Chapter 6: Comment by W.B. Allen

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Chapter Six forms an interlude in which the conflicts visible in the prior chapters ,especially Tom’ s not escaping while counseling Eliza to do so, are made clear in a seriocomic dram a that builds through Chapter 8. Tom’s apology for not fleeing with Eliza boils down to the assertion that, for superior natures, there was at the time no greater opportunity for acting wisely outside of slavery than in slavery! His apparent commitment to existing social relationships may be deceptive. If there is sense in Tom’s position, it arises only from the reflection that there is no phoenix to spring from the ashes of Emily Shelby’s partial citizenship matriarchy. The flaw seems to lie not in the law that she would temper, but in the very moral principles themselves.

The key, perhaps, is found in the tension between comfort and goodness. The partial citizenship offered to the slaves seems not sufficiently distinguished from a full citizenship based on materialism. The slave in fact only confirms and deepens slavery by accepting the amelioration partial citizenship offers (worldly comfort). But, of course, Emily’s matriarchy failed this test. It could not deliver the partial citizenship or, what is the same thing, mitigating moral graces.

Of the novel’s several caricatures used to suggest this argument, one gets special attention. That is “persistent Sam,” who saw in Tom’s demise his own ascent (Chapters 5-8). Sam’s story is the story of the slave who accepts the illusion o f partial citizenship in the liberal democratic regime, and who struggles to master the conditions of that citizenship. It is in this story that we find a obvious, heavy-handed parody of the Declaration of Independence, contrasted with the subsequent and subtler parody involved in George Harris’s “declaration” (Chapter 17), which becomes a parent only when the tension between George and Tom is recognized. “Persistent Sam” enters the drama just as the slaves get wind of the impending sale and for the purpose of leading the chase to capture Eliza, in which pursuit he intends not to be lax. In the end, however, he proves the earthly cause of her salvation. And this change of circumstance merits particular explanation. The explanation describes the citizenship Sam thinks to enjoy.[1]

The author is blunt and direct in opening this phase of the drama: “Black Sam . . . was revolving the matter in all of its phases and bearings, with a comprehensiveness of vision and a strict lookout of his own personal well-being, that would have done credit to any white patriot in Washington.” (Emphasis added.) The personal reflection animating Sam was none other than his own chance to replace Tom as “grand Cuffee.” Sam’s soliloquy was interrupted by a messenger from his master, who announced the need to ride after Eliza. This sign of providence inspires Sam to “cotch her.” But events move too swiftly for any ordinary politician, as the servant, Andy, adds that Mrs. Shelby would prefer Eliza’s successful escape. The perplexity is short-lived as Sam enters the task of satisfying the despot’s whim. Before he even speaks to Emily directly, he commences delaying tactics by placing a beech-nut burr beneath the saddle of Haley’s mount. The resulting fall and melee delay the start from nine o’clock to near one. Later Sam skillfully diverts Haley yet another two hours with a wild chase along a deserted path. Still, they will arrive at the banks of the Ohio before Eliza’s crossing (she had a fourteen hour advantage altogether, but she was afoot). It will fall to Sam, then, to alert her and give the start to her mad dash across an ice-floe clogged river. The thing done, Sam joyfully returns to report to his mistress and to regale his peers with the account of his heroism and of his principles.

Sam did not regard the events unfolding around him as human drama. He rather thought of it merely as a change of political administration. Now that Tom was down, thought he, “der’s room for some nigger to be up—and why not dis nigger!” His perspective is not false, insofar as it was the case that engines of social adjustment were turning and might just respond to his touch. His perplexity is genuine when he wonders why Emily does not want Eliza caught, since he thought she “would a scoured the varsal world after Lizy.” But the surest indication of his perspective is found in the non-servile manner in which he deals with Haley. The actions he undertook required recourse to every liberty he might have taken if his intention were to escape slavery himself or even to avenge its injustices. Shelby, later hearing Sam innocently relate the whole, cautions him not to make a habit of such practices, indirectly affirming the extent of Sam’s liberties. Haley may well have been killed by his fall, though Sam clearly intended no such end. He would not have done so. He could not have done so. The opportunity is again spurned when he and Andy lead Haley into a dense and deserted wild. They may easily have slain him, left him there, and rode on toward Eliza with an extra mount to assure freedom to all of them. Haley could not have been missed or found before they had secured their freedom. This they did not do. This decision to remain in slavery differs qualitatively from Tom’s and requires a different kind of apology.

