July 24, 1851

Click on image for a larger/readable version of the National Era

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

Textual Transcription of Chapter 9: Part 1.

Chapter IX.—In which it appears that a Senator is but a Man.

The light of the cheerful fire shone on the rug and carpet of a cozy parlor, and glittered on the sides of the tea-cups and well brightened tea-pot, as Senator Burr was drawing off his boots, preparatory to inserting his feet in a pair of new handsome slippers, which his wife had been working for him while away on his Senatorial tour. Mrs. Burr, looking the very picture of delight, was superintending the arrangements of the table, ever and anon mingling admonitory remarks to a number of frolicksome juveniles, who were effervescing in all those modes of untold gambol and mischief that have astonished mothers ever since the Flood.

“Tom, let the door-knob alone, there’s a man! Mary! Mary! don’t pull the cat’s tail—poor pussy! Jim, you mustn’t climb on that table—no, no! You don’t know, my dear, what a surprise it is to us all, to see you here to-night!” said she, at last, when she found a space to say something to her husband.

“Yes, yes, I thought I’d just make a run down, spend the night, and have a little comfort at home. I’m tired to death, and my head aches.”

Mrs. Burr cast a glance at a camphor-bottle, which stood in the half-open closet, and appeared to meditate an approach to it, but her husband interposed—

“No, no, Mary, no doctoring! a cup of your good hot tea, and some of our good home living, is what I want. It’s a tiresome business, this legislating!”

And the Senator smiled, as if he rather liked the idea of considering himself a sacrifice to his country.

“Well,” said his wife, after the business of the tea-table was getting rather slack, “and what have they been doing in the Senate?”

[Continue reading the full text of Chapter 9: Part 1 here.]

Commentary by Gregg Crane:

Professor of English at the University of Michigan

Worn out by the “tiresome business” of legislating, Senator Bird has returned for some “good, home living.”  Senator Bird’s relaxation is broken by his wife’s inquiry about the Fugitive Slave Act.  While she does not normally “trouble her head” about the affairs of state, the moral issues raised by the new law compel Mary Bird to interrogate her husband.  Senator Bird replies, “Your feelings are all quite right, dear . . . I love you for them; but . . . we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment; you must consider it’s not a matter of private feeling,–there are great public interests involved.”  Mrs. Bird’s answer—“I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort the desolate”—is disingenuous to the extent that it seems to separate the moral and legal areas of expertise.  Her objection to the Fugitive Slave Act accords with the Founding Fathers’ belief in a legal system grounded in virtue and sanctioned by the citizenry’s moral sense.

Mrs. Bird’s higher law argument is decisively advanced when Eliza Harris appears at their door, a veritable picture of “the real presence of distress”—“a young and slender woman with garments torn and frozen, with one shoe gone, and the stocking torn away from the cut and bleeding foot.”  Punctuated by the emotionally compelling appearance of Eliza and her son, the Birds’ debate closes with a new consensus between husband and wife, and Senator Bird’s ideas of law are re-grounded in the moral sense expressed by Mrs. Bird.  Far from representing an opposition of law and morality, the Birds’ dialogue embodies the process of inspiration and conversation through which the public conscience is animated and the law is revised.

However, by rooting this consensual process within the family and the domestic setting, the original site of status-based relations, Stowe restricts the potential of consent to function as an open-ended mechanism of moral reform and civic relations.  Instead of acknowledging the fact, as George Fitzhugh (a Southern apologist for slavery) would insist, that human beings can agree to anything, even monstrous forms of social innovation (Fitzhugh cites the practice of polygamy), Stowe’s vision of consent is comfortingly predetermined and limited by status.  Moral sentiment and spousal negotiation flow in the channels provided by their respective roles as husband and wife.  Senator Bird brings his worldly experience and rationalist argument to bear on the topic of the fugitive slave law, Mrs. Bird responds with the moral intuition and sympathy native to women, and as parents they are both particularly susceptible to the Eliza’s appeal on behalf of her son.  The happy outcome of their discussion depends in part on each performing his/her role.  Mrs. Bird’s moral intuition, her birthright as a woman and a mother, must trump Mr. Bird’s worldly experience and professional expertise for the latter to be legitimate.

[Continue reading the full text of Gregg Crane’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1851, here!

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