Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852
In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published her bestselling antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sales for Uncle Tom’s Cabin were astronomical, eclipsed only by sales of the Bible. The book became a sensation and helped move antislavery into everyday conversation for many northerners. In this passage, a senator and his wife debate the Fugitive Slave Law.
“Well,” said his wife, after the business of the tea-table was getting rather slack, “and what have they been doing in the Senate?”
Now, it was a very unusual thing for gentle little Mrs. Bird ever to trouble her head with what was going on in the house of the state, very wisely considering that she had enough to do to mind her own. Mr. Bird, therefore, opened his eyes in surprise, and said,
“Not very much of importance.”
“Well; but is it true that they have been passing a law forbidding people to give meat and drink to those poor colored folks that come along? I heard they were talking of some such law, but I didn’t think any Christian legislature would pass it!”
“Why, Mary, you are getting to be a politician, all at once.”
“No, nonsense! I wouldn’t give a fig for all your politics, generally, but I think this is something downright cruel and unchristian. I hope, my dear, no such law has been passed.”
“There has been a law passed forbidding people to help off the slaves that come over from Kentucky, my dear; so much of that thing has been done by these reckless Abolitionists, that our brethren in Kentucky are very strongly excited, and it seems necessary, and no more than Christian and kind, that something should be done by our state to quiet the excitement.”
“And what is the law? It don’t forbid us to shelter those poor creatures a night, does it, and to give ’em something comfortable to eat, and a few old clothes, and send them quietly about their business?”
“Why, yes, my dear; that would be aiding and abetting, you know.”
Mrs. Bird was a timid, blushing little woman, of about four feet in height, and with mild blue eyes, and a peach-blow complexion, and the gentlest, sweetest voice in the world;—as for courage, a moderate-sized cock-turkey had been known to put her to rout at the very first gobble, and a stout house-dog, of moderate capacity, would bring her into subjection merely by a show of his teeth. Her husband and children were her entire world, and in these she ruled more by entreaty and persuasion than by command or argument. There was only one thing that was capable of arousing her, and that provocation came in on the side of her unusually gentle and sympathetic nature;—anything in the shape of cruelty would throw her into a passion, which was the more alarming and inexplicable in proportion to the general softness of her nature. Generally the most indulgent and easy to be entreated of all mothers, still her boys had a very reverent remembrance of a most vehement chastisement she once bestowed on them, because she found them leagued with several graceless boys of the neighborhood, stoning a defenceless kitten….
On the present occasion, Mrs. Bird rose quickly, with very red cheeks, which quite improved her general appearance, and walked up to her husband, with quite a resolute air, and said, in a determined tone, “Now, John, I want to know if you think such a law as that is right and Christian?”
“You won’t shoot me, now, Mary, if I say I do!”
“I never could have thought it of you, John; you didn’t vote for it?”
“Even so, my fair politician.”
“You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do! Things have got to a pretty pass, if a woman can’t give a warm supper and a bed to poor, starving creatures, just because they are slaves, and have been abused and oppressed all their lives, poor things!”
“But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment; you must consider it’s not a matter of private feeling,—there are great public interests involved,—there is such a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings.”
“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.”
“But in cases where your doing so would involve a great public evil—”
“Obeying God never brings on public evils. I know it can’t. It’s always safest, all round, to do as He bids us.
“Now, listen to me, Mary, and I can state to you a very clear argument, to show—”
“O, nonsense, John! —you can talk all night, but you wouldn’t do it. I put it to you, John,—would you now turn away a poor, shivering, hungry creature from your door, because he was a runaway? Would you, now?”
… Mrs. Bird, seeing the defenceless condition of the enemy’s territory, had no more conscience than to push her advantage.
“I should like to see you doing that, John—I really should! Turning a woman out of doors in a snowstorm, for instance; or may be you’d take her up and put her in jail, wouldn’t you? You would make a great hand at that!”
“Of course, it would be a very painful duty,” began Mr. Bird, in a moderate tone.
“Duty, John! don’t use that word! You know it isn’t a duty—it can’t be a duty! If folks want to keep their slaves from running away, let ’em treat ’em well,—that’s my doctrine. If I had slaves (as I hope I never shall have), I’d risk their wanting to run away from me, or you either, John. I tell you folks don’t run away when they are happy; and when they do run, poor creatures! they suffer enough with cold and hunger and fear, without everybody’s turning against them; and, law or no law, I never will, so help me God!”
“Mary! Mary! My dear, let me reason with you.”
“I hate reasoning, John,—especially reasoning on such subjects. There’s a way you political folks have of coming round and round a plain right thing; and you don’t believe in it yourselves, when it comes to practice. I know you well enough, John. You don’t believe it’s right any more than I do; and you wouldn’t do it any sooner than I.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (Boston: 1852), 120-123.