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



  THE writer has expressed the opinion that the American law of slavery, taken throughout, is a more severe one than that of any other civilised nation, ancient or modern, if we except, perhaps, that of the Spartans. She has not at hand the means of comparing French and Spanish slave-codes; but, as it is a common remark that Roman slavery was much more severe than any that has ever existed in America, it will be well to compare the Roman with the American law. We therefore present a description of the Roman slave-law, as quoted by William Jay, Esq., from Blair's “Inquiry into the State of Slavery among the Romans,” giving such references to American authorities as will enable the reader to make his own comparison, and to draw his own inferences.

  I. The slave had no protection against the avarice, rage, or lust of the master, whose authority was founded in absolute property; and the bondman was viewed less as a human being subject to arbitrary dominion, than as an inferior animal dependent wholly on the will of his owner.

  See law of South Carolina, in Stroud's “Sketch of the Laws of Slavery,” p. 23.

  Slaves shall be deemed, sold, taken, reputed and adjudged in law to be chattels personal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatever. [2 Brev. Dig. 219. Prince's Dig. 446. Cobb's Dig. 971.]

  A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. [Lou. Civil Code, art. 35. Stroud's Sketch, p. 22.]

  Such obedience is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body. There is nothing else which can operate to produce the effect. The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect. [Judge Ruffin's Decision in the Case of The State v. Mann. Wheeler's Law of Slavery, 246.]


  II. At first, the master possessed the uncontrolled power of life and death. At a very early period in Virginia, the power of life over slaves was given by statute. [Judge Clarke, in case of State of Miss. v. Jones. Wheeler, 252.]

  III. He might kill, mutilate, or torture his slaves, for any or no offence; he might force them to become gladiators or prostitutes.

  The privilege of killing is now somewhat abridged; as to mutilation and torture, see the case of Souther v. The Commonwealth, 7 Grattan, 673, quoted in Chapter III. above. Also, State v. Mann, in the same chapter, from Wheeler, p. 244.

  IV. The temporary unions of male with female slaves were formed and dissolved at his command; families and friends were separated when he pleased.

  See the decision of Judge Mathews, in the case of Girod v. Lewis, Wheeler, 199:

  It is clear that slaves have no legal capacity to assent to any contract. With the consent of their master, they may marry, and their moral power to agree to such a contract or connexion as that of marriage cannot be doubted; but whilst in a state of slavery it cannot produce any civil effect, because slaves are deprived of all civil rights.

  See also the chapter below on “the Separation of Families,” and the files of any Southern newspaper, passim.

  V. The laws recognised no obligation upon the owners of slaves, to furnish them with food and clothing, or to take care of them in sickness.

  The extent to which this deficiency in the Roman law has been supplied in the American, by “protective Acts,” has been exhibited above.*

  VI. Slaves could have no property but by the sufferance of their master, for whom they acquired everything, and with whom they could form no engagements which could be binding on him.

  The following chapter will show how far American legislation is in advance of that of the Romans, in that it makes it a penal offence on the part of the master to permit his slave to hold property, and a crime on the part of the slave to be so permitted. For the present purpose, we give an extract from the Civil Code of Louisiana, as quoted by Judge Stroud:—


  A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labour; he can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to his master. [Civil Code, Article 35. Stroud, p. 22.]

  According to Judge Ruffin, a slave is “one doomed in his own person, and his posterity, to live without knowledge, and without the capacity to make anything his own, and to toil that another may reap the fruits.” [Wheeler's Law of Slavery, p. 246. State v. Mann.]

  With reference to the binding power of engagements between master and slave, the following decisions from the United States Digest are in point (7, p. 449):—

  All the acquisitions of the slave in possession are the property of his master,

  Gist v. Toohey, 2 Rich. 424.

  notwithstanding the promise of his master that the slave shall have certain of them.

  A slave paid money which he had earned over and above his wages, for


  the purchase of his children, into the hands of B, and B purchased such children with the money. Held that the master of such slave was entitled to recover the money of B.

  VII. The master might transfer his rights by either sale or gift, or might bequeath them by will.

  Slaves shall be deemed, sold, taken, reputed, and adjudged in law, to be chattelspersonal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever. [Law of S. Carolina. Cobb's Digest, 971.]

  VIII. A master selling, giving, or bequeathing a slave, sometimes made it a provision that he should never be carried abroad, or that he should be manumitted on a fixed day; or that, on the other hand, he should never be emancipated, or that he should be kept in chains for life.

  We hardly think that a provision that a slave should never be emancipated, or that he should be kept in chains for life, would be sustained. A provision that the slave should not be carried out of the State, or sold, and that on the happening of either event he should be free, has been sustained. [Williams v. Ash, 1 How, U. S. Rep. 1. 5 U. S. Dig. 792, s. 5.]

  The remainder of Blair's account of Roman slavery is devoted rather to the practices of masters than the state of the law itself. Surely the writer is not called upon to exhibit in the society of enlightened, republican and Christian America, in the nineteenth century, a parallel to the atrocities committed in pagan Rome, under the sceptre of the persecuting Cæsars, when the amphitheatre was the favourite resort of the most refined of her citizens, as well as the great “school of morals” for the multitude. A few references only will show, as far as we desire


to show, how much safer it is now to trust man with absolute power over his fellow, than it was then.

  IX. While slaves turned the handmill they were generally chained, and had a broad wooden collar, to prevent them from eating the grain. The FURCA, which in later language means a gibbet, was, in older dialect, used to denote a wooden fork or collar, which was made to bear upon their shoulders, or around their necks, as a mark of disgrace, as much as an uneasy burden.

