In its September 3, 1852 review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Times of London scolds Harriet Beecher Stowe for her radical “portraiture” of “African nature,” mocking what it sees as her “ludicrous” attempt to “establish the superiority of the African nature over that of the Anglo-Saxon and of every other known race.” The racism in the assertion is implicit: no race, and certainly, not the African, could be superior to the Anglo-Saxon.
Yet by the time of The Times’s review, Stowe and a number of others were part of a growing number of people who were concerned that slavery was making whites, if not inferior to Africans, then into brutes. An important thread that runs through Stowe’s novel and throughout the Anglo-American abolitionist tradition is the argument that slavery should be abolished because it is damaging to white people who are being rendered inferior by their participation in and contact with the institution. Nowhere is this argument made more strongly than in the section under consideration this week, in which Marie St. Clair decides to have Rosa sent to the whipping house and to sell Tom and most of the slaves.
Before we look at these episodes, I want to turn to Robert Southey’s “The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade” (1790), an illustration of the argument that slavery damages whites with strong resonances both with this section and with Stowe’s novel generally. Southey advances his anti-slavery argument in the poem through his examination of the effect that slavery, and the slave trade in particular, has on a good English sailor, the eponymous protagonist. “The Sailor” centers around his state of misery; he has been rendered “miserable” and “wretched,” suffering in ”such heart-anguish as could spring/ From deepest guilt alone.”
The sailor’s guilt stems from an event on his journey on board a “Guinea-man” to the “slave-coast” where his ship takes on a cargo of three-hundred slaves. Of the “sulky” who refused to eat, one woman is “sulkier than the rest,” and, under the direction of the ship’s captain, the sailor is forced to tie her up and flog her until she is nearly dead. Finally, the woman is untied and taken down, and the sailor records his relief:
She could not be more glad than I
When she was taken down,
A blessed minute—’twas the last
That I have ever known!
His misery, in other words, equals and even exceeds hers although it is she who is murdered. And while she is released through death, “poor wretch/ She rested from her pain,” he is unable to rest, unable to sleep, constantly reliving the sights and sounds of his own brutality, despite his constant pleas for forgiveness from Christ. Southey’s poem focuses its attention squarely on the sailor, rather than on the “sulky” woman who is the occasion for his misery. Southey moves swiftly past her death and release and instead centers his attention on the white man’s crisis and slavery as the cause for that crisis.
In contrast, Stowe does not ask her readers to turn aside from the misery of the slaves under consideration in her novel, but she does focus on how whites, and in this section, particularly white women, are being brutally and horribly transformed by the institution of slavery. Throughout our reading, we observe Marie St. Clare’s self-indulgence, selfishness, and laziness. In the last few chapters, we have seen her lack of maternal feeling in the care for and death of her daughter, Eva, and her heartless response to the death of her husband. In this section, following shortly on these last two deaths, Marie sinks to an all-time low.
First, she condemns her slave Rosa to a flogging at a “whipping establishment” for the crime of trying on one of Marie’s dresses and for being “saucy.” Stowe hints that this punishment is a kind of or a kin to sexual assault. Marie will be “subjected to brutal exposure and shameful correction” and “at the hands of the lowest men.” When Rosa pleads with Ophelia for intervention, she bemoans the “shame” of the punishment, a term that Ophelia repeats in her conversation with Marie, arguing that the “shame” will “deprave” Rosa and that “any girl might rather be killed outright.” Marie refuses these entreaties; she declares her specific and undecidedly unfeminine intent to “shame” Rosa in this way.
If slavery has “unsexed” Marie in her action towards Rosa (or at least stripped her of proper feminine modesty), it has also left her without any maternal and wifely loyalty. Trying to stay Tom’s sale, Ophelia reminds Marie that “it was one of the last wishes of your husband that Tom should have his liberty,” based on a promise made to Eva “on her death-bed.” This death-bed claim to husband and daughter has, however, no sway on this degraded portrait of womanhood.
This section is not only an indictment of Marie St. Clair. It is also a condemnation of Ophelia, or at least of the world in which a woman like Ophelia finds herself. In her encounter with sister-in-law, Ophelia swallows the injustice of Marie’s actions like “some explosive mixture” but finds herself, despite “all the diplomatic skill of which she was mistress,” unable to sway her peer.
As Stowe makes clear elsewhere in the novel, it is proper for a woman to sway others with her diplomatic skill. Mrs. Burr, for example, rules her husband and children “by entreaty and persuasion,” and her influence on the Senator, despite his avowed approval of the Fugitive Slave Act, is what allows Eliza to make her escape. Yet within the novel, women like Mrs. Burr are rare. Mrs. Shelby is, in many ways, Mrs. Burr’s peer, yet her inability to sway her husband from his decision to sell Eliza, Harry, and Tom is precisely what sets the events of the novel into play.
Slavery has created the world of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: a world in which women are unable to marshal the resources of feminine diplomacy to persuade others to avoid injustice; a world in which a woman can set in motion the sexual degradation of another woman; and a world in which a wife can set aside the death-bed wishes of her daughter and husband. While The Times may find it ludicrous even to begin to imagine whites as anything but supremely superior, others, like Stowe, clearly find the world of Uncle Tom’s Cabin a worrisome threat to the natural order.
[i] Margaret Jane Radin, “Property and Personhood,” Stanford Law Review34.5 (May 1982): 968.f his life plans f
[ii] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 28.
[iii] Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Library of America, 1994), 305.