Why Uncle Tom was not an uncle tom

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a best-selling novel that did more to arouse public opinion against American slavery than any other written work. Yet today educated Americans, if they think of it at all, think of it as racist.

The lead character, Uncle Tom, is regarded as a symbol of a black man who is subservient to white people.  One of the worst things an African-American can call another African-American is an “uncle tom.”

But Mrs. Stowe depicted him as a hero, a Christ-like Christian martyr who was true to himself unto death.

Uncle Tom followed the hard teachings of Jesus – the ones that said to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 

He reminds me of characters in Quo Vadis., a novel about Christians in pagan Rome.

Mrs. Stowe, in creating Uncle Tom, showed that, under slavery, the most humble and faithful servant could be sold down the river away from his family, beaten for manifesting self-respect and compassion and finally killed for refusing to turn informer against his own people.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, surprisingly to me, a novel of ideas.  Through thought experiments and debates between the characters, she sets up arguments excusing slavery, and then refutes them.

It also is a documentation of the evils of slavery.  Her claim is that every incident in the novel had a counterpart in real life.

A mother of six herself, she emphasized how slavery broke the bond between mothers and children.  She described mothers and children being separated by slave traders; a woman forced to be a wet nurse for her owner’s children while her own child died of malnutrition; another women being forced to be caregiver for her owner’s children while neglecting her own.

But in her view, as a believing Christian, the worst evil of slavery was that it endangered the souls of both masters and slaves.  The slave owners were corrupted morally by their absolute and unaccountable power.  Enslaved people were driven to despair and atheism by their unjust suffering

The two distinctive principles of Protestant Christianity are salvation by faith and the priesthood of all believers. 

In Protestantism, anybody who leads people to Christ – a black slave, a little girl or an obscure Quaker farmer – can perform a priestly function.   

Protestant faith doesn’t mean just assent to a set of doctrines; it means a personal and continuing relationship with Christ, a real being.  But without faith, your good deeds are meaningless.  Salvation requires faith. 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, first and foremost, a story of religious faith and martyrdom.

Uncle Tom’s heroism consists of how the example of his faithfulness saved other characters from hellfire and damnation.  There are few people today for whom these concepts are meaningful on a gut level, and that is the main reason Uncle Town’s Cabin has gone out of favor.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens with a conversation between Arthur Shelby, a Kentucky farmer and a Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Shelby thinks of himself a good slave-owner, a patriarch who treats his slaves as members of his extended family and deserves loyalty in return. 

But he has run into debt and decides he has “no choice” but to sell some of his slaves in order to raise the money needed to avoid losing his farm.  He decides to sell Tom, his most faithful and honest servant, and Harry, the five-year-old son of his wife’s favorite slave, Eliza.

Eliza overhears that her son has been sold and makes a split-second decision to take him and run away to Canada that very night.  Earlier that day, her husband, George Harris, had let her know that he planned to leave his own master, and she hopes they will both be able to escape and reunite in Canada.

Because of the recently-enacted Fugitive Slave Law, the free state of Ohio is not a safe haven.  Mr. Haley sends slave catchers after her, and returns to collect his remaining property, Tom.
Eliza and her husband George meet on the road.  They are helped by Quaker farmers who are conductors on the Underground Railroad.  The Quakers hate slavery, but they refuse to hate slave owners.  They help the couple elude their pursuers and make their way to Canada. 
Through their example, the embittered George Harris is saved from giving himself up to hate and losing faith in God.
As for Tom, he chooses not to run because, if he does, some other slave will be sold in his place.

He and Haley leave for the Deep South on a Mississippi River steamboat.  En route, Tom saves a little white girl from drowning.  As a reward, the girl’s father, a fabulously rich Louisianan named Augustine St. Clare, buys Tom to be his daughter’s personal servant.

He and his twin brother Alfred have inherited a plantation with 700 slaves, but he has proved too softhearted to be a good manager.  Finally Alfred good-naturedly has told him to stay home and enjoy himself, and leave the management to him and his overseer. 

Augustine has a house guest, his cousin, Miss Ophelia, from Vermont, who thinks slavery is wicked.  The arguments between Augustine and Ophelia are, to me, the most interesting parts of the book.

