Uncle Tom’s Cabin Essays
Can you judge the heart, or humaneness, of a man by his treatment of others? Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, reveals the humaneness, or lack thereof, of southern whites towards black slaves. Do the actions of the slave owners Mr. Shelby, Mr. Haley, and Mr. St. Clare, or the nanny, Miss Ophelia, reveal their humaneness?
First, the slave owner, Mr. Shelby, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin said, “I am a humane man, and I hate to take boy from mother.” People these days would think he kept the mother and the boy together, but no, Mr. Shelby gave into the trader’s reasoning and sold the mother. I believe Mr. Shelby thought he was humane and could justify selling the mother because blacks were not really human. This action and thought showed that he was not a humane man.
Second, was Mr. Haley, another slave owner, who bought the mother. He also considered himself humane in his treatment of slaves. Mr. Haley thought that slaves were just property as well, and not really humans but animals who would forget people easily, and he figured the mother would forget about her son. He also displayed no humanity when he drowned a dog and whipped a man for little reason. Mr. Haley was not a humane man.
The final slave owner, Mr. St. Clare, was the most humane of the three slave owners. Harriet describes St. Clare as a man who loved his daughter and one who did not whip his slaves. At one point, he showed compassion to the nanny, Miss Ophelia, and let her take a slave girl that she had become attached to. His actions reflected a degree of humanity that the other slaves owners lacked.
Miss Ophelia, the nanny, considered herself a Christian. When Miss Ophelia first came to work at Mr. St. Clare’s house, she did not like slavery, she thought it was contradictory to biblical principles. However, also contradictory to biblical principles, Miss Ophelia thought that slaves were a lower class. Eventually, she began to realize that black slaves were not a lower class and as a Christian she should show them compassion. Miss Ophelia demonstrated her newness of heart when she adopted a little black slave named Topsy.
Harriet, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, revealed the human heart. At times the heart is evil and ugly, and at times it can be compassionate and humane. It was interesting to note that the only change of hearts for good, came in Miss Ophelia and Mr. St. Clare, and these changes were accomplished by God. Mr. Shelby, though inhumane at times, did set his slaves free. Mr. Haley, however, showed no humanity in his actions towards his slaves. The faith and perseverance of Tom was phenomenal, he ran the race and won despite his inhumane treatment by others.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the main issues addressed is the humane (or inhumane) way slave-owners treated their slaves. Many of Mrs. Stowe’s characters claimed to be humane, but whether they actually were Mrs. Stowe left to her readers to decide. Four prominent characters in the book–Mr. Shelby, Mr. Haley, Mr. St. Clare, and Miss Ophelia–claimed to be humane in the way they treated slaves. The real question is: were they?
Mr. Shelby. Mr. Shelby appears in the very first chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He most certainly considers himself a humane man. He is kind and generous, but his slaves are still under him. Also he justifies breaking up families because he needs money. Mr. Shelby is indeed a humane man in the way he treated his slaves, but when he needs money and sells them and separates families to preserve his social standing, he ceases to be humane. He tells Mr. Haley, “I would rather not sell him [Eliza’s son Harry] . . . the fact is, sir, I’m a humane man, and I hate to take the boy from his mother, sir.” In the end, though, he did sell Harry away from his mother, Eliza.
Mr. Haley. Mr. Haley also appears in the first chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He is a slave trader, but he also obviously considers himself humane. In fact, he mentions it a number of times, such as when he was talking to Mr. Shelby about how to “kindly” take children away from their mothers. He says, after he explained how he did it, “It’s always best to do the humane thing, sir; that’s been my experience.” In his mind, the “humane thing” to do was to take the baby when the mother wasn’t watching, then give her a new dress or something else to take her mind off it. Mr. Haley also says, in the same conversation, “I believe I’m reckoned to bring in about the finest droves of niggers that is brought in,–at least, I’ve been told so; if I have once, I reckon I have a hundred times,–all in good case,–fat and likely, and I lose as few as any man in the business. And I lays it all to my management, sir; and humanity, sir, I may say, is the great pillar of my management.” Mr. Haley, in his own eyes is humane, and in the way he provides for the slaves he traded, he is. But when he began splitting up families, and taking children away from their mothers, he was not humane. He convinces himself that he is humane, but in reality he is cruel.
Mr. St. Clare. Mr. St. Clare appears about halfway through Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Tom’s new master. He plainly considers himself a humane slave-owner. He is very kind to his slaves, to the point that one of them feels free to copy him and “borrows” some of his “cast-off” clothes, and uses his handkerchiefs and cologne. Obviously, Mr. St. Clare considers himself very humane, and really, for the most part, he is. Of course, he does not treat his slaves anywhere near equals, but as to being humane, he is a kind and good master.
Miss Ophelia. Miss Ophelia appears at nearly the same time as Mr. St. Clare. She is his aunt, and has come to assist him in managing his household. She is from the North, consequently she considers herself humane. However, she will not touch her young maid, Topsy, because she is a slave. In the way Miss Ophelia treats the slaves, she is, for the most part, humane, except for the fact that she cannot bear to touch them.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted her readers to decide for themselves what they thought humanity is. Each character mentioned–Mr. Shelby, Mr. Haley, Mr. St. Clare, and Miss Ophelia–had a different view on what humanity is and each one’s ideas on humanity are based on how much humanity they are comfortable showing. Really, humanity is largely a matter of opinion, subject to personal beliefs.
