Slavery the Southern States: Stowe Versus Term Paper

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Slavery

The Southern States: Stowe versus "The Blessings of the Slave"

According to conventional wisdom today, 'everyone' knows that slavery is wrong, a human atrocity. But what seems obvious to us today as a moral and inhuman atrocity was not nearly so obvious to the eyes of individuals living in the Southern United States of 19th century America. In fact, anti-slavery activists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe had to write in active defense against Southern voices who would uphold the supposed "Blessings" of a slave, to work in bondage without a care for his or her own freedom. How could this seismic change in the intellectual consciousness of a nation occur so rapidly, from assuming Stowe to be correct in her berating of the blessings of slavery, to debating the issue of slavery on a national level? Why, more than a century later, did the United States boast a Nobel Prize winning African-American author, Toni Morrison amongst its ranks, yet before 1864 it would have been illegal in many states to have taught this illustrious writer and academic to read at all?

Slavery is rooted deeply in the American history and tradition, alas, as deeply rooted as America's positive conceptions of freedom and democracy. As early as 1750, a document from "A Slave is taken to Barbados," illustrates the brutality of the slave trade and the fervent desire to make money by traders at all costs. But although this rapacity and cruelty was endemic to many white and European nations in the 19th century, by this same time a hundred years hence, Great Britain at made the slave trade illegal, yet the United States persisted in the perpetration of what Southerners called a peculiar institution of their rural, agrarian way of life and what the increasingly industrialized and urban North considered an institution of shame.

One of the reasons, however, beyond the economic benefits of retaining an enslaved labor force for the South, was the fact that the Southern states' right to uphold slavery became a kind of symbol of its separation from the Northern, federal government's control. South Carolina attempted to uphold its right to nullify, or override laws made by the national government even during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Slavery was not simply an economic or legal crisis; it was a cultural proof of the South's difference from the Northern way of life. Many Southerners believed that so long as the South had a right to have slaves, it had the right to be independent from federal control. The blessings of slavery were part of the image of the South as a happy, carefree place to live, unlike the pressure cooker cities of the North.

Southerners frequently pointed to the regimented and controlled regime of Northern industrialization, such as in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. One popular defense of slavery was that conditions for Northern mill workers were no better than slaves, and in the case of young girls, the lot of the young woman not much more freely chosen than those of slaves. "Wage Slavery" was a common term used to describe the Northern 'pricing' system of industrialized labor.

Of course when Southern slaveholders and the 19th century media heard about negative conditions that resulted in the tragedy of the supposedly healthier conditions of the Massachusetts Mill as well as the supposed immorality of some factory girls, the Southerners tied the sustenance of states rights and their system with the protection of Southern womanhood from rapacious slaves and unfitting manual labor. Even some Northerners such as Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster were reluctant to fully endorse abolitionism outright, fearing it swift termination would be too economically disastrous to the South, and fearing sundering the country and necessitating war if the peculiar institution was ended with peculiar swiftness.

How did anti-slavery voices such as Harriet Beecher Stowe defy such a strong anti-abolitionist sentiment, even in the North, even amongst Northern politicians fearing war and the political and economic turmoil that would no doubt occur? Stowe stressed the human, emotional, and moral cost of slavery. In an excerpt from her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe shows how Uncle Tom, a Black slave, has been unjustly separated from every human being he loves, and forced to labor in a way that is morally unbefitting to a nation that espouses freedom such as the United States. Tom is a religious man, and rather than blessing slavery, he blesses God and the freedom he will enjoy after death.

Moreover, Stowe shows an overseer named Simon Legree who is originally from the North, but has been so morally cheapened by the institution of slavery itself that he has no regard for other human beings. Stowe upholds the domestic virtues of family love, and the love of friends and children, and suggests in her depiction of "Tom defies Simon Legree," that slavery is wrong not on a political level in the sense that the South should obey the national government, but that slavery is a threat to the homes and values of all Americans, regardless of their geographic location. Her work implicitly calls upon Northerners and Southern both to reject the institution on humanitarian rather than rhetorical or logical grounds. By using narrative logic rather than formal logic, Stowe proved persuasive in her appeal. Northerners may have been unwilling to concede Black equality -- even Lincoln denied this form of equality between the races -- but by pulling upon the heartstrings and invoking religion, Stowe was able to generate support for the anti-slavery cause.

Ironically, although Stowe had witnessed the legacy of slavery on a less personal, eyewitness level than Charles Summer, for example, whose 1857 damnation of slavery gives ample witness to its evils, or John Brown whose assault on Harper's Ferry struck fear into the hearts of slave owners, Stowe's imagination preyed upon the imagination of a Northern nation because her novel personalized the slave experience. Stowe's depiction of life under slavery was in direct reaction to Southerners who defended its existence as a blessed and human way of life, in contrast to impersonal industrialization. No way of life dependent upon human ownership, no matter how imperfect industrialization, Stowe suggested, could be morally tenable.

Southerners, however, had always attested to the morally uplifting nature of the institution for Blacks, perhaps early and prejudicially judging Africans by American cultural standards the slaves 'got of the boat,' from Africa, assuming because the slaves to be could not understand their owners language that they were less human. Southerners also feared the challenges of a new way of life, and often believed the false face of docility Blacks put on for their masters to avoid physical harm and hopefully escape to freedom. Thus, lastly, Southerners may have believed some of their own constructions of a harsh Northern assault upon Southern morality and regional distinctions and the blessings of slavery. But Stowe showed that rather than bringing Christians to non-Christians, the suffering of Blacks like Tom was Christ-like, and the inhumanity of slavery was the most unchristian system of all.

Yet, even at the end of the Civil War there was some sense in the South that upholding slavery in a world where not only the North, but many of its trading partners had eliminated the institution such as Great Britain, would not be achievable in the long-term. The South, had it won the war, could not have sustained itself autonomously in an economic fashion as the rest of the world grew more mechanized, industrialized, and yes, free, even if only in a political and rights-based, Constitutional sense. Thus, ultimately, as brutal as it was the Civil War may have done a favor for the white southern slave owners in the American South in the long run by eliminating the institution.

Works Cited

Blessings of Slavery."… [end of preview; READ MORE]

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