Liberty Befits All: Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,092 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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Upon finishing reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life among the Lowly (hereafter UTC), (1) Lord Cockburn claimed that it "has done more for humanity than was ever before accomplished by any single book of fiction" (qtd. in R. R. 1896). It has more work to do yet. It may seem strange in the twenty-first century to extol a text that makes a point so basic that it hardly seems worth making: slavery befits no human being, enslaved or enslaver. But when this point is stated in positive terms, liberty befits all, the book's relevance to a world still characterized by paternalism, trade restrictions, and wage-and-price controls looms large. More poignantly, nonchattel forms of slavery, such as the convict-lease system and debt peonage, persisted in the United States long after Emancipation (Oshinksy 1997; Blackmon 2008), and a significant remnant survives to this day in the form of the carceral state (Alexander 2012).

In sundry forms assigned euphemistic labels such as sex trafficking and forced labor, slavery persists globally as well, (2) and in UTC all its major characteristics, including posttraumatic stress disorder and premature aging, find ample expression. Enslaved woman Hagar "might have been sixty, but was older than that by hard work and disease, was partially blind, and somewhat crippled with rheumatism" (101). A biblical passage, Matthew 25:43, quoted in UTC refers to prison as a sort of slavery (264). And the crudest master in the book, the infamous Simon Legree, treats his slaves like modern enslavers do, as disposable people (Bales 2004): "I don't go for savin' niggers. Use up, and buy more, 's my way;--makes you less trouble, and I'm quite sure it comes cheaper in the end" (288). Legree later claims, as modern enslavers also do, that he rules by might because "there's no law here, of God or man" (304). Legree and several other enslavers in the novel also hold women, "fancy" ones with light skin, as sex slaves in the modern style (79, 93, 161, 280, 307, 372). Like modern enslavers, Stowe's masters leverage alcohol and family members to control fancy girls, prime hands, and recalcitrant slaves (309, 318).

Unfortunately, modern slavery finds unwitting but thankfully empirically weak support in the books of certain Ivy League historians. (3) Their fame will fade, though, because as a Buffalonian noted in 1855, "only works of genius and benevolent utility endure the corrosions of time" and remain in humanity's collective consciousness. "Long after" the authors of lesser works "shall have been utterly forgotten," he predicted, "De Foe will be held in honor for his Robinson Crusoe, and Harriet Beecher Stowe be revered and honored for the glorious humanity" evinced in UTC (North American and United States Gazette 1855).

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher (1811-96) drew her first breath in Litchfield, Connecticut, the seventh of thirteen children born of preacher Lyman Beecher (1775-1863). Her mother, Roxana Foote (1775-1816), died when Harriet was just six years old. Despite the early death of their mother, the Beecher children proved a precocious bunch; Harriet...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364013