What does it mean to be humane? “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” This was spoken by one of our great presidents, Abraham Lincoln. In the Civil War, there were many southern white slave owners who considered themselves humane, although few of them did the word justice. The meaning of humane is showing compassion and kindness to all. In the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there are four characters that caught the reader’s eye Mr. Shelby, Mr. Haley, Mr. St. Clare, and Miss Ophelia. As whites, they automatically had power over blacks; however, did they show character and humaneness through their actions with this power?
One of the slave owners, Mr. Shelby, chose pride and well-being over being humane. An example, is when Mr. Shelby stated, “Circumstances, you well know, obliged me.” He spoke this when selling his most well trusted slave to a nasty trader for payment of debt. I believe he realized what he did was wrong but he put humaneness aside and chose pride instead.
Another slave owner, Mr. Haley, thought of himself quite humane although his slaves would beg to differ. My opinion, on this monster of a man, is that his opinion of humaneness was not to beat his slave to death only hurt him emotionally and physically.
In addition to the previous slave owner, we have Mr. St. Clare. Mr. St. Clare thought of himself as a nice and humane person to his slaves and to all of his fellow companions. I do think of him quite compassionate and humane. But he was hesitant on the freeing of one of his slaves which soon brought that slave constant suffering and pain.
Last of all, there is Miss Ophelia. In the beginning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she thinks of herself superior in more ways than one to black people in general, not just slaves. Soon after, she had a change of heart and showed compassion and humaneness toward a certain young black child whom she previously did not even want to touch. I believe that Miss Ophelia had the most drastic change of heart.
These four individuals all had one thing in common, they all considered themselves humane. There are many different levels of being humane from Mr. Haley to Miss Ophelia though not one of them was completely humane. Being humane is being considerate and kind hearted to everyone. No human could be completely humane although some show humaneness easier than others. Harriet Beecher Stowe paints a picture of true humanity at its worst with Mr. Haley whipping slaves and drowning dogs contrasted to Miss Ophelia who cared for a little black girl. Being humane is showing compassion no matter what or whom comes along.
In the time period before the Civil War, humanity was not a common trait possessed among many slave owners. However, many believed they were humane. From the dictionary, humane means “having or characterized by kindness, sympathy, tenderness, etc.; compassionate; benevolent.” To understand it more profoundly, I will use four characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. These characters will be shown in order of appearance: Mr. Shelby, Mr. Haley, Mr. St. Clare, and Miss Ophelia.
Mr. Shelby is a southern slave owner, who must sell a few of his slaves. If asked, Mr. Shelby would say he is humane. In fact, he even tells Mr. Haley he is a humane man. After taking a look at the meaning of humane, Mr. Shelby could be accurately called humane. He is always kind to his slaves (except, of course, when his pride gets in the way), and he is often compassionate and benevolent. However, when his pride gets in the way, he would rather separate a family than become poor. I would call him humane because he is sympathetic and kind toward the family he is separating, but unfortunately, he still separates them. In my opinion, Mr. Shelby is humane.
Mr. Haley is a southern slave trader who is buying a few of Mr. Shelby’s slaves. According to Mr. Haley, he is a humane man. His definition of humane is actually very strange. He would think that to treat his slaves nicely is enough. To take away a woman’s child is humane to him, if it is taken when she is asleep or gone; then she can forget about the child overnight. I think Mr. Haley is not humane at all. In fact, he is the opposite. He is not kind, sympathetic, tender, compassionate, or benevolent. In my opinion, Mr. Haley is not humane.
Mr. St. Clare is a carefree southern slave owner who bought Tom. If questioned, he would most likely say he is humane. He is kind and benevolent to his slaves but, not really very tender, sympathetic, or compassionate. The reason he is humane is he does care about them. Although he dies before he could free Tom, he promised he would. In my opinion, Mr. St. Clare is humane.
Miss Ophelia is a northern woman, a cousin to Mr. St. Clare. She is asked by St. Clare to come and be their housekeeper to which she consents to do. She considers herself to be a find Christian woman who believes slavery is wrong. If asked, Miss Ophelia would undoubtedly say she is humane. She is kind, sympathetic, tender, compassionate, and somewhat benevolent toward the slaves. She still is prejudiced against the black slaves of the time, but she does, in my opinion, fit the description of being humane.
Humanity means “having or characterized by kindness, sympathy, tenderness, etc.; compassionate; benevolent.” After comparing each of these people within the definition of humanity, I believe that Mr. Shelby, Mr. St. Clare, and Miss Ophelia are humane and Mr. Haley is not. Humanity can be properly defined by these characters, although this is also a matter of opinion.
A few notes:
- I realize that not all the details match from essay to essay. We discussed this. Miss Ophelia is St. Clare’s cousin, not his aunt or nanny.
- Each girl decided independently that she shouldn’t give away too many details, so some of the statements are a bit vague.
- We will definitely be working on writing in present tense when writing about literature. This really takes practice!