Historical Perspective

A The Fugitive Slave Law

In its early years as a nation, the United States gradually became divided into two main regions, the North and South. These regions were growing increasingly more different in terms of their economic systems and ways of life. By the 1830s the North was becoming more urban and industrial, employing free labor. The South was evolving into a more agrarian, or agricultural, culture that depended upon slave labor. The two regions were beginning to share less and less, and they began to disagree over the issue of slavery.

Following the Mexican War (1846-1848), America grew by one-fifth through westward expansion. Congress was forced to confront the issue of slavery as it determined whether the newly acquired areas would be free states or slave states. Out of Congress’s deliberations came the Compromise of 1850, which included five provisions concerning slavery, one of which was a more severe Fugitive Slave Law. This law radically diminished the rights of free blacks and required anyone who knew about a fugitive slave to return the slave to his or her owner. The Fugitive Slave Law appeased Southern slaveholding states but infuriated Northern abolitionists, who believed they should be free to help their fellow men and women escape from the bonds of slavery. Enraged by the passage of what she saw as an unjust law, Harriet Beecher Stowe was moved to write Uncle Tom ‘s Cabin.

Although the entire novel is about slavery, it directly addresses the Fugitive Slave Law in chapter nine, “In Which It Appears That a Senator Is But a Man.” Here Senator Bird is at home, fresh from the Congressional vote on the Compromise of 1850. Readers discover through his conversations with his kind-hearted wife that he voted in favor of this piece of legislation. His wife chides him for what she sees as his immoral vote: “‘You ought to be ashamed, John!… It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do!’” The senator defends himself by claiming that “‘it’s not a matter of private feeling-there are great public interests involved, there is such a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings.’” Ultimately, the senator’s beliefs are put to the test when runaway slave Eliza and her little Harry appear in his kitchen, desperately seeking shelter and aid. Senator Bird, who is in truth a humane man, is touched by Eliza’s plight and decides to help Eliza and Harry to escape. The journey toward freedom of Eliza, Harry, and eventually Eliza’s husband, George, enables Stowe to show the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Law, as the runaways are constantly being chased by hired slave hunters, even after reaching free American territory. Escaped slaves are not truly free until they reach Canada.

B 19th-Century Views of Women

In the mid-19th century, the home was the heart of American society. Women’s work as housewives and mothers was considered valuable. The domestic novel, a genre that focused on housewives and their sphere, became extremely popular as well. Regarded as the spiritual and moral caretakers of their families, women also extended this moral guardianship outside the home to help the less fortunate. Many theologians of this period believed that the home was the most appropriate place for children’s religious education and that mothers were responsible for training the future citizens of America. Thus housewives and mothers carried a certain amount of weight within American culture, as they were thought to possess a moral authority.

C Life in Slavery

Slavery is often thought to have been universal in the antebellum period, but in 1860 slaves were held by only about one-third of all white Southern families. Contrary to popular belief, only a small number of slaveholders owned more than 50 slaves to work on their large plantations. Most slaveowning families did not own large plantations and held 20 slaves or fewer.

Life in slavery meant a life of restrictions, with no civil rights. Slaves had no control over their own lives and were considered property, just like cattle or other livestock. They were often sold at slave auctions, where they could be inspected from head to toe by potential buyers. Slave families were not recognized as valid. Though slaves might marry each other, slave marriages were not considered legal, and husbands and wives could be sold away from each other. Slave mothers and their young children could also be separated from each other, although a law supposedly prohibited this practice. Many slaves did not have adequate food, housing, or clothing, and many slaves were subject to physical abuses such as beatings or rapes in spite of laws limiting such mistreatment. Slave women were powerless to oppose their owners’ sexual exploitation and often bore children fathered by their white owners.

In order to survive the oppression of slavery, slaves created a whole culture for themselves apart from mainstream American culture. For instance, slave songs, also called spirituals, sustained the slaves with images of the Promised Land, freedom, and God’s protection and love. Folk tales and other oral lore often reflected tales brought by earlier slaves from Africa. These tales might center on such mischievous Characters as Br’er Rabbit who were smart enough to trick their oppressors. Slaves living together on a farm or plantation often formed close-knit communities, particularly shown in Stowe’s novel with Uncle Tom, Aunt Chloe, and their fellow slaves at the Shelbys’. These human connections helped to sustain them as long as they were together.

D Christianity in the 1850s

The first half of the 19th century saw a period of religious fervor known as the Second Great Awakening. The original Great Awakening of the 18th century had resulted in greater emphasis on the role of the individual in religion. Evangelical leaders of the Second Great Awakening exhorted followers to find personal redemption through Christ. Those who had been redeemed were inspired to look beyond themselves and to try to improve society. Reform movements emerged, calling for the end of such social problems as prostitution, alcoholism, and slavery.

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