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



  Illustrative Drama of Tom v. Legree, under the Law of South Carolina.— Separation of Parent and Child.

  HAVING finished the consideration of the laws which protect the life and limb of the slave, the reader may feel a curiosity to know something of the provisions by which he is protected in regard to food and clothing, and from the exactions of excessive labour. It is true, there are multitudes of men in the Northern States who would say, at once, that such enactments, on the very face of them, must be superfluous and absurd. “What!” they say, “are not the slaves property? and is it likely that any man will impair the market value of his own property by not giving them sufficient food or clothing, or by overworking them?” This process of reasoning appears to have been less convincing to the legislators of Southern States than to gentlemen generally at the North; since, as Judge Taylor says, [Wheeler, p. 220. State v. Sue, Cameron & Norwood's C. Rep. 54.] “the Act of 1786 (Iredell's Revisal, p. 588) does, in the preamble, recognise the fact, that many persons, by cruel treatment of their slaves, cause them to commit crimes for which they are executed; and the judge further explains this language, by saying, “The cruel treatment here alluded to must consist in withholding from them the necessaries of life; and the crimes thus resulting are such as are necessary to furnish them with food and raiment.”

  The State of South Carolina, in the Act of 1740 (see Stroud's Sketch, p. 28), had a section with the following language in its preamble: [Stroud, p. 29] —

  Whereas many owners of slaves, and others who have the care, management, and overseeing of slaves, do confine them so closely to hard labour that they have not sufficient time for natural rest;—

  and the law goes on to enact that the slave shall not work more than fifteen hours a day in summer, and fourteen in winter.


Judge Stroud makes it appear that in three of the slave States the time allotted for work to convicts in prison, whose punishment is to consist in hard labour, cannot exceed ten hours, even in the summer months.

  This was the protective Act of South Carolina, designed to reform the abusive practices of masters who confined their slaves so closely that they had not time for natural rest! What sort of habits of thought do these humane provisions show, in the makers of them? In order to protect the slave from what they consider undue exaction, they humanely provide that he shall be obliged to work only four or five hours longer than the convicts in the prison of the neighbouring State! In the Island of Jamaica, besides many holidays which were accorded by law to the slave, ten hours a day was the extent to which he was compelled by law ordinarily to work.—See Stroud, p. 29.

  With regard to protective Acts concerning food and clothing, Judge Stroud gives the following example from the legislation of South Carolina. The author gives it as quoted by Stroud, p. 32.

  In case any person,&c., who shall be the owner or who shall have the care, government, or charge of any slave or slaves, shall deny, neglect, or refuse to allow such slave or slaves,&c., sufficient clothing, covering, or food, it shall and may be lawful for any person or persons, on behalf of such slave or slaves, to make complaint to the next neighbouring justice in the parish where such slave or slaves live, or are usually employed, * * * and the said justice shall summon the party against whom such complaint shall be made, and shall inquire of, hear, and determine the same; and if the said justice shall find the said complaint to be true, or that such person will not exculpate or clear himself from the charge, by his or her own oath, which such person shall be at liberty to do in all cases where positive proof is not given of the offence, such justice shall and may make such orders upon the same, for the relief of such slave or slaves, as he in his discretion shall think fit; and shall and may set and impose a fine or penalty on any person who shall offend in the premises, in any sum not exceeding twenty pounds current money, for each offence. —2 Brevard's Dig. 241. Also Cobb's Dig. 827.

  A similar law obtains in Louisiana.—(Rev. Stat. 1852, p. 557, § 166.)

