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Error By Mrs. Stowe

July 2024
4min read

The slave had nothing to lose but his chains, and even second-class citizenship is a vast improvement on outright bondage. But it is at the same time a denial of one of the basic parts of the infinite American dream, and its existence brings problems of its own. The Emancipation Proclamation did not, unfortunately, do anything to end the race problem; it simply committed the country to an unending search for a way to end it. And it is this problem, and its terrible connection with the peculiar institution itself, which engages the attention of Mr. J. C. Furnas in his new book, Goodbye to Uncle Tom .

Like Mr. Stampp, Mr. Furnas readily discerns the roots of this problem in the mythology that grew up about slavery itself. But it is his contention that a highly damaging part of this mythology was contributed by the abolitionists themselves, and his principal target is no one less than Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and who is practically the patron saint of the ancient antislavery cause.

His thesis is both simple and provocative. We still have not made too much headway in our attack on the race problem, he says, chiefly because we have, deeply imbedded in our minds, a species of intellectual block which keeps us from approaching the problem rationally. One probable cause of this block, he believes, lies in Mrs. Stowe’s famous book. For although Mrs. Stowe did all one individual could do to wage war on slavery, she accepted and made current (says Mr. Furnas) an idea that lies at the very heart of racism—the idea that the colored man is somehow a being unlike the white man; unlike him, innately inferior to him, cursed by an inscrutable Providence with a built-in, ineradicable inequality. She argued that, although undeniably inferior, the colored man was nevertheless a human being with an immortal soul and that it was eternally and terribly wrong for him to be owned by any other man; and as a means of marshaling sentiment against slavery itself, this was all to the good. But it is something less than a good position from which to approach the race problem itself, and it is the race problem that we are still stuck with. Once admit the “undeniably inferior” premise, and the problem becomes all but insoluble.

Goodbye to Uncle Tom , by J. C. Furnas. William Sloane Associates. 435 pp. $6.

Mrs. Stowe’s book unquestionably had something to do with bringing on the Civil War, which came when men finally abandoned the dim hope that slavery could in some way be got rid of by honest care and thought. But its effects reached beyond the war and help to color much present-day thinking. “Uncle Tom,” says Mr. Furnas, “would never have burned on and on had it not been compounded of the misconceptions, Southern and Northern, the wrongheadednesses, distortions and wishful thinkings about Negroes in general and American Negroes in particular that still plague us today. They might not plague us quite so sore if Mrs. Stowe had not so persuasively formulated and thus frozen them.”

If, in other words, we still tend to approach the race problem with an attitude which makes final settlement impossible, a good part of the blame belongs to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; this, in substance, is Mr. Furnas’ conclusion. If it sometimes seems a bit odd to unload so much on one lone woman—whose famous novel, after all, is not really read very much these days—it should be added that Mrs. Stowe, after all, is not this book’s real target. In essence, this is another attempt to examine today’s race problem in the light of its origin in slavery; like Mr. Stampp, Mr. Furnas (once he has paid his respects to Mrs. Stowe) goes back to the sources to see what slavery was really like and what it did to owner, to slave, and to the rest of the country.

It did quite a lot, and Mr. Furnas is explicit about it. No more than Mr. Stampp is he able to see slavery as a benign and patriarchal institution which actually helped the members of an unfortunate race make the transition from primitive savagery to civilization. He goes back to Frederick Law Olmsted—whose The Cotton Kingdom , written a century ago, is still the meatiest of reference books in any examination of the peculiar institution—and to Olmsted’s remark that the slave’s situation, at bottom, was exactly that of “a convict in a dockyard.” With this verdict Mr. Furnas agrees; the whole system of slavery, he says, “did amount to the sentencing of the individuals of one group by those of another to perpetual dependence and servitude, an order of deprivation that in most free societies is usually the second most severe penalty for crime. In this case the crime was that of being darker, poorly organized and mandatorily ignorant.”

So he goes on to examine slavery in the light of the best evidence available. He studies the slaves’ working conditions, their housing and their food, their much-vaunted “old age security,” their habit of running away even when they had no faintest idea how to reach free soil, and all the rest; and he arrives, not surprisingly, at the same conclusion Mr. Stampp reaches—that the institution was not only peculiar but almost wholly bad.

It is, perhaps, a little late in the day to devote whole books to the effort to show that human slavery was more evil than good. But the real object of both of these books is not so much to attack slavery as to tear down what Mr. Furnas calls the “exculpatory lies” that have grown up around it. Far ahead of us, somewhere, lies a decent and harmonious relationship between white and colored races. Our approach to it has followed the crimson thread of tragedy from the first. Progress has been slow and painful. By going back to fundamentals it may be possible to help drop some of the misconceptions that keep it from being faster and easier.

Also, it remains true that no real understanding of American history is conceivable without a deep and thoughtful contemplation of this tragic strain that runs all through the story. This lies at the core of what we have been, what we are, and what we shall some day become. If the Civil War was the greatest and most significant single experience in our existence, this business of slavery and race is what lay before it and what lies after. On no single aspect of American life do we need broader knowledge. These books make excellent contributions to that knowledge.

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