The slave trade in Uncle Toms Cabin
Few books can truly be said to have altered the course of history, and even fewer can be said to have started an entire war. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was one novel to do both. Abraham Lincoln said to Harriet Beecher Stowe upon meeting her, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.. Uncle Toms Cabin had a tremendous effect on early 19th century thoughts of slavery; stirring abolitionist support in the north. The novel is a realistic, although fictional view of slavery with the images of brutal beatings and unfair slave practices. After reading Uncle Toms Cabin thousand of northerners became impassioned for the anti-slavery cause. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped eventually to turn the tide of public opinion against slavery in the 19th century( Taylor 1).
This controversial novel was initially written to question slavery, convince people of its immorality and to promote the abolitionist cause. The novels rendering of the slave holding south is not entirely an accurate interpretation of what it was like though. Beecher over exaggerated and overlooked several facts in novel, especially pertaining to the practice of slave trading. To have her readers empathize more with the slaves, Beecher put the worst stories in and the cruelest practices of the slave trade depicted by run away slaves. Although most of Uncle Toms Cabin is very close to the reality of slavery, many aspects of the slave trade were portrayed inaccurately.
One of the first miscalculated aspects of the slave trade is the reason for southern states involvement in the interstate slave trade. Stowe depicted Kentuckys involvement in the slave trade due to the poor soil of the region and economic ties with the practice. She implied in the beginning half of the Novel that many Kentuckians resorted to being bondmen in the slave trade due to the infertile land of the Bluegrass Region. In Stowes Key to Uncle Toms Cabin, (a book designed to muffle the critics of Uncle Toms Cabin) she stated that Slaverys subsequent lack of economic viability and prevailing agricultural impoverishment are to blame for Kentuckys involvement in the notorious traffic (Stowe 254). On the contrary, Kentucky where the bulk of the slave trade was supposedly concentrated has long been blessed with great fertility. The high phosphorus content and the goodly depth of soil results in land favorable for cultivation (Levy 67). Stowes explanation for why Kentucky became involved in the slave trade was misguided.
She also inaccurately displayed the importance of the slave trade in the southern economy. She makes it out to be a big business and in common place among many traders. In the novel Stowe starts chapter ten with Tom about to be sold off to the slave trader Haley, his whole family knows that Tom has been traded and is devastated about the situation. Stowe comments on the hardships of slave life and the fear of being sold at a moments notice when she states in her narrative voice that,many of the fugitives confessed themselves to have escaped from comparatively kind masters, and that they were induced to brave the perils of escape, in almost every case, by the desperate horror with which they regarded being sold south,–a doom which was hanging either over themselves or their husbands, their wives or children (106). She goes on to say that there is a lot of money to be made by the industry. In a later section she depicts a slave warehouse, again she reiterates the fact that the slaves are horrified to be sold, she goes on to further imply that many slaves are sold many times in their lives for whatever reason. Briskness, alertness, and cheerfulness of appearance, especially before observers, are constantly enforced upon them, both by the hope of thereby getting a good master, and the fear of all that the driver may bring upon them if they prove unsalable. (351). True, many southerners relied on slaves for their livelihood and at the time the biggest business in the south was agriculture. But the actual amount of people that made money off of slaves less than Stowe depicts. Out of the $61 million invested on slave property in 1840s Virginia, the state brought in less than 3% profit on the investment capital ( Levy 67). The truth of the matter was that slaves were not a good investment. An estimated 75% of the slave trade in the upper south was superannuated, sick, women in unfit condition for labor, and infants unable to work. ( Taylor 1) . Bondmen werent that important, and in fact their numbers were seeing decrease at the time Stowe published Uncle Toms Cabin. The total percentage of bondmen in Kentucky population had stood at 24 percent of white males in 1830, but by 160 it saw its decrease to 19.5 percent( Harrison 1). The south didnt rely on slavery for profit and the few that did didnt make that much money at it.
