Uncle Tom’s Cabin Reconsidered

Garrison’s letter is a reply to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the popular anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who declined an invitation to attend the American Anti-Slavery Society’s twentieth anniversary meeting, saying that while she admired the organization’s work, she was deeply worried by Garrison’s unorthodox religious views. Garrison wrote Stowe privately in November 1853, and then reprinted his reply in the December 23, 1853 issue of The Liberator

Boston, Nov. 30, 1853

Esteemed Friend:

You frankly say—In regard to you, your paper, and in some measure your party, I am in an honest embarrassment. I sympathise with you in many of your positions: others I consider erroneous, hurtful to liberty and the progress of humanity. Still you believe us to be honest and conscientious in our opinions. (¶ 1)

What those erroneous opinions are, you do not state. I am not able, therefore, to make any reply, on that score. The ground we occupy, as abolitionists, is simply this:—Immediate emancipation is the duty of the master, and the right of the slave. Our motto is, No Union with Slaveholders, religiously or politically. This is only the practical application of our principles to whatever sanctions or upholds slavery, in Church or State. I am not disposed to conclude that you regard such sentiments as hurtful to liberty and the progress of humanity; and yet, as these are comprehensively all that we entertain and promulgate, for the overthrow of the slave system, I can only vaguely conjecture to what else you have reference. Believing, as I do, that none of the positions assumed by the American Anti-Slavery Society can be successfully assailed,—and desirous of having them tested as severely as possible,—permit me to say that if, in any particular, you think they are indefensible, I shall esteem it both an honor and a privilege to publish whatever you may feel inclined to write, by way of animadversion or protest. (¶ 2)

Of The Liberator you speak in a friendly spirit, and profess to admire its frankness, truthfulness and independence. I thank you for this tribute. At the same time, you add, I regard with apprehension and sorrow much that is in it. Why are you thus apprehensive? It seems to me a suspicious symptom. Are not the righteous as bold as a lion? The Psalmist could exclaim—The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Your alarm indicates a want of confidence in the truth; nay, I will not say in the truth, but in the soundness of your own opinions. In the truth, your mind is serene; in regard to certain theological views, it is confessedly preturbed. In saying that there is much in The Liberator which you regard with apprehension and sorrow, am I not correct in surmising that you make no reference to the pro-slavery matter which occupies so liberal a portion of its columns? You would not, I think, have me refuse a hearing to slaveholders or their abettors. I doubt not you appreciate my paper all the more for granting them fair play, and feel no solicitude as to the effect of this course upon the popular mind. Let the discussion go on, you will exclaim, and God speed the right. And, yet, what heresy has ever been broached in The Liberator, which, for impiety and barbarity, will compare with the defence of man-stealing as a divine institution? And why are you not troubled on this account? Shall I answer my own question? It is because of your faith in the absolute and eternal rectitude of the anti-slavery cause: you are sure that no weapon that is formed against it can prosper. It is only the slaveholder who is alarmed in view of a full investigation of this subject. He wishes only his side of it presented. Now, how does it happen, my friend, that, touching the discussion of another subject, you paricipate in his uneasiness? I mean nothing invidious by this illustration. It seems to me that what, in The Liberator, you regard with apprehension and sorrow, should fill your bosom with composure, and elicit from you high commendation—namely, that I allow no topic to be introduced into its columns, without giving both sides an impartial hearing. To this rule I have adhered with such fidelity, that no one charges me with its violation. Especially have I ever taken pains to lay before my readers, whatever I have found in print in opposition to my own views, whether relating to Anti-Slavery, Non-Resistance, the Bible, the Sabbath, Woman’s Rights, &c. &c.. In what do you discover the frankness, fearlessness, truthfulness, and independence of The Liberator, if not in this treatment of all conflicting opinions? That you occasionally find in the paper sentiments distasteful to you, at variance with your ideas of right, is not at all surprising. So do I. But what then? Is not this inseparable from free discussion? And may not error of opinion be safely tolerated, where truth is left free to combat it? Your objection is fatal to the freedom of the human mind—to the existence of a free press. (¶ 3)

You say—Were the Liberator circulated only among intelligent, well-balanced minds, able to discriminate between good and evil, I should not feel so much apprehension. So says the Romish Church in regard to the indiscriminate circulation of the Bible among the laity. So says Absolutism, respecting the diffusion of intelligence among the masses. I am surprised at the narrowness of your limitation. Are the people not to be trusted? Are the Pope, and Nicholas, and Francis Joseph, right in the conclusions to which they come? Would you have the laws of nature repealed, because they are so often violated, either ignorantly or wilfully? Shall not a beneficent Creator continue to spread the table of his bounty for all, because so many surfeit themselves? Does he err in causing his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and his rain to fall on the just and on the unjust? Besides, I believe the patrons of The Liberator will be found to possess remarkably intelligent, well-balanced minds, and to be interested in all the great reforms of the age; and I have yet to hear of any person who has been made less humane, just, Christ-like, by his candid perusal of it. On the contrary, thousands gratefully acknowledge that they have been deeply indebted to it for higher and nobler views of God, of human brotherhood, of life and duty. What other journal in this country is so feared and hated, so proscribed and anathematized, by slave-traffickers and slave-owners, trimming politicians and profligate demagogues, hireling priests and religious formalists, mercenary journalists and servile publishers,—all that is tyrannical in the Government, and corrupt in the Church? How is it habitually characterized by the Satanic pressBennett’s Herald, the New York Observer, the New York Express, &c., &c.? Can such a journal be hurtful to liberty and the progress of humanity, in any rational sense? Can it be safely trusted only among intelligent, well-balanced minds, able to discriminate between good and evil? (¶ 4)

