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


  BUT it may still be said that the apostles might have commanded Christian masters to perform the act of legal emancipation in all cases. Certainly they might, and it is quite evident that they did not.

  The professing primitive Christian regarded and treated his slave as a brother; but in the eye of the law he was still his chattel personal—a thing, and not a man. Why did not the apostles, then, strike at the legal relation? Why did they not command every Christian convert to sunder that chain at once? In answer, we say that every attempt at reform which comes from God has proceeded uniformly in this manner—to destroy the spirit of an abuse first, and leave the form of it to drop away of itself afterwards—to girdle the poisonous tree, and leave it to take its own time for dying.

  This mode of dealing with abuses has this advantage, that it is compendious and universal, and can apply to that particular abuse in all ages, and under all shades and modifications. If the apostle, in that outward and physical age, had merely attacked the legal relation, and had rested the whole burden of obligation on dissolving that, the corrupt and selfish principle might have run into other forms of oppression equally bad, and sheltered itself under the technicality of avoiding legal slavery. God, therefore, dealt a surer blow at the monster, by singling out the precise spot where his heart beat, and saying to his apostles, “Strike there!”

  Instead of saying to the slaveholder, “Manumit your slave,” it said to him, “Treat him as your brother,” and left to the slaveholder's conscience to say how much was implied in this command.

  In the directions which Paul gave about slavery, it is evident that he considered the legal relation with the same indifference with which a gardener treats a piece of unsightly bark, which he perceives the growing vigour of a young tree is about to throw off by its own vital force. He looked upon it as a part of an old effete system of heathenism, belonging to a set of laws and usages which were waxing old and ready to vanish away.


  There is an argument which has been much employed on this subject, and which is specious. It is this. That the apostles treated slavery as one of the lawful relations of life, like that of parent and child, husband and wife.

  The argument is thus stated: The apostles found all the relations of life much corrupted by various abuses.

  They did not attack the relations, but reformed the abuses, and thus restored the relations to a healthy state.

  The mistake here lies in assuming that slavery is the lawful relation. Slavery is the corruption of a lawful relation. The lawful relation is servitude, and slavery is the corruption of servitude.

  When the apostles came, all the relations of life in the Roman Empire were thoroughly permeated with the principle of slavery. The relation of child to parent was slavery. The relation of wife to husband was slavery. The relation of servant to master was slavery.

  The power of the father over his son, by Roman law, was very much the same with the power of the master over his slave.* He could, at his pleasure, scourge, imprison, or put him to death. The son could possess nothing but what was the property of his father; and this unlimited control extended through the whole lifetime of the father, unless the son were formally liberated by an act of manumission three times repeated, while the slave could be manumitted by performing the act only once. Neither was there any law obliging the father to manumit; he could retain this power, if he chose, during his whole life.

  Very similar was the situation of the Roman wife. In case she were accused of crime, her husband assembled a meeting of her relations, and in their presence sat in judgment upon her, awarding such punishment as he thought proper.

  For unfaithfulness to her marriage-vow, or for drinking wine, Romulus allowed her husband to put her to death.* From this slavery, unlike the son, the wife could never be manumitted; no legal forms were provided. It was lasting as her life.

  The same spirit of force and slavery pervaded the relation of master and servant, giving rise to that severe code of slave-law, which, with a few features of added cruelty, Christian America, in the nineteenth century, has re-enacted.

  With regard, now, to all these abuses of proper relations, the gospel pursued one uniform course. It did not command the Christian father to perform the legal act of emancipation to his


son; but it infused such a divine spirit into the paternal relation, by assimilating it to the relation of the heavenly Father, that the Christianised Roman would regard any use of his barbarous and oppressive legal powers as entirely inconsistent with his Christian profession. So it ennobled the marriage relation by comparing it to the relation between Christ and his Church; commanding the husband to love his wife, even as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it. It is said of him, “No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church;” “so ought everyone to love his wife, even as himself.” Not an allusion is made to the barbarous, unjust power which the law gave the husband. It was perfectly understood that a Christian husband could not make use of it in conformity with these directions.

  In the same manner Christian masters were exhorted to give to their servants that which is just and equitable; and, so far from coercing their services by force, to forbear even threatenings. The Christian master was directed to receive his Christianised slave, “NOT now as a slave, but above a slave, a brother beloved;” and, as in all these other cases, nothing was said to him about the barbarous powers which the Roman law gave him, since it was perfectly understood that he could not at the same time treat him as a brother beloved and as a slave in the sense of Roman law.

  When, therefore, the question is asked, why did not the apostles seek the abolition of slavery? we answer, they did seek it. They sought it by the safest, shortest, and most direct course which could possibly have been adopted.