One of the incorrect stereotypes in Uncle Toms Cabin was the depiction of what the public thought of slave traders. One description of a trader in chapter 12 was “O, but nobody thinks anything of these traders! They are universally despised, –never received into any decent society.” (145). Stowes generalization of them is mostly true. The general public did not approve the slave trading business or, for that matter a majority of the prominent slave holders. One slave owner in Kentucky stated that, to be called such a lowly creature as a negro trader was the last word of opprobrium to be slung at a man.(Smith 1). Stowe makes the readers think that Slave traders are the scum of the earth and that everyone hates them. Later in the riverboat scene in chapter 13 Stowe portrays a chilling picture of what type of men the traders are. She really tries to drive it home that the slave trade is evil and the traders are evil more evil than the institution. A woman slave has just jumped the boat in an attempt to drown herself rather than be a slave any longer, the trader has a rather nonchalant reaction to her extreme measures,
He was used to a great many things that you are not used to. Even the awful presence of Death struck no solemn chill upon him. He had seen Death many times, –met him in the way of trade, and got acquainted with him, –and he only thought of him as a hard customer, that embarrassed his property operations very unfairly; and so he only swore that the gal was a baggage, and that he was devilish unlucky, and that, if things went on in this way, he should not make a cent on the trip. In short, he seemed to consider himself an ill-used man, decidedly; but there was no help for it, as the woman had escaped into a state which never will give up a fugitive, –not even at the demand of the whole glorious Union. The trader, therefore, sat discontentedly down, with his little account-book, and put down the missing body and soul under the head of losses! 160
Stowe again is driving home the fact that these traders are horrible men, involved in the evils of a horrible institution. Yet despite Stowes vivid depiction of the slave traders as social rejects and shunned people because of their profession many salesmen to the cotton kingdom managed to thrive despite the generally negative reception by the mass public. Edward Stone was one such trader. He was one of the first traders to bring slaves from the middle south to New Orleans. He started his business after being a successful planter and Bourbon County local official. He wasnt a public outcast, or seen as evil. Surprisingly, there were many more traders werent the horrible men Stowe depicted them to be; they were just trying to make a living. Major traders came along after the rising cotton prices of the mid 19th century. Many slave traders conducted their business quietly, and slave-trading firms sprung up to make the process go smoother like Lewis Robbards of South Carolina. If the public were so anti slave traders then it wouldnt have been possible for firms like Robbards to survive the way they did. The government even passed laws in favor of the traders that supposedly everyone hated to their cores. The South Carolinian legislature revoked a law they set up in 1833 called the non-importation statute. The law was originally set up to not allow interstate slave trade. Later in 1849 they revoked the law, allowing bondmen, or traders the opportunity to purchase a profit on likely negros from other states.They made it easier for them to do their job (McDougle 1).The public saw the traders as a necessary evil in most cases, but the fact remains that there were some honest traders out there, not all of them were the varying degrees of evil as depicted in Uncle Toms Cabin.
Not only did Harriet Beecher Stowe have inaccuracies in the public perception of traders, but also she also over exaggerated the evil in traders. For example, she has made Haley, the one trader that we have substantial contact with in the play a very bad trader. He as well as the auctioneers in the last part of the book, are both seen as the absolute bottom of the industry. Haley is a man close to the worst type of negro-trader in real life, but in the book there are implications that there are others who were even worse than he. In one description of Haley in the book Stowe says that, “The trader had arrived at that stage of Christianity and political perfection which has been recommended by some preachers and politicians of the north, lately in which he had completely overcome every humane weakness and prejudice…The wild look of anguish and utter despair that the woman cast on him might have disturbed one less practiced; but he was used to it. He had seen the same look hundreds of times…So the trader only regarded the mortal anguish…as necessary incidents of the trade…” (239).By picking the worst case scenario of what a trader can be like Stowe makes it seem common practice. Haley regularly takes children that do tricks, or light skinned pretty girls for male owners. She makes Haley out to be one of the most inhumane characters in the book. Stowe also depicts an inhumane and worst-case scenario auctioneer later in the book when Tom is to be sold to the southern plantation. Tom was just sent to the slave warehouse after St. Clares death. Once there he meets Emmeline and her mother Susan. Emmeline has gorgeous curly hair, but Susan combs it out flat, in hope that she will look less attractive and not be noticed by men who are buying women for their pleasure. Right before they go to the block the seller makes Emmeline go back and curl her hair so that men will notice her more. He said that it might bring an extra $100. In another part of the book we see the trader from the riverboat. He has an old woman and her son to sell. The woman is frantic in the thought of losing her son and tells the trader, “Keep close to yer mammy, Albert,–close,–dey’ll put us up togedder,” she said. “O, mammy, I’m feard they won’t,” said the boy.