Slavery and Morality

American Literature
Julia Joyce

What does it mean to be good?  How do we know what is right and wrong?  Do we not steal because society, and law tell us this is bad, or is it more than that?  What if that stealing accomplished something good, like saving a life?  I am afraid that morals and ethics are not as black and white as I wish they were.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe attacks the evil that is slavery.  I can assume, with relative confidence, that you think slavery is evil as well.  How is it that looking back we are able to condemn the practice, but in the mid 1800’s this book needed to be written to convince the general population?  Did people truly believe slavery was a viable practice that was morally acceptable?  We can analyze the culture and blame societal acceptance, but people even used Scripture to defend slavery.  So is something virtuous or depraved based on what we think in the moment?  Is there an ultimate good, or is it all relative?

Stowe creates multifaceted characters that portray this dilemma of knowing with certainty what is right and what is wrong.  Augustine St. Clare is a slave owner, but he takes good care of those he owns.  He gives them fancy clothes and has never had them beaten because he believes it to be wrong.  Should he be classified as a good person because he does right by his slaves, or does taking the freedom of other human beings negate his claim to goodness?  Augustine is no Simon Legree who brutally whips any slave that dares to speak out of line, but he perpetuates the slaveholder industry.  Legree takes pleasure in owning other humans and being a despicable tyrant, but Augustine knows the right thing to do would be to give his slaves their freedom, but he does not get around to it before he unexpectedly dies.  Is it worse to do evil, or to not do the good you know you ought to have done?

Augustine’s daughter is goodness personified in this novel.  She is golden headed and beloved by all.  She understands the slaves and empathizes with them.  She feels the pain of a slave woman who was forced to let her baby die.  She mourns with Topsy who has never had anyone to love her.  Eva can do no wrong, and some cynics may attack her authenticity as a character for it.  Topsy, on the other hand, can do nothing right without direct supervision.  She steals from other people on the property and plays mean pranks.  Her one liner is “I’s so wicked”.  She was raised to be a slave and no one ever loved her or took the time to teach her about morality.  What is the ruling on her goodness as a person, i.e. is she just bad person even though no one has ever taught her what it means to be good?

Miss Ophelia is a northerner that believes slavery is wrong.  Yet when Augustine brings her Topsy so that she can instruct her in the way that is right, she is repelled.  She later admits that she did not ever even want to touch Topsy.  After years of instructing Topsy, she takes Topsy back home with her, despite criticism from other northerners that are like she was, and gives Topsy her freedom.  Topsy goes on to become a missionary.  The one who had good principles encounters real life where those principles are put to the test, and the one who could not spell principle and thought she could do no good goes on to do exactly that.

George is Eliza’s husband and a fugitive slave.  He has violent tendencies and even shoots a man at one point.  He must be a bad person.  Would giving that incident context shift your perspective on how righteous or unrighteous he was?  What if I told you he was protecting his wife and young son that were about to be captured as well?  What if you knew that he had given the men ample warning and been shot at first?  What if he stopped to care for the man afterwards?  Do any of those aspects of the situation outweigh the malicious nature of using violence on another human?  Uncle Tom is a devout Christian and refuses to use violence in any way.  But Scripture also tells us to submit to authority.  When Tom is under the ownership of Simon Legree he is ordered to whip another slave.  Tom refuses and takes a beating for not following orders.  Tom is much larger and stronger than Legree.  Would the right thing have been to kill Legree and free all of his abused slaves?  Or should he have followed directions and claimed the sin was Legrees’ sin and not his own because he was just following orders?

Axiology is not a study that is easily pinned down.  There are numerous layers to the idea of ethics and knowing what is right and wrong.  The same is true of people.  Maybe no one is all good or all bad.  Maybe we cannot quickly label situations, decisions, or people that way.  Do not take that as me saying that morality is relative, however.  The fact that all of these comparisons are possible means that there is an ultimate good that we are comparing it against.  True, ultimate goodness is God.  The difficulty then is in trying to be good, and make good choices, especially in complex situations.

2 comments

  • If we didn’t think about the relativity of morality, I think that many more people would be called immoral than they are today. The question you are raising in my mind is whether or not we should allow exceptions and explanations for sin. Even if the person that did something could justify it doesn’t necessarily mean it is okay. Jesus made it his whole life without doing anything morally questionable, so I think that people really might be who they seem to be.

  • I wrote an entire comment, but I deleted it, so now I’m gonna use Lyssa’s comment to pretend to formulate my own comment in a more toned down way. Most people are immoral nowadays. No exceptions and no explanations to things that are absolute sin. More fine LINES!.. it was less toned down.

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