Some eminent notables have claimed that the American Civil War had substantial roots in literature. Mark Twain, for example, said of Sir Walter Scott that he was “in great measure responsible for the war.” That proposition is debatable, of course. This argument hinges on how much the widespread influence of his romanticized chivalric prose bolstered the South’s hyper-thumotic stance — in plainer words, piss and vinegar — which contributed to secession, and shortly thereafter a war that went horribly awry. The counterargument is that other factors created a siege mentality inspiring these desperate and tragic actions.
More plausibly, it is said that Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 and remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” The novelist Thomas Dixon (most notably the author of Fraternity Tri Kappa blockbusters like The Clansman, adapted into film as The Birth of a Nation) concurred, putting it a little more bluntly: “A little Yankee woman wrote a book. The single act of that woman’s will caused the war, killed a million men, desolated and ruined the South, and changed the history of the world.”
That book, of course, was the anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It first appeared in serial form and, once it was compiled into two volumes, became America’s first blockbuster novel. I would like to thank a certain Leftist professor for forcing me to read it long ago so that I may describe it now. The South fired back with a number of literary responses, including one that I reviewed for my début article here, but none matched the popularity of Stowe’s screed.
The slavery problem in development
In colonial times, captives were added to the workforce. At first these were indentured servants who were bound nominally for seven year terms. Most were white — which is why we don’t hear much about them lately –, but there were exceptions. When a former indentured servant from Angola successfully sued to keep his African indentured servant permanently, it created a precedent and gave slavery a racial character. The importation of Africans eventually became a big business. This ultimately meant that ending the slavery problem would create a race problem, because the descendants of this captive workforce turned out to be remarkably unassimilable.
This slavery problem from colonial times was inherited by the United States, and it nearly destroyed the country in the 1860s. After that, it transformed into a race problem beginning with Radical Reconstruction. It set cities aflame in hundreds of riots in the 1960s stemming from a campaign of Leftist agitation. The race problem once again threatens to tear the US apart as today’s exploiter class is using blacks in their “both halves against the middle” dialectic.
The earliest plantation owners, who couldn’t be bothered to pick their own cotton, were much like today’s globalists. They were exploiters who put their wealth ahead of their race’s well-being. Some masters of later generations were terminally greedy, too. But there were others, decent people who had inherited their estates and were doing their best to cope with the rotten institution that came with it.
Complicating the matter, some states made it difficult or even nearly impossible for masters to free their slaves. It’s likely that the legislators didn’t want to have to deal with large populations of unsupervised blacks. (That much might seem mean-spirited, but a trip to your city’s Martin Luther King Boulevard at night might provide some hints as to their rationale.) To many, the prospect of immediate emancipation was unpalatable because it meant that multiracialism would unfold on a mass scale.
Slavery was indeed a terrible mistake, one that became increasingly obvious as such with the passage of time, but there was no consensus on how to deal with it. In earlier times, practical proposals often ended in howls from the greedier types about their sacred “property rights.” (Did I mention piss and vinegar?) Moreover, it wasn’t simply a debate about maintaining the status quo versus abolition. The latter position also contained a range of opinions concerning how this would be accomplished, whether to do so gradually or immediately, and what would become of the freedmen. Thomas Jefferson, who was deeply troubled by the matter, summarized the difficulties early on:
But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
Morally speaking, this was hardly a black-and-white distinction — if one will pardon the expression. For one thing, the martial valor and heroic resistance of the Confederates on the battlefield was indeed admirable. Even so, the ruling class in Richmond ultimately put them up to this Lost Cause mostly for the sake of cheaply-picked cotton. This gamble turned out to be catastrophic.
In the antebellum North, some abolitionists were remarkably wrongheaded. Some envisioned a multiracial society as America’s future. Apparently they had a remarkably misguided concept of what this would involve, not entirely different from that of today’s wealthy liberals and other “desegregation now, but not in my back yard” types. Then there were those who wanted to solve the race problem by amalgamation (race-mixing), much like what today’s globalists and Zionists are trying to push onto the public. They were so unpopular even in the North that few dared to advocate this openly. The most immediate threat was a growing number of radical abolitionists who wanted to settle the slavery problem with violence. By itself, agitating for non-exploitative labor practices is great. However, the ethics get a bit complicated if it involves trying to get masses of people killed over the principle.
