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This chapter dramatizes what Stowe saw as several positive characteristic of black people: their devotion to family, friends, and God; their strength, good humor, and zest; their special capacity for passionate, imaginative religious expression; and their eagerness to be close to white people who reach out to them.
Stowe emphasizes here the domestic side of enslaved blacks. In doing so, she challenges the then-prevalent view of blacks as subhuman beings indifferent to home and family. Jefferson had argued that black men were oversexed brutes who didn’t mind being separated from their families because “love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient.” Another Southerner, George Frederick Holmes, claimed that the typical enslaved man had no scruples about taking a new wife on each plantation, since “the negro, in fact, is proverbially a Lothario. He is seldom faithful to his vows. He loves to rove.” Many white Americans felt similarly. Even an abolitionist like Theodore Parker could declare, “Lust is [black men’s] strongest passion: and hence, rape is an offence of too frequent occurrence. Fidelity to the marriage relation they do not understand and do not expect, neither in their native country nor in a state of bondage.”
Stowe tries to refute such notions throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She makes marital fidelity between blacks the driving force of her novel’s two main plots: the thrilling escape to Canada of the slave couple Eliza and George Harris after they learn that their son is to be sold to a slave-trader; and the tragic separation of the enslaved Uncle Tom from his family when he is sold by his Kentucky master into the Deep South.
To accentuate the strength of Tom’s family attachments, Stowe in this chapter describes in intimate detail Tom’s immediate domestic surroundings: his cabin’s well-tended garden, its patriotic and religious pictures over the fireplace, and the close-knit family of five presided over by Tom’s wife, Chloe. Stowe suggests that, contrary to popular belief, enslaved blacks could be wholeheartedly committed to the same cult of domesticity that was an ideal among middle-class whites of the era. Stowe coauthored with her sister, Catharine Beecher, The American Woman’s Home; or, Principle of Domestic Science, one of countless domestic manuals of the time that reinforced woman’s role as a homemaker. In her portrait of Chloe, Stowe shows that homemaking need not confine women in a passive, inferior role but instead could be an empowering experience that allowed for practicality, efficiency, and independence. Modern scholars have identified this nineteenth-century sense of female empowerment as “domestic feminism,” a notion enforced by Chloe, who is so confident about her homemaking skills that she verges on being cocky and even rebellious, as when she reports having once dismissed her domestically inept mistress, Emily Shelby, from the kitchen.
As for Tom, he is distant from the cringing sycophant or spineless betrayer of his race that the term Uncle Tom signifies today. That false image arose later on, during the Jim Crow era, when Uncle Tom was often presented on stage and in advertisements as a stooped, obedient old fool. Stowe introduces Tom this chapter as “a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man” with a “self-respecting and dignified” look that indicated “grave and steady good sense.” His strength and firmness stand him in good stead throughout the book, as when he heroically saves a white girl from drowning and bravely endures Simon Legree’s sadistic cruelty.
Though Stowe said that there was no single real-life source for Tom, among the prototypes for her hero would seem to be the ex-slaves Josiah Henson and Thomas Magruder. Henson, who took pride in being known as the “original Uncle Tom,” had been brutalized as an enslaved young man in Maryland and then became a forgiving Christian who was so honorable that he passed up a chance to escape when he led a group of slaves through the free state of Ohio—only later, when he was betrayed by his master’s brother, did he flee north. Thomas Magruder had been held in slavery in Kentucky but then was awarded freedom in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he lived with his wife, their son Mose and daughter Louisa as well as a young ex-slave, Pete—a similar family arrangement to that of Tom and Chloe, who have two sons, Mose and Pete, and a daughter. Both Magruder and Henson were compassionate, deeply religious men and yet also strong and firm-principled, like Tom.
Besides being a devoted father and husband, Tom is a religious leader in the community. He is considered “a sort of patriarch in religious matters,” and we see him lead a religious meeting attended by many slaves from the area. By depicting this prayer meeting, Stowe is venturing toward dangerous territory, since religious gatherings among slaves were discouraged in the South because they were thought to offer blacks an opportunity to plot rebellion. Stowe portrays black religion with keen sympathy. She captures the unique spirit of worship among slaves when she describes the blacks clapping, laughing, crying, and singing hymns of “a vivid and pictorial nature” about “’Jordan’s banks’ and ‘Canaan’s fields,’ and the ‘New Jerusalem.’” After the Civil War, Stowe and her minister brother, Henry Ward Beecher, would become among the first white people to celebrate spirituals, as introduced to the public in the performances of the famous Fisk University Jubilee Singers. But long before that, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe had captured the essence of spirituals and had hinted of their coded calls for freedom.
The presence of George Shelby in this chapter brings up the question of race relations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At moments, Stowe’s black characters seem to act subserviently, as when we see Tom struggling to learn the alphabet from George or when Chloe praises the intelligence of whites and boasts about the superiority of the Shelbys to other slaveholding families in the region. But for nineteenth-century readers, this chapter would have seemed adventurous, even transgressive, in its statements about race. The close relationship between George Shelby and his black friends was, for that time, a bold reach across the racial divide, one that prefigures the racial bonding that Stowe promotes elsewhere in the novel, as when the fleeing Harrises are taken in by kindly Northerners or when Tom become the close friend of Eva St. Clare. Slavery could disappear, Stowe writes later in the novel, if people could only learn to “feel right” about each other. In her view, a large part of feeling right was for whites to recognize that blacks have the same emotions and motivations that they do. Stowe goes so far as to suggest that black people have the capacity to equal or even outshine whites in what counted most—true religion and human devotion.
The chapter’s conclusion makes a direct stab at the white-controlled institution of slavery. We learn that while Tom and his family are enjoying their domestic and religious activities, Arthur Shelby has been signing the bill of sale that will break up this enslaved family and bring great suffering and eventual death to Uncle Tom. Stowe’s sarcasm is cutting. After Shelby has signed the agreement, he tells the slave-trader Haley, “I hope you’ll remember that you promised, on your honor, you wouldn’t sell Tom, without knowing what sort of hands he’s going into.” Haley replies laconically, “Why, you’ve just done it, sir.” Taken aback, Shelby says that “circumstances…obliged me,” which elicits Haley’s curt remark, “Wal, you know, they may ‘blige me, too.”
As this conversation shows, even a kindly slaveowner like Shelby, who is forced to sell Tom for economic reasons, is caught in the grim web of the slave system, which, by its nature, negates worthy intentions and ethical goals. The virtue and domestic loyalty among blacks that we’ve seen in Tom’s cabin are undermined by the treacherous double-dealing among whites going on the Great House—a devastating contrast.