When What Is Legal Is Not What Is Right

On 20 March 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among The Lowly was first published. The book unquestionably ranks as one of the most important novels in world history: it was the best seller of the entire Nineteenth Century throughout the world, second only to the perennial leader, The Bible, and it was significantly responsible for creating a profound change in attitudes toward slavery throughout the United States of America, but mainly, of course, in the Northeast and Midwest. Pro-slavery and Abolitionist sentiments had been at odds from the very earliest days of the founding of our republic, but in the wake of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, abolitionist sentiment grew immensely. Tolerance for the manifest hypocrisy of the evil of slavery flourishing in “The Land of the Free” grew less and less. As absolutists on each side clashed, war seemed inevitable. Upon being introduced to Mrs. Stowe at the Whitehouse, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who made this great big war!”

The book sold out its first run almost immediately. Before the end of 1852, more than 300,000 copies had been printed in the United States, an unprecendented success at that time. Another 200,000 copies were printed elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and translations began to appear in other languages before the year was out. These figures do not include unauthorized and “bootleg” copies that flooded the market as well, nor the many unauthorized abridgements and digests of the book. Additionally dramatic interpretations ranging from public readings to many hundreds of theatrical versions brought the tale to millions of people. It was a phenomenon unlike any which the world had seen. And, as noted above, its impact was immense and immediate.

For today’s tastes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is overwrought, melodramatic, and verbose in the extreme. Stowe’s prose styling makes one think of Charles Dickens as being spare and concise by comparison. The novel’s major appeal today lies in its historical importance. It is today much more often read about than read; indeed, some recommend against actually reading the unabridged original novel because it contains characterizations of its enslaved protagonists that are distinctly stereotypic and often unflattering (though no one decries the portrayal of the wicked and greedy Simon LeGree, whose name is still an epitome for nastiness and evil.) This seems to me to be a perfectly fine state of affairs, as the book really is a labor to slog through; it is enough to know what it was about and to know its impact.

But there is an important question that one must ask: since anti-slavery movements and the cause of abolition had been present in American society since the 18th Century, what was it that gave this book such an unusual impact? Why was Stowe’s depiction of slavery suddenly more powerful and more effective at raising anti-slavery sentiment than the many efforts that had come before? Why did Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignite a fire that had merely smoldered previously?

The reasons are no doubt many, but foremost among these is that a major theme of the novel is the forced separation of families. The brutality of this forced tearing apart had been raised repeatedly by abolitionists, but their tracts and treatises and speeches often found limited audiences, audiences of already like-minded people. Stowe’s novel was a gripping and emotionally affecting epic that reached many millions who perhaps had never really given serious thought to the issue of slavery or its abolition. Though anti-slavery activists made much emphasis on the beatings and lashings and physical cruelty of the institution of slavery, such sensationalism apparently failed to foster a lasting concern among most Americans. The United States of America was mainly rural in the 1850s, and it was perhaps easy for those who heard a speaker describe the torments inflicted upon slaves to accept these as being aberrations or outlying incidents; every farmer knew that no wise farmer would regularly abuse his valuable resources in such a way, for such behavior would be self-destructive. Thus, even when confronted with first-person accounts and eye-witness testimonials, most Americans seemed quite able to dismiss these cases as being sufficiently rare as to be unworthy of sustained outrage, and unnecessary to work against.

Perhaps the abolitionists’ putting so much emphasis on the physical horrors of slavery had in reality caused far too many Americans to assume they were exaggerating. Perhaps the nation’s citizens simply could not admit that their country countenanced such evil. Perhaps they were simply in denial.

But Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed all of that at one fell swoop! Almost literally overnight, the truth of the pernicious cruelty of slavery became palpably real through the medium of an utterly fictitious novel. While physical torments and tortures might be impossible for readers to effectively conceive, the unending trauma brought about by forcibly ripping families apart was far more “real,” far more familiar and readily conceivable. Stowe’s melodramatic account of “poor Eliza” facing the prospect of being rent forever from her son touched millions in the population of the readers of the book, the listeners to public readings, and the playgoers. While few could honestly relate to the horror of a fierce whipping, virtually everyone had first-hand experience with separation and loss. The majority of mothers and fathers of that age knew first-hand the pain of the loss of a child. Widows and widowers and orphans were commonplace. In a day of limited communication, most Americans knew the ache of separation when friends and family moved on to the West, or embarked upon a sea voyage, or simply rode to a neighboring town. Whether Harriet Beecher Stowe expected the potent effect of making forced separation a main theme of the novel, Stowe had touched upon a truly effective way to reach people and to permit them to truly understand and feel the horrors of a system that was legal in large areas of “The Land Of The Free.”

Suddenly, the wickedness of the institution of slavery became undeniable: through the portrayal of the forcible splitting of families, an enormous wrong that was such a plainly evil feature of slavery could no longer be ignored. In the book, Stowe has one character observe: “The most dreadful part of slavery, to my mind, is its outrages of feelings and affections – the separating of families, for example.” (Italics mine.) People knew then what we still know now: forcibly separating families is torture, and it is torture of the most callous and barbarous and unbounded sort, for it tortures entire families, young and old, and the torment goes on and on and on. And millions of Americans became aware that they could no longer be proud of a nation that permitted and protected such an intolerable system. Slavery was not just antithetical to the ideals and principles of a Free Country, it was intolerable evil, pure and simple. Mrs. Stowe’s decision to show the cruel injustice of slavery by first focussing on the forcible separation of families did more to capture people’s hearts and minds than decades of graphic emphasis on the physical cruelty. Stowe hit a resonant note, and the supporters of slavery were rightly terrified.

I make note of this today, especially, because the past still has so immensely much to teach us today. Systems and regimes that rely on such inhumane and uncivilized practices as the forced isolation of children from parents have always been on the wrong side of fundamental human morality, and they are ultimately judged to be on the wrong side of history as well. No matter the time, no matter the place, and no matter the justifications proffered, forcible separation of families is torture, and it is torture of the most callous and barbarous and unbounded sort. This cruel practice tortures entire families, young and old, and the torment goes on and on and on. Americans woke up to this stark and undeniable reality 164 years ago; we must wake up to it again. It is true that there are those who earnestly approve of such barbarity today, just as there were in the past. But these are bad people today just as they were in the past. Our great and prosperous nation must not once more join the ranks of those wicked and ultimately failed governments that were led by vicious oppressors or murderous tyrants. Those unspeakably benighted leaders justified their brutality as being “the law.” How very hollow and cowardly it sounds to hear our own Executive Branch claiming that “the law” demands such vile cruelty. Forcibly separating families is despicable. Always. Any time. Anywhere. Today’s victims of such brutality are non-citizens; this does not mean that they are non-people. These are human beings, no matter how poor they may be, no matter how little they bring, no matter what their ethnic heritage or social background may be. These are people. Our own self-respect as human beings, and our nation’s very character, demand that treat these people with compassion. Those who attempt to enter this country illegally must be dealt with, but this country has both the resources and the character to do so without descending to barbarism.

The past is not dead; it is not even past: it is with us in the present. But knowing the past and frankly facing it with all its glories and all of its shames, is necessary to living today and building a better future for all of us.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us
about one man and fable tells us about a million men.

— G. K. Chesterson

FURTHER READING

Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild; Houghton Mifflin, 2005: ISBN: 0618104690

A professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Hochschild has nevertheless built an impressive reputation as a historian, though perhaps “popular historian” should be used (historians can be a snarkey bunch, and there always seems to be a certain disdain for those who write things that many people actually want to read!) In Bury The Chains, Hochschild recounts the struggle of the British anti-slavery movement. He notes that this cause was the first modern popular cause, employing mass media – newspapers and broadsheet posters – and organizing economic action against slavery in the form of sugar boycotts. He says, “It was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for years, over someone else’s rights.” This book too has its villains such as Banastre Tarleton, (the evil English dragoon colonel featured in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot; he was pro-slavery in Parliament) and its heroes such as John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin online

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