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



Apprentices protected. Outlawry. Melodrama of Prue in the Swamp. Harry the Carpenter, a Romance of Real Life.

  BUT the question now occurs, Are there not protective statutes, the avowed object of which is the protection of the life and limb of the slave? We answer, there are; and these protective statutes are some of the most remarkable pieces of legislation extant.

  That they were dictated by a spirit of humanity, charity, which hopeth all things, would lead us to hope; but no newspaper stories of bloody murders and shocking outrages convey to the mind so dreadful a picture of the numbness of public sentiment caused by slavery as these so-called protective statutes. The author copies the following from the statutes of North Carolina. Section 3rd of the Act passed in 1798 runs thus:—

  Whereas by another Act of the Assembly, passed in 1774, the killing of a slave, however wanton, cruel, and deliberate, is only punishable in the first instance by imprisonment, and paying the value thereof to the owner, which distinction of criminality between the murder of a white person and one who is equally a human creature, but merely of a different complexion, is DISGRACEFUL TO HUMANITY, AND DEGRADING IN THE HIGHEST DEGREE TO THE LAWS AND PRINCIPLES OF A FREE, CHRISTIAN, AND ENLIGHTENED COUNTRY; Be it enacted,&c., That if any person shall hereafter be guilty of wilfully and maliciously killing a slave such offender shall, upon the first conviction thereof, be adjudged guilty of murder, and shall suffer the same punishment as if he had killed a free man: Provided always, this Act shall not extended to the person killing a slave OUTLAWED BY VIRTUE OF ANY ACT OF ASSEMBLY OF THIS STATE, or to any slave in the act of resistance to his lawful owner or master, or to any slave dying under moderate correction.

  A law with a like proviso, except the outlawry clause, exists in Tennessee. See Caruthers and Nicholson's Compilation, 1836, p. 676.


  The language of the constitution of Georgia, art. iv, sec. 12, is as follows:

  Any person who shall maliciously dismember, or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person, and on the like proof, except in case of insurrection by such slave, and unless such death should happen by accident in giving such slave moderate correction. —Cobb's Dig., 1851, p. 1125.

  Let now any Englishman or New Englander imagine that such laws with regard to apprentices had ever been proposed in Parliament or State Legislature under the head of protective acts;—laws which in so many words permit the killing of the subject in three cases, and those comprising all the acts which would generally occur under the law; namely, if the slave resist, if he be outlawed, or if he die under moderate correction.

  What rule in the world will ever prove correction immoderate, if the fact that the subject dies under it is not held as proof? How many such “accidents” would have to happen in Old England or New England, before Parliament or Legislature would hear from such a protective law?

  “But,” some one may ask, “what is the outlawry spoken of in this Act? The question is pertinent, and must be answered. The author has copied the following from the Revised Statutes of North Carolina, chap. cxi, sec. 22. It may be remarked in passing that the preamble to this law presents rather a new view of slavery to those who have formed their ideas from certain pictures of blissful contentment and Arcadian repose, which have been much in vogue of late.

  Whereas, MANY TIMES slaves run away and lie out, hid and lurking in swamps, woods, and other obscure places, killing cattle and hogs, and committing other injuries to the inhabitants of this State; in all such cases, upon intelligence of any slave or slaves lying out as aforesaid, any two justices of the peace for the county wherein such slave or slaves is or are supposed to lurk or do mischief, shall, and they are hereby empowered and required to issue proclamation against such slave or slaves (reciting his or their names, and the name or names of the owner or owners, if known), thereby requiring him or them, and every of them, forthwith to surrender him or themselves; and also to empower and require the sheriff of the said county to take such power with him as he shall think fit and necessary for going in search and pursuit of, and effectually apprehending, such outlying slave or slaves; which proclamation shall be published at the door of the court-house, and at such other places as said justices shall direct. And if any slave or slaves, against whom proclamation hath been thus issued stay out, and do not immediately return home, it shall be lawful for any person or persons whatsoever to kill and destroy such slave or slaves by such ways and means as he shall think fit, without accusation or impeachment of any crime for the same.