Ah! here is the cause of your disquietude!—What I fear is, that it will take from poor Uncle Tom his Bible, and give him nothing in its place. And you say significantly, You understand me—do you not? Frankly, I do not. First—I do not understand, if the Bible be all that you claim for it, and if every adverse criticism upon it in The Liberator is allowed to be met by a friendly one, why you should be anxious as to its just appreciation. The more the anti-slavery coin is rubbed, the brighter it shines—does it not? The more Uncle Tom’s Cabin is assailed, the more impregnable it is seen to be. And the more the Bible is sifted, the more highly it will be prized, if it be all holy and true. (¶ 5)

Second—I do not understand how any one can take from poor Uncle Tom his Bible, if that book be really a lamp to his feet, and a light to his path, and the word of the living God to his soul; and it seems to me that you throw positive discredit upon his religious experience and inward regeneration, by making such a opposition. If the infernal cruelty of a Legree could not shake his trust in his God and Saviour, do you really think a full discussion of the merits of the Bible, pro and con, might induce him to throw that volume away? (¶ 6)

Third—I do not understand how it follows, even if Uncle Tom, or any body else, should be led astray by reading The Liberator, because it allows both sides of every question to be discussed in its columns, that such a frank, fearless, truthful and independent sheet, as you concede it to be, ought no longer to possess these characteristics, but should be one-sided, narrow, partial. (¶ 7)

Finally—I do not understand why the imputation is thrown upon The Liberator as tending to rob Uncle Tom of his Bible. I know of no writer in its pages, who wishes to deprive him of it, or of any comfort he may derive from it. It is for him to place whatever estimate he can upon it; and for you and me to do the same; but for neither of us to accept any more of it than we can sincerely believe to be in accordance with reason, truth, eternal right. How much of it is true and obligatory, each one can determine only for himself; for on Protestant ground, there is no room for papal infallibility. All Christendom professes to believe in the inspiration of the volume; and, at the same time, all Christendom is by the ears as to its real teachings. Surely, you would not have me disloyal to my conscience. How do you prove that you are not trammelled by educational or traditional notions as to the entire sanctity of the book? Indeed, it seems to me very evident that you are not free in spirit, in view of the apprehension and sorrow you feel, because you find your conceptions of the Bible controverted in The Liberator. Else why such disquietude of mind? Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just. (¶ 8)

Again you say—It is a grief and sorrow of heart to me, that any who are distinguished in the Anti-Slavery cause should be rejecters of that Bible, on which I ground all my hopes of the liberties, not only of the slave, but of the whole human race. Remember that the Anti-Slavery platform is one to which all are cordially invited, without regard to their scriptural or theological opinions, and on which no person is to be arraigned for anything else but compromising the rights of the slave. Who shall oracularly decide what constitutes a rejection of the Bible? Not you or me—not anybody. Who are the rejecters of that book, to whom you refer? I know of none. If, however, there are such, it is not as abolitionists, but as men. The widest dissent from your opinion, or from mine, in regard to the authority and value of the Bible, it is not necessarily heresy,—unless the great Protestant right of private judgment is heretical, as Papal Rome says it is. You and I are as likely to err as others, and may make no higher claim to infallibility than others. I must respectfully protest, therefore, against your invidious thrust at any who are distinguished in the Anti-Slavery cause, or who are not distinguished, because they do not endorse your opinions concerning the plenary inspiration of the Bible. You might as properly express grief and sorrow of heart, because there are Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, &c. &c.,—those who reject the ordinances, those who deny the doctrine of everlasting punishment, those who do not believe in the trinity,—to be found among the abolitionists, and all are not Orthodox. (¶ 9)

You say it is on the Bible you ground all your hopes of the liberties, not only of the slave, but of the whole human race. How does it happen, then, that, in a nation professing to place as high an estimate on that volume as yourself, and denouncing as infidels all who do not hold it equally sacred, there are three millions and a half of chattel slaves, who are denied its possession, under severe penalties? Is not slavery sanctioned by the Bible, according to the interpretation of it by the clergy generally, its recognized expounders? What, then, does the cause of bleeding humanity gain by all this veneration for the book? (¶ 10)

My reliance for the deliverance of the oppressed universally is upon the nature of man, the inherent wrongfulness of oppression, the power of truth, and the omnipotence of God—using every rightful instrument to hasten the justice. (¶ 11)

Again you say I cannot but regard the admission, by some abolitionists, that the Bible sanctions slavery, as equally unwise and groundless. But if this is their honest conviction, would you not have them express it? And, thus believing, are they not to be commended for their unswerving fidelity to principle, in refusing to accept it as the inspired word of God? If such were your understanding of any portion of the book, would you not reject it as barbarous and immoral—especially if it consigