Fearing heavy-handed moralism, I have spent my adult life avoiding Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I recently got up my courage to brave the didacticism, however: to great reward, as the wise old slave is good company.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the “little lady who started this big war” as Lincoln called her, is didactic in patches. The scenes that provoke our rage are not the genius of the book, however. Anyone can engender tears over scenes of mamas and children wrenched from each other’s arms on the auction block.
Stowe’s achievement is to reveal subtly and artfully the myriad ways the legal tolerance of slavery enervates, corrupts and ultimately enslaves society at large and everyone it touches –even those who oppose the institution.
Not only did I find the beaten slaves, oily slave traders and brute masters that I expected, but also found “kind” masters who want to do right by slaves they’ve inherited but not chosen, politicians trying to keep their consciences and their seats, and citizens trying to behave uprightly against societal expectations, but finding no support from the law.
In all of the latter cases, the foul law acts as an oppressor and reaches its tentacles into every aspect of life: social, political, commercial, and religious.
There is no way to stay out of it. There is no way to keep your hands completely clean.
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
That was Abraham Lincoln’s deceptively simple definition of democracy. The pithy slogan reveals a profound conception of the human person if we pause to ponder it.
Our 16th president was never satisfied to contend against slavery solely on the ground that “the peculiar institution” as proponents delicately put it was gravely immoral, though of course it was.
Instead, Lincoln argued vociferously that slavery was profoundly corrupting to the character not only of the slave, but of the slaveholder -- and anyone to do with the slave trade. It’s unjust to be owned; to own is coarsen and kill your own soul.
Slavery, Lincoln held, tutored not only the slave, but also the master, in the ways of tyranny, leaving neither fit for a society of free men.
Against this cultural backdrop Stowe offers us the profoundly moving Christian witness of Uncle Tom. I’m not sure how it happened that “Uncle Tom” has become a synonym for a political stooge who cooperates with his captors. Stowe’s Uncle Tom is anything but. In fact, he is murdered for refusing to whip a fellow slave. Moreover, he turns out to be the only genuinely free man in the story –and its only true liberator.
It’s true that Tom repeatedly chooses to remain a slave rather than escaping to freedom, but in each instance he does so, not because he prefers the security of the known, or because of some limitation of imagination, but because by remaining he can save others.
His choices are made in complete liberty of spirit, out of sacrificial love for his brothers and sisters in Christ whatever their race or position. In everything he seeks to imitate his true Master, Christ Jesus.
As the story unfolds, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is almost not about slavery so much as it is about how difficult it is to keep an upright conscience and stand as an honest man when the law is profoundly wrong on an essential question.
Reading it, it’s impossible not to be deeply moved, and equally difficult not to draw immediate parallels with figures on both sides of our contemporary battle to restore the natural human rights of the unborn. (I especially enjoyed Stowe’s mordant portrayal of a conversation between two parsons on opposite sides of the moral question, each employing the scriptures to craft his argument.)
In short, I regret I delayed reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic for so long. Its historical significance notwithstanding, we could hardly ask for a more clear-eyed portrait of what is required to live a moral life. Nor could we ask for a more loving friend than Uncle Tom.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.