  What ways and means have been thought fit, in actual experience, for the destruction of the slave? What was done with the negro McIntosh, in the streets of St. Louis, in open daylight, and endorsed at the next sitting of the Supreme Court of the State, as transcending the sphere of law, because it was “an act of the majority of her most respectable citizens?”* If these things are done in the green tree, what will be done in the dry? If these things have once been done in the open streets of St. Louis, by “a majority of her most respectable citizens,” what will be done in the lonely swamps of North Carolina, by men of the stamp of Souther and Legree?

  This passage of the Revised Statutes of North Carolina is more terribly suggestive to the imagination than any particulars into which the author of “Uncle Tom's Cabin” has thought fit to enter. Let us suppose a little melodrama quite possible to have occurred under this Act of the Legislature. Suppose some luckless Prue or Peg, as in the case we have just quoted, in State v. Mann, getting tired of the discipline of whipping, breaks from the overseer, clears the dogs, and gets into the swamp, and there “lies out,” as the Act above graphically says. The Act which we are considering says that many slaves do this, and doubtless they have their own best reasons for it. We all know what fascinating places to “lie out” in these Southern swamps are. What with alligators and moccasin snakes, mud and water, and poisonous vines, one would be apt to think the situation not particularly eligible; but still Prue “lies out” there. Perhaps in the night some husband or brother goes to see her, taking a hog or some animal of the plantation stock, which he has ventured his life in killing, that she may not perish with hunger. Master overseer walks up to master proprietor, and reports the accident; master proprietor mounts his horse, and assembles to his aid two justices of the peace.

  In the intervals between drinking brandy and smoking cigars a proclamation is duly drawn up, summoning the contumacious Prue to surrender, and requiring sheriff of said county to take such power as he shall think fit to go in search and pursuit of said slave; which proclamation, for Prue's further enlightenment, is solemnly published at the door of the court-house, and “at such other places as said justices shall direct.”* Let us suppose,


now, that Prue, given over to hardness of heart and blindness of mind, pays no attention to all these means of grace, put forth to draw her to the protective shadow of the patriarchal roof. Suppose, further, as a final effort of long-suffering, and to leave her utterly without excuse, the worthy magistrate rides forth in full force—man, horse, dog, and gun—to the very verge of the swamp, and there proclaims aloud the merciful mandate. Suppose that, hearing the yelping of the dogs and the proclamation of the sheriffs mingled together, and the shouts of Loker, Marks, Sambo and Quimbo, and other such posse, black and white, as a sheriff can generally summon on such a hunt, this very ignorant and contumacious Prue only runs deeper into the swamp, and continues obstinately “lying out,” as aforesaid; now she is by Act of the Assembly outlawed, and, in the astounding words of the Act, “it shall be lawful for any person or persons whatsoever to kill and destroy her, by such ways and means as he shall think fit, without accusation or impeachment of any crime for the same.” What awful possibilities rise to the imagination under the fearfully suggestive clause, “by such ways and means as he shall think fit!” Such ways and means as ANY man shall think fit, of any character, of any degree of fiendish barbarity!! Such a permission to kill even a dog, by “any ways and means which anybody should think fit,” never ought to stand on the law-books of a Christian nation; and yet this stands against one bearing that same humanity which Jesus Christ bore—against one, perhaps, who, though blinded, darkened, and ignorant, he will not be ashamed to own, when he shall come in the glory of his Father, and all his holy angels with him!

  That this law has not been a dead letter there is sufficient proof. In 1836 the following proclamation and advertisement appeared in the “Newbern (N. C.) Spectator.”


  Whereas complaint hath been this day made to us, two of the justices of the peace for the said county, by William D. Cobb, of Jones County, that two negro slaves belonging to him, named Ben (commonly known by the name of Ben Fox), and Rigdon, have absented themselves from their said master's service, and are lurking about in the Counties of Lenoir and Jones, committing acts of felony; these are, in the name of the State, to command the said slaves forthwith to surrender themselves and turn home to their said master. And we do hereby also require the sheriff of said County of Lenoir to make diligent search and pursuit after the above-mentioned slaves. * * * And we do hereby, by virtue of an Act


of Assembly of this State concerning servants and slaves, intimate and declare, if the said slaves do not surrender themselves and return home to their master immediately after the publication of these presents, that any person may kill or destroy said slaves by such means as he or they may think fit, without accusation or impeachment of any crime or offence for so doing, or without incurring any penalty or forfeiture thereby.