He does not deny the evils of slavery, but says it is so interwoven with the fabric of society that he doesn’t see how it can be gotten rid of.

The best he can do is to his own slaves with indulgence, which he does.  Miss Ophelia opposes both the slavery and the indulgence.  She says employers of servants, whether slave or free, have a duty to train them to do their jobs well.

He points out that while Southern white people like black people well enough “in their place,” Northern white people, despite their theoretical opposition to slavery, don’t want black people around.

If slavery were abolished, he says, it’s very likely that large numbers of black people would leave the South for the North.  How would they be welcomed? he asks.  She is honest enough to say, not well.

Miss Ophelia argues that black people would equal the accomplishments of white people if they were treated well and given access to education.  St. Clare challenges her by presenting her with a feral black child named Topsy to educate.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Topsy has no mother and father that she can remember.  She “just growed.”  She never in her life had a bath until Ophelia gives her one. 

She has never been to church.  The only moral instruction she has been given is a slash of the whip when she displeases some white person.

She is good-hearted in her way, but she is an accomplished liar and thief because this is expected of her and it is the only way to survive.

Miss Ophelia tries to teach her the old-fashioned New England virtues, without success.  But she notices that Topsy has come under the influence of St. Clare’s daughter, little Eva.

Eva is a type of angelic child often found in Victorian novels.  She loves everyone and loves Jesus.  She and Tom grow close and talk about their mutual Christian faith every day. 

Eva also talks to Topsy about Jesus.  St. Clare himself is touched, but has no interest in religion himself.

Topsy is willing to listen to Eva because she knows Eva loves her.  When Ophelia realizes this, she genuinely repents, apologizes to Topsy for her previous lack of affection and promises to do better.  Only then does she slowly start to influence her.

Eva becomes fatally ill with consumption (TB).  When it is clear that she is about to die, she calls all the household together, including the slaves, to talk to them about God’s love and her love for them. She gives each person one of her blonde curls so they will remember her.

Augustine St. Clare is heartbroken at his daughter Eva’s death, as are everyone else, including the slaves.  St. Clare promises Tom his freedom but, before he gets around to making out the papers, he is stabbed in a barroom brawl and, a few days later, dies of his wounds. 

As he lies dying, he asks Tom to pray for him.  There is an implication that his soul hangs in the balance between faith and damnation and that, in the end, he finds faith and is saved, but just barely.

Tom is sold at auction by Augustine’s selfish wife, Marie, along with many other St. Clare slaves. 

Tom’s new master is Simon Legree, a violent man who works his slaves until they die, then buys new ones cheaply.  Like Uncle Tom, his name is familiar to millions who have never read the book.

Legree puts Tom to work in the fields.  His plan is to train Tom to be an assistant overseer.  He orders him to whip a fellow slave in order to “harden” him. 

Tom refuses.  Legree and his black henchmen, Sambo and Quimbo, beat Tom mercilessly, but fail to crush his religious spirit.

Tom says he actually feels sorry for Legree, because his own suffering will come to an end at some point, but Legree will suffer forever in Hell.

Legree has also purchased Emmeline, an innocent teenage girl, to be his sex slave.  He already has a slave mistress, Cassy, who is a quadroon (three-quarters white).  Cassy is a highly-educated woman who was raised as if she was white.  Her life has been a step-by-step descent through levels of degradation until she wound up with Legree.

She is so full of rage and despair that she has rejected God.  She plots to kill Legree and escape with Emmaline.  Tom talks her out of murder and atheism, but helps her escape.  He doesn’t join her because he feels his ministry to Legree’s slaves is more important than his own freedom.

Legree tries to force Tom to tell him of Emmaline’s escape plan.  His two henchmen beat Tom until he dies.  But in the end, Sambo and Quimbo, impressed by Tom’s patient courage, repent and convert.

George Shelby, the now-grown son of Tom’s old master, has been alerted to Tom’s situation by Miss Ophelia, and he arrives, but too late to rescue Tom.  Legree taunts young Shelby with the fact that there is no court of justice that will hold him accountable for what he has done.

On the trip home, Shelby finds himself on the same boat as Cassy and Emmeline.  They meet and it turns out Eliza is Cassy’s own daughter, taken from her years before.  Another woman on the boat reveals herself as George Harris’s sister, sold South into slavery many years before. 

