Stowe, Harriet Beecher: Primary Sources
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE: PRIMARY SOURCES
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE (ESSAY DATE 1856)
SOURCE: Stowe, Harriet Beecher. "Preface." In Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, pp. iii-vi. London: Sampson Low, Son & Co., 1856.
In the following preface to her antislavery novel Dred, Stowe declares that she aims to show the general effect of the institution of slavery on society as well as its corruptive influence on Christianity.
The publishing of Uncle Tom's Cabin disclosed the sorrows of the American slave.
When the existence of such sorrows was disputed, the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin was published, and to this no answer has ever been returned; a most profound silence has always reigned with regard to that book in quarters whence there was the most clamor with regard to the tale.
The author has never seen or heard of one attempt to disprove or refute a single statement of the Key.
Meanwhile, during the five years that have passed since the publication of the story, the great Evil has marched on to its results with a terrible and undeviating tread. The foolish virgins, who all slumbered and slept, the respectable and tender-hearted, who, in ignorant sincerity, cried peace when there was no peace, have one by one been awakened in wild surprise; and the foolish have said unto the wise, Give us of your oil, for our lamps have gone out.
The few who then fought the battle of liberty almost single-handed, those Cassandras who for many years saw the coming evil and prophesied to unheeding ears, now find themselves at the head of a mighty army, and in a crisis that must speedily determine what shall be the working out of this great evil, whether it shall issue peaceably or in blood.
When Uncle Tom was published, sentimental humanity was shocked that its author could represent a Legree beating defenceless Uncle Tom on the head with a cow-hide; but sentimental humanity has lately seen, with her own eyes, the accomplished scholar and gentleman, the senator of a sovereign state, struck down unarmed and unsuspecting, by a cowardly blow, and, while thus prostrate, still beaten by the dastard arm which had learned its skill on a South Carolina plantation.
Sentimental humanity then loudly declared her belief that the chivalry of South Carolina would repudiate the act. The chivalry of South Carolina presented the ruffian with a cane, bearing the inscription, "Hit him again;" and presents of silver plate and congratulatory letters from public meetings flowed in, mixed with tenderer testimonials from the gentler sex; and the cowardly bully, forced by public sentiment to resign his seat, has been, in insulting defiance of that sentiment triumphantly returned by the citizens of South Carolina: and his act was openly vindicated by Southern members in their places in both houses of Congress.
After this who will doubt what the treatment of slaves has been, or is likely to be, in the hands of men educated under such influences?—"If these things are done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"
The Author's object in this book is to show the general effect of slavery on society—the various social disadvantages which it brings even on its most favoured advocates—the thriftlessness and misery and backward tendency of all the economical arrangements of slave states—the retrograding of good families into poverty—the deterioration of land—the worse demoralization of all classes from the aristocratic tyrannical planter to the oppressed and poor white—which is the result of the introduction of slave labour.
It is also an object to display the corruption of Christianity which arises from the same source; a corruption which has gradually lowered the standard of the Church, North and South, and been productive of more infidelity than the works of all the Encyclopædists put together.
As an illustration of the corrupted state of Christianity, the author need only adduce the following fact, related to her by one of her family connexions—a minister of the Gospel, resident in Missouri at the time when orginizations were being formed to go into Kansas and forcibly take away the rights of the ballot-box from the citizens of that territory.
This gentleman had gone to Missouri, with the fond hope that he would be allowed to preach the Gospel, if he would say nothing about slavery. He informed the writer that all the church members and elders, and even ministers in his vicinity, openly justified and spoke in favour of this movement, and in many cases even joined the party who went to effect it; and for daring to lift his voice in very gentle remonstrance, his situation was made so uncomfortable that he was obliged to leave the state.
The regiment of Colonel Buford, which has distinguished itself by indiscriminate pillage and murder, left Alabama amid an enthusiastic popular concourse, with addresses and prayers from clergymen cheering them on.