  Given under our hands and seals, this 12th of November, 1836.

B. COLEMAN, J. P. [Seal.]

JAS. JONES, J. P. [Seal.]

  200 DOLLARS REWARD.—Ran away from the subscriber, about three years ago, a certain negro man, named Ben, commonly known by the name of Ben Fox; also one other negro, by the name of Rigdon, who ran away on the 8th of this month.

  I will give the reward of 100 dollars for each of the above negroes, to be delivered to me, or confined in the jail of Lenoir or Jones County, or for the killing of them, so that I can see them.

  Nov. 12, 1836.


  That this Act was not a dead letter, also, was plainly implied in the protective Act first quoted. If slaves were not, as a matter of fact, ever outlawed, why does the Act formally recognise such a class?—“provided that this Act shall not extend to the killing of any slave outlawed by any Act of the Assembly.” This language sufficiently indicates the existence of the custom.

  Further than this, the statute-book of 1821 contained two Acts: the first of which provides that all masters in certain counties, who have had slaves killed in consequence of outlawry, shall have a claim on the treasury of the State for their value, unless cruel treatment of the slave be proved on the part of the master: the second Act extends the benefits of the latter provision to all the counties in the State.*

  Finally, there is evidence that this Act of outlawry was executed so recently as the year 1850, the year in which “Uncle Tom's Cabin” was written. See the following from the Wilmington Journal of December 13, 1850:—



  Whereas complaint upon oath has this day been made to us, two of the justices of the peace for the said State and county aforesaid, by Guilford Horn, of Edgecombe County, that a certain male slave belonging to him, named Harry, a carpenter by trade, about forty years old, five feet five inches high, or thereabouts; yellow complexion; stout built; with a scar on his left leg (from the cut of an axe); has very thick lips; eyes deep sunk in his head; forehead very square; tolerably loud voice; has lost one or two of his upper teeth; and has a very dark spot on his jaw, supposed to be a mark—hath absented himself from his master's service, and is supposed to be lurking about in this county, committing acts of felony or other misdeeds; these are, therefore, in the name of the State aforesaid, to command the said slave forthwith to surrender himself, and return home to his said master; and we do hereby, by virtue of the Act of Assembly in such cases made and provided, intimate and declare, that if the said slave Harry doth not surrender himself and return home immediately after the publication of these presents, that any person or persons may KILL and DESTROY the said slave by such means as he or they may think fit, without accusation or impeachment of any crime or offence for so doing, and without incurring any penalty or forfeiture thereby.

  Given under our hands and seals, this 29th day of June, 1850.

JAMES T. MILLER, J. P. [Seal.]

W. C. BETTENCOURT, J. P. [Seal.]

  ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS REWARD will be paid for the delivery of the said Harry to me at Tosnott Depot, Edgecombe County, or for his confinement in any jail in the State, so that I can get him; or One Hundred and Fifty Dollars will be given for his head.

  He was lately heard from in Newbern, where he called himself Henry Barnes (or Burns), and will be likely to continue the same name, or assume that of Copage or Farmer. He has a free mulatto woman for a wife, by the name of Sally Bozeman, who has lately removed to Wilmington, and lives in that part of the town called Texas, where he will likely be lurking.

  Masters of vessels are particularly cautioned against harbouring or concealing the said negro on board their vessels, as the full penalty of the law will be rigorously enforced.

  June 29th, 1850. GUILFORD HORN.

