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



"A refinement in humanity of doubtful policy."
— B. F. HUNT.

  THE author takes no pleasure in presenting to her readers the shocking details of the following case. But it seems necessary to exhibit what were the actual workings of the ancient law of South Carolina, which has been characterised as one “conformed to the policy, and approved by the wisdom,” of the fathers of that State, and the reform of which has been called “a refinement in humanity of doubtful policy.”

  It is well, also, to add the charge of Judge Wilds, partly for its intrinsic literary merit and the nobleness of its sentiments, but principally because it exhibits such a contrast as could scarcely be found elsewhere between the judge's high and indignant sense of justice and the shameful impotence and imbecility of the laws under which he acted.

  The case was brought to the author's knowledge by a letter from a gentleman of Pennsylvania, from which the following is an extract:—

  Some time between the years 1807 and 1810, there was lying in the harbour of Charleston a ship commanded by a man named Slater. His crew were slaves; one of them committed some offence, not specified in the narrative. The captain ordered him to be bound and laid upon the deck; and there, in the harbour of Charleston, in the broad daylight, compelled another slave-sailor to chop off his head. The affair was public—notorious. A prosecution was commenced against him; the offence was proved beyond all doubt—perhaps, indeed, it was not denied—and the judge, in a most eloquent charge or rebuke of the defendant, expressed his sincere regret that he could inflict no punishment, under the laws of the State.

  I was studying law when the case was published in “Hall's American Law Journal,” vol. i. I have not seen the book for twenty-five or thirty years. I may be in error as to names,&c., but while I have life and my senses the facts of the case cannot be forgotten.

  The following is the “charge” alluded to in the above letter.


It was pronounced by the Honourable Judge Wilds, of South Carolina, and is copied from Hall's Law Journal, i. 67:—

  John Slater! You have been convicted by a jury of your country of the wilful murder of your own slave; and I am sorry to say, the short, impressive, and uncontradicted testimony on which that conviction was founded, leaves but too little room to doubt its propriety.

  The annals of human depravity might be safely challenged for a parallel to this unfeeling, bloody, and diabolical transaction.

  You caused your unoffending, unresisting slave to be bound hand and foot, and, by a refinement in cruelty, compelled his companion, perhaps the friend of his heart, to chop his head with an axe, and to cast his body, yet convulsing with the agonies of death, into the water! And this deed you dared to perpetrate in the very harbour of Charleston, within a few yards of the shore, unblushingly, in the face of open day. Had your murderous arm been raised against your equals, whom the laws of self-defence and the more efficacious law of the land unite to protect, your crimes would not have been without precedent, and would have seemed less horrid. Your personal risk would at least have proved that, though a murderer, you were not a coward. But you too well knew that this unfortunate man, whom chance had subjected to your caprice, had not, like yourself, chartered to him by the laws of the land the sacred rights of nature; and that a stern but necessary policy had disarmed him of the rights of self-defence. Too well you knew that to you alone he could look for protection; and that your arm alone could shield him from oppression, or avenge his wrongs; yet that arm you cruelly stretched out for his destruction.

  The counsel who generously volunteered his services in your behalf, shocked at the enormity of your offence, endeavoured to find a refuge, as well for his own feelings as for those of all who heard your trial, in a derangement of your intellect. Several witnesses were examined to establish this fact; but the result of their testimony, it is apprehended, was as little satisfactory to his mind as to those of the jury to whom it was addressed. I sincerely wish this defence had proved successful, not from any desire to save you from the punishment which awaits you, and which you so richly merit, but from the desire of saving my country from the foul reproach of having in its bosom such a monster.

  From the peculiar situation of this country, our fathers felt themselves justified in subjecting to a very slight punishment he who murders a slave. Whether the present state of society require a continuation of this policy, so opposite to the apparent rights of humanity, it remains for a subsequent legislature to decide. Their attention would ere this have been directed to this subject, but, for the honour of human nature, such hardened sinners as yourself are rarely found to disturb the repose of society. The grand jury of this district, deeply impressed with your daring outrage against the laws both of God and man, have made a very strong expression of their feelings on the subject to the legislature; and, from the wisdom and justice of that body, the friends of humanity may confidently hope soon to see this blackest in the catalogue of human crimes pursued by appropriate punishment.

