Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in 1852, rocketed up the charts and became the second best-selling book of the entire 19thcentury, after the Bible. The book is credited with contributing as one of the causes of the Civil War. I read the book the first time many years ago, and decided to pick it up again now. There was too much I had forgotten. It would be presumptuous for me to seriously review a book of this caliber, so I’ll stop right here and give it my rating:
Good. With this behind me, I will simply continue and tell you about some of the thought processes this has evoked.
When I thought about slavery, two main images always came to mind: First the abduction of slaves from Africa and their journey to America under terrible shipping conditions, where a reported 15% of all people did not survive the journey. The second main image that I had of slavery was simply the fact that people were made to work long hours without rest or the freedom to leave to find another job. How unjust.
Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides an overwhelming number of other images, the most powerful of which is the separation of families. There are numerous examples. For instance, Tom himself gets sold off at the beginning of the book because his master, a generally decent man, who took very good care of his slaves, fell into financial hard times. A trader got a hold of the notes or mortgages and he was forced to sell off his most trusted and valuable slave, Tom. Even though Tom had a wife, Aunt Cloe, and a number of small children, he could do nothing. He was hauled away in shackles and chains.
Another such example is told by George Harris, a young and very competent man who also has the misfortune of being a slave, and he tells his story to Mr. Wilson, a white benefactor:
Well, Mr. Wilson, hear what I can tell you. I had a father – one of your Kentucky gentlemen – who didn’t think enough of me to keep me from being sold with his dogs and horses, to satisfy the estate, when he died. I saw my mother put up at sheriff’s sale, with her seven children. They were sold before her eyes, one by one, all to different masters; and I was the youngest. She came and kneeled down before old Mas’r, and begged him to buy her with me, that she might have at least one child with her; and he kicked her away with his heavy boot. I saw him do it; and the last that I heard was her moans and screams, when I was tied to his horse’s neck, to be carried off to his place.
Another illustration of this is bright and clear when Tom gets to know poor Prue, a battered old woman:
“Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that,” said the woman; “nobody han’t never loved me, since my old man died.”
“Where was you raised?” said Tom.
“Up in Kentuck. A man kept me to breed chil’en for market, and sold ‘em as fast as they got big enough; last of all, he sold me to a speculator, and my Mas’r got me o’ him.”
“What set you into this bad way of drinking’?”
“To get shet o’ my misery. I had one child after I come here; and I thought then I’d have one to raise, cause Mas’r wasn’t a speculator. It was de peartest little thing! And Missis she seemed to think a heap on ‘t, at first; it never cried, – it was likely and fat. But Missis tuck sick, and I tended her; and I tuck with fever, and my milk all left me, and the child it pined to skin and bone, and Missis wouldn’t buy milk for it. She wouldn’t hear to me, when I telled her I hadn’t milk. She said she knowed I could feed it on what other folks eat; and the child kinder pined, and cried, and cried, and cried, day and night, and got all gone to skin and bones, and Missis got sot agin and she said ‘t wan’t nothin’ but crossness. She wished it was dead, she said; and she wouldn’t let me have it o’ nights, cause, she said, it kept me awake, and made me good for nothing. She made me sleep in her room; and I had to put it away off in a little kind o’ garret, and thar it cried itself to death, one night. It did; and I tuck to drinkin’, to keep its crying out of my ears! I did, – and I will drink! I will, if I do go to torment for it! Mas’r says I shall go to torment, and tell him I’ve got thar now!”
Children that grew up as slaves, who were taken away from their parents early enough to not even remember ever having parents, lived to be an entirely different kind of person. Topsy, a little girl with a bright and mischievous mind, says it all:
“Topsy!” she would say, when at the end of all patience, “what does make you act so?”
“Dunno, Missis, – I spects cause I ‘s so wicked!”
“I don’t know anything what I shall do with you, Topsy.”
“Law, Missis, you must whip me; my old Missis allers whipped me. I an’t used to workin’ unless I gets whipped.”
“Why, Topsy, I don’t want to whip you. You can do well, if you’ve a mind to; what is the reason you won’t?”
“Laws, Missis, I ‘s used to whippin’; I spects it’s good for me.”
Miss Ophelia tried the recipe, and Topsy invariably made a terrible commotion, screaming, groaning and imploring, though half an hour afterwards, when roosted on some projection of the balcony, and surrounded by a flock of admiring “young uns,” she would express the utmost contempt of the whole affair.
“Law, Miss Feely whip! – wouldn’t kill a skeeter, her whippins. Oughter see how old Mas’r made the flesh fly; old Mas’r know’d how!”
The Topsy chapter is an especially hilarious one, in a nefarious sort of way.
“I ‘s so awful wicked there can’t nobody do nothin’ with me. I used to keep old Missis a swarin’ at me half de time. I spects I ‘s the wickedest critter in the world;”
While many slaves were abused to the point of eventual death in plantations, there were also many who lived very comfortably as servants in decent homes with decent families. Often the slaves became part of the family and lived with them all their lives. They had it better, generally, than many a free and poor man or immigrant, who had nothing to feed himself. The problem with this arose if suddenly something happened to the master, whether he got into financial trouble and needed to sell assets (slaves) or, more devastatingly, he died unexpectedly. If there were no arrangements for the slaves, or if the executor of the estate was not as caring as the master, and he thought of the slaves as we’d think of cattle, an entire extended family of people who had lived and worked together all their lives, where hauled away to a slave market and sold off one by one, carried away in every direction, never to see each other again. Not only did they not know where they were being taken, but once there, they could neither read nor write and therefore had no way to communicate with their loved ones.
The selling and buying of human “assets” had me speculate about the relative cost of slaves.
The average price of a young and healthy slave around 1850 was about $1,000. At that time, a common laborer, a carpenter’s helper, a farm hand, earned around $1 a day. If a laborer worked 250 days a year, his salary was about $250 a year. Subsequently, the price was the work of four years of common labor.
Let’s compare that to 2010 dollars. Taking a laborer’s wage of about $8 per hour would result in about $16,000 a year or $64,000 in four years.
This would mean, if one could buy slaves today, and prices were consistent with the buying power then and now, it would take about $64,000 for a good and healthy slave. To calculate return on investment, it is important not to forget that the owner has to shelter and feed a slave, provide clothes, medical care and any other needs.
The entire economy of this country in colonial days up to the Civil War was anchored in slavery.
I can think of no better way than to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin to bring these facts to life and to remind me of the endless rivers of blood and tears, rolling on for centuries, that this nation is built on. I no longer take the fact for granted that I can be here today and enjoy liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin infinitely enriched my outlook.