Stowe suggests the view that informed Sam’s horizon at the opening of this section, when she notes that the chief news making the rounds of the slave quarters was the news of Tom’s “fall.” Eliza’s escape—though “an unprecedented event”—was only “accessory” if great in “stimulating excitement.” Sam’s vested interest in the order on the plantation is in fact a reflection of the perspective of the slaves generally. They imagine themselves to participate in a comprehensive political order—as did George and Eliza before catastrophe struck. Sam’s “comprehensiveness of vision” is comprehensive in precisely this sense. He understands the grounds for the arrangement of offices in this social order. And that ground is self-interest strictly speaking.[2]  Nonetheless, the liberation of self-interest requires certain concessions to principles of community and, foremost, the commitment to defend this political principle.

Sam’s connection of the defense of liberty with exercise of the liberty of indulgence may inaccurately reflect the masters upon whom he patterned himself. His frequent attendance on his master at political gatherings inspired his “burlesques and imitations.” But he seems rather serious as he settles into his new role as “prime minister,” in the midst of an outflux of edible rewards for his day’s work, regaling his fellows with a tale of heroism and a pledge to defend them to the end. The apology will not mention the self-interest that began his day’s reflections.

He will embellish “all for one and one for all” and produce a flourish in defense of statesmanship: “I’ll stand up for your rights, —I’ll fend ’em to the last breath!” But the younger Andy reveals the original intention to capture Eliza. Hence, Sam will have to reconcile his apparent moral contradiction. To that end, in chapter 8, “Eliza’s Escape,” he will give his apology, demonstrating a full acquaintance with the language of rights and the heavy responsibilities such principles entail.

For Sam, though, the demand for moral consistency proves to be nothing more than the facility with which one can demonstrate the rectitude of following one’s own passion. As such, this is but a minimum condition of social life. Where one cannot assert the rectitude of following one’s own passion, that passion is suspect and, perhaps, prohibited. Moreover, this materialistic and solipsistic view undermines any principled defense of slavery, insofar as slaves no less than freemen are subject to the passions. In these terms, the conditions are identical as the human beings are identical. “Persistent Sam” has indeed deepened his slavery in the endeavor to realize the promise of partial citizenship, because of surrendering and forgoing the exercise of all autonomous moral authority. He believes that the condition of self-indulgence may be advanced in slavery even more than in freedom. This makes “persistent Sam,” therefore, the perfect caricature of what the 20th Century came to call an “Uncle Tom,” and he exists in the novel only in contrast to Tom himself!

[1] Bush overlooks this aspect of the significance of the character of Persistent Sam, dismissing his importance to plot and theme with the statement that “…Sam’s function is to highlight and mock the hypocrisies of much public rhetoric.” Harold K. Bush, “The Declaration of Independence and Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Rhetorical Approach,” in Approaches to Teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Elizabeth Ammons and Susan Belasco (New York: Modern Language Association, 2000), p. 180. Bense comes closer in his analysis: “As the case of Sam will also show, Stowe worked subversively within the rhetoric and culturally invented myths that held sway over slavery propaganda to convert the most egregious kind of slave stereotyping among her contemporaries into a shape-shifting, encompassing figure who would, through his words and enactments, deflate major tenets of American ideology that had made his ‘creation’ possible… Through his performance as a speaker, Sam’s roles as providential agent, self-taught orator, community protector, bragging humorist, and homespun philosopher result in significant humor at the expense of white male authority.” Also: “Through Sam’s emblematizing of self-reliance, success, and salvation, Stowe projects a comically conceived, inward view of the North’s popular mind, its self-congratulatory compounding of the influences of Emerson and Franklin with the religious tradition of exemplary ‘perseverance.’” James Bense, “Myths and Rhetoric of the Slavery Debate and Stowe’s Comic Vision of Slavery,” in The Stowe Debate: Rhetorical Strategies in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed., Mason I. Lowance, Ellen E. Westbrook and R. C. De Prospo (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), p. 189, 195, 200.

[2] Gossett notes Burgess’s comment in this regard and adds a rejoinder: “In 1966, Anthony Burgess would comment on this passage. ‘The speech is the speech of a whole tradition of fictional negroes …but the argument is that of the modern African politician.’ It is also the argument of shrewd and self-interested people of any race anywhere.” Gossett, UTC and American Culture, p. 112.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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