The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Boston: Jewett, 1854



  TOPSY stands as the representative of a large class of the children who are growing up under the institution of slavery—quick, active, subtle and ingenious, apparently utterly devoid of principle and conscience, keenly penetrating, by an instinct which exists in the childish mind, the degradation of their condition, and the utter hopelessness of rising above it; feeling the black skin on them, like the mark of Cain, to be a sign of reprobation and infamy, and urged on by a kind of secret desperation to make their “calling and election” in sin “sure.”

  Christian people have often been perfectly astonished and discouraged, as Miss Ophelia was, in the attempt to bring up such children decently and Christianly, under a state of things which takes away every stimulant which God meant should operate healthfully on the human mind.

  We are not now speaking of the Southern States merely, but of the New England States; for, startling as it may appear, slavery is not yet wholly abolished in the free States of the North. The most unchristian part of it, that which gives to it all the bitterness and all the sting, is yet, in a great measure, unrepealed; it is the practical denial to the negro of the rights of human brotherhood. In consequence of this, Topsy is a character which may be found at the North as well as at the South.

  In conducting the education of negro, mulatto, and quadroon children, the writer has often observed this fact—that, for a certain time, and up to a certain age, they kept equal pace with, and were often superior to, the white children with whom they were associated; but that there came a time when they became indifferent to learning, and made no further progress. This was invariably at the age when they were old enough to reflect upon life, and to perceive that society had no place to offer them for which anything more would be requisite than the rudest and most elementary knowledge.

  Let us consider how it is with our own children; how few


of them would ever acquire an education from the mere love of learning.

  In the process necessary to acquire a handsome style of handwriting, to master the intricacies of any language, or to conquer the difficulties of mathematical study, how often does the perseverance of the child flag, and need to be stimulated by his parents and teachers by such considerations as these: “It will be necessary for you, in such or such a position in life, to possess this or that acquirement or accomplishment. How could you ever become a merchant without understanding accounts? How could you enter the learned professions without understanding languages? If you are ignorant and uninformed, you cannot take rank as a gentleman in society.”

  Does not everyone know that, without the stimulus which teachers and parents thus continually present, multitudes of children would never gain a tolerable education? And is it not the absence of all such stimulus which has prevented the negro child from an equal advance?

  It is often objected to the negro race that they are frivolous and vain, passionately fond of show, and are interested only in trifles. And who is to blame for all this? Take away all high aims, all noble ambition, from any class, and what is left for them to be interested in but trifles?

  The present Attorney-General of Liberia, Mr. Lewis, is a man who commands the highest respect for talent and ability in his position; yet, while he was in America, it is said that, like many other young coloured men, he was distinguished only for foppery and frivolity. What made the change in Lewis after he went to Liberia? Who does not see the answer? Does anyone wish to know what is inscribed on the seal which keeps the great stone over the sepulchre of African mind? It is this—which was so truly said by poor Topsy—“NOTHING BUT A NIGGER!”

  It is this, burnt into the soul by the branding-iron of cruel and unchristian scorn, that is a sorer and deeper wound than all the physical evils of slavery together.

  There never was a slave who did not feel it. Deep, deep down in the dark still waters of his soul is the conviction, heavier, bitterer than all others, that he is not regarded as a man. On this point may be introduced the testimony of one who has known the wormwood and the gall of slavery by bitter experience. The following letter has been received from Dr. Pennington, in relation to some inquiries of the author:—


  New York, 50, Laurens-street, November 30, 1852.

  ESTEEMED MADAM,—I have duly received your kind letter in answer to mine of the 15th instant, in which you state that you “have an intense curiosity to know how far you have rightly divined the heart of the slave.” You give me your idea in these words: “There lies buried down in the heart of the most seemingly careless and stupid slave a bleeding spot that bleeds and aches, though he could scarcely tell why; and that this sore spot is the degradation of his position.”

  After escaping from the plantation of Dr. Tilghman, in Washington County, Md., where I was held as a slave, and worked as a blacksmith, I came to the State of Pennsylvania, and, after experiencing there some of the vicissitudes referred to in my little published narrative, I came into New York State, bringing in my mind a certain indescribable feeling of wretchedness. They used to say of me at Dr. Tilghman's, “That blacksmith Jemmy is a 'cute fellow; still water runs deep.” But I confess that “blacksmith Jemmy” was not 'cute enough to understand the cause of his own wretchedness. The current of the still water may have run deep, but it did not reach down to that awful bed of lava.

  At times I thought it occasioned by the lurking fear of betrayal. There was no Vigilance Committee at the time—there were but anti-slavery men. I came North with my counsels in my own cautious breast. I married a wife, and did not tell her I was a fugitive. None of my friends knew it. I knew not the means of safety, and hence I was constantly in fear of meeting with some one who would betray me.