They are reunited happily with their families in Canada.  George Shelby emancipates all his family’s slaves and preserves Uncle Tom’s cabin as a memorial.

Topsy in Vermont grows up under Ophelia’s tutelage to be a proper black New England Yankee, and becomes a Christian missionary to Africa.

The multi-talented George Harris, who has already shown himself to be a mechanical genius and master of disguise, obtains a university degree and then sets off for Liberia.  He hopes to help found a new African civilization, one that is more humane and Christian civilization than the Anglo-Saxon one.

It’s telling that the best futures Mrs. Stowe could imagine for Topsy and George Harris were in Africa, not in the supposedly free Northern U.S. states.

Sadly, in real life, African-American settlers of Liberia recreated the plantation economy of the Old South, with themselves as the plantation owners and the Africans as the field hands.

Mrs. Stowe’s hope for the United States was that white Americans will repent and follow the example of George Shelby.  Her book reminds me of Father Zosima’s sermons in The Brothers Karamazov.  

Zosima is fully aware of the oppression of the Russian peasants and workers, but his hope is that the landowners and factory owners will repent and the peasants and workers will forgive them.  Of course, in both Russia and the USA, that would have been a better outcome than what happened.

I’m pretty sure Mrs. Stowe had no inkling that, ten years after her book’s publication, the United States would be in the midst of a bloody civil war whose result would be a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, setting off a century and a half of struggle that isn’t over yet.

I can understand why black Americans would be unhappy with the novel’s depiction of black people.  She created a wide range of personalities, but none that could be considered threatening to white people.

But Mrs. Stowe’s purpose in writing the novel was not to create role models for black people, or to represent black people.  It was to convince white people that black people had a right to be free.

I identify with the Augustine St. Clare character.  I point out that the world is unjust, but do little or nothing to change it.  I lack religious faith, but do not sneer at it.

I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as part of a reading group hosted by my friend, Linda White.

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4 Responses to “Why Uncle Tom was not an uncle tom”

  1. Patrick Berting Says:

    Excellent summary. This is one of those books on my must read list.


  2. Gerry Dunphy Says:

    I never read this book in school although it is referenced frequently in US history classes. I’m reading it now motivated by this blog and am finding the book a Time Capsule of my great grandfathers time America. Tom is a heroic figure as you point out but, In today’s perspective , hopelessly subservient to white people. The reader needs to keep historic perspective

    Liked by 1 person

  3. philebersole Says:

    For me, the fascination of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was that it was a look into a way of thinking that is almost incomprehensible to most Americans today, and yet is the origin and foundation of much of what is good in America today.

    The idea of Hell – the possibility of literally infinite pain and suffering – is horrifying to me. Yet the majority of Americans in Mrs. Stowe’s time believed that without belief in Hell, or at least some punishment in the afterlife, morality was impossible.

    Some ancient and medieval Christian theologians and philosophers believed that one of the components of happiness in Heaven was being able to look down on the suffering of sinners in Hell.

    The Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and Paul was as much a slave society as the Old South in Mrs. Stowe’s time.

    Early Christianity appealed to the poor, the oppressed and the slaves. It must have been a great consolation to them to think of God taking revenge on their behalf on the Simon Legrees of their time.

    The historical record shows that Universalism had little appeal to American slaves for the same reason.

    Of course the Bible is subject to varied interpretations, and there is much in the Bible that can be used to justify the existence of poverty and slavery.

    The writer Mary McCarthy, who was not a believer herself, wrote that religion is good for good people and bad for bad people, and I think there is some truth in that.


  4. philebersole Says:

    One thing that annoys me is how some people nowadays attack the failings of historical figures who were great liberators of humankind, and yet find excuses for living people who have committed atrocities and war crimes.

    Yes, they say, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and pushed through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, but he had ulterior motives, and what about some of the racist things he said during the Lincoln-Douglas debates?

    Yet Eliot Cohen, Dick Cheney and John Bolton walk the early and are treated as respectable members of society.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe was a minister’s wife, responsible for management of a household and the raising of three (eventually, six) children, who sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a book that shook the conscience of the world.

    Who, among those who call her racist, has done anything in any way comparable?


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