  Now, would not anybody think, from the virtuous solemnity and gravity of this Act, that it was intended in some way to amount to something? Let us give a little sketch, to show how much it does amount to. Angelina Grimké Weld, sister to Sarah Grimké, before quoted, gives the following account of the situation of slaves on plantations:*


  And here let me say, that the treatment of plantation slaves cannot be fully known, except by the poor sufferers themselves, and their drivers and overseers. In a multitude of instances, even the master can know very little of the actual condition of his own field-slaves, and his wife and daughters far less. A few facts concerning my own family will show this. Our permanent residence was in Charleston; our country seat (Bellemont) was two hundred miles distant, in the north-western part of the State, where, for some years, our family spent a few months annually. Our plantation was three miles from this family mansion. There all the field-slaves lived and worked. Occasionally—once a month, perhaps —some of the family would ride over to the plantation; but I never visited the fields where the slaves were at work, and knew almost nothing of their condition; but this I do know, that the overseers who had charge of them were generally unprincipled and intemperate men. But I rejoice to know that the general treatment of slaves in that region of country was far milder than on the plantations in the lower country.

  Throughout all the eastern and middle portions of the State, the planters very rarely reside permanently on their plantations. They have almost invariably two residences, and spend less than half the year on their estates. Even while spending a few months on them, politics, field-sports, races, speculations, journeys, visits, company, literary pursuits,&c., absorb so much of their time, that they must, to a considerable extent, take the condition of their slaves on trust, from the reports of their overseers. I make this statement, because these slaveholders (the wealthier class) are, I believe, almost the only ones who visit the North with their families; and Northern opinions of slavery are based chiefly on their testimony.

  With regard to overseers, Miss Grimké's testimony is further borne out by the universal acknowledgment of Southern owners. A description of this class of beings is furnished by Mr. Wirt, in his life of Patrick Henry, page 34. “Last and lowest,” he says [of different classes of society], “a feculum of beings called overseers—a most abject, degraded, unprincipled race.” Now, suppose, while the master is in Charleston, enjoying literary leisure, the slaves on some Bellemont or other plantation, getting tired of being hungry and cold, form themselves into a committee of the whole, to see what is to be done. A broad-shouldered, courageous fellow, whom we will call Tom, declares it is too bad, and he won't stand it any longer; and having by some means become acquainted with this benevolent protective Act, resolves to make an appeal to the horns of this legislative altar. Tom talks stoutly, having just been bought on to the place, and been used to better quarters elsewhere. The women and children perhaps admire, but the venerable elders of the plantation— Sambo, Cudge, Pomp, and old Aunt Dinah—tell him, “he better mind himself, and keep clar o' dat ar.” Tom, being young and progressive, does not regard these conservative


maxims; he is determined that, if there be such a thing as justice to be got, he will have it. After considerable research, he finds some white man in the neighbourhood verdant enough to enter the complaint for him. Master Legree finds himself, one sun-shiny, pleasant morning, walked off to some Justice Dogberry's, to answer to the charge of not giving his niggers enough to eat and wear. We will call the infatuated white man who has undertaken this fool's errand Master Shallow. Let us imagine a scene: Legree standing carelessly with his hands in his pockets, rolling a quid of tobacco in his mouth; Justice Dogberry, seated, in all the majesty of law, reinforced by a decanter of whiskey and some tumblers, intended to assist in illuminating the intellect in such obscure cases.

  Justice Dogberry. Come, gentlemen, take a little something, to begin with. Mr. Legree, sit down; sit down, Mr.—a what's-your-name?—Mr. Shallow.

  Mr. Legree and Mr. Shallow each sit down, and take their tumbler of whiskey and water. After some little conversation, the justice introduces the business as follows:—

  “Now, about this nigger business. Gentlemen, you know the Act of —um—um—where the deuce is that Act? [Fumbling an old law-book.] How plagued did you ever hear of that Act, Shallow? I'm sure I'm forgot all about it; Oh! here 'tis. Well, Mr. Shallow, the Act says you must make proof, you observe.

  Mr. Shallow. [Stuttering and hesitating.] Good laud! why, don't everybody see that them ar niggers are most starved? Only see how ragged they are!

  Justice. I can't say as I've observed it particular. Seem to be very well contented.

  Shallow. [Eagerly.] But just ask Pomp, or Sambo, or Dinah, or Tom!

  Justice Dogberry. [With dignity.] I'm astonished at you, Mr. Shallow! You think of producing negro testimony? I hope I know the law better than that! We must have direct proof, you know.