  It was fully two years before I could hold up my head; but still that feeling was in my mind. In 1846, after opening my bosom as a fugitive to John Hooker, Esq., I felt this much relief—“Thank God, there is one brother man in hard old Connecticut that knows my troubles.”

  Soon after this, when I sailed to the island of Jamaica, and on landing there saw coloured men in all the stations of civil, social, commercial life, where I had seen white men in this country, that feeling of wretchedness experienced a sensible relief, as if some feverish sore had been just reached by just the right kind of balm. There was before my eye evidence that a coloured man is more than “a nigger.” I went into the House of Assembly at Spanishtown, where fifteen out of forty-five members were coloured men. I went into the courts, where I saw in the jury-box coloured and white men together, coloured and white lawyers at the bar. I went into the Common Council of Kingston; there I found men of different colours. So in all the counting-rooms,&c.&c.

  But still there was this drawback. Somebody says, “This is nothing but a nigger island.” Now, then, my old trouble came back again, “a nigger among niggers is but a nigger still.”

  In 1849, when I undertook my second visit to Great Britain, I resolved to prolong and extend my travel and intercourse with the best class of men, with a view to see if I could banish that troublesome old ghost entirely out of my mind. In England, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany, Belgium, and Prussia, my whole power has been concentrated on this object: “I'll be a man, and I'll kill off this enemy which has haunted me these twenty years and more.” I believe I have succeeded in some good degree; at least, I have now no more trouble on the score of equal manhood with the whites. My European tour was certainly useful,


because there the trial was fair and honourable. I had nothing to complain of. I got what was due to man, and I was expected to do what was due from man to man. I sought not to be treated as a pet. I put myself into the harness, and wrought manfully in the first pulpits, and the platforms in peace congresses, conventions, anniversaries, commencements, &c.; and in these exercises that rusty old iron came out of my soul, and went “clean away.”

  You say again you have never seen a slave, however careless and merryhearted, who had not this sore place, and that did not shrink or get angry if a finger was laid on it. I see that you have been a close observer of negro nature.

  So far as I understand your idea, I think you are perfectly correct in the impression you have received, as explained in your note.

  O Mrs. Stowe, slavery is an awful system! It takes man as God made him; it demolishes him, and then mis-creates him, or perhaps I should say mal-creates him!

  Wishing you good health and good success in your arduous work,

I am yours, respectfully, J. W. C. PENNINGTON.

  Mrs. H. B. Stowe.

  People of intelligence, who have had the care of slaves, have often made this remark to the writer: “They are a singular, whimsical people; you can do a great deal more with them by humouring some of their prejudices than by bestowing on them the most substantial favours.” On inquiring what these prejudices were, the reply would be, “They like to have their weddings elegantly celebrated, and to have a good deal of notice taken of their funerals, and to give and go to parties dressed and appearing like white people; and they will often put up with material inconveniences, and suffer themselves to be worked very hard, if they are humoured in these respects.”

  Can anyone think of this without compassion? Poor souls! willing to bear with so much for simply this slight acknowledgment of their common humanity. To honour their weddings and funerals is, in some sort, acknowledging that they are human, and therefore they prize it. Hence we see the reason of the passionate attachment which often exists in a faithful slave to a good master; it is, in fact, a transfer of his identity to his master. A stern law, and an unchristian public sentiment, has taken away his birthright of humanity, erased his name from the catalogue of men, and made him an anomalous creature—neither man nor brute. When a kind master recognises his humanity, and treats him as a humble companion and a friend, there is no end to the devotion and gratitude which he thus excites. He is to the slave a deliverer and a saviour from the curse which lies on his hapless race. Deprived of all legal rights and privileges, all opportunity or hope of personal advancement or honour, he transfers, as it were, his whole


existence into his master's, and appropriates his rights, his position, his honour, as his own; and thus enjoys a kind of reflected sense of what it might be to be a man himself. Hence it is that the appeal to the more generous part of the negro character is seldom made in vain.

  An acquaintance of the writer was married to a gentleman in Louisiana, who was the proprietor of some eight hundred slaves. He, of course, had a large train of servants in his domestic establishment. When about to enter upon her duties, she was warned that the servants were all so thievish that she would be under the necessity, in common with all other housekeepers, of keeping everything under lock and key. She, however, announced her intention of training her servants in such a manner as to make this unnecessary. Her ideas were ridiculed as chimerical, but she resolved to carry them into practice. The course she pursued was as follows:—She called all the family servants together; told them that it would be a great burden and restraint upon her to be obliged to keep everything locked from them; that she had heard that they were not at all to be trusted, but that she could not help hoping that they were much better than they had been represented. She told them that she should provide abundantly for all their wants, and then that she should leave her stores unlocked, and trust to their honour.

