Stowe’s great American novel, a bestseller in 1852, exposes the dehumanizing evil of slavery for the vicious crime and sin it is—the evil of reducing human beings to animals and objects. In the novel she introduces a host of characters who represent the various views of slavery prevalent in nineteenth-century America. In many ways the arguments for and against slavery sound as familiar as the cultural wars of the twenty-first century on the subject of abortion.
First, Stowe presents a group of benevolent slave owners who treat their servants with gentleness and humanity, providing them a stable life on the plantation without inflicting cruel punishments or separating children from parents or husbands from wives in slave trades. Mr. and Mrs. Shelby value their slaves as faithful employees who deserve respect, civility, and kindness. However, Mr. Shelby, despite the moral arguments of his honorable wife, views slavery primarily as a business and reluctantly agrees to sell Uncle Tom to slave traders because of economic necessity, even though the sale separates Tom from children and violates the bond of husband and wife.
Trivializing the sanctity of marriage, he views the dissolution of a slave family as an inevitable fact of life: “Tom’ll have another wife, in a year or two; and she had better take up with somebody else.” Although Mr. Shelby questions his decision and apologizes to his wife for the sordid business of buying and selling human beings, he salves his conscience by promising to buy Tom again in better financial circumstances, and he extracts a promise from the new owner: “I hope you’ll remember that you promised, on your honor, you wouldn’t sell Tom without knowing what sort of hands he’s going into.” He justifies his actions to his wife by protesting his innocence: “I don’t know why I am to be rated, as if I were a monster, for doing what everyone does every day.” If slavery is legalized and customary or everyone does it, it cannot be a grave evil—one of the rationalizations of the day.
Stowe also presents the buyers and sellers of slaves and the slave hunters who consider their work their livelihood, an honest means of earning their money. They do not regard the black slaves as human beings deserving of dignity, but as inferior creatures who deserve callous, insensitive treatment because they lack the normal sensibilities of white people. It does not trouble Mr. Haley to separate infants from their mothers because “they naturally get used to it,” and they “han’t no kind of ‘spectations of no kind.” In other words, there is no difference in Mr. Haley’s mind between trading in cattle and trading in human beings. If it is legal and a legitimate business practiced by many, then moral scruples should not trouble the conscience whether one is auctioning cattle or slaves. The victims are not persons with hearts and souls. They are born and made to be slaves—another convenient rationalization.
Augustine St. Clare, the benevolent slave owner who purchases Uncle Tom, represents another view of slavery. The son of slave owners who inherited his family’s plantation and way of life, St. Clare suffers moral anguish in perpetuating an economic system that he abhors and that violates his sense of justice. To ease his troubled conscience, he indulges his slaves and rules as a permissive owner who never punishes or mistreats them, and his will reads that the slaves are emancipated upon his death. Disillusioned with the Christian churches of the South that accept slavery as a convention and convenience, St. Clare finds the religion of his day uninspiring: “When I look for a religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath.” The moral hypocrisy of a Christian nation that goes to church but does not love neighbor is a sham to St. Clare. He is “personally opposed” to slavery but does not want to displease his wife or upset the prevailing consensus.
Stowe also portrays the Northern view of slavery in the character of Miss Ophelia, St. Clare’s cousin who comes to the South to manage with Yankee frugality the St. Clare household. Moralistic and self-righteous, she condemns slavery intellectually as an idea, but she holds a deep bias toward the black slaves and feels repulsed when little Eva, St. Clare’s young daughter, displays affection and embraces Uncle Tom. Shocked at the grim economic reality of slavery, she condemns it roundly: “It’s a perfect abomination for you to defend such a system.” Augustine agrees entirely with this moral view, adding, “Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse.” Because Ophelia keeps urging the necessity of educating the slaves, St. Clare buys young Topsy and instructs Ophelia to educate her, to “bring her up in the way she should go” and “give her a good orthodox New England bringing up.” Ophelia’s reaction of disgust at this suggestion exposes her moral hypocrisy. Her anti-slavery views amount to lip-service only.
Finally, the novel portrays the point of view of the slaves themselves as all the political, economic, and moral ideas discussed throughout the book move from the theoretical and abstract to the real. George Harris’s tyrannical master resents the slave’s mechanical genius in inventing labor-saving machines for a factory and commands him only to hoe and dig on the farm. Humiliated, George naturally reacts with passionate anger at the wanton cruelty of his bigoted master, protesting, “What’s the use of living? I wish I was dead!” Harris’s outburst affirms that slaves are not animals or things but human beings with a conscience and desire for justice. When a mother on a boat discovers that a trader has secretly taken her child and sold it, she jumps into the river in a desperate act of suicide. The plight of Topsy, a neglected, unloved child with no family whose life is summarized by all the lashes she has suffered because of stealing, a habit she explains as natural depravity: “ ‘Cause I’s wicked,—I is. I’s might wicked, any how. I can’t help it.” The physical, mental, and emotional abuse in the the sordid lot of the slave debunks all the moral cant, legal justifications, and political rhetoric that call evil good.
Another slave, Cassy, who has suffered violent abuse at the hands of Simon Lagree and borne many children sold as slaves and separated from their mother, has become an embittered, hateful woman capable of murder with an ax in retaliation for all the sufferings she has endured at the hand of her masters: “Stung to madness and despair by the crushing agonies of life, Cassy had often resolved in her soul an hour of retribution, when her hand should avenge on her oppressor all the injustice and cruelty to which she had been witness, or which she had in her own person suffered.” Slavery as a horrific crime against humanity and sin against justice reduces human beings to raging animals retaliating against their natural enemy and cries aloud to heaven for vengeance.
As the novel shows, slavery dehumanizes human beings and corrupts societies. It is an intrinsic evil, always wrong. No economic reasoning, political necessity, or prevalent customs ever justify the legalization of absolute evil. All the specious reasoning used to justify slavery in the ante-bellum South resemble the same rationalizations adduced to legalize abortion in twenty-first century America: it is the law of the land; they are “necessary” evils; the unborn are not persons; those “personally opposed” do not wish to impose their will upon others; human beings organize their lives on the availability of abortion; it is a matter of choice. The history of slavery in America illustrates what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”—how unspeakable sin, barbaric cruelty, and ugly evil in all their heinousness become commonplace and tolerated in a desensitized, blasé world; a world that evades, twists, or denies the self-evident truths about the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” entitled to all human beings endowed by their creator with the image of God, the dignity of their personhood, and their inalienable rights.