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Slavery Stoppers: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Arts & Letters: Two Great Works and an Ambiguous Catholic Record

BY Father Steven Reilly, LC

| Posted 8/29/10 at 4:00 AM


Americans argue passionately about all kinds of things. But few of those cut through the static like race.

Of course, the news isn’t all bad. America elected its first black president and people can argue over and disagree with his policies without — usually — being labeled racists. Even so, it remains a touchy subject that doesn’t always bring out the best in people. Contributing positively to the discussion requires some understanding of the history that’s produced the raw feelings.

No institution had greater influence on race relations than slavery. We can’t understand race in America today without understanding slavery.

And that means knowing Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. They were two very different authors of classic works that were milestones in this story: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are must-reads for anyone who wants a grasp of its meaning on a more visceral level.

Douglass escaped bondage to become the most influential black abolitionist. Stowe wrote the novel that, without a doubt, was the most influential in American history — attested to by the constant citation of Lincoln’s apocryphal remark “So you’re the little lady who started this great war.”

Slavery’s Big Picture

An excellent backdrop to their works can be found in David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. The prosperity of the hemisphere was largely built on the backs of slaves. By 1820, 8.7 million African slaves had been transported to the Americas and the Caribbean as opposed to only 2.6 million whites. While the African slave trade was banned for the United States in 1808, the natural growth in American slave population had actually eliminated the need for their continued importation.

From a purely economic point of view, slavery in the U.S. was a success. The pre-Civil War economy of the South grew rapidly thanks to the huge international market for its agricultural exports. The mills of Great Britain in particular needed American cotton to meet the exploding demand for its textile products.

Profits may have rolled in, but at what a cost! Slavery was an unqualified disaster from every other point of view beyond the economic. The institution could only thrive where a dehumanized, animalistic view of the slave held sway and which in turn served, in a perverse way, to reinforce the collective sense of superiority of those who were not on the bottom of the social heap. A northern visitor to the South, Frederick Law Olmsted, recounted the laconic reply of one particular overseer. Did he find his trade disagreeable? “Why, sir, I wouldn’t mind killing a n——- anymore than I would a dog.”

Douglass’ Insider’s View

As a former slave, Douglass knew this subject well. In his short but extremely powerful autobiography, the great abolitionist brilliantly brings out slavery’s corrupting influence — its brutalization of both the owner and the owned. Douglass describes heart-wrenching scenes of beatings and whippings and of the most basic failures in decency, like the one in which the small slave children, separated from their mothers and raised by their owner like a litter of puppies, eat from bowls of food slopped on the floor indiscriminately among them for their meals.

The system was harsh, and had to be, for the South lived in fear of slave rebellion. Keeping the chattel oppressed and producing was imperative. Douglass relates how as a boy he experienced no love or affection — until his owner lent him out to Baltimore relatives who had never had slaves. The wife was the soul of kindness. “Here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions. … I wish I could describe the rapture that flashed through my soul as I beheld it.”

But over time, the corrupting leaven had taken hold: “But alas! This kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.”

With heroic efforts, Douglass learns to read. Yearnings begin to stir that were uncongenial to absolute servitude. So his owner lent him out to another overseer, specialized in the art of bringing to heel the problematic slave.

I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Years after the publication of his biography, Douglass and Lincoln would meet on several occasions during the war. Lincoln said of him, “considering the conditions from which Douglass rose, and the position to which he had attained … he was one of the most meritorious men in America.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe has one goal: to convince her northern audience that slavery was evil and could no longer be tolerated. Perhaps from our vantage point, that seems like an easy target. But in the 1850s it wasn’t. In the North, even though slavery was illegal, racism was pervasive and abolitionists were often viewed as fringe radicals who threatened the Union through their implacable criticism of the South.

Her novel hit the country like a bombshell. It was a huge best-seller in the North; in the South, there was outrage. Rarely has a novel generated such widespread and diametrically opposed reaction. And never has its social impact been duplicated.