This winter has witnessed the most shocking cold-blooded murders of men in Kansas, for the simple crime of avowing opposition to slavery. The city of Lawrence has been sacked, with atrocities which it was hoped had been discarded in modern warfare; and yet neither the new nor the old school assembly of the Presbyterian church, assembled in their public capacity, have uttered one word indicative of disapprobation of these proceedings, and the defences of slavery in both these bodies have never been so open and un-blushing. The same is true with regard to the Methodist general conference, although not quite to the same extent.
These facts speak for themselves. They show more strongly than anything else the force of the demoralizing power that is at work.
The author desires to anticipate one criticism, which may be made on the dramatic representations of this volume:—
It was represented to her, after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that the profanity attributed to some of the characters was a painful shock to the religious feelings of the community.
The author has given this subject a serious consideration, and it is a deliberate opinion formed as the result, that in a dramatic exhibition made for moral purposes, it is necessary sometimes even to pain the moral sense in order to give the full force of the lesson.
If a certain style of society induces profaneness and contempt of all reverential considerations, an author cannot make this realized without in some cases shocking the reverential feelings of the readers. How is it possible to represent the conversation of men, whose every breath is an oath, without the admission of some touches of the pencil, shocking to the minds of the pious? We are apt to think in such cases that what pains us must necessarily injure, when, in fact, that pain is an indication of a healthy state of the moral organization. The Scriptures, whose representations of evil and of good are always dramatic, give, without reserve, the boastings of the profane, who defy the Lord, as well as the adorations of those who worship Him. The haughty Pharaoh says, "Who is the Lord that I should obey him?" The sensitive and irritable Jonah expostulates in language quite unlike the reverence of a common prayer, and the words and deeds of the wicked are told with a homely plainness which makes the fastidious shudder.
In considering, therefore, how far a moral artist may go on this subject—the moral purpose and result is to be taken into account.
If profanity and vice are rendered interesting in the person of a gay and accomplished hero, the good would indeed have reason to complain; but while it is held up in the characters of those confessedly formed under the influences of an evil system, it may be a necessary part of the exhibition.
Let it not be said that the people of England do not need the enlightening power of such exhibitions—that they have nothing to do with the evil. They have much to do with it; it is vital to them as well as to us. When they read in these pages how good men to secure good purposes are led first to endure, then to pity, then to embrace the monster which has been the cause of all this evil—when they see how the standard of Christianity in a whole nation has been insensibly lowered—let them not be high-minded, but fear. England is connected with America by the same ties of interest, trade, relationship, and religious fraternity, that have bound together the North and the South.
Every year the power of steam is drawing these ties closer, and it is for her Christianity to decide whether, for the sake of good or gain of any description, it will begin that course of endurance which has always ended at last in an embrace. Are there not some signs of the times in England? When defences not only of slavery, but of the slave-trade, begin to appear in respectable quarters, is it not time to ask whereto these things will grow?
The party in America, who in the coming election are to make a stand against this tremendous evil, may possibly meet a temporary defeat; it is always best to look the worst issue steadily in the face. The Christianity of England have to ponder the question, whether if slavery becomes triumphant, they for the sake of trade and gain will join the acclamation and follow the victorious car? Will the British Lion be led in cotton bands by such hands as smote down Charles Sumner?
One word more is due to the Free States in America: much as they have erred, it is but justice to them to say that the error has not been entirely one either of cowardice or of interest; something is certainly due to a generous credulity unwilling to believe the worst of brethren, and that slowness to wrath which is characteristic of those who have been taught to rule their own spirit.
That they have not yet avenged the insult to their senator, the violation of their free ballot-box, the burning of their towns, and the murders of their brethren and sons, is no sign that they have not felt them; it simply shows the grandeur of that law-abiding education which is given by true freedom, which seeks its redress not by immediate violence, but by those surer methods provided by national law. Should all these fail, we have only to say, "Wo to the aggressor when they who are slow to anger are at last aroused."
But though we have alluded to the worst possibilities, we rejoice in saying that everything now promises in our next election a triumphant vindication of Liberty and Right in America.