Could there have been a better way? Was there a middle course to steer? The grim lessons from history demonstrate that the correct solution was held by the moderates who called for peaceful liberation and the creation of a colony for the freedmen. Among the pro-colonialists were several presidents, beginning with Jefferson and including Lincoln – at least until the Battle of Fort Sumter put peace out of reach. All of these eminent presidents would be considered “dangerous Right-wing extremists” today for backing peaceful separation. However, those who advocated for a controlled dismantling of slavery and colonization so that the freedmen could forge their own destiny were those who had the only right answers in a controversy in which the extremes on both sides were wrong.
The metapolitical impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The debate about slavery was initially carried out mainly in terms of economics and Enlightenment philosophy. Then it acquired another dimension as ultra-Calvinism began mixing religion and politics and the latter eclipsed and eventually swallowed up the former. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in that tradition. As a melodramatic tear-jerker that became a wildly popular bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought considerable emotion into what started as a fairly dry debate. The book became a radicalizing factor that shifted the Overton window toward the danger zone.
Previously, the North and South had been able to negotiate over the apportionment of new states while maintaining a partial containment policy limiting the spread of the slavery problem. However, the book’s impact on the public made further cooperation increasingly politically unpalatable. All told, there may well be something to the semi-apocryphal Lincoln quote about Uncle Tom’s Cabin starting the war.
By the time Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, abolitionist sentiment already was at a fever pitch in certain ultra-Calvinist circles. These included some zealots who couldn’t wait to foment a holy war — to be fought by other people. This appears to be the beginning of ethnomasochism, although unlike today, they had some real oppression to complain about. (It was a missed opportunity that nobody argued that “it’s only private business doing it“; that line works like magic lately.) Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped fan the flames outward to the Northern public, which previously had been much more ambivalent and disunited about the slavery problem.
After the fanatical mattoid John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry in 1859, intending to ignite a race war to the death from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, much of the North hailed the terrorist as a martyr. (The plot failed largely because Brown greatly overestimated the willingness of slaves to join him on a mission of mass slaughter. Say what one will about the violent tendencies of blacks, mattoids are far worse.) This event, and of course the Northern response to it, greatly exacerbated the Southern siege mentality. Soon things would come to a head.
The radicals got the bloodbath they wanted to soothe their aching sense of collective guilt. As they say, the rest is history. Every last one of the goody-goody preachers, fire-breathing newspaper editors, and loudmouth agitators should’ve been drafted to take point and dodge Confederate Minié balls. Their First Wave feminist allies should’ve been conscripted into elite Petticoat Platoons tasked with charging cannon emplacements.
Indignation over the Fugitive Slave Act provided much of the impetus to write the story. At the end, Stowe indicates that the events the book describes were a composite taken from real life. How much this was true was a matter of debate. This inspired her to write another book documenting how the ill-treatment described in the novel really did sometimes happen. Other than the plot, some of the characters were composites, too. This includes Uncle Tom himself, a saintly gentle giant who suffers a martyr’s death. Where have we heard that one lately?
Christian imagery pervades the book. Stowe really did believe in Jesus. Although she lays it on pretty thick, this much is actually a bit refreshing now that ultra-Calvinism and related currents have become so watered down and moldy. In modern times, there’s still plenty of politicized Protestantism, “social gospel” stuff, Herz-Jesu-Sozialismus, and varieties of Reform Judaism that consider tikkum olam (repairing the world) to be identical with Current Year liberalism. It’s thus unusual these days to read an ultra-Calvinist text that doesn’t take religion as little more than an ideology with a plastic halo, and doesn’t consider Scripture to be a collection of liberal aphorisms amidst heaps of unimportant fluff.
The book also had its influence on the drama of its time. Some Uncle Tom minstrel acts carried into the vaudeville era. Other than that, the book was part of the tradition that portrayed blacks as rustic innocents. (Lately, blacks really don’t care for that sort of thing.) There were staged presentations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that were generally faithful to the book, although some took out the tragic elements and focused more on the happier moments. Perhaps the creative license involved was rather like staging excerpts from Brokeback Mountain as a campy comedy.
Stylistically, the book has a clumsy start. However, Stowe’s writing chops gradually improve during the long process of creating the story. The problem is that the end wraps up with much commentary marred by frequent sour notes. To its credit, the book does get some things right, such as by supporting peaceful emancipation and colonization. Unfortunately, though, some other parts are rather horrid. Blacks agree, too, though for different reasons. (“Uncle Tom” has become an epithet for a black lacking sufficient ethnic solidarity, just as “racist” has become an epithet for a white possessing sufficient ethnic solidarity.) One positive takeaway is that it proves the notion that ideas matter and can have far-reaching effects.
Sold down the river
At the beginning, Uncle Tom’s master is persuaded to sell him to pay down a debt. During the discussion, a youngster walks in:
“Hulloa, Jim Crow!” said Mr. Shelby, whistling, and snapping a bunch of raisins towards him, “pick that up, now!”
The child scampered, with all his little strength, after the prize, while his master laughed.
“Come here, Jim Crow,” said he. The child came up, and the master patted the curly head, and chucked him under the chin.
“Now, Jim, show this gentleman how you can dance and sing.” The boy commenced one of those wild, grotesque songs common among the negroes, in a rich, clear voice, accompanying his singing with many comic evolutions of the hands, feet, and whole body, all in perfect time to the music.
This is not, as one might imagine, the origin of either the famous Jump Jim Crow minstrel act or the moonwalk. The merchant, a greasy character, convinces the master to throw the youth into the deal to call the debt even. A short discussion follows about how to take him away while minimizing the mother’s resistance, including the following:
“Why, yes, sir, I may say so. You see, when I any ways can, I takes a leetle care about the onpleasant parts, like selling young uns and that, — get the gals out of the way — out of sight, out of mind, you know, — and when it’s clean done, and can’t be helped, they naturally gets used to it. ‘Tan’t, you know, as if it was white folks, that’s brought up in the way of ‘spectin’ to keep their children and wives, and all that. Niggers, you know, that’s fetched up properly, ha’n’t no kind of ‘spectations of no kind; so all these things comes easier.”
“I’m afraid mine are not properly brought up, then,” said Mr. Shelby.
“S’pose not; you Kentucky folks spile your niggers. You mean well by ’em, but ‘tan’t no real kindness, arter all. Now, a nigger, you see, what’s got to be hacked and tumbled round the world, and sold to Tom, and Dick, and the Lord knows who, ‘tan’t no kindness to be givin’ on him notions and expectations, and bringin’ on him up too well, for the rough and tumble comes all the harder on him arter. Now, I venture to say, your niggers would be quite chop-fallen in a place where some of your plantation niggers would be singing and whooping like all possessed. Every man, you know, Mr. Shelby, naturally thinks well of his own ways; and I think I treat niggers just about as well as it’s ever worth while to treat ’em.”
As intended, that hardly leaves a positive impression of the slave traders’ mentality. I actually concur: These types could win the Fidel Castro Human Rights Award. Slavery sucks, film at 11. I won’t even say that it’s a straw-man characterization, as I’ve seen plenty of corporate dickweeds who are one whip, a pair of manacles, and two hundred years away from being plantation overseers.
Other than that, local color dialect usage had recently come into literary fashion. There’s much more of Stowe’s impression of redneck talk where it came from. It does mellow her butchering of early Ebonics, such as this:
“Well, yer see,” said Sam, proceeding gravely to wash down Haley’s pony, “I ‘se ‘quired what yer may call a habit o’ bobservation, Andy. It’s a very ‘portant habit, Andy; and I ‘commend yer to be cultivatin’ it, now yer young. Hist up that hind foot, Andy. Yer see, Andy, it’s bobservation makes all de difference in niggers. Didn’t I see which way the wind blew dis yer mornin’? Didn’t I see what Missis wanted, though she never let on? Dat ar’s bobservation, Andy. I ‘spects it’s what you may call a faculty. Faculties is different in different peoples, but cultivation of ’em goes a great way.”
“I guess if I hadn’t helped your bobservation dis mornin’, yer wouldn’t have seen your way so smart,” said Andy.
