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



  THUS far by way of considering the protective Acts of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

  Certain miscellaneous protective Acts of various other States will now be cited, merely as specimens of the spirit of legislation.

  In South Carolina, the Act of 1740 punished the wilful, deliberate murder of a slave by disfranchisement, and by a fine of seven hundred pounds current money, or, in default of payment, imprisonment for seven years. [Stroud, p. 39. 2 Brevard's Digest, p.241.] But the wilful murder of a slave, in the sense contemplated in this law, is a crime which would not often occur. The kind of murder which was most frequent among masters or overseers was guarded against by another section of the same Act—how adequately the reader will judge for himself from the following quotation:—

  [Stroud's Sketch, p. 40. 2 Brevard's Digest, 241. James' Digest, 392.] If any person shall, on a sudden heat or passion, or by undue correction, kill his own slave, or the slave of any other person, he shall forfeit the sum of three hundred and fifty pounds current money.

  In 1821 the Act punishing the wilful murder of the slave only with fine or imprisonment was mainly repealed, and it was enacted that such crime should be punished by death; but the latter section, which relates to killing the slave in sudden heat or passion, or by undue correction, has been altered only by diminishing the pecuniary penalty to a fine of five hundred dollars, authorising also imprisonment for six months.

  The next protective statute to be noticed is the following from the Act of 1740, South Carolina:—


  In case any person shall wilfully cut out the tongue, put out the eye, * * *

  Stroud, p.240 2 Brevard's Digest, 241.

  or cruelly scald, burn, or deprive any slave of any limb or member, or shall inflict any other cruel punishment, other than by whipping or beating with a horsewhip, cow-skin, switch, or small stick, or by putting irons on, or confining or imprisoning such slave, every such person shall, for every such offence, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.

  The language of this law, like many other of these protective enactments, is exceedingly suggestive. The first suggestion that occurs is, What sort of an institution, and what sort of a state of society is it, that called out a law worded like this? Laws are generally not made against practices that do not exist, and exist with some degree of frequency.

  The advocates of slavery are very fond of comparing it to the apprentice system of England and America. Let us suppose that in the British Parliament, or in a New England Legislature, the following law is proposed, under the title of “An Act for the Protection of Apprentices,” &c.:—

  In case any person shall wilfully cut out the tongue, put out the eye, or cruelly scald, burn, or deprive any apprentice of any limb or member, or shall inflict any other cruel punishment, other than by whipping or beating with a horsewhip, cow-skin, switch, or small stick, or by putting irons on, or confining or imprisoning such apprentice, every such person shall, for every such offence, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.

  What a sensation such a proposed law would make in England may be best left for Englishmen to say; but in New England it would simply constitute the proposer a candidate for Bedlam. Yet that such a statute is necessary in South Carolina is evident enough, if we reflect that, because there is no such statute in Virginia, it has been decided that a wretch who perpetrates all these enormities on a slave cannot even be indicted for it, unless the slave dies.

  But let us look further. What is to be the penalty when any of these fiendish things are done?

  Why, the man forfeits a hundred pounds, current money. Surely he ought to pay as much as that for doing so very unnecessary an act, when the Legislature bountifully allows him to inflict any torture which revengeful ingenuity could devise, by means of horsewhip, cowskin, switch, or small stick, or putting irons on, or confining and imprisoning. One would surely think that here was sufficient scope and variety of legalised means of torture to satisfy any ordinary appetite for vengeance. It would appear decidedly that any more piquant varieties of


agony ought to be an extra charge. The advocates of slavery are fond of comparing the situation of the slave with that of the English labourer. We are not aware that the English labourer has been so unfortunate as to be protected by any enactment like this since the days of villeinage.

  Judge Stroud says that the same law, substantially, has been

  Stroud's Sketch, p.41.

  1 Mar. Digest, 654.

  adopted in Louisiana. It is true that the civil code of Louisiana thus expresses its humane intentions:—

  The slave is entirely subject to the will of his master, who may correct and chastise him, though not with unusual rigour, nor so as to maim or mutilate him, or to expose him to the danger of loss of life, or to cause his death. —Civil Code of Louisiana, Article 173.

  The expression “unusual rigour” is suggestive again. It will afford large latitude for a jury, in States where slaves are in the habit of dying under moderate correction; where outlawed slaves may be killed by any means which any person thinks fit; and where laws have to be specifically made against scalding, burning, cutting out the tongue, putting out the eye,&c. What will be thought unusual rigour? This is a question, certainly, upon which persons in States not so constituted can have no means of forming an opinion.

  In one of the newspaper extracts with which we prefaced our account, the following protective Act of Louisiana is alluded to as being particularly satisfactory and efficient. We give it as quoted by Judge Stroud in his Sketch, p. 58, giving his reference:—

  No master shall be compelled to sell his slave, but in one of two cases, to wit: the first, when, being only co-proprietor of the slave, his co-proprietor demands the sale, in order to make partition of the property; second, when the master shall be CONVICTED of cruel treatment of his slave, AND THE JUDGE SHALL DEEM IT PROPER TO PRONOUNCE, besides the penalty established for such cases, that the slave shall be sold at public auction, in order to place him out of the reach of the power which his master has abused. —Civil Code, Article 192.

  The question for a jury to determine in this case is, What is cruel treatment of a slave? Now, if all these barbarities which have been sanctioned by the legislative Acts which we have quoted are not held to be cruel treatment, the question is, What is cruel treatment of a slave?

  Everything that fiendish barbarity could desire can be effected under the protection of the law of South Carolina, which, as we have just shown, exists also in Louisiana. It is true the law


restrains from some particular forms of cruelty. If any person has a mind to scald or burn his slave—and it seems, by the statute, that there have been such people—these statutes merely provide that he shall do it in decent privacy; for, as the very keystone of Southern jurisprudence is the rejection of coloured, testimony, such an outrage, if perpetrated most deliberately in the presence of hundreds of slaves, could not be proved upon the master.

  It is to be supposed that the fiendish people whom such statutes have in view will generally have enough of common sense not to perform it in the presence of white witnesses, since this simple act of prudence will render them entirely safe in doing whatever they have a mind to. We are told, it is true, as we have been reminded by our friend in the newspaper before quoted, that in Louisiana the deficiency caused by the rejection of negro testimony is supplied by the following most remarkable provision of the Code Noir:—

  If any slave be mutilated, beaten, or ill-treated, contrary to the true intent and meaning of this section, when no one shall be present, in such case the owner or other person having the charge or management of said slave thus mutilated, shall be deemed responsible and guilty of the said offence, and shall be prosecuted without further evidence, unless the said owner, or other person so as aforesaid, can prove the contrary by means of good and sufficient evidence, or can clear himself by his own oath, which said oath every Court under the cognizance of which such offence shall have been examined and tried is by this Act authorised to administer. —Code Noir. Crimes and Offences, 56, xvii. Rev. Stat. 1852, p. 550, s. 141.

  Would one have supposed that sensible people could ever publish as a law such a specimen of utter legislative nonsense—so ridiculous on the very face of it!

  The object is to bring to justice those fiendish people who burn, scald, mutilate,&c. How is this done? Why, it is enacted that the fact of finding the slave in this condition shall be held presumption against the owner or overseer, unless—unless what? Why, unless he will prove to the contrary—or swear to the contrary, it is no matter which—either will answer the purpose. The question is, If a man is bad enough to do these things, will he not be bad enough to swear falsely? As if men who are the incarnation of cruelty, as supposed by the deeds in question, would not have sufficient intrepidity of conscience to compass a false oath!

  What was this law ever made for? Can any one imagine?

