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


“Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal.”

  FROM what has been said in the last chapter, it is presumed that it will appear that the Christian Church of America by no means occupies that position, with regard to slavery, that the apostles did, or that the Church of the earlier ages did.

  However they may choose to interpret the language of the apostles, the fact still remains undeniable that the Church organisation which grew up immediately after these instructions did intend and did effect the abolition of slavery.

  But we wish to give still further consideration to one idea which is often put forward by those who defend American slavery. It is this: that the institution is not of itself a sinful one, and that the only sin consists in the neglect of its relative duties. All that is necessary, they say, is to regulate the institution by the precepts of the Gospel. They admit that no slavery is defensible which is not so regulated.

  If, therefore, it shall appear that American slave-law cannot be regulated by the precepts of the Gospel without such alterations as will entirely do away the whole system, then it will appear that it is an unchristian institution, against which every Christian is bound to remonstrate, and from which he should entirely withdraw.

  The Roman slave code was a code made by heathen—by a race, too, proverbially stern and unfeeling. It was made in the darkest ages of the world, before the light of the Gospel had dawned. Christianity gradually but certainly abolished it. Some centuries later, a company of men, from Christian nations, go to the continent of Africa; there they kindle wars, sow strifes, set tribes against tribes with demoniac violence, burn villages, and in the midst of these diabolical scenes kidnap and carry off, from time to time, hundreds and thousands of miserable captives. Such of those as do not die of terror, grief, suffocation, ship-fever, and other horrors, are from time to time landed on the shores of America. Here they are. And now a set of Christian legislators meet together to construct a system and


laws of servitude, with regard to these unfortunates, which is hereafter to be considered as a Christian institution.

  Of course, in order to have any valid title to such a name, the institution must be regulated by the principles which Christ and his apostles have laid down for the government of those who assume the relation of masters. The New Testament sums up these principles in a single sentence: “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal.”

  But, forasmuch as there is always some confusion of mind in regard to what is just and equal in our neighbours' affairs, our Lord has given this direction by which we may arrive at infallible certainty. “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

  It is therefore evident that if Christian legislators are about to form a Christian system of servitude, they must base it on these two laws, one of which is a particular specification under the other.

  Let us now examine some of the particulars of the code which they have formed, and see if it bear this character.

  First, they commence by declaring that their brother shall no longer be considered as a person, but deemed, sold, taken, and reputed, as a chattel personal.—This is “just and equal!”

  This being the fundamental principle of the system, the following are specified as its consequences:—

  1. That he shall have no right to hold property of any kind, under any circumstances.—Just and equal!

  2. That he shall have no power to contract a legal marriage, or claim any woman in particular for his wife.—Just and equal!

  3. That he shall have no right to his children, either to protect, restrain, guide, or educate.—Just and equal!

  4. That the power of his master over him shall be ABSOLUTE, without any possibility of appeal or redress in consequence of any injury whatever.

  To secure this they enact that he shall not be able to enter suit in any court for any cause.—Just and equal!

  That he shall not be allowed to bear testimony in any court where any white person is concerned.—Just and equal!

  That the owner of a servant, for “malicious, cruel, and excessive beating of his slave, cannot be indicted.”—Just and equal!

  It is further decided that by no indirect mode of suit, through a guardian, shall a slave obtain redress for ill-treatment. (Dorothea v. Coquillon et al, 9 Martin La. Rep., 350.)—Just and equal!

  5. It is decided that the slave shall not only have no legal


redress for injuries inflicted by his master, but shall have no redress for those inflicted by any other person, unless the injury impair his property value.—Just and equal!

  Under this head it is distinctly asserted as follows:

  “There can be no offence against the peace of the State by the mere beating of a slave, unaccompanied by any circumstances of cruelty, or an intent to kill and murder. The peace of the State is not thereby broken.” (State v. Maner, 2 Hill's Rep. S. C.)—Just and equal!

  If a slave strike a white, he is to be condemned to death; but if a master kill his slave by torture, no white witnesses being present, he may clear himself by his own oath. (Louisiana.) —Just and equal!

  The law decrees fine and imprisonment to the person who shall release the servant of another from the torture of the iron collar. (Louisiana.)—Just and equal!

  It decrees a much smaller fine, without imprisonment, to the man who shall torture him with red-hot irons, cut out his tongue, put out his eyes, and scald or maim him. (Ibid.)— Just and equal!

  It decrees the same punishment to him who teaches him to write as to him who puts out his eyes.—Just and equal!

  As it might be expected that only very ignorant and brutal people could be kept in a condition like this, especially in a country where every book and every newspaper are full of dissertations on the rights of man, they therefore enact laws that neither he nor his children, to all generations, shall learn to read and write.—Just and equal!

  And as, if allowed to meet for religious worship, they might concert some plan of escape or redress, they enact that “no congregation of negroes, under pretence of divine worship, shall assemble themselves; and that every slave found at such meetings shall be immediately corrected, without trial, by receiving on the bare back twenty-five stripes with a whip, switch, or cow-skin.” (Law of Georgia, Prince's Digest, p. 447.)—Just and equal!

  Though the servant is thus kept in ignorance, nevertheless, in his ignorance, he is punished more severely for the same crimes than freemen.—Just and equal!

  By way of protecting him from over-work, they enact that he shall not labour more than five hours longer than convicts at hard labour in a penitentiary!

