The Horrid Practice of Slavery in America Represented in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Published: 2021-09-29 20:55:09
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While the United States is often praised for its liberating ideas of freedom and independence, the horrid practice of slavery of which the nation was constructed upon, stains that patriotic version of thought. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her groundbreaking novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Stowe compels the maternal demographic of her audience to put an end to slavery. The novel begins at the “benevolent slave owning,” Shelby residence, where events quickly turn chaotic when financial burdens force Mr. Shelby to bargain with the vile slave trader, Mr. Haley. In order to settle his debt, Mr. Shelby must sell his valuable hand, Uncle Tom, and a child named Harry. Upon learning Mr. Haley’s intentions, Harry’s mother Eliza and Harry, escape to Canada, while the pious Uncle Tom, insists on remaining loyal to Mr. Shelby and is sold.
Through Stowe’s juxtaposition of maternal figures, depiction of slavery’s impact on children, and display of the harrowing division of families, Stowe effectively evokes a strong abolitionist sentiment from mothers. In the 1850s, the “cult of domesticity” came to fruition, fully entrenching societal standards and defining a woman’s role. In the 19th century, mothers’ were expected to manage the domestic front and “nurture men and children into becoming morally elevated beings”. The Second Great Awakening sparked a surge in religious fervor throughout the United States, and the renewed commitment to religion led motherhood to be governed by moral and spiritual education, making mothers “morality enforcers” within the home. Additionally, the United States’s reliance upon slavery impacted both white and African mothers, though drastically differently. Black mothers faced the possibility of having their child taken and sold into slavery, and white mothers, having children of their own, sympathized with this horror. In her novel Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, a former slave, recalls witnessing a mother watch her children get sold: “She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them… her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, ‘Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?’ I had no words wherewith to comfort her’”. The torture which this slave mother endures was a devastating commonality that enslavers rationalized by claiming that Africans did not have the capacity to be impacted by the separation of their child, a glaringly incorrect and dehumanizing attempt at justification.
Black and white mothers alike, recognized the horror in this, and in many ways, Stowe’s publication galvanized and furthered abolitionist action, as she depicts the atrocities of slavery in a manner that would agonize any mother to stand for, let alone witness. Stowe’s analysis of maternal figures aids in her advocacy for emancipation, as she illuminates the association between ideal maternal attributes and abolitionist activism. Eliza exemplifies ideal maternal attributes through her numerous displays of strength, intelligence, and passion, driven by motherly affection. Upon hearing Mr. Haley intentions to purchase her son Harry, Eliza embarks on a treacherous journey to Canada, exhibiting her brute maternal strength. Stowe inquires, “If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie…—how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours?”. The direct address, emphasized by italics, compels the audience to view the situation as if they were Eliza, furthering their sympathetic connection, making her suffering all the more distressing. This maternal struggle is not unique to Eliza, as slavery repeatedly threatened to obliterate the bond between mother and child, and by providing such a poignant example, Stowe inclines mothers to take action against the institution by appealing to their own maternal instincts. Stowe provides an antithetical figure to Eliza, Marie St. Clare, a slave-owning, self-centered, intensely racist mother. As Marie states her view on the difference between white and slave mothers, “But as to putting them on any sort of equality with us, you know, as if we could be compared, why, it’s impossible… as if Mammy could love her little dirty babies as I love Eva!”.
By having the vile Marie claim that slave mothers cannot love their child in the same way that white mothers do, Stowe methodically strips Marie’s reasoning down to what it actually is, a racist pseudo-logic. Furthermore, having established a connection between Eliza, Harry, and the audience of mothers, the extreme juxtaposition of the maternal figures, impels women to act oppositely of Marie. In the 1850s, mothers were viewed as the moral keepers on the domestic front, and Marie’s actions coupled with her racist reasoning, are evidently illogical and immoral, thus persuading mothers that in order to disassociate with foul beings like Marie and enforce proper morality, they must advocate for abolition.
By providing examples of how slavery impacts children, Stowe reminds mothers of their vital role in ending slavery. After being sold from the Shelby’s, Uncle Tom works for the St. Clare family, whose angelic child, Eva, offers unbound displays of wisdom, Christianity, and love. Eva dies at a young age, but she utilizes her ephemeral life to teach people the power of love, inspire compassion, and encourage abolitionist activism. Eva’s embodiment of the perfect child stands in stark contrast with her cousin, Henrique, who is a firm believer in his racial superiority and the brutal treatment of slaves. Through the comparison of Eva and Henrique, Stowe illustrates how slavery impacts a child’s development while implying that whether a child is like Eva or Henrique, depends upon what values a mother chooses to instill in them. This logical connection incentivizes mothers to not only recognize but take action against the detestable institution of slavery in efforts to raise better children. Additionally, Stowe depicts the need for maternal affection in slave children. Eva’s aunt and aspiring missionary, Miss Ophelia demonstrates how transformative a mother’s love can be. After Eva passes, Miss Ophelia’s slave, Topsy, is thoroughly distraught as Eva was the only person to show her love, but Miss Ophelia resolves to show Topsy the same affection that Eva did. Following this commitment Topsy undergoes an immense transformation: “Topsy did not become at once a saint… The callous indifference was gone; there was now sensibility, hope, desire, and the striving for good…”. Topsy’s conversion demonstrates the transformative power of affection, allowing Stowe to communicate that by ending slavery mothers are fulfilling their role as “moral-keepers.”
Stowe’s provision of realist examples, coupled with her appeal to society’s maternal expectations, demonstrates that mothers possess the power to protect children and raise good human beings through the abolition of slavery, further empowering them to take action. Stowe utilizes the tragic reality of familial division to demonstrate how the omnipresent threat of separation devastates the family structure. Despite the prevailing social opinion, Stowe argues that race and feelings of detachment do not correlate with one another, and she provides numerous examples. Among Harry and Eliza is Aunt Hager, who faces immense anguish after being separated from her child; a slave woman, who commits suicide after her baby is sold; Prue, who falls into a deep depression after her master lets her child starve to death; and Emmeline, who is torn from her mother as a teenager. By including each of these examples, Stowe persistently targets the emotional aspect of her audience, as any mother would be sickened by the thought of losing their child. The repeated instances build upon one another, allowing Stowe to imply that the longer mothers remain idle, the more this horrid separation occurs. Stowe extends this call to action to black and white mothers alike, as she concludes,“…I beseech you, pity the mother who has all of your affections, and not one legal right to protect, guide, or educate, the child of her bosom…I beseech you, pity those mothers that are constantly made childless by the American slave trade! And say, mothers of America, is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with, passed over in silence?”.
Stowe’s use of anaphora, allows her to immerse her audience in the same sense of urgency and passion about abolition that she maintains; furthermore, after noting the ways that slavery destroys the family institution, she forces mothers to contemplate whether they can remain inactive as such atrocities are committed. The rhetorical question and direct addresses, serve to challenge mothers to act on account of their morality, societal roles, and general beliefs. Stowe effectively conveys that mothers are to be held accountable for the institution of slavery because by choosing to not act they are permitting the cycle of separation to continue. Mothers’ integral part within the family structure makes the division of slave families all the more wretched, by evoking such poignant emotion Stowe urges mothers to advocate for abolition. The institution of slavery defined motherhood in the sense that it identified ideal maternal attributes, threatened the bonds between slave mothers and children, influenced childrearing, and forced mothers to reflect on their own moral standings.
Through logical argumentation and juxtaposition of maternal figures, Stowe delineates that by permitting slavery to continue mothers are not fulfilling their role as moral enforcers. She further persuades her audience to support emancipation by communicating that mothers have the ability to engender a society of well-mannered children by instilling strong ethical values, which requires the recognition of the horrors of slavery; additionally, Stowe depicts the transformative power of maternal affection, leading women to acknowledge their potential influence. The tragic reality of familial division permitted by slavery, allows Stowe to craft an extremely emotionally-charged argument, as she directly addresses all mothers of America. The fact that motherhood exists on both sides of the racial barriers, augments the pertinence of Stowe’s persuasion. While Stowe’s fervent activism was transgressional for her time, her effective modes of argumentation accurately depict the horrors of slavery, and in turn, urge mothers to concentrate their irrepressible maternal power to demand the eradication of slavery.

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