Uncle Tom—a loving husband, father, friend—lived in Kentucky, a black man enslaved because of white superiority. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author deals with the harsh realities of slavery by emphasizing how slave masters treat their slaves. The entire story centers on a slave named Tom who was sold after his original master could not pay his debts. The three masters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are Shelby, St. Clare, and Legree, each playing a key role in portraying a picture of slavery. Stowe’s firm belief that blacks are humans and therefore should be treated as such plays itself out in how these three masters treat poor Uncle Tom.
The first master whom tom served under was a good-hearted man named Shelby. Shelby thoroughly trusted Tom with all of his business on the plantation, often sending Tom on errands a long way from home. Shelby did not believe in separating blacks from their families. However, when his debts had accumulated beyond his reasonable control, Shelby sold Tom to a slave trade. Even though he was sold, Tom still loved Shelby and vowed to return to his gentle master. Shelby’s tender heart showed itself best when at the end of the story he freed all of his slaves; yet even though the slaves had gained freedom, they still refused to leave their beloved master who, by then, was Shelby’s son, George.
St. Clare was the next kind-hearted master whom Tom served. Because Tom saved St. Clare’s young daughter’s life, St. Clare bought him from the slave trader and made him his coachman. Tom liked this new master because St. Clare was extremely kind and joked with all of his slaves. Eva, St. Clare’s daughter, took a fancy to Tom and secretly confided in him about everything, especially her Christian beliefs. St. Clare viewed Tom as human and even turned to him for comfort when his little girl died. Even though St. Clare’s wife hated the slaves and viewed them as sub-human, St. Clare remained steadfast in his kindness and treatment of his slaves. Right before St. Clare died, he wanted Tom to be the last one he saw, and Tom led his master to the Lord.
The last master whom Tom worked for was an evil man named Simon Legree. Before Tom even reached the new plantation where he was to serve, Legree bound him in chains and stole his fancy clothes which St. Clare had given him. Legree declared vehemently that he hated religion and attempted repeatedly to beat Christianity out of Tom with his riding stick and whip. Coinciding with the fact that Legree was a mean, bitter, hateful man, he was extremely superstitious. Legree lived in fear of his own attic because of tales which his mistress Cassy spread throughout the slave population. Legree’s cruelty reached a peak when he finally beat Tom to death because Tom refused to tell him where two runaway slaves went.
The first two slave owners truly cared for their slaves as humane men should. Shelby and St. Clare fed, clothed, and housed their slaves well. Few differences can be found between these two men. Both of these masters were on a completely different level than Legree who terrorized his slaves and beat them mercilessly. Portraying the role of a true black-hearted villain, Legree depicts a mental image exactly opposite of Shelby and St. Clare’s kindness.
Stowe describes each of the three masters well, using vivid descriptions and illustrations to prove her point that all men regardless of color are created equal by God. The first way she portrays the slave owners is through the practice of Christianity. Tom, as a believer, prayed for the salvation of his masters throughout the entire book. Tom’s hopes were personally realized when he was able to lead St. Clare to the Lord just before St. Clare died. Not only did Stowe believe slavery was wrong because of the treatment of slaves, but also “because it offended her understanding of Christian doctrine.” Christianity, emphasized in the lives of Shelby’s wife and St. Clare’s daughter, proclaims God’s plan of love and brotherhood for all mankind.
The other element Stowe uses the owners for are their personal views of their slaves. Despite the fact of how humane Shelby and St. Clare were, slavery was still a corrupt system and both masters failed in the end to provide safekeeping for their slaves. Between the slave trader’s men and evil Legree, Stowe further proves that slaves are viewed as chattel, a sub-human race without feeling or respect. The author’s anger at slavery comes out in her descriptions about Legree who she portrays as an uncouth deep-South slave owner. Stowe advocates for the freedom of all slaves, exemplified by the end of the story when Shelby sets his slaves free with tears of sorrow for the great injustice that slavery had placed upon the black race.
Throughout her entire story of Tom’s trials, Stowe depicts the true horrors of slavery, the secrets which people knew but never told. From beatings to lecherous affairs to starvation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin affirms Stowe’s belief that slavery should be outlawed. When her story first appeared on the market, it received great opposition. Some historians credit Uncle Tom’s Cabin with helping the abolitionist party by spreading antislavery sentiments throughout the United States through the printed word. Even President Lincoln’s words upon meeting Stowe exemplified the feelings of the people when he said, “‘So this is the little lady who made this big war,’” meaning the Civil War. Twenty-some years after the novel was written Stowe’s dreams became reality when slavery in America ended.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
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