  The reader has already seen in Chapter V., that this instrument of degradation has been in use in our own day, in certain of the slave States, under the express sanction and protection of statute laws; although the material is different, and the construction doubtless improved by modern ingenuity.

  X. Fetters and chains were much used for punishment or restraint, and were, in some instances, worn by slaves during life, through the sole authority of the master. Porters at the gates of the rich were generally chained. Field-labourers worked for the most part in irons posterior to the first ages of the republic.

  The legislature of South Carolina specially sanctions the same practices, by excepting them in the “protective enactment,” which inflicts the penalty of one hundred pounds “in case any person shall wilfully cut out the tongue,” &c., of a slave, “or shall inflict any other cruel punishment other than by whipping or beating with a horse-whip, cowskin, switch, or small stick, or by putting irons on, or confining or imprisoning such slave.”

  XI. Some persons made it their business to catch runaway slaves.

  That such a profession, constituted by the highest legislative authority in the nation, and rendered respectable by the commendation expressed or implied of statesmen and divines, and of newspapers political and religious, exists in our midst, especially in the free States, is a fact which is, day by day, making itself too apparent to need testimony. The matter seems, however, to be managed in a more perfectly open and business-like manner in the State of Alabama than elsewhere. Mr. Jay cites the following advertisement from the Sumpter County (Ala.) Whig:


  The undersigned having bought the entire pack of Negro Dogs (of the Hay and Allen Stock), he now proposes to catch runaway negroes. His charges will be Three Dollars per day for hunting, and Fifteen Dollars for catching a runaway. He resides three and one-half miles north of Livingston, near the lower Jones Bluff-road.

WILLIAM GAMBEL. Nov. 6, 1845. 6m.


  The following is copied, verbatim et literatim, from the Dadeville (Ala.) Banner, of November, 1852. The Dadeville Banner is “devoted to politics, literature, education, agriculture, &c.”


  The undersigned having an excellent pack of Hounds, for trailing and catching runaway slaves, informs the public that his prices in future will be as follows for such services:—


For each day employed in hunting or trailing 2.50
For catching each slave 10.00
For going over ten miles and catching slaves 20.00

  If sent for, the above prices will be exacted in cash. The subscriber resides one mile and a half south of Dadeville, Ala.

B. BLACK. Dadeville, Sept. 1, 1852. 1tf.

  XII. The runaway, when taken, was severely punished by authority of the master, or by the judge at his desire; sometimes with crucifixion, amputation of a foot, or by being sent to fight as a gladiator with wild beasts; but most frequently by being branded on the brow with letters indicative of his crime.

  That severe punishment would be the lot of the recaptured runaway, every one would suppose, from the “absolute power” of the master to inflict it. That it is inflicted in many cases, it is equally easy and needless to prove. The peculiar forms of punishment mentioned above are now very much out of vogue, but the following advertisement by Mr. Micajah Ricks, in the Raleigh (N. C.) Standard of July 18th, 1838, shows that something of classic taste in torture still lingers in our degenerate days.

  Run away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

  It is charming to notice the naïf betrayal of literary pride on the part of Mr. Ricks. He did not wish that letter M to be taken as a specimen of what he could do in the way of writing. The creature would not hold still, and he fears the M may be illegible.

  The above is only one of a long list of advertisements of maimed, cropped, and branded negroes, in the book of Mr. Weld, entitled American Slavery as It is, p. 77.

  XIII. Cruel masters sometimes hired torturers by profession, or had such persons in their establishments, to assist them in punishing their slaves. The noses and ears, and teeth of slaves, were often in danger from an enraged owner; and sometimes the eyes of a great offender were put out. Crucifixion was very frequently made the fate of a wretched slave for a trifling misconduct, or from mere caprice.

  For justification of such practices as these, we refer again to


that horrible list of maimed and mutilated men, advertised by slaveholders themselves, in Weld's American Slavery as It is, p. 77. We recall the reader's attention to the evidence of the monster Kephart, given in Part I. As to crucifixion, we presume that there are wretches whose religious scruples would deter them from this particular form of torture, who would not hesitate to inflict equal cruelties by other means; as the Greek pirate, during a massacre in the season of Lent, was conscience-striken at having tasted a drop of blood. We presume?—Let any one but read again, if he can, the sickening details of that twelve hours' torture of Souther's slave, and say how much more merciful is American slavery than Roman.

  The last item in Blair's description of Roman slavery is the following:—

  By a decree passed by the Senate, if a master was murdered when his slaves might possibly have aided him, all his household within reach were held as implicated, and deserving of death; and Tacitus relates an instance in which a family of four hundred were all executed.

  To this alone, of all the atrocities of the slavery of old heathen Rome, do we fail to find a parallel in the slavery of the United States of America.

  There are other respects, in which American legislation has reached a refinement in tyranny of which the despots of those early days never conceived. The following is the language of Gibbon:—

  Hope, the best comfort of our imperfect condition, was not denied to the Roman slave; and if he had any opportunity of rendering himself either useful or agreeable, he might very naturally expect that the diligence and fidelity of a few years would be rewarded with the inestimable gift of freedom. * * * Without destroying the distinction of ranks, a distant prospect of freedom and honours was presented even to those whom pride and prejudice almost disdained to number among the human species.*

  The youths of promising genius were instructed in the arts and sciences, and their price was ascertained by the degree of their skill and talents. Almost every profession, either liberal or mechanical, might be found in the household of an opulent senator.*

  The following chapter will show how “the best comfort” which Gibbon knew for human adversity is taken away from the American slave; how he is denied the commonest privileges of education and mental improvement, and how the whole tendency of the unhappy system, under which he is in bondage, is to take from him the consolations of religion itself, and to degrade him from our common humanity, and common brotherhood with the Son of God.