The Preacher’s Daughter

Stowe was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, one of the most famous preachers of the religious revival that swept the country known as the Second Great Awakening. Her writing churns with the fervor of one who can no longer abide the sight of fellow children of God being bought and sold like cattle. Uncle Tom’s Cabin succeeded in generating sympathy for the slave’s plight at a time when many people were annoyed at the agitation of radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison.

Stowe paints a vivid picture of the total vulnerability of the slave’s existence. Tom was the loyal slave of Arthur Shelby, having served him from when Shelby was but a child. Shelby’s creditors had him against the wall, and the only way not to lose everything was to sell Tom and the little child Harry, son of Eliza, who served Mrs. Shelby. It was painful for Shelby — a “good master.” But a slave was a piece of property, an asset, and, in the end, no emotional bond was too sacred that it could not be broken and fall victim to the bottom line. Thus, Tom is sold “down river” and Eliza attempts escape. And so the story begins.

Uncle Tom?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s place in the canon of American literature is not without controversy. As a novelist, Stowe certainly isn’t the same caliber as her cranky next-door neighbor in Hartford, Conn.: Mark Twain. She can sound preachy and a little too intent on sentimental story resolutions. But worse, some literary critics and social commentators have charged her with racial insensitivity through her use of black stereotypes. Among these questions, which have generated much back-and-forth dispute, perhaps the most interesting regards Tom himself: Is he to be despised as an “Uncle Tom”?

Certainly Tom’s deference to his masters is in strong contrast to the defiance of George Harris, another main character, the slave husband of Eliza. But the caricature of the “Uncle Tom” has been traced to the minstrel black-faced shows that depicted or satirized scenes from the novel. The impression is a lot different when one goes right to the book.

Tom is to be admired, not despised. His profound Christian faith gives him an unbreakable spirit that enables him to both see the hand of God in all that happens and, in the critical moment, to stand up to the malicious plantation owner, Simon Legree. Tom would obey all orders, except the one to do wrong. He refuses to beat another slave (“If you mean to kill me, kill me; but as to my raising my hand against anyone here, I never shall — I’ll die first!”). His Christian faith gives him the power to refuse to collaborate in the violence that was the essential underpinning of the system.

Their Challenge and the Catholic Record

Both authors challenge us: Douglass, through stinging indictment (“the [slave] dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity”); Stowe with an appeal to Christian empathy (“I beseech you, pity those mothers that are constantly made childless by the American slave trade”). They help us keep in perspective where we have come from as a nation and the struggles that are still with us.

We Catholics would do well to thoughtfully consider this history. Unfortunately, our own track record at that time was mixed. Certainly Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery in 1839, but many Catholics in the U.S., immigrants themselves, were not anxious to see an end to slavery. They feared that freed slaves would flood the job market, both making work scarcer and driving down wages.

As Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote last year, “I’d give anything if I could claim that Catholics in America prior to the Civil War were ‘passionate, stubborn, almost obsessed’ with protecting the human rights of the slave. To claim such would be a fib.”

Perhaps the nadir of Catholic laxity regarding slavery was the 1857 Dred Scott decision, penned by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney. Notwithstanding his own personal kindness and decency — he freed slaves received in an inheritance — it was Taney, a Catholic, who wrote those now infamous words: Blacks, whether slave or free, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Personally opposed to slavery for himself, he felt bound to support it in the public square. Sound familiar?

Pope John Paul on his trip to Senegal in 1992 recalled the many people who departed from that site, ripped from their homeland to go to the new world as slaves: “From this African sanctuary of sorrow, we beg heaven for forgiveness. We pray that in the future the disciples of Christ may show themselves completely faithful in following the commandment of brotherly love left them by their Master!”

Racism lingers. Human trafficking is growing. And with abortion, human lives are still radically subject to the will of another. Making this prayer our own, may we never find ourselves fighting on the wrong side of such basic issues of good and evil.

Father Steven Reilly writes from New York.