By York Galland
While some people dismiss the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin because of its florid Victorian sentimentality, I believe the book’s statement remains timeless, although the its tone may have conformed to the stylistic conventions that have lost favor. Dominated by the avowal that slavery is both immoral and sinful, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel invokes a devotion to God and his expectations for us while driving home her message that slavery should be abolished. Other views of the time that still hold true today include the importance of family and motherhood. In trying to make her point about slavery and other evils in the antebellum U.S., Stowe wrote in no uncertain terms that she believed mothers had a clear duty to instill in their children the best behavior and a sense of decency.
An astounding bestseller in its day, Uncle Tom’s Cabin served as fuel for the anti-slavery movement that helped drum up support for the Civil War. Although a number of factors led up to the bloody battles of that epic war, abolitionists who might have been anti-war under other circumstances felt that their crusade against slavery represented an important cause for which to fight. Uncle Tom’s Cabin does not state that slave owners are born evil. Instead, Stowe indicates that even good people are influenced to perform monstrous acts when a human being becomes property. Kentucky farmer Arthur Shelby owns a number of slaves, including Uncle Tom. Although he and his wife proclaim to be fond of their slaves, especially Uncle Tom and their maid Eliza, Arthur Shelby’s debts prompt him to sell Eliza’s young son Harry and Uncle Tom to save the farm from foreclosure. Tom bows his head in resignation to his fate, leaving with a slave trader who plans to sell him further south down the Mississippi River. During the riverboat journey, Tom rescues a young girl named Evangeline St. Clare, or Little Eva, after she falls into the water. Eva’s grateful father purchases Tom, and he moves with the family to their home in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Eliza decides that she will run away with her son to prevent their being separated. She leaves at night, and Mrs. Shelby finds her note of apology the next morning. Eliza meets her husband, George Harris, a runaway slave, and they make plans to try to escape to Canada. While they are spiriting away through the night, a slave hunter tries to catch them. In the ensuing struggles, George shoots the slave hunter, though he and Eliza later bring him to a Quaker community, so he might receive medical treatment. Eventually, George and Eliza make it safely to Canada. After a few years in which Tom and Eva have cemented their friendship, Eva succumbs to illness. In her last moments, she shares her vision of heaven with those gathered around her, which results in them vowing to change their lives for the better.
Although Eva’s father promised at the time to free Uncle Tom, Eva’s father dies unexpectedly, and his wife sells Tom to Simon Legree. Legree embodies the most despicable of all slaveholders, whipping slaves, selling children away from their parents, and causing fear through his indecent and cruel behavior. Although Tom perseveres because of his Christian faith, Legree’s mercilessness sorely tests his resolve. A vision of Jesus and Little Eva together restore his courage, and he encourages two enslaved women, Cassy and Emmeline, to escape. In retaliation, Legree orders his overseers to beat Tom, who forgives his tormenters even as he is dying. Just as Tom dies, George Selby, the son of Tom’s original owner, arrives at Legree’s farm to repurchase Tom. The moral of Uncle Tom’s cabin stands as a lesson that our good intentions are not enough to ward off horrific consequences; even slave owners who believed they were “kind” to their slaves still committed unspeakable harm against them. If human beings are allowed to be treated as mere chattel, people lose their ability to protect themselves against unforeseen events. These lessons still provide guidance in today’s world, where many people still experience oppression, and others do nothing to help them.