Chapters 42, 43, & 44: Comment by David Reynolds

The last three chapters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offer Stowe’s thoughts on possible solutions to the slavery problem.   With the wisdom of hindsight, these proposed solutions can seem idealistic or improbable.  But in the early 1850s, there was nothing like a consensus about how to resolve the slavery issue. The antislavery Liberty Party had fared poorly in the elections of 1844 and 1848, and the Whigs and Democrats were splitting apart over slavery.  Antislavery reformers were divided between radical Garrisonians, evangelical Tappanites, and Transcendentalist individualists like Thoreau and Alcott.  The various movements saw inner conflict—Frederick Douglass, for instance, made a dramatic break with William Lloyd Garrison over the Constitution, which Douglass viewed as antislavery in spirit, while Garrison saw it as a hellish, proslavery document.

Into the fray stepped an overburdened housewife who, fueled by righteous anger, who wrote what was destined to become the most influential novel ever written by an American.  The solutions Stowe proposed in her final chapters—individual moral transformation, the voluntary manumission of slaves, colonization, and education and career advancement for blacks—seemed as plausible as any other programs of the time.  The first of her solutions, moral transformation, gets to the heart of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which portrays slavery as a wicked institution at odds with the Bible and with the principles of the founding fathers.  Is there anything Americans can do to get rid of slavery? Stowe asks.  She answers by moral fiat: “They can see to it that they feel right.”   That is, if individuals have a fundamental change of heart, they will perceive the injustice of slavery and work to rid the nation of this foul institution.  She invites readers to take action.  Her portrayal of George Shelby indicates what she wants Southerners to do: that is, recognize that the voluntary manumission of enslaved blacks is just and humane. Stowe drives home the tragic plight of slave families when she describes Chloe’s happy expectation of an imminent reunion with her husband, an expectation dashed byShelby’s report of Tom’s death at the hands of Legree. The extreme sufferingShelby has witnessed leads him to emancipate his slaves with the promise of paying them for their labor.  This act of voluntary manumission follows the emotional logic of the novel.  If blacks are no longer enslaved, they cannot be bought and sold; their families cannot be forcibly ripped apart, nor can women be used as breeding machines or as helpless pawns in the Southern sex trade.

Stowe’s call for a change of heart flew in the face of law, custom, and economics.  The Fugitive Slave Act, the immediate catalyst for the novel, had solidified the federal government’s support of slavery and had mandated the North’s participation in the South’s peculiar institution. Proslavery ideology had been strengthening ever since the 1830s, when South Carolinasenator John C. Calhoun described slavery as a positive good. Stowe’s call for her readers to “feel right,” as obvious as it might have seemed to her, was by no means obvious to many Americans of the day.  Although her novel indeed convinced many Northerners that slavery was evil, it provoked a tremendous reaction among Southerners, who responded to Uncle Tom’s Cabin with an avalanche of novels, tracts, stories, political cartoons, poems, and so forth that presented slavery as a worthy, God-ordained institution highly beneficial to both blacks and whites.  Far from bringing about a massive antislavery conversion in the South, Uncle Tom’s Cabin  fueled proslavery passion there.

But Stowe’s ethical imperative stirred the conscience of countless sympathetic readers.  It was famously acted upon by two men who became heroes to Stowe:  John Brown, who espoused abolitionist violence on the principle that slavery was the sum of all villainies, and Lincoln, who followed the political route to enforce his conviction that slavery was a “moral evil.”

Mentioning Lincolnbrings up another theme of the final chapters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: colonization.  Until the second year of the Civil War, Lincoln advocated the deportation of freed blacks, who, he felt, could not coexist equally with whites in America as result of what he saw as essential differences between the races.  Lincoln was hardly alone in this belief.  Colonization was widely regarded as a solution to the problems of slavery and race. Jefferson had endorsed it, as had many other leaders, including James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and Lincoln’s hero, Henry Clay.  Although the practical results of the colonization scheme were slim—only about 15,000 blacks were deported between 1817, when the American Colonization society was founded, and the end of the Civil War—the plan was very much on the national mind.  Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, and her sister Catharine had long supported it, and briefly toward the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe did as well.

A basic question was: Where should blacks be sent?  Lincolnemphasized Central America as a possible destination; others focused on tropical islands like Haiti.  For Stowe, Haitiwas not an option, for it was plagued by economic and social problems.  In the decades after the Haitian revolution of 1799-1803, when blacks had driven out French colonizers, Haitihad entered a long period of decline, a fact widely attributed to perceived indolence among the islanders.  The South frequently pointed to Haitias an example of the alleged incompetence of blacks when left to their own devices.  A writer for De Bow’s Review, for instance, attributed Haiti’s recent economic woes to “the idleness of negroes,” explaining, “Many will not work at all so long as they have any money.”[1]  Even a Northern magazine like The Living Age could characterize Haitians as “ignorant, covetous, lazy, proud, vindictive,, and cruel,…almost totally destitute of moral feeling.”[2]  GivenHaiti’s abysmal reputation, it is perhaps understandable that Stowe has George Harris dismiss the idea of moving to the island by explaining, “The race that formed the character of the Haytiens was a worn-out, effeminate one.”

