Image and link courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center-Hartford, CT
Transcription of Chapter 17
Chapter XVII.—The Freeman’s Defence.
There was a gentle bustle at the Quaker house as the afternoon drew to a close. Rachel Halliday moved quietly to and fro, collecting from her household stores such needments as could be arranged in the smallest compass, for the wanderers who were to go forth that night. The afternoon shadows stretched eastward, and the round, red sun stood thoughtfully on the horizon, and his beams shone yellow and calm into the little bed-room where George and his wife were sitting. He was sitting with his child on his knee, and his wife’s hand in his. Both looked thoughtful and serious, and traces of tears were on their cheeks.
“Yes, Eliza,” said George, “I know all you say is true. You are a good child—a great deal better than I am; and I will try to do as you say. I’ll try to act worthy of a free man. I’ll try to feel like a Christian. God Almighty knows that I’ve meant to do well—tried hard to do well—when when everything has been against me; and now I’ll forget all the past, and put away every hard and bitter feeling, and read my Bible, and learn to be a good man.”
“And when we get to Canada,” said Eliza, “I can help you. I can do dress-making very well; and I understand fine washing and ironing, and between us we can find something to live on.”
“Yes, Eliza, so long as we have each other and our boy. Oh! Eliza, if these people only knew what a blessing it is for a man to feel that his wife and child belong to him! I’ve often wondered to see men that could call their wives and children their own, fretting and worrying about anything else. Why, I feel rich and strong, though we have nothing but our bare hands. I feel as if I could scarcely ask God for any more. Yes, though I’ve worked hard every day, till I am twenty-five years old, and have not a cent of money nor a roof to cover me, nor a spot of land to call my own, yet, if they will only let me alone now, I will be satisfied—thankful; I will work, and send back the money for you and my boy. As to my old master, he has been paid five times over for all he ever spent for me. I don’t owe him anything.”
“But yet we are not quite out of danger,” said Eliza, “we are not yet in Canada.”
“True,” said George, “but it seems as if I smelt the free air, and it makes me strong.”
At this moment voices were heard in the outer apartment in earnest conversation, and very soon a rap was heard on the door. Eliza started and opened it.
[Continue reading the full text of chapter 17 here.]
Commentary by Sarah Robbins
Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at Texas Christian University
This is one of several chapters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin where we see Stowe providing an alternative model of black male heroism in the character of George Harris. I use the term “alternative” with caution, because I think it’s too easy to set up George as a kind of direct opposite to the novel’s title character, Uncle Tom. In that vein, within this chapter, Stowe includes the important detail that George is in his twenties. (That is, he’s understandably going to be somewhat less circumspect than middle-aged, mature Tom, who feels protective responsibility not only for his own family but for all who are part of the Shelby plantation community.) Over the course of the novel, Stowe does allow George several fiery outbursts against slavery, as a counterpoint to Tom’s patient suffering, and George has already told Eliza, back in Chapter 3, that he will work to transplant his family to Canada. Still, Stowe also emphasizes that George does not embrace violence for its own sake. So when we see George facing the challenge of separation from family here, Stowe is careful to cast his physical resistance as a defensive move: the chapter, after all, is “The Free Man’s Defense.” For instance, in the scene where Marks, Loker, and their drink-emboldened allies start to charge up a hill to attack George, his family, and two others being sought by the slave-catchers, George urges the wavering Quaker Phineas not to participate in the fight. Similarly, although George verbally challenges his enemies with an impassioned speech, and shoots Tom Loker with such force that the others run away, afraid, the exchange of gunfire is initiated only because the bounty team seeks to seize the vulnerable Eliza, Harry, and Jim’s old mother. Earlier in the chapter, Stowe had the Quaker Simeon Halliday remind young Harris about the potential spiritual hazards of violence. Then, after Loker is seriously injured and abandoned by the other slave catchers, Stowe has Eliza persuade George that they should carry their wounded enemy to another Quaker home for medical treatment, since “‘after death comes the judgment’” (for both Loker and her husband, presumably). Riding toward the place where Dorcas, an echo of the kindly Rachel, will indeed both nurse Loker and support the Harrises’ continued efforts to reach Canada, Stowe even has George express relief at Phineas’s assessment of Loker’s wounds as survivable. Phineas predicts: “‘[H]e’ll get over it, and maybe learn a thing or two by it.’” And George responds: “‘I’m glad to hear you say so…. It would always be a heavy thought to me, if I’d caused his death, even in a just cause.’” George has no desire to embrace the Christian martyrdom for which Uncle Tom is destined, but neither is young Harris a fiery revolutionary like the Dred of Stowe’s later book, where she seems more open to a Old Testament-like violent resistance against slavery than in her first anti-slavery novel.[i]
[i] For a thoughtful overview of Dred’s character, see Robert S. Levine, introduction to Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, ix-xxx-ii (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006). For additional discussion of the novel and contemporary responses, see my Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, xx), 61-75.
[Continue reading the full text of Sarah Robbins’ commentary here.]
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