Reflections on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”


Economic History of the U.S. To 1900

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin looks at slavery from the perspective of a Christian lady, and addresses the question of whether Christianity and slavery can coexist in a society we would like to call moral and humane. The question is a part of a larger one, one that is commonly referred to as “the problem of evil.” Stowe poses another question about the society of which she writes, and that is whether we are racially superior and whether this is any justification of acts of conquest. These questions will be discussed in brief in this paper, using specific character descriptions to help support the discussion.

To look at her problem, Stowe offers us a diverse cast of characters. Through the course of the book, we get to know Christian slaves and unchristian masters, masters and slaves who are unbelievers in Christ and in God (but for different reasons), educated slaves and illiterate masters, angels, humane people, decent people, wicked people, and people so evil, we find it hard to believe they exist.

I refrain from using skin color being black or white as the definition of slave or master, because Stowe makes it clear on numerous occasions that there were many cases where the slaves were fair skinned as a result of being the child of a black mother who had been made the mistress of the white mother. The offspring, even if fair skinned, was destined to be a slave. Take, for example, George Harris. His mother was a beautiful slave whose “personal beauty” made her “the slave of the passions of her possessor.” George ended up possessing European features, resembling more a “Spanish-looking fellow,” but being destined to a life of slavery.

Perhaps one of the most prominent depictions of the slave owners is their feeling of superiority over the slaves. Indeed, the slave race is seen as inferior. Although there is, on occasion, mention of slave marriages, it is also made clear that these were not legal marriages, and that many slaveholders felt that the slaves were too inferior to feel familial attachments. Babies were separated from their mothers, on the one hand because they were seen as a burden, and on the other, because if they could be held a couple of years more, they could bring in a higher price. Since the slaves were not often allowed the chance to show sentiment over their loss, except at the initial separation, the slaveholders pointed to that as their emotional inferiority.

Even the “kinder” slaveholding families did not always see the slaves in favorable light. Marie St. Clare, for example, who holds herself to be a humane Christian woman, held (while her husband and daughter were alive), that slaves ought to be kindly treated, but at the same time, they ought to “know their place.” They need, on occasion, to be “put down.” She sees “servants,” as she calls them, as grown up children. There is no reason to put any effort into educating slaves. They are children of God, but they are not, and should not by any mean be put “on any sort of equality with us, as if we could be compared.” Marie explicitly states that, “They are a degraded race.”

Augustine St. Clare is a different sort of person. He does not hold religion in high regard. As he says regarding Christianity and slavery, “My view of Christianity is such… that I think that 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.” To Augustine, it seems to be hopeless. He despises slavery, although he admits it had made him rich, and he is too lazy to do anything about it. He has nothing to fall to, for he sees religion as hypocritical. He wants to believe in God, however, for as he tells Uncle Tom, “I don’t disbelieve, and I think there is reason to believe; and still I don’t.” A transformation of Augustine takes place through his time with Uncle Tom, and he makes motions to begin the freeing of his servants. Augustine never gets his chance to free all his slaves, nor any of them, for he is killed in a fight.

Augustine is not alone in his beliefs. George Harris, previously mentioned, also finds it hard to believe in a Christian God. George is an educated slave—literate, a farm manager, an inventor, and a businessman. He is owned by a cruel slaveholder who takes every chance he gets to “insult and torment” George. George directly poses the problem of evil when he says, “I ain’t a Christian… my heart ‘s full of bitterness; I can’t trust in God. Why does he let things be so?” He feels that religion is on their side. Of the system, he points out that slaves do not have a country. There are no laws for them, only laws about them—meant to keep them down. The only thing George has is love for his wife, Eliza, and his son, Harry.

The theme of love runs strong throughout the book, as it should for a book commenting on Christianity. The fundamental teaching of Christ was that of love. In that sense, there are two true Christians in Stowe’s novel: Uncle Tom and Eva. Eva is the daughter of Augustine, and is often referred to as an angel. She is often seen playing with her father’s slaves. In a scene with her cousin, Henrique, she is essentially told that one does not love his or her servants, at which point she asks, “Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?” In a naïve way, she says that she likes having as many servants as they do at their house because “it makes so many more round you to love.” Eva begs her father to tell her he is a Christian. Augustine asks what it takes to be a Christian, to which she replies, “Loving Christ, most of all.”

Eva is not the only one who shows concern for Augustine not being Christian. Uncle Tom is also very concerned, and does not hesitate to tell Augustine so. It is something he feels, he tells Augustine, when talking of the love of Christ. Uncle Tom’s faith shows even stronger after he has been traded to the inhumane plantation owner, Legree. He comes to the point that he is willing to lay his life down to follow the laws of the Lord, and for the love of God. In one scene, he disobeys orders by his master to flog another slave. He points out to Legree that although Legree may own his body, Legree can never own his soul, for his soul is committed to the Lord. That said, Uncle Tom also states his diligent obedience to his owner, and his devotion to the message of Christ, by saying, “Mass’r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I ‘d give ye my heart’s blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I ‘d give ’em freely, as the Lord gave his for me.”

These are but a few of the major characters in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and their insights into the problems of evil, injustice, religion, superiority, and slavery. It is interesting, however, to take some distance from the particular details of the novel and consider some philosophical and historical ideas which indirectly relate to this story (at least to my wandering mind).

One of the initial things that arises within me when I read this book is my atheistic point of view. In many ways, I am doubtful, like Augustine is, for I have never seen God, nor can I say that I know anyone who has. There is too much wrong in this world to make me comfortable with this world. On the other hand, I have known people who cannot live in this world without some sort of belief in a Supreme Being. The belief gives them hope. And hope is a big part of progress. It bothers me, however, that hope always seems to lie in the next world for most of these people—not in our world today. It certainly would make it a depressing world if it were the case that there is no hope for humanity.

The quest for salvation and the desire to spread the word of God by Christians as part of that quest is another thing which comes to mind when I read Stowe’s novel. I am always a bit taken aback by the ideas of racial superiority that often accompanies these past humanitarian missionary acts. I am reminded of the early Spanish explorers landing in Central America and encountering the Aztec and Maya Indians. After many debates, it was determined that the Indians were inferior humans, not savages, and they did have souls, but they desperately needed to be saved. This idea preceded the mass destruction of Central American science, which in some cases were actually quite advanced in comparison to Europe’s at the time. But the Europeans were right; the Central American Indians were in a sense, inferior. The region in which they lived was a very secluded region, and the people who lived there had not been exposed to many of the germs and diseases that afflicted other parts of the world. As a result, exposure to the early Spanish explorers proved to be devastating to them.

We can extrapolate this feeling of superiority to the slaveholders in America and see what we have as a result. The story now changes. Part of the reason for importing slaves from Africa, was their ability to work and, ultimately, their “resistance” to diseases—especially mosquito borne ones. When one looks at the age of races and the “travelling” of various diseases, one finds that Africans have developed many stronger immune defense systems than people whose origins lay elsewhere have. Thus, when the Americans began importing slaves from Africa, it was often the case that the African slaves were more resistant to diseases such as malaria than were the Americans. The Africans were proving to be the superior race.

The travelling of disease has changed dramatically with increased world travel, and such ideas about racial superiority in immune systems no longer hold very well. Ideas of racial superiority on the basis of ideas such as purity and “right” however, do still persist to a degree that I feel is too large. The mid 1800s were important to begin breaking down some of these prejudices, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did a good job of illustrating that although someone may be of a different color, we are all humans, and as such, we should make a conscious effort to behave humanely towards each other. Of course, none of our acts would mean anything at all if we did not believe them.


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