The most common destination for deported blacks, the West African nation of Liberia, also posed problems.  Although Liberiawas a symbol of liberty for American colonizationists, it actually resembled Southern slave society. It had a peonage system like slavery, it profited from the slave trade, and a number of its towns were named after Southern places such as Louisianaand Virginia.  In her treatment of Liberia, Stowe was careful to recognize the difficulties the colonization movement faced there.  She has George say that Liberiahad “subserved all sorts of purposes, by being played off, in the hands of our oppressors.”  But George sees Liberiaas a positive opportunity to create a true “African nationality” and a higher form of Christian society than was possible among whites.  Here Stowe drew from the ideas of educators such as Alexander Kinmont and Francis Lieber.  Kinmont, who gave lectures in Cincinnatithat Stowe probably attended in the late 1830s, held that different races have innate qualities.  Caucasians, he claimed, tended to be aggressive, intellectual, scientific, and ambitious.  Blacks, in contrast, were spiritual, imaginative, nonintellectual, and childlike.  This romantic racialism assigned black people to what today seems like an inferior position but which in that era could be associated with Christian goodness.  Kinmont prophesied a glorious epoch when blacks would establish in Africaa “far nobler civilization” than any other, exhibiting “all the milder and gentler” Christian virtues.[3]  Stowe promotes a similar idea through her portrayal of George and Topsy at the end of the novel.  She converts the once bitterly rebellious George into an educated man and a devout Christian who is eminently qualified to help putLiberia on the right course.     As George says, “The African race has peculiarities, yet to be unfolded in the light of civilization and Christianity, which, if not the same as the Anglo-Saxon, may prove to be, morally, even of a higher type.” The formerly mischievous Topsy, after she has become a respectable Christian under the tutelage of Ophelia, is also well suited to perform missionary work inAfrica.

Predictably, Stowe’s advocacy of colonization did not sit well with some readers.  Radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Henry C. Wright, though deeply moved by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, complained about its words about colonization.  The columns of Frederick Douglass’s Paper featured public discussion of the issue.  Douglass, a longtime foe of colonization, found himself in the awkward position of defending Stowe against the attacks of a former colleague, the black abolitionist Martin Delany, who resented the fact that a white woman was suggesting that blacks should be deported.  Douglass reminded readers that Delany himself had recently advocated the voluntary emigration of blacks to Africa because of rampant racism in America.  Douglass and others also suggested that Stowe’s last-minute mention of Liberia did not signify deep support for colonization—a point soon validated when Stowe in December 1853 wrote a widely publicized letter to the New York meeting of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society Society saying, in the paraphrased words of a report, “that if she were to write “Uncle Tom” again, she would not send George Harris to Liberia.”[4]

At any rate, as Stowe’s defenders noted, her novel makes a plea for permitting blacks to develop their work skills with the goal of becoming productive citizens.  Besides promoting education for blacks, Stowe gives several examples of self-sufficiency and enterprise among African Americans.  She refers to examples of blacks who had succeeded in many areas, including furniture-making, farming, real estate, and coal mining—all examples of blacks’  capability for “conquering for themselves comparative wealth and social position” through “self-denial, energy, patience, and honesty.”

Although, as mentioned, Stowe’s recommendations for challenging the slave system prompted some debate in the North, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was notable for its remarkably broad appeal.  Stowe was overjoyed by the embrace of the novel by widely different antislavery groups.  She later confessed, “The fact that the wildest and extremest abolitionists united with the coldest conservatives…to welcome and advance the book is a thing that I have never ceased to wonder at.”[5]  Although the novel’s political impact was delayed due to the reshuffling of the parties, by the mid-1850s it helped change people’s votes by melting their hearts, as evidenced by the near victory of the antislavery Republican John Frémont in the presidential race of 1856.  As a journalist noted, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, thundering along the pathway of reform, is doing a magnificent work on the public mind.  Wherever it goes, prejudice is disarmed, opposition is removed, and the hearts of all are touched with a new and strange feeling, to which they before were strangers.”[6]

            And so, in the end, Stowe’s appeal for Americans to feel right did take effect among a significant body of readers.  But then there was the South, where the novel was officially banned in a number of states.  A black man found to have the novel in his home was sentenced to ten years in prison.  Stowe was called a “termagant virago,” a “foul-mouthed hag” with an unnatural affection for black people and wicked designs on the South.[7]

In this light, the concluding paragraphs of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are prescient, for they strike a foreboding note.   Stowe writes, “This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed”—a reference to the working-class revolutions in Europe and the growing tensions over slavery inAmerica.  Though Stowe has invited readers to change their hearts, she seems to sense that her message will not reach everyone, and she expresses fear of powerful reprisal by an angry God.   In postCalvinist rhetoric, she warns that if the country does not alter its ways, it will soon face “that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God.”  These memorable closing words of the novel anticipate the “terrible swift sword” of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the stirring anthem, derived from the “John Brown Song,” that Union regiments sang as they tramped South in the long, bloody war that proved to be America’s pathway to emancipation—that shining goal Harriet Beecher Stowe had called for so passionately in her landmark novel.

 

 


[1]De Bow’s Review, 5 (June 1848): 489.

[2]The Living Age, 14 (August 17, 1844): 65.

[3]A. Kinmont, Twelve Lectures on the Natural History of Man (Cincinnati,Ohio: U. P. James, 1839 129.

[4]Thomas F. Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 294.

[5]Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe Compiled from Her Life Letters and Journal (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889), 169.

[6]National Era, March 17, 1853.

[7]Southern Literary Messenger, 18 (December 1852): 721.

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2 responses to “Chapters 42, 43, & 44: Comment by David Reynolds

  • Tuelo Gibson Anthony

    My memory of this dynamic intellectual work of Harriet breathed new life to me. I read this book in South Africa in 1980. In A village called Seodin Northern Cape Province. At the time I am told was the only copy existing around. I am planning to read more and follow the work of Harriet as it is inspiring.

  • Lee

    Really great. Just A + work.

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