  Upon this whole subject we may quote the language of Judge


Stroud, who thus sums up the whole amount of the protective laws for the slave in the United States of America:—

  Upon a fair review of what has been written on the subject of this proposition, the result is found to be—that the master's power to inflict corporal punishment to any extent, short of life and limb, is fully sanctioned by law, in all the slave-holding States; that the master, in at least two States, is expressly protected in using the horse-whip and cowskin as instruments for beating his slave; that he may with entire impunity, in the same States, load his slave with irons, or subject him to perpetual imprisonment, whenever he may so choose; that, for cruelly scalding, wilfully cutting out the tongue, putting out an eye, and for any other dismemberment, if proved, a fine of one hundred pounds currency only is incurred in South Carolina; that, though in all the States the wilful, deliberate, and malicious murder of the slave is now directed to be punished with death, yet, as in the case of a white offender, none except whites can give evidence, a conviction can seldom, if ever, take place.—Stroud's Sketch, p. 43.

  One very singular antithesis of two laws of Louisiana will still further show that deadness of public sentiment on cruelty to the slave which is an inseparable attendant on the system. It will be recollected that the remarkable protective law of South Carolina, with respect to scalding, burning, cutting out the tongue, and putting out the eye of the slave, has been substantially enacted in Louisiana; and that the penalty for a man's doing these things there, if he has not sense enough to do it privately, is not more than five hundred dollars.

  Now, compare this other statute of Louisiana (Rev. Stat. 1852, p. 552, § 151):—

  If any person or persons,&c., shall cut or break any iron chain or collar, which any master of slaves shall have used, in order to prevent the running away or escape of any such slave or slaves, such person or persons so offending shall, on conviction,&c., be fined not less than two hundred dollars, nor exceeding one thousand dollars [Stroud, p. 41.]; and suffer imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, nor less than six months.—Act of Assembly of March 6, 1819. Pamphlet, p. 64.

  Some Englishmen may naturally ask, “What is this iron collar which the Legislature have thought worthy of being protected by a special Act?” On this subject will be presented the testimony of an unimpeachable witness, Miss Sarah M. Grimké, a personal friend of the author. “Miss Grimké is a daughter of the late Judge Grimké, of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, and sister of the late Hon. Thomas S. Grimké.” She is now a member of the Society of Friends, and resides in Bellville, New Jersey. The statement given is of a kind that its author did not mean to give, nor wish to give, and never would have given, had it not been made necessary to illustrate this


passage in the slave-law. The account occurs in a statement which Miss Grimké furnished to her brother-in-law, Mr. Weld, and has been before the public ever since 1839, in his work entitled Slavery as It is, p. 22.

  A handsome mulatto woman, about eighteen or twenty years of age, whose independent spirit could not brook the degradation of slavery, was in the habit of running away: for this offence she had been repeatedly sent by her master and mistress to be whipped by the keeper of the Charleston workhouse. This had been done with such inhuman severity as to lacerate her back in a most shocking manner; a finger could not be laid between the cuts. But the love of liberty was too strong to be annihilated by torture; and, as a last resort, she was whipped at several different times, and kept a close prisoner. A heavy iron collar, with three long prongs projecting from it, was placed round her neck, and a strong and sound front tooth was extracted, to serve as a mark to describe her, in case of escape. Her sufferings at this time were agonizing; she could lie in no position but on her back, which was sore from scourgings, as I can testify from personal inspection; and her only place of rest was the floor, on a blanket. These outrages were committed in a family where the mistress daily read the Scriptures, and assembled her children for family worship. She was accounted, and was really, so far as alms-giving was concerned, a charitable woman, and tender-hearted to the poor; and yet this suffering slave, who was the seamstress of the family, was continually in her presence, sitting in her chamber to sew, or engaged in her other household work, with her lacerated and bleeding back, her mutilated mouth, and heavy iron collar, without, so far as appeared, exciting any feelings of compassion.

  This iron collar the author has often heard of from sources equally authentic.* That one will meet with it every day in walking the streets, is not probable; but that it must have been used with some great degree of frequency, is evident from the fact of a law being thought necessary to protect it. But look at the penalty of the two protective laws! The fiendish cruelties described in the Act of South Carolina cost the perpetrator not more than five hundred dollars, if he does them before white people. The act of humanity costs from two hundred to one thousand dollars, and imprisonment from six months to two years, according to discretion of Court! What public sentiment was it which made these laws?