  There is an inkling of history and romance about the description of this same Harry, who is thus publicly set up to be killed in any way that any of the negro-hunters of the swamps may think the most piquant and enlivening. It seems he is a carpenter—a powerfully-made man, whose thews and sinews might be a profitable acquisition to himself. It appears also


that he has a wife, and the advertiser intimates that possibly he may be caught prowling about somewhere in her vicinity. This indicates sagacity in the writer, certainly. Married men generally have a way of liking the society of their wives; and it strikes us, from what we know of the nature of carpenters here in New England, that Harry was not peculiar in this respect. Let us further notice the portrait of Harry:—“Eyes deep sunk in his head; forehead very square.” This picture reminds us of what a persecuting old ecclesiastic once said in the days of the Port-Royalists, of a certain truculent abbess, who stood obstinately to a certain course, in the face of the whole power, temporal and spiritual, of the Romish Church, in spite of fining, imprisoning, starving, whipping, beating, and other enlightening argumentative processes, not wholly peculiar, it seems, to that age. “You will never subdue that woman,” said the ecclesiastic, who was a phrenologist before his age; “she's got a square head, and I have always noticed that people with square heads never can be turned out of their course.” We think it very probable that Harry, with his “square head,” is just one of this sort. He is probably one of those articles which would be extremely valuable, if the owner could only get the use of him. His head is well enough, but he will use it for himself. It is of no use to anyone but the wearer; and the master seems to symbolise this state of things, by offering twenty-five dollars more for the head without the body, than he is willing to give for head, man, and all. Poor Harry! We wonder whether they have caught him yet; or whether the impenetrable thickets, the poisonous miasma, the deadly snakes, and the unwieldy alligators of the swamps, more humane than the slave-hunter, have interposed their uncouth and loathsome forms to guard the only fastness in Carolina where a slave can live in freedom.

  It is not, then, in mere poetic fiction that the humane and graceful pen of Longfellow has drawn the following picture:—

In the dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times the horse's tramp,
And a bloodhound's distant bay.
Where will-o'-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;


Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,—
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.
A poor old slave! infirm and lame,
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags that hid his mangled frame
Were the livery of disgrace.
All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of liberty!
On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain*
Fell like the flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth.

  The civilized world may and will ask, in what State this law has been drawn, and passed, and revised, and allowed to appear at the present day on the revised statute-book, and to be executed in the year of Our Lord 1850, as the above-cited extracts from its most respectable journals show. Is it some heathen, Kurdish tribe, some nest of pirates, some horde of barbarians, where destructive gods are worshipped, and libations to their honour poured from human skulls? The civilized world will not believe it, but it is actually a fact, that this law has been made, and is still kept in force, by men in every other respect than what relates to their slave code, as high-minded, as enlightened, as humane, as any men in Christendom; by citizens of a State which glories in the blood and hereditary Christian institutions of Scotland. Curiosity to know what sort of men the legislators of North Carolina might be, led the writer to examine with some attention the proceedings and debates of the convention of that State, called to amend its constitution, which assembled at Raleigh, June 4th, 1835. It is but justice to say that in these proceedings, in which all the different and perhaps conflicting interests of the various parts of the State were discussed, there was an exhibition of candour, fairness, and


moderation, of gentlemanly honour and courtesy in the treatment of opposing claims, and of an overruling sense of the obligations of law and religion, which certainly have not always been equally conspicuous in the proceedings of deliberative bodies in such cases. It simply goes to show that one can judge nothing of the religion or of the humanity of individuals from what seems to us objectionable practice, where they have been educated under a system entirely incompatible with both. Such is the very equivocal character of what we call virtue.

  It could not be for a moment supposed that such men as Judge Ruffin, or many of the gentlemen who figure in the debates alluded to, would ever think of availing themselves of the savage permissions of such a law. But what then? It follows that the law is a direct permission, letting loose upon the defenceless slave that class of men who exist in every community, who have no conscience, no honour, no shame; who are too far below public opinion to be restrained by that, and from whom accordingly this provision of the law takes away the only available restraint of their fiendish natures. Such men are not peculiar to the South. It is unhappily too notorious that they exist everywhere—in England, in New England, and the world over; but they can only arrive at full maturity in wickedness under a system where the law clothes them with absolute and irresponsible power.