  Shallow is posed; Legree significantly takes another tumbler of whiskey and water, and Justice Dogberry gives a long ahe-a-um. After a few moments the justice speaks:—

  “Well, after all, I suppose, Mr. Legree, you wouldn't have any objections to swarin' off; that settles it all, you know.”

  As swearing is what Mr. Legree is rather more accustomed to do than anything else that could be named, a more appropriate termination of the affair could not be suggested; and he


swears, accordingly, to any extent, and with any fulness and variety of oath that could be desired; and thus the little affair terminates. But it does not terminate thus for Tom or Sambo, Dinah, or any others who have been alluded to for authority. What will happen to them, when Mr. Legree comes home, had better be left to conjecture.

  It is claimed, by the author of certain paragraphs quoted at the commencement of Part II., that there exist in Louisiana ample protective Acts to prevent the separation of young children from their mothers. This writer appears to be in the enjoyment of an amiable ignorance and unsophisticated innocence with regard to the workings of human society generally, which is, on the whole, rather refreshing. For, on a certain incident in “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” which represented Cassy's little daughter as having been sold from her, he makes the following naïve remark:—

  Now, the reader will perhaps be surprised to know that such an incident as the sale of Cassy apart from Eliza, upon which the whole interest of the foregoing narrative hinges, never could have taken place in Louisiana, and that the bill of sale for Eliza would not have been worth the paper it was written on. Observe, George Shelby states that Eliza was eight or nine years old at the time his father purchased her in New Orleans. Let us again look at the statute-book of Louisiana.

  In the Code Noir we find it set down that—

  “Every person is expressly prohibited from selling separately from their mothers the children who shall not have attained the full age of ten years.”

  And this humane provision is strengthened by a statute, one clause of which runs as follows:—

  “Be it further enacted, that if any person or persons shall sell the mother of any slave child or children under the age of ten years, separate from said child or children, or shall, the mother living, sell any slave child or children of ten years of age or under, separate from said mother, such person or persons shall incur the penalty of the sixth section of this Act.”

  This penalty is a fine of not less than one thousand nor more than two thousand dollars, and imprisonment in the public jail for a period of not less than six months nor more than one year. —Vide Acts of Louisiana, 1 Session, 9th Legislature, 1828-9, No. 24, section 16. (Rev. Stat. 1850, p. 550, sec. 143.)

  What a charming freshness of nature is suggested by this assertion! A thing could not have happened in a certain State, because there is a law against it!

  Has there not been for two years a law forbidding to succour fugitives, or to hinder their arrest? and has not this thing been done thousands of times in all the Northern States, and is not it more and more likely to be done every year? What is a law


against the whole public sentiment of society? and will anybody venture to say that the public sentiment of Louisiana practically goes against separation of families?

  But let us examine a case more minutely, remembering the bearing on it of two great foundation principles of slave jurisprudence: namely, that a slave cannot bring a suit in any case, except in a suit for personal freedom, and this in some States must be brought by a guardian; and that a slave cannot bear testimony in any case in which whites are implicated.

  Suppose Butler wants to sell Cassy's child of nine years. There is a statute forbidding to sell under ten years; what is Cassy to do? She cannot bring suit. Will the State prosecute? Suppose it does; what then? Butler says the child is ten years old; if he pleases, he will say she is ten and a half, or eleven. What is Cassy to do? She cannot testify; besides, she is utterly in Butler's power. He may tell her that if she offers to stir in the affair, he will whip the child within an inch of its life; and she knows he can do it, and that there is no help for it; he may lock her up in a dungeon, sell her on to a distant plantation, or do any other despotic thing he chooses, and there is nobody to say—Nay.

  How much does the protective statute amount to for Cassy? It may be very well as a piece of advice to the public, or as a decorous expression of opinion; but one might as well try to stop the current of the Mississippi with a bulrush as the tide of trade in human beings with such a regulation.

  We think that, by this time, the reader will agree with us that the less the defenders of slavery say about protective statutes the better.