it came into existence.
We do not doubt that the grandest and most beneficent results will grow of it.
In the colony already planted upon the African coast, and which has been so far fostered and kept alive by that Providence which does not allow the smoking wick to die out we may read the promise of a future full of splendor and of happiness. In the meanwhile the whole civilized world should acquiesce in the existence of Slavery. The solution of the great problem should be confided to the people of the Southern States. In our own country, especially, the jurisdiction of the Southern people over the subject should be left undisturbed. Whether we regard the bearing of history upon this institution, or the provisions of the Constitution respecting it, or the danger which attends any attempt to modify its character; it must be admitted by every candid man within the limits of the Republic, in whatever latitude he may reside, that the whole question should be left to the people of the Slaveholding States. In the Northern States Slavery disappeared some time since; but it did not give way before the force of any moral consideration,—it yielded to the pressure of an acknowledged principle in Political Economy.
The investment did not pay, and therefore it was given up.
The institution, although not named in the Constitution, was recognized by it. It was not until the Convention which framed the Constitution consented to the Ninth Section of the First Article, that the Southern members agreed to give to Congress the power "to regulate commerce," by the vote of a mere majority.
The object of the stipulation in regard to the "importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit," was distinctly understood, and it was an element which entered into the Compromises matured on that memorable occasion, after so many days of anxious and patriotic deliberation.
The famous provision in regard to the apportionment of representative, and direct taxes, which had reference to the whole number of free persons, and also to "three-fifths of all other persons," is full of instruction.
Surely, stipulations that entered into the very structure of the Government ought to be respected.
If the Southern people have the right to hold their property, it is their privilege to hold it without molestation.
To question their right, or disturb their possession, is not so flagrant an outrage, but it is as clear a breach of good faith, as if the property were wrested out of their hands.
We are not insensible to the odium which attaches to the Fugitive Slave Law; and whatever political writers, or moral writers, could do to make it still more odious, has been most diligently done.
Among these writers, Mrs. STOWE holds a preeminent position. The escape of Eliza with her boy from the hot pursuit of Haley,—her desperate leap over the turbid current which rolled between her and the land of freedom,—her struggle up the bank with bleeding feet,—this whole scene is described by Mrs. STOWE with all the nervous power which she could command; and it must be admitted that the description rivals, in graphic and thrilling interest, any which we remember to have met with in works of fiction. It may be placed by the side of another description of a widely different scene; we mean that given by Sir WALTER SCOTT, in Ivanhoe, where Rebecca, looking from Front de Boeuf’s castle, describes to the wounded captive the terrible fortunes which attend the besieging forces. Nor can we withhold our sympathy from the wife of Senator Bird, who speaks from the depths of her heart in combating the constitutional argument of her husband, who at last consents, under the generous impulses of a very benevolent nature, to forget his duty as a citizen, and to aid in Eliza’s escape. But who does not see that this is merely a highly-colored picture, and that ten thousand scenes in the every-day life of the poor might be fairly placed alongside of it? It does not touch the principle of the question for a moment.
As to the other scenes described by Mrs. STOWE,—the escape of the fugitives,—the combat among the rocks,—the Quaker settlement, where the gift of a seed-cake seems to be the solace for a wounded heart,—the family group at Amherstberg,—we confess that we feel no sympathy kindling within us as we read the account of them. They are all too artificial.
Quite as vivid a description, of a scene quite as thrilling, might be given to us if the principal person in it, instead of being a slave, should be an apprenticed boy, flying from a cruel master.
Pointing to his stripes, and to his naked and bleeding feet, as he reached Kentucky, he might appeal to have some kind-hearted senator to protect and save him. So far as the indulgence of sentiment is concerned, and so far as the obligation to respect the laws is concerned, the complexion of the fugitive could make no difference. The constitutional provision is clear and imperative:
"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
Those who seek to escape from the obligation of the Fugitive Slave Law, may argue that there can be no property in human beings, and that therefore no one can have a right to service from a slave; but he is compelled to admit that a master to whom an apprentice is bound is entitled to his service, and may reclaim him if he escapes.
That admission surrenders the whole question. To ascertain whether the master who seeks to reclaim a fugitive apprentice, or a fugitive slave, is entitled to his service, we are referred back to the laws of the State from which the fugitive escapes. The right of the owner to the labor of his slave will then be discovered to be as clear as the right of the master to the service of his apprentice. So that the right of property in human beings is really not the question to be decided; but it is whether a person claiming a fugitive is in anyway entitled to his service.
But we take leave of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the glance which we have bestowed upon it, we have seen much with which we might find fault, but we forbear. We earnestly desire to see a perfectly good understanding prevail over the whole country. The question which Mrs. STOWE has discussed in her book is a transcendently great question; but it is a question which belongs to the South, and must be decided there.
Let the Laws be observed; let the Constitution stand. An attempt to evade the one, or overturn the other, can only result in unmixed mischief.
Time brings a solution to all the great questions which affect the fortunes of our race. If the condition of the African race, subjected to servitude in the Southern States, does appear dark to beholders outside of our limits, they cannot fail to see that, under the guidance of that Providence which shapes the destinies of all nations, a reflux influence may yet be turned upon that benighted Continent from which the race originally came. In our own country, let us uphold the Constitution and the Laws, and leave the institutions of the country to be unfolded in the great FUTURE.