  They also enact that the master or overseer, not the slave, shall decide when he is too sick to work.—Just and equal!


  If any master, compassionating this condition of the slave, desires to better it, the law takes it out of his power, by the following decisions:—

  1. That all his earnings shall belong to his master, notwithstanding his master's promise to the contrary; thus making them liable for his master's debts.—Just and equal!

  2. That if his master allow him to keep cattle for his own use, it shall be lawful for any man to take them away, and enjoy half the profits of the seizure.—Just and equal!

  3. If his master sets him free, he shall be taken up and sold again.—Just and equal!

  If any man or woman runs away from this state of things, and, after proclamation made, does not return, any two justices of the peace may declare them outlawed, and give permission to any person in the community to kill them by any ways or means they think fit.—Just and equal!

  Such are the laws of that system of slavery which has been made up by Christian masters late in the Christian era, and is now defended by Christian ministers as an eminently benign institution.

  In this manner Christian legislators have expressed their understanding of the text, “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal,” and of the text, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

  It certainly presents the most extraordinary views of justice and equity, and is the most remarkable exposition of the principle of doing to others as we would others should do to us that it has ever been the good fortune of the civilised world to observe. This being the institution, let anyone conjecture what its abuses must be; for we are gravely told, by learned clergymen, that they do not feel called upon to interfere with the system, but only with its abuses. We should like to know what abuse could be specified that is not provided for and expressly protected by slave-law.

  And yet, Christian republicans, who, with full power to repeal this law, are daily sustaining it, talk about there being no harm in slavery, if they regulate it according to the apostle's directions, and give unto their servants that which is just and equal. Do they think that, if the Christianised masters of Rome and Corinth had made such a set of rules as this for the government of their slaves, Paul would have accepted it as a proper exposition of what he meant by just and equal?

  But the Presbyteries of South Carolina say, and all the other


religious bodies at the South say, that the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ has no right to interfere with civil institutions. What is this Church of our Lord Jesus Christ that they speak of? Is it not a collection of republican men, who have constitutional power to alter these laws, and whose duty it is to alter them, and who are disobeying the apostle's directions every day till they do alter them? Every minister at the South is a voter as much as he is a minister; every Church member is a voter as much as he is a Church member; and ministers and Church members are among the masters who are keeping up this system of atrocity, when they have full republican power to alter it; and yet they talk about giving their servants that which is just and equal! If they are going to give their servants that which is just and equal, let them give them back their manhood; they are law-makers and can do it. Let them give to the slave the right to hold property, the right to form legal marriage, the right to read the word of God, and to have such education as will fully develope his intellectual and moral nature; the right of free religious opinion and worship; let them give him the right to bring suit and to bear testimony; give him the right to have some vote in the government in which his interests are controlled. This will be something more like giving that which is “just and equal.”

  Mr. Smylie, of Mississippi, says that the planters of Louisiana and Mississippi, when they are giving from twenty to twenty-five dollars a barrel for pork, give their slaves three or four pounds a-week; and intimates that, if that will not convince people that they are doing what is just and equal, he does not know what will.

  Mr. C. C. Jones, after stating in various places that he has no intention ever to interfere with the civil condition of the slave, teaches the negroes, in his catechism, that the master gives to his servant that which is just and equal, when he provides for them good houses, good clothing, food, nursing, and religious instruction.

  This is just like a man who has stolen an estate which belongs to a family of orphans. Out of its munificent revenues, he gives the orphans comfortable food, clothing, &c., while he retains the rest for his own use, declaring that he is thus rendering to them that which is just and equal.

  If the laws which regulate slavery were made by a despotic sovereign, over whose movements the masters could have no control, this mode of proceeding might be called just and equal; but, as they are made and kept in operation by these Christian masters, these ministers and Church members, in


common with those who are not so, they are every one of them refusing to the slave that which is just and equal, so long as they do not seek the repeal of these laws; and if they cannot get them repealed, it is their duty to take the slave out from under them, since they are constructed with such fatal ingenuity as utterly to nullify all that the master tries to do for their elevation and permanent benefit.

  No man would wish to leave his own family of children as slaves under the kindest master that ever breathed; and what he would not wish to have done to his own children, he ought not to do to other people's children.

  But it will be said that it is not becoming for the Christian Church to enter into political matters. Again, we ask, what is the Christian Church? Is it not an association of republican citizens, each one of whom has his rights and duties as a legal voter?

  Now, suppose a law were passed which depreciated the value of cotton or sugar three cents in the pound; would these men consider the fact that they are Church members as any reason why they should not agitate for the repeal of such law? Certainly not. Such a law would be brittle as the spider's web; it would be swept away before it was well made. Every law to which the majority of the community does not assent is, in this country, immediately torn down.

  Why, then, does this monstrous system stand from age to age? Because the community CONSENT TO IT. They re-enact these unjust laws every day, by their silent permission of them.

  The kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is not of this world, say the South Carolina Presbyteries; therefore the Church has no right to interfere with any civil institution; but yet all the clergy of Charleston could attend in a body to give sanction to the proceedings of the great Vigilance Committee. They could not properly exert the least influence against slavery, because it is a civil institution; but they could give the whole weight of their influence in favour of it.

  Is it not making the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ quite as much of this world, to patronise the oppressor as to patronise the slave?