At least that was Sam and Andy rather than Amos and Andy! There are reasons why blacks don’t like the book, no matter how much it contributed to accelerating their ancestors’ liberation. Aside from that, news of the foul transaction gets out, inspiring a desperate escape and much nineteenth-century purple prose:
The frosty ground creaked beneath her feet, and she trembled at the sound; every quaking leaf and fluttering shadow sent the blood backward to her heart, and quickened her footsteps. She wondered within herself at the strength that seemed to be come upon her; for she felt the weight of her boy as if it had been a feather, and every flutter of fear seemed to increase the supernatural power that bore her on, while from her pale lips burst forth, in frequent ejaculations, the prayer to a Friend above — “Lord, help! Lord, save me!”
If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning, — if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o’clock till morning to make good your escape, –how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom, — the little sleepy head on your shoulder, — the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck?
We get it. Slavery sucks! That wasn’t much of a surprise to the audience, of course.
Down in Nawlins
There are a lot of other subplots, perspectives, and developments afoot as well, but for now I’ll focus on the eponymous Tom. He ends up with the St. Clare family in Louisiana. Master Augustine is basically a decent fellow, other than being too cheap to pay his workers. As for Mistress Marie, she’s a real piece of work — not to put too fine a point on it, a bitch with fleas. The readers are laughing at her complaints about “sick-headaches” and taking her for a nitwit from the outset. Right after discrediting herself as an annoying hypochondriac, she starts on another rant which reveals her illiberal views about race. Message: White pride is uncool.
I found that quite transparent. (I always have had a knack for detecting propaganda, which seems to accompany my lifelong authority problem.) Still, it was also rather clever for a rookie novelist. Propagandist pros on the level of Edward Bernays call this sneaky psychological tactic “associative conditioning.” Over a century later, the “white pride is uncool” shtick was the central point of Norman Lear’s famous Archie Bunker sitcoms, also delivered through a straw-man character.
Then we have the following highly iconic paragraph. After reading it in college, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head despite having drunk enough beer during the following years to float a battleship:
If ever Africa shall show an elevated and cultivated race, — and come it must, some time, her turn to figure in the great drama of human improvement. — life will awake there with a gorgeousness and splendor of which our cold western tribes faintly have conceived. In that far-off mystic land of gold, and gems, and spices, and waving palms, and wondrous flowers, and miraculous fertility, will awake new forms of art, new styles of splendor; and the negro race, no longer despised and trodden down, will, perhaps, show forth some of the latest and most magnificent revelations of human life. Certainly they will, in their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness. In all these they will exhibit the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life, and, perhaps, as God chasteneth whom he loveth, he hath chosen poor Africa in the furnace of affliction, to make her the highest and noblest in that kingdom which he will set up, when every other kingdom has been tried, and failed; for the first shall be last, and the last first.
Let that one sink in. Other than this unique vision of what Zimbabwe would be like, we can see that Stowe thought that the blacks of the future were going to be all lovey-dovey. If only those Yankee Gutmenschen could’ve seen the future and beheld today’s hordes of under-parented youths with their unfortunate habits of street crime and rioting, then America could’ve been spared a Civil War. Other than that, this wad of ultracalvinism makes me want to read Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist and Also Sprach Zarathustra back-to-back as an antidote.
Other than the above-mentioned characters, Eva (short for Evangeline, a name obviously meant to be symbolic) is another notable St. Claire family member. She was born with a heart problem; given the limitations of nineteenth-century medicine, this meant that she wasn’t going to make it to adulthood. The subplot thus drags on into an inevitable grim tragedy, but one imbued with religious meaning that inspires those around her. Topsy, a young slave girl, puts aside her cynicism. Miss Ophelia, the abolitionist who owns her — it’s slightly complicated — puts aside her prejudice. Master Augustine agrees to free Uncle Tom.
Things aren’t so simple, however. Before Mr. St. Clare can do so, he gets stabbed while trying to break up a fight between some drunks. Mistress Marie doesn’t respect his wishes, so Uncle Tom gets sold yet again. Did I mention that she’s a bitch?
The belly of the beast
Imagine the absolute worst dickweed you’ve ever had the misfortune of working for: some sadistic wallet-head who thinks being higher on the corporate totem pole makes him very goddamned special. Now imagine that you can’t quit this job, you’re not getting paid, and the petty tyrant has nearly ultimate authority which is enforceable at the end of a bullwhip. This, of course, is the basic argument for why slavery is bad. In the book, this dickweed is Simon Legree, Uncle Tom’s next master.
