Racial Double Standards in Uncle Tom's Cabin
By Catherine Mountcastle
When Harriet Beecher Stowe published her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, she gained instant notoriety. Her novel helped spread the reality of the cruelties and injustices of the American slavery system nationwide and eventually across the globe. However, Mrs. Stowe was not without critics. Shortly after the release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist and founder of the Liberator published a scathing review of Stowe’s novel arguing that her stance on slavery was a double standard. Stowe’s novel clearly does contain racial double standards; however, this attributed to the novels popularity amid a northern white audience in the mid-nineteenth century.
William Lloyd Garrison was a well known abolitionist. His review of Stowe’s novel may have seemed shocking at the time of its publication since both he and Stowe were abolitionists. However, his accusations of racial double standards throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin are not far fetched. One of Stowe’s main criticisms throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that slavery is unjust to slaves. She finds slavery to be an evil which should be eliminated form American society. She obligates blacks to end their own enslavement. Her opinion on how blacks should end their enslavement is extremely passive. She advocates that blacks should remain obedient and subservient to their masters while remaining pious and faithful to God. In the end, blacks will gain a greater freedom than the physical world has to offer them. By having faith in God and refusing to act out violently against their masters despite the hardships that they may have to endure, they will eventually be rewarded with eternal salvation. Stowe embodies these ideas in the character of Tom.
Throughout Stowe’s novel, Tom places his faith in the Lord an accepts his fate no matter what happens. An excellent example of Tom’s unrelenting faith in the Lord and his refusal to act out violently against his master is his struggle with Simon Legree. Legree is an evil man and an extremely cruel master. However, no matter what he is threatened with Tom never physically fights back against Legree. This is demonstrated in Uncle Tom’s Cabin prior to Tom’s first beating. Tom says:
Mas’r if you mean to kill me, kill me; but as to raising my hand agin any one here, I shall never,--I’ll die first! No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! Ye can’t buy it! it’s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it;--no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me! (Stowe 508).
These statements by Tom are a clear demonstration of Stowe’s beliefs, which are expressed throughout the novel. Tom is defiant against Legree, but it is for the safety of another individual, another one of God’s creatures. He never raises a hand in opposition to Legree, nor does he resist when Legree sends him to be whipped as punishment for his defiance. Instead, Tom boldly states his faith in the Lord, proclaiming that Legree may physically take his life, but he will never be able to own Tom’s soul because his soul belongs to the Lord.
Garrison views Stowe’s beliefs as a racial double standard. He states his opinion at he very beginning of his review of the novel when he writes, “we are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the white man, under all possible outrage and peril as well as for the black man” (Garrison). In other words, if white people were to be enslaved and treated under the same conditions which black people were in the mid-nineteenth century, would Stowe still advocate non-violence and piety as a solution to the problem? He then continues by pointing out that the reason he believes she advocates nonviolence, obedience and piety by slaves are because they are black. I agree with Garrisons accusation. I think Stowe’s beliefs stem primarily from her lack of first hand interaction with southern black slaves. She portrays her characters through the beliefs of a romantic racialist. Stowe writes, “the negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in heart a passion for all that is splendid, rich and fanciful” (Stowe 253). This depiction of “the negro” is a perfect demonstration of Stowe’s use of romantic racialism. She is making a generalization about an entire race. She views black people with the same stereotypes as most mid-nineteenth century white Americans did. What makes a black person different from a white person other than the color of their skin? It is easy to answer that question from a twenty-first century viewpoint. The answer is nothing. There is no difference between a black person and a white person except for the outside skin color. We are all human which means that blacks have the same mental capacity, same emotions same everything. However, in the ante-bellum time period the answer to the above question was much more difficult, because people truly believed that blacks were different from whites not only physically, but that they were inferior in intellect, morals, and maturity. I think that because Stowe was a white northern woman with little one-on-one contact between herself and southern slaves , she subconsciously prescribed to general stereotypes about black people and wrote them into her characters.
Garrison not only highlights that Stowe’s romantic racial beliefs “is everywhere taken for granted, because the VICTIMS ARE BLACK” (Garrison), but he also argues against her religious stance when he asks:
Is there one law of submission and non-resistance for the black man, and another law of rebellion and conflict for the white man? When it is the whites who are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights? And when it is blacks who are thus threatened, does Christ require them to be patient, harmless, long-suffering, and forgiving? And are there two Christs? (Garrison)
Garrison is addressing a main conflict which is present in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If God/Christ are supposed to be just and fair, how can they make one group of people ”superior” to another? This issue is clearly addressed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Marie St. Clare is waiting for Tom to prepare the horses in order attend church. During this scene in the novel, Stowe delves into Mrs. St. Clares thoughts and shares them with her audience. She writes:
perhaps as God chasteneth whom he loveth, he hath chosen poor Africa in the furnace of affection to make her the highest and noblest in that kingdom which he will set up, then every other kingdom has been tried, and failed; for the first shall be the last and the last first (Stowe 275).
Marie is rationalizing the fate of slaves by pondering whether or not God had a greater purpose for them. Religion is a conflicting struggle throughout the novel as certain characters embrace it and other characters reject it. Garrison brings up the issue of religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it seems hypocritical to say that slaves must behave and worship the Lord when in return for their piety they are beaten. However, it is okay for white people to beat a fellow human being, because they are white and the other is black. How can God allow that?
I think it is very interesting how Garrison places religion and violence together in his statement. It is very fitting when you apply it to the American Revolution. It was okay for us as white colonialists to fight against the British monarchy for our independence and for our religious freedom. However, Stowe seems to think that it is not okay for blacks to fight against whites in order to gain their independence and religious freedom. This is extremely hypocritical.
While I do agree with Garrison’s arguments that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is based on racial double standards, I think Stowe was very meticulous in how she presented her concepts to her white northern audience. In order for Stowe to get her message out to people, she had to create a novel that people would want to read. To do this, she had to make the issue of slavery palatable to her readers. Stowe had to prescribe to romantically racial concepts in order to not offend her audience. Stowes use of romantic radicalism worked. Her novel became a success across the world. However, the usage of romantic racialism in turn created racial double standards throughout the novel.
William Lloyd Garrison’s complaint of racial double standards in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a valid argument. I agree that Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe upholds a different set of morals for white people as compared to black people. However, I believe that this dichotomy of values for blacks versus whites is a result of the author’s desire to appeal to an audience in order to have her opinions voiced to the public and make them aware of the cruelties of slavery.
1.) Elbert, Sarah. Lecture Notes for History 351.
2.) Garrison, William. "Liberator," March 1852.
3.) Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly. 1852. USA: Penguin Books, 1986.