  The idea that they were supposed capable of having any honour struck a new chord at once in every heart. The servants appeared most grateful for the trust, and there was much public spirit excited, the older and graver ones exerting themselves to watch over the children, that nothing might be done to destroy this new-found treasure of honour.

  At last, however, the lady discovered that some depredations had been made on her cake by some of the juvenile part of the establishment; she, therefore, convened all the servants, and stated the fact to them. She remarked that it was not on account of the value of the cake that she felt annoyed, but that they must be sensible that it would not be pleasant for her to have it indiscriminately fingered and handled, and that, therefore, she should set some cake out upon a table, or some convenient place, and beg that all those who were disposed to take it would go there and help themselves, and allow the rest to remain undisturbed in the closet. She states that the cake stood upon the table and dried, without a morsel of it being touched, and that she never afterwards had any trouble in this respect.

  A little time after, a new carriage was bought, and one night the leather boot of it was found to be missing. Before her


husband had time to take any steps on the subject, the servants of the family had called a convention among themselves, and instituted an inquiry into the offence. The boot was found and promptly restored, though they would not reveal to their master and mistress the name of the offender.

  One other anecdote which this lady related illustrates that peculiar devotion of a slave to a good master, to which allusion has been made. Her husband met with his death by a sudden and melancholy accident. He had a personal attendant and confidential servant who had grown up with him from childhood. This servant was so overwhelmed with grief as to be almost stupified. On the day of the funeral a brother of his deceased master inquired of him if he had performed a certain commission for his mistress. The servant said that he had forgotten it. Not perceiving his feelings at the moment, the gentleman replied, “I am surprised that you should neglect any command of your mistress, when she is in such affliction.”

  This remark was the last drop in the full cup. The poor fellow fell to the ground entirely insensible, and the family were obliged to spend nearly two hours employing various means to restore his vitality. The physician accounted for his situation by saying that there had been such a rush of all the blood in the body towards the heart, that there was actual danger of a rupture of that organ—a literal death by a broken heart.

  Some thoughts may be suggested by Miss Ophelia's conscientious but unsuccessful efforts in the education of Topsy.

  Society has yet need of a great deal of enlightening as to the means of restoring the vicious and degraded to virtue.

  It has been erroneously supposed that with brutal and degraded natures only coarse and brutal measures could avail; and yet it has been found, by those who have most experience, that their success with this class of society has been just in proportion to the delicacy and kindliness with which they have treated them.

  Lord Shaftesbury, who has won so honourable a fame by his benevolent interest in the efforts made for the degraded lower classes of his own land, says, in a recent letter to the author:—

  You are right about Topsy; our ragged schools will afford you many instances of poor children, hardened by kicks, insults and neglect, moved to tears and docility by the first word of kindness. It opens new feelings, developes, as it were a new nature, and brings the wretched outcast into the family of man.

  Recent efforts which have been made among unfortunate females in some of the worst districts of New York show the


same thing. What is it that rankles deepest in the breast of fallen woman, that makes her so hopeless and irreclaimable? It is that burning consciousness of degradation which stings worse than cold or hunger, and makes her shrink from the face of the missionary and the philanthropist. They who have visited these haunts of despair and wretchedness have learned that they must touch gently the shattered harp of the human soul, if they would string it again to divine music; that they must encourage self-respect, and hope, and sense of character, or the bonds of death can never be broken.

  Let us examine the gospel of Christ, and see on what principles its appeals are constructed. Of what nature are those motives which have melted our hearts and renewed our wills? Are they not appeals to the most generous and noble instincts of our nature? Are we not told of One fairer than the sons of men—One reigning in immortal glory, who loved us so that he could bear pain, and want, and shame, and death itself, for our sake?

  When Christ speaks to the soul, does he crush one of its nobler faculties? Does he taunt us with our degradation, our selfishness, our narrowness of view, and feebleness of intellect, compared with his own? Is it not true that he not only saves us from our sins, but saves us in a way most considerate, most tender, most regardful of our feelings and sufferings? Does not the Bible tell us that, in order to fulfil his office of Redeemer the more perfectly, he took upon him the condition of humanity, and endured the pains, and wants, and temptations of a mortal existence, that he might be to us a sympathising, appreciating friend, “touched with the feelings of our infirmities,” and cheering us gently on in the hard path of returning virtue?

  Oh, when shall we, who have received so much of Jesus Christ, learn to repay it in acts of kindness to our poor brethren? When shall we be Christ-like, and not man-like, in our efforts to reclaim the fallen and wandering?