At this point, it’s fair to consider, how common were such types? Sadists did exist, just as they do now. However, they seem to have been in the minority; more about this later. The labor force greatly outnumbered management on plantations, so obviously there were practical reasons to keep morale problems from escalating out of control. That meant using the least amount of coercion to maintain normal production, with brute force used sparingly (and preferably never). All told, Simon Legree is essentially a caricature. Assuming that relentless cruelty was the norm in real life would be rather like making Lumbergh from Office Space the face of modern capitalism.
There are other plot points that are worse than ordinary sadism. Simon Legree is also a sexual predator. Christianity never had a “that which your right hand owns” doctrine, and slave codes didn’t exempt such disgusting behavior from being a felony, which were among several reasons why it would’ve been considered utterly abhorrent. (Moral standards have relaxed tremendously, but even now, perps belong in a concentration camp.) That’s not to say such evils never happened, but anyone that foolish risked getting a knife in the back, or at the very least an explosive scandal that would’ve made him a pariah for life. Arranging a consensual liaison would’ve much less hazardous, though it would’ve been seen as sinful and deviant if discovered. Finally, Legree’s excessive cruelty contributes to the deaths of some of his slaves. He admits early on that he routinely works them to death. Reputations mattered, and even someone suspected of such an attitude would’ve been regarded as a ghoul, at best. Moreover, that was hardly realistic, since even the most soulless economite would’ve realized that slaves are certainly not expendable.
In any event, Legree wants to add Uncle Tom to his plantation’s goon squad, although he already has two enforcers, Sambo and Quimbo (I’m not making this up). It’s one of those forgotten facts of history that most slave-drivers were blacks. Stowe tells us:
It is a common remark, and one that is thought to militate strongly against the character of the race, that the negro overseer is always more tyrannical and cruel than the white one. This is simply saying that the negro mind has been more crushed and debased than the white. It is no more true of this race than of every oppressed race, the world over. The slave is always a tyrant, if he can get a chance to be one.
That’s right; their behavior was all our fault. Over a century and a half after Emancipation, the target of blame for their aggregate character problems hasn’t changed.
Showing admirable class solidarity, Uncle Tom refuses to become an enemy of the people. Things therefore get off to a bad start. He pointedly refuses to obey a direct order to flog an unwilling concubine who is being replaced. Eventually, the subplots — most pretty grim — approach their conclusions. George Shelby, the son of the first master, sets out to buy him back, but arrives a little too late. Uncle Tom dies a martyr, a tragedy deep with religious meaning.
The John Galt speech
George Harris, a mixed-race minor character, writes a letter first declaring his allegiance to his African side. Then:
The desire and yearning of my soul is for an African nationality. I want a people that shall have a tangible, separate existence of its own; and where am I to look for it? . . . On the shores of Africa I see a republic, — a republic formed of picked men, who, by energy and self-educating force, have, in many cases, individually, raised themselves above a condition of slavery. Having gone through a preparatory stage of feebleness, this republic has, at last, become an acknowledged nation on the face of the earth, — acknowledged by both France and England. There it is my wish to go, and find myself a people.
The answer is Liberia, and other nations that shall follow. Then this:
A nation has a right to argue, remonstrate, implore, and present the cause of its race, — which an individual has not.
Careful, Harriet; you wouldn’t want people to think you’re a dangerous right-wing extremist, now would you? Then there’s an odd appeal to an envisioned future globalism:
If Europe ever becomes a grand council of free nations, — as I trust in God it will, — if, there, serfdom, and all unjust and oppressive social inequalities, are done away; and if they, as France and England have done, acknowledge our position, — then, in the great congress of nations, we will make our appeal, and present the cause of our enslaved and suffering race; and it cannot be that free, enlightened America will not then desire to wipe from her escutcheon that bar sinister which disgraces her among nations, and is as truly a curse to her as to the enslaved.
Enough purple prose already! Then this:
I want a country, a nation, of my own. I think that the African race has peculiarities, yet to be unfolded in the light of civilization and Christianity, which, if not the same with those of the Anglo-Saxon, may prove to be, morally, of even a higher type.
Still waiting on that one. . .
