June 5, 1851

The Nation is Introduced to Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Click the image a full size, readable image of the National Era

Image and link courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center-Hartford, CT

Textual Transcription of Chapters 1 & 2:

Chapter I.—In which the Reader is introduced to a Man of Humanity.

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P———, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which makes a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gaily with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings, and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain with a bundle of seals of portentous size and a great variety of colors attached to it—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and gingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray’s grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.

His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman, and the arrangements of the house and the general air of the housekeeping indicated easy and even opulent circumstances. As we before stated, the two are in the midst of an earnest conversation.

“That is the way I should arrange the matter,” said Mr. Shelby.

“I can’t make trade that way—I positively can’t, Mr. Shelby,” said the other, holding up a glass of wine between his eye and the light.

“Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow—he is certainly worth that sum anywhere—steady, honest, capable, manages my whole farm like a clock.”

“You mean honest, as niggers go,” said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.

“No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow. He got religion at a camp-meeting four years ago, and I believe he really did get it. I’ve trusted him since then with everything I have—money, house, horses—and let him come and go round the country, and I always found him true and square in everything.”

“Some folks don’t believe there is pious niggers, Shelby!” said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, “but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yere last lot I took to Orleans—’twas as good as a meetin now, really, to hear that crittur pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like; he fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap of a man that was ’bliged to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it’s the genuine article, and no mistake.”

“Well, Tom’s got the real article, if ever a fellow had,” rejoined the other. “Why, last fall, I let him go to Cincinnati alone, to do business for me, and bring home five hundred dollars. Tom, says I to him, I trust you because I think you’re a Christian—I know you wouldn’t cheat. Tom comes back sure enough—I knew he would. Some low fellows, they say, said to him—Tom, why don’t you make tracks for Canada? Ah, master trusted me and I couldn’t—they told me about it. I am sorry to part with Tom, I must say. You ought to let him cover the whole balance of the debt; and you would, Haley, if you had any conscience.”

“Well, I’ve got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to keep—just a little, you know, to swear by, as ’twere,” said the trader, jocularly; “and, then, I’m ready to do anything in reason to ’blige friends; but this yer, you see, is a leetle too hard on a fellow—a leetle too hard.” The trader sighed contemplatively, and poured out some more brandy.

“Well, then, Haley, how will you trade?” said Mr. Shelby, after an uneasy interval of silence.

“Well, haven’t you a boy or gal that you could throw in with Tom.”

“Hum!—none that I could well spare—to tell the truth, it’s only hard necessity makes me willing to sell at all. I don’t like parting with any of my hands, that’s a fact.”

Here the door opened…..

[Continue reading the full text of Chapter I and Chapter II here]

Commentary by Melissa Homestead

Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

           In the first chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe warns her readers that the “indulgence” of slave owners and the “affectionate loyalty” of the slaves themselves towards their masters have misled some observers to believe the “poetic legend” of slavery as a benevolent “patriarchal institution.” She does not deny the genuineness of these emotions, but she warns that “the shadow of a Law” makes a mockery of the human relationships that develop between masters and slaves: “So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master—so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death, of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil, so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.” We begin the novel, then, in what seems to be the model benevolent Shelby plantation in Kentucky, not the cruel Legree plantation in Louisiana, where the novel ends. Nevertheless, the “shadow of the law,” in the form of Mr. Shelby’s obligation to pay his debts, endangers the residents of the Shelby plantation.

            Stowe derived her portrait of slavery primarily from reading, not from direct experience and observation in the slave states of the South. She describes Eliza Harris as “not a fancy sketch, but taken from a remembrance, as we saw her years ago in Kentucky”—that is, during Stowe’s one brief trip South of the Mason-Dixon line during her years living in Cincinnati. Some white Southerners attacked Stowe for this lack of direct knowledge of the South and slavery. However, as historian William R. Taylor observed fifty years ago, what troubled them the most about Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not that she attacked their point of view, but that she understood it too well. As Taylor explains, beginning in the 1830s white Southerners invented the legend of “plantation paternalism,” “the image of sunshine and happiness around the plantation home,” to “justif[y] their peculiar institution to themselves and to others.”[1] Stowe only “[took] the Southerner at his word”: she did “not…deny the Southern defense of slavery but…suggested that it was inadequate, even if its claims were allowed.” Stowe set out to show, Taylor explains, that “kindness, generosity and affection provided no assurance against cruelty and brutality” and that “a slave could love his master and mistress and still wish to be free.”[2]

[Continue reading the full text of Melissa Homestead’s commentary here.]


[1] William R. Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and the American National Character (New York: George Braziller, 1961), 300.

[2] Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee, 310.

How did Stowe connect these chapters to real life stories? Find out here!

What was happening in the news this week in 1851? Read the top stories here!

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