Date of this Version
Blog post to accompany an installment of a serial re-release of the novel, Aug. 2011. nationalera.wordpress.com
In the first chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe warns her readers that the “indulgence” of slave owners and the “affectionate loyalty” of the slaves themselves towards their masters have misled some observers to believe the “poetic legend” of slavery as a benevolent “patriarchal institution.” She does not deny the genuineness of these emotions, but she warns that “the shadow of a Law” makes a mockery of the human relationships that develop between masters and slaves: “So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master—so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death, of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil, so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.” We begin the novel, then, in what seems to be the model benevolent Shelby plantation in Kentucky, not the cruel Legree plantation in Louisiana, where the novel ends. Nevertheless, the “shadow of the law,” in the form of Mr. Shelby’s obligation to pay his debts, endangers the residents of the Shelby plantation.
Stowe derived her portrait of slavery primarily from reading, not from direct experience and observation in the slave states of the South. She describes Eliza Harris as “not a fancy sketch, but taken from a remembrance, as we saw her years ago in Kentucky”—that is, during Stowe’s one brief trip South of the Mason-Dixon line during her years living in Cincinnati. Some white Southerners attacked Stowe for this lack of direct knowledge of the South and slavery. However, as historian William R. Taylor observed fifty years ago, what troubled them the most about Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not that she attacked their point of view, but that she understood it too well. As Taylor explains, beginning in the 1830s white Southerners invented the legend of “plantation paternalism,” “the image of sunshine and happiness around the plantation home,” to “justif[y] their peculiar institution to themselves and to others.” Stowe only “[took] the Southerner at his word”: she did “not…deny the Southern defense of slavery but…suggested that it was inadequate, even if its claims were allowed.” Stowe set out to show, Taylor explains, that “kindness, generosity and affection provided no assurance against cruelty and brutality” and that “a slave could love his master and mistress and still wish to be free.”