(127). She eventually got split up from her son after begging and pleading with the plantation owner that bought her son Albert. The woman even told the owner she would die if she wasnt able to go with her son. The traders, auctioneers and owners are the worst-case example in the south of what type of instances were involved in the industry. In a southern plantation owners guide to slave treatment one owner stated that families are sometimes broken up from these causes, and the slaves sold under the hammer. The separation of family ties, whichis cause for so much regretoften makes more of a nuisance for masters . . . disenchanted slaves are often traced to these sources for their futilely (Smith 1). Many times, like in this passage masters and facilitators of the slave trade tried to keep families together so that the slaves would work harder and be less inclined to run away. Every slave in Uncle Toms Cabin has been separated from some part of his or her family, and furthermore she depicts several scenes where the trader physically separated a mother and child through force. In one instance Stowe uses her narrative voice in the novel to explain how the slave auction was run, she said that Then you shall be courteously entreated to call and examine, and shall find an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and young children, to be “sold separately, or in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser;” and 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.(322). The fact is this was more detrimental to their business than helpful; it took away a reason for living from most of the slaves. Many times they tried to keep families together because it boosted morale among slaves, they were less likely to try to escape if they had a family to keep them there.It is true though that many families were separated; an estimated 73% of slave families in Georgia had at least one member of their family taken away (Taylor 1) . Stowe depicts that every slave was separated and that every trader tried to separate him or her, this is simply not the case. At the time there were many horrible things going on in the industry, but not all of these were common practice, often times there were worse Haleys in the large cities in the northern factories than on the Mississippi river.There were more victims to the greed, the power, the depravity of the coarse-minded and merciless in the unnoted transactions of ordinary life, and in the general routine of commercial or manufacturing oppression. (Harrison 1). Stowes depiction of traders, auctioneers and masters of slaves is sometimes over the top and using worst-case examples of the treatment of families.
One of the inaccuracies that Stowe uses in Uncle Toms Cabin is why exactly a slave was sold. First of all she has tom having three different owners through out the course of the book. In one statistic it was shown that the average slave had 1 owner in their life, with less than 40% of the slave population having three or more masters in the course of their life (Taylor 1 ). One or more of the following factors dictated the sale of a servant: When such a sale was necessary to settle an estate. Much like that of St. Clares after he died, he didnt put anything in his will about them so Marie sold them to the warehouse. When a slaves delinquent behavior necessitated his or her disposal they were also sold. When the owner was in dire need of money for the payment of debt, etc. This is seen with Mr. Shelby at the beginning of the book. He owes a large sum of money to Haley so he is forced to sell Henry and Tom. Also when a captured fugitive slave is unclaimed for one year, or simple desire of material gain. Stowe had depicted two in one lifetime of a slave, this is an over exaggeration of the circumstances of trade(Levy 67). It wasnt a delicate issue, and owners didnt trade their slaves unless absolutely necessary.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a stunning portrayal of slavery at the time she wrote it, and in doing so included the worst stories she could find. Although she conveys many truths about certain aspects of the industry she also over-exaggerates what slave trading was like. She made traders out to be far more inhumane then many were. She also wrote about the importance of traders in the economy, although they had very little. Even though exaggerated the grim portrayals of slavery helped to fan support across the nation for abolitionism. So although she exaggerated her facts, Stowes rendition of slavery accomplished exactly what she had planned for it to do. And thankfully to, without this book we might not have awoken to the evils that the system promoted.
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