  In proceeding to pass the sentence which the law provides for your offence, I confess I never felt more forcibly the want of power to make respected the laws of


my country, whose minister I am. You have already violated the majesty of those laws. You have profanely pleaded the law under which you stand convicted, as a justification of your crime. You have held that law in one hand, and brandished your bloody axe in the other, impiously contending that the one gave a license to the unrestrained use of the other.

  But, though you will go off unhurt in person, by the present sentence, expect not to escape with impunity. Your bloody deed has set a mark upon you, which I fear the good actions of your future life will not efface. You will be held in abhorrence by an impartial world, and shunned as a monster by every honest man. Your unoffending posterity will be visited, for your iniquity, by the stigma of deriving their origin from an unfeeling murderer. Your days, which will be but few, will be spent in wretchedness; and if your conscience be not steeled against every virtuous emotion, if you be not entirely abandoned to hardness of heart, the mangled, mutilated corpse of your murdered slave will ever be present in your imagination, obtrude itself into all your amusements, and haunt you in the hours of silence and repose.

  But, should you disregard the reproaches of an offended world, should you hear with callous insensibility the gnawings of a guilty conscience, yet remember, I charge you, remember, that an awful period is fast approaching, and with you is close at hand, when you must appear before a tribunal whose want of power can afford you no prospect of impunity; when you must raise your bloody hands at the bar of an impartial omniscient Judge! Remember, I pray you, remember, whilst yet you have time, that God is just, and that his vengeance will not sleep for ever!

  The penalty that followed this solemn denunciation was a fine of seven hundred pounds, current money, or, in default of payment, imprisonment for seven years.

  And yet it seems that there have not been wanting those who consider the reform of this law “a refinement in humanity of doubtful policy!” To this sentiment, so high an authority as that of Chancellor Harper is quoted, as the reader will see by referring to the speech of Mr. Hunt in the last chapter. And, as is very common in such cases, the old law is vindicated as being, on the whole, a surer protection to the life of the slave than the new one. From the results of the last two trials, there would seem to be a fair show of plausibility in the argument; for under the old law it seems that Slater had at least to pay seven hundred pounds, while under the new Eliza Rowand comes off with only the penalty of “a most sifting scrutiny.”

  Thus it appears that the penalty of the law goes with the murderer of the slave.

  How is it executed in the cases which concern the life of the master? Look at this short notice of a recent trial of this kind, which is given in the Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette of October 23, 1852, as an extract from the Charleston (Virginia) Free Press:



  The trial of this slave for an attack, with intent to kill, on the person of Mr. Harrison Anderson, was commenced on Monday and concluded on Tuesday evening. His Honour, Braxton Davenport, Esq., chief justice of the county, with four associate gentlemen justices, composed the Court.

  The commonwealth was represented by its attorney, Charles B. Harding, Esq., and the accused ably and eloquently defended by Wm. C. Worthington, and John A. Thompson, Esqrs. The evidence of the prisoner's guilt was conclusive. A majority of the Court thought that he ought to suffer the extreme penalty of the law; but, as this required a unanimous agreement, he was sentenced to receive 500 lashes, not more than thirty-nine at one time. The physician of the gaol was instructed to see that they should not be administered too frequently, and only when, in his opinion, he could bear them.

  In another paper we are told that the Free Press says:—

  A majority of the Court thought that he ought to suffer the extreme penalty of the law; but, as this required a unanimous agreement, he was sentenced to receive 500 lashes, not more than thirty-nine at any one time. The physician of the gaol was instructed to see that they should not to be administered too frequently, and only when, in his opinion, he could bear them. This may seem to be harsh and inhuman punishment; but when we take into consideration that it is in accordance with the law of the land, and the further fact that the insubordination among the slaves of that State has become truly alarming, we cannot question the righteousness of the judgment.

  Will anybody say that the master's life is in more danger from the slave than the slave's from the master, that this disproportionate retribution is meted out? Those who countenance such legislation will do well to ponder the solemn words of an ancient book, inspired by One who is no respecter of persons:—

“If I have refused justice to my man-servant or maid-servant,
When they had a cause with me,
What shall I do when God riseth up?
And when He visiteth, what shall I answer him?
Did not He that made me in the womb make him?
Did not the same God fashion us in the womb?”
JOB xxxi. 13—1