Often considered a catalyst of the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an anti-slavery book whose permanent impact, both positive and negative, on race relations within the United States are irrefutable. Published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was written as a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; second of a pair of federal laws criminalizing the aiding and abetting of escaped slaves within the both slave and free states. Through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe denounces the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the entire system of slavery by exhibiting that even in its best conditions, the evils of slavery are in fundamental opposition to the moral principles of Christianity. In Chapter IX, “It Which Appears that a Senator is But a Man,” Senator Bird and his wife dispute whether the political and economic justifications for slavery erase the betrayal of one’s Christian duty to their fellow man. Through an analysis of this chapter and its connection to the entire novel, I will conclude that by way of humanizing enslaved blacks in contrast to the political and economic arguments supporting slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin proves that someone cannot claim to practice the evangelical principles of Christianity while endorsing an institution of such systematic brutality.
While the relationship between evangelical principles of Christianity and slavery did not originate in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, historically Christianity has often been used to authenticate, rather than condemn, the institution. Frederick Douglas, a converted Christian, has famously berated pro-slavery clergymen for shamelessly manipulating Christian principles to shield the law of the oppressors and propagate that enslavement of blacks is natural and biblically sanctioned. “They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity” (Douglas). Christian abolitionist such as Douglas and Stowe, have used their works to expose the ways in which what has been passed off as Christianity is not by nature the true essence of the religion, but instead man’s falsified interpretation to justify a system that is innately immoral.
Harriet Beecher Stowe uses various characters within Uncle Tom’s Cabin to analyze how slavery’s perceived political and economic benefits have been used to vindicate the moral dissonance of those who participate in the innately anti-Christian system. Within the novel Senator Bird is a minor character, however, through him, Stowe dismantles the common notion that slavery should be tolerated for public interest and civic order. I will argue that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was intended for readers like Senator Bird, with the goal of evoking a conflict within those who support slavery, while disregarding how it is in fundamental opposition to the principles of Christianity in favor of civic unity. At the beginning of Chapter IX, Mrs. Bird discovers that her husband, an Ohio Senator Bird, has voted in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law. A Christian woman, she shames him for not empathizing with the grievances of those who lived their lives enslaved. While Senator Bird agrees that her feelings are justified, he also believes that the judgement of slavery should not be determined by our private feelings, but rather, “—there are great public interests involved,—there is a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings”(Stowe 144). While he does not appear to be a radical supporter of slavery or Christianity, Stowe uses Senator Bird to expose the hypocrisy and culpability of those who are complacent to the cruelty of slavery, in the name of the perceived betterment of public interest. Ultimately, Stowe uses Senator Bird’s character to assert that one’s silence to the known evils of slavery makes them just as culpable to those evils as those physically enforcing the violence.
Harriet Beecher Stowe utilizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin to argue that if the true principles of Evangelicalism were in practice by all of those who claim to follow it, slavery would be abolished. In Chapter IX, the juxtaposition of Senator and Mrs. Bird’s opposing views towards slavery demonstrates the idea that one’s conception of slavery can differ based on their legalistic or moral interpretation of Christian doctrine. While her husband, the politician, has argued that slavery enhances societal relations and benefits, Mrs. Bird projects that her moral conscious will not allow her to support slavery. “Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow” (144). Mrs. Bird’s interpretation of Christianity is pure, and therefore, so is her empathy and compassion for those who undergo the brutalities of slavery. Stowe contends that the true essence of Christian doctrine is agape love; a universal and unconditional love that transcends the perceived boundaries that divides us. The Bible reads: “You have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thy enemy. But I tell you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you and insult you” (Matthew 5:43-44). One could argue that Mrs. Bird’s beliefs represent an unadulterated comprehension of this text – we must all have agave love for everyone, whether or not they are like us. Stowe uses Mrs. Bird to show a character that has nothing to gain from supporting slavery, and is by nature virtuous and good. Her character challenges the popular notions that her husband projects, symbolizing Stowe’s own rejection of these same beliefs. Mrs. Bird displays agape love because her belief in evangelical principles, transcends the racial boundaries that separate her from those that are enslaved, and allow her to feel empathy and self-giving love. Through this stark contrast between idealized Christianity and slavery in practice, Stowe shows that an institution that denies basic human rights to all mankind is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.
By debunking the political and economic arguments that are used to support slavery and humanization of enslaved blacks, Uncle Tom’s Cabin aims to persuade the public to abolish slavery on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the key principles of Christianity. Characters such as Senator and Mrs. Bird, provide one of the many narratives encompassing the diverse opinions towards slavery within the United States. Interestingly, on the macro level, neither of these two characters are ardently pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery; however, through this raw conversation, Stowe mimics the variance in conversation that those on the edge of supporting or fighting against slavery have everyday. From Chapter IX, I began to think about the culpability of slavery, or more greatly the culpability of oppression. I believe that what Stowe is asserting is that even if you do not own a slave, by not actively fighting against the institution itself, you are just as guilty as those who do. Furthermore, for those with power such as politicians or clergymen, their action or inaction defines their culpability even more. While Senator Bird may not have individually owned slaves, he supported a law that strengthened the institution that enable others to. The chapter ends with the arrival Eliza and the couple is faced with the real life implications of the Fugitive Slave Law. While Senator Bird was able to vote for the law, when he sees the face of a woman and child that will be affected, his moral conscious overpowers his political and economic interests. Through Chapter IX, and more widely all of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe aims to urge the audience to make these same decisions, to view every slave as a human, and understand that the institution is innate opposition to their Christian moral conscious and therefore must be abolished.
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