“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: Slavery and American Values

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
-Declaration of Independence of the United States (1776)

In the first century after the American foundation, however, there is a huge discrepancy between those words in the founding document and the enslavement of millions of African Americans. Harriet B. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) reveals the truth around this issue. In this novel, due to large debts of slave owner, Harry and Uncle Tom are sold. Afraid of losing her only child, Harry’s mother, Eliza, takes Harry and flees to the North, seeking freedom with her husband, George Harris; meanwhile, Uncle Tom, a pious Christian, is sold south down the river. Although once purchased by a good-hearted gentleman, Augustine St. Clare, Uncle Tom ends up in the hands of Simon Legree and gets whipped to death. Throughout “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, the author argues that the enslavement of African Americans is evil because it is contrary to liberty, humanistic empathy, Christianity- things that American people value most.

Institution of slavery is a significant obstacle to the individual liberty of African Americans. George Harris, a young man who is “possessed of handsome person and pleasing manners”(17), is of “adroitness and ingenuity”(16). He invents “a machine for the cleaning of the hemp, which, considering the education and circumstances of the inventor, displayed quite as much mechanical genius as Whitney's cotton-gin”(17). However, “as this young man was in the eye of the law not a man, but a thing, all these superior qualifications were subject to the control of a vulgar, narrow-minded, tyrannical master” (17). Later, under the arbitrary will of his master, “George was taken home, and put to the meanest drudgery of the farm”(18). Merely due to one of his immutable characteristics, his skin color, he is completely at mercy of a brutal man. Despite his obviously exhibited potential in invention, his freedom to further his career is completely deprived under slavery. The author, then, effectively creates an effect of irony by presenting the words of the slave owner: “it’s a free country”(19). It is apparent that, as long as George Harris and millions of African Americans are subjugated to the cruel institution of slavery and reduced to the status of living property, America cannot be regarded as a free country at all. Then, George Harris, not resigned himself to the malice and caprice of the slave owner, makes up his mind and decides to escape to Canada. His wife, Eliza, also decides to escape to the land of freedom because her only child, Harry is going to be sold. On her way to the north, she is chased by her new white owner, Haley. When Haley approaches the inn she takes, she “caught her child, and sprang down steps towards it”(70); then, “the huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she stayed there not a moment”(71). What impels her to take the perilous journey across the Ohio River, “which lay, like Jordan, between her and the Canaan of liberty on the other side”(61), is that she clearly knows if she is not able to get through the river, slave owner chasing behind her is going to deprive her freedom, reduce her and her child under servitude again, and permanently make Harry separate from her. With the strong desire to liberty, she successfully gets through the river and reaches the North. It is the individual liberty that drives George Harris flee and gives courage to Eliza when getting across the river. Due to the oppressive institution of slavery, such liberty, precious to any American individual, is systematically deprived from millions of fellow human beings regarded as objects- enslaved African Americans.

In addition to the destruction to individual liberty, Stowe also argues that slavery is at opposite to the humanistic empathy, a value that Americans treasure since the Enlightenment. When presenting the reason why Eliza decides to flee, the author introduces the readers to imagine what they would feel and do if they were in such situation:
If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning,--if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o’clock till morning to make good your escape,—how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom,--the little sleepy head on your shoulder,--the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck?

The author uses second personal pronoun to address the readers to create a sense of close conversation. When the author asks a series of rhetorical questions and when she exhaustively describes the time and events, she lets the readers feel as if they are in that urgent situation. In this way, the readers may realize that the black slaves are also individual human beings who have the similar feelings and similar reactions when encountering such situation. Their love to their children is as intense as that of the readers’ love to children. Thus, the cruel enslavement that creates such situation seems intolerable from the perspective of any sentient person. When taking Harry to escape to Canada, Eliza gets injury. She is saved by Mrs. Bird, and Mrs. Bird provides the house and care to them due to pure humanistic empathy to the miserable mother and son, because they remind her of Mrs. Birds’ experience of losing a child similar to Eliza. Mrs. Birds can feel the sentiment that drives Eliza to flee to Canada from the slave owner. She is merely being very afraid of losing the only child. The author also wants to appeal to the humanistic empathy in her audience. The author directly makes an exclamation to the reader at this point- “And oh! mother that reads this, has there never been in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave? Ah! happy mother that you are, if it has not been so.”(101). Even Mr. Bird, who “sat with his hands in his pockets, and scouted all sentimental weakness of those who would put the welfare of a few miserable fugitives before great state interests”(103), cannot turn away from the “real presence of distress,--the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony” (103) when he observes such things in himself. After being introduced to imagine the situation of slaves and knowing what people will act when they encounter those runaway slaves in person, most enlightened American readers with humanistic empathy will be very likely to find their values greatly incompatible with the slavery that leads to all such events.

When the readers with humanistic empathy find the slavery abominable and evil, Stowe further demonstrates the irreconcilable conflict between the enslavement of other humans and Christian religion. After Eva, a pious Christian and the daughter of Augustine St. Clare, died, St. Clare makes a comment on the Christianity and slavery.

‘My view of Christianity is such,’ he added, ‘that I think no man can consistently profess it without throwing the whole weight of his being against this monstrous system of injustice that lies at the foundation of all our society; and, if need be, sacrificing himself in the battle. That is, I mean that I could not be a Christian otherwise, though I have certainly had intercourse with a great many enlightened and Christian people who did no such thing; and I confess that the apathy of religious people on this subject, their want of perception of wrongs that filled me with horror, have engendered in me more skepticism than any other thing.’

After St. Clare’s sudden death, his slaves are sent to the the slave warehouse, where “that soul immortal, once bought with blood and anguish by the Son of God, when the earth shook, and the rocks rent, and the graves were opened, can be sold, leased, mortgaged, exchanged for groceries or dry goods, to suit the phases of trade, or the fancy of the purchaser.” (370) The author creates a great contrast between the precious souls at expense of the Son of God and the cheap things with which they are traded, persuading that such institution of slavery is nothing but an insult to the effort and sacrifice of the important figure in Christian religion. After the author’s comment on those events, most American people with sufficient religious literacy will realize the inherent incompatibility between their faith and the slavery.

Individual liberty, humanistic empathy and Christian religion- three important things American people consider as precious are conflicting to slavery. Exposing such conflicts, the author effectively constructs the theme of the novel- the evil of slavery. This theme successfully changes the mind of many American people in the Northern states. They, thus, begins to entertain the ideas about slavery and national values differing from many bigoted people in the Southern states. This difference in ideas, creating polarization among the people in this country, eventually starts the American Civil War. After the military success of the Union, the 13th Amendment is added to the Constitution and the immoral institution of enslaving fellow human beings is fundamentally abolished on the land of this nation.

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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: Slavery and American Values. (2020, Nov 02). Retrieved February 23, 2024 , from

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