I trust that the development of Africa is to be essentially a Christian one. If not a dominant and commanding race, they are, at least, an affectionate, magnanimous, and forgiving one. Having been called in the furnace of injustice and oppression, they have need to bind closer to their hearts that sublime doctrine of love and forgiveness, through which alone they are to conquer, which it is to be their mission to spread over the continent of Africa.
There’s more ultra-Calvinist mush where that came from, but I’ll let it stand at this point. The last chapter, “Concluding Remarks,” carries on the filibuster in the author’s own voice. This includes overwrought attempts at generating white guilt, including the following:
Northern men, northern mothers, northern Christians, have something more to do than denounce their brethren at the South; they have to look to the evil among themselves. . . .
What do you owe to these poor unfortunates, oh Christians? Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them? Shall the doors of churches and school-houses be shut upon them? Shall states arise and shake them out?
The colonization solution is still endorsed, but Stowe says that it’s our duty to educate blacks first. Apparently it wasn’t enough that they were uplifted from primitive tribal standards and taught contemporary trades:
That the providence of God has provided a refuge in Africa, is, indeed, a great and noticeable fact; but that is no reason why the church of Christ should throw off that responsibility to this outcast race which her profession demands of her.
To fill up Liberia with an ignorant, inexperienced, half-barbarized race, just escaped from the chains of slavery, would be only to prolong, for ages, the period of struggle and conflict which attends the inception of new enterprises. Let the church of the north receive these poor sufferers in the spirit of Christ; receive them to the educating advantages of Christian republican society and schools, until they have attained to somewhat of a moral and intellectual maturity, and then assist them in their passage to those shores, where they may put in practice the lessons they have learned in America.
Stowe began to back away from the colonization solution after the book was published, and ended up endorsing multiracialism instead.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has three major settings: a kindly master, a so-so living situation, and finally the hellish lair of an evildoer. Already this shows more nuance than modern literature on the subject. Stowe could’ve written relentlessly withering propaganda from beginning to end, but incessant atrocity porn wouldn’t have been believable at that time. It was too well-known that Southerners typically were decent and genteel.
Stowe therefore had to make her case based on extreme circumstances and behavioral outliers. In her time, she was accused of misrepresenting the typical character of slavery and cherry-picking negative examples. The Simon Legree character remains a fictional trope for an exceptionally sadistic slave owner, even though it’s entirely possible that an actual person caught doing all that might have been paid a visit by concerned neighbors bringing 18 feet of rope. In our time, the Simon Legree type has become regarded as the only type of master there was. The literary seeds which Stowe planted resulted in a bumper crop of white guilt sprouting more abundantly than ever.
What actually was a “typical” experience of slavery? Field-hand work was considered the worst, so let’s take it as a reference point. Tending cotton bushes six days a week surely would’ve been dreary and boring, and an occupation that one couldn’t profit from or quit. Other than that, individual work conditions might have varied greatly, for better or for worse. It turns out that some masters were on much more cordial terms with their slaves than one might expect. Recordings of accounts by elderly freedmen reflect this more frequently than not. Most hadn’t personally received floggings or other cruelty. When outright brutality occurred, usually it was the fault of the overseer — often another black — rather than the master. In one case, the master fired the overseer on the spot after learning of an atrocity.
Things have changed. The slave novel genre had its day in the 1850s, but fell out of fashion when the Civil War erupted. Then there was a revival beginning in the 1960s. It’s hardly surprising that this irritation of century-old wounds coincided with the era’s increasing trends toward ethnomasochism and anti-white agitation. This time it was by cultural Marxism rather than its Protestant-flavored precursor of ultra-Calvinism. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin was 80-proof white guilt propaganda, then this newer stuff is like 150-proof bug juice.
The antebellum experience of slavery had passed out of living memory by the 1960s. Unlike in Stowe’s day, the authors could say nearly anything about it without fear of contradiction. This is why Alex Haley’s novel Roots — partially lifted from an earlier work, and otherwise not as true to life as advertised — was endless atrocity porn, and so was the hit TV miniseries adapted from it. In today’s popular imagination, every master was a Simon Legree, though such loathsome types were outliers back in the day and despised by whites as well.
Genuine cruelty did occur during slavery, and is a blot on history. However, the way it has been depicted recently makes things out to be much worse than they actually were. (Who is doing the depicting, and why, is another story.) They can get away with grotesquely stretching the truth, because nobody is around to say from direct experience that actual conditions weren’t like that on average. It seems that many blacks are now traumatized by overstretched narratives about the sufferings of their distant ancestors in the same way that Jewish paranoia is fueled by believing their own exaggerations regarding their own historical persecutions.
Could there have been a better way?
I’ll admit that the more sensible varieties of Leftists do have a point when they say that capitalism — as it’s practiced presently — is for the birds. However, the correct answer doesn’t involve staging yet another Bolshevik revolution, letting loose another Leon “General Buttnaked” Trotsky, setting up a new gulag system, and bringing back toilet paper rationing. The Marxist answers have turned out to be worse. Likewise, the slavery problem was solved in nearly the worst way possible, short of the sort of Haitian-style revolution that John Brown wanted. Was there a better alternative?
I cannot forget that time long ago when I was reading about the author’s charmed youth, during which she apparently spent much time in such maidenly pursuits as picking blueberries and contemplating theology. Then a sense of horror crept over me as I remembered the ghastliness to come: 624,000 KIAs (counting both sides), with untold others returning with missing limbs and morphine addictions, scenes of carnage etched into their souls, and other forms of life-changing harm. That wasn’t the end of it, since the Radical Reconstruction’s reign of terror would follow.
Most of the Civil War’s casualties were white. They bore the brunt of hazardous duty, while enlisted blacks were usually teamsters or in other pogue roles. Given that about three million slaves were emancipated, this meant that approximately one white man was sacrificed for every five blacks freed. (And they say we never did anything for them. . .) Was there a better way? Could slavery have ended peacefully?
Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn’t a murderous monster like John Brown. However, there were times she was wrongheaded and quite naïve. Uncle Tom’s Cabin didn’t agitate for war — but war came, anyway. Of course, this was hardly the first or last time in history that stated intentions of love, kindness, and helping others went seriously awry and turned into a bloodbath. I don’t intend to get all Karl Popper here, but I have to wonder: If this influential book that galvanized Northern opinion had delivered its message differently, could disaster have been averted?
From another angle, if both sides had realized that war would leave the South in ruins, the North deeply in hock to the banksters, and every family mourning the loss of its young men, could they instead have negotiated an agreement to pay off the slave owners and also step up resettlement efforts in Liberia? Even if not, slavery sooner or later would’ve had an expiration date. Already the South was being held back, since they hadn’t made comparable investments in manufacturing as the North, which was one reason for the war’s outcome. One day of exploitation is a day too many, of course, but mass slaughter was a hell of an alternative.
If peace had prevailed, slavery likely would’ve fizzled out on its own accord within a few decades, left in the dust by factory production and agricultural mechanization. Perhaps the Industrial Revolution would’ve blossomed faster, if there hadn’t been enormous losses of life and treasure. What marvels of engineering could’ve come from the minds of so many fine young men, if they hadn’t been killed on the front lines? For one thing, could Southern shipyards have produced a fleet of steam-powered ocean liners to repatriate the freedmen to their ancestral homeland? With many more returnees, would the once-promising country of Liberia have fared better?
It is difficult to say. However, it’s certain that the slavery problem — and the race problem attending it — could’ve been defused if prior generations had heeded Thomas Jefferson’s warnings, urging gradual abolition by peaceful means and resettlement of former slaves. “When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.” Although quite an ambitious undertaking, the logistics would have been easier than before and offered a solution to centuries of failed efforts at multiracialism.
A better outcome, but still a half-measure
Again, ideas matter and can have far-reaching effects. Pirated American novels turned a brisk trade in Europe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin even became a blockbuster hit in Romania. This inspired them to realize that their enslavement of the gypsies was wrong. They emancipated them without setting off a bloodbath. Way to go, Romania! What a proof of concept!
We can therefore credit Harriet Beecher Stowe with indirectly doing the gypsies a favor, but there was still a missed opportunity. Romania didn’t get around to returning them to their homeland in India, where they could have been with their kindred people and a somewhat related culture. It’s a subject worthy of a longer discussion, but the gypsies of Eastern Europe aren’t fitting in, most don’t have their act together, and no amount of browbeating about discrimination is going to fix this. But it’s not too late to set things right and repatriate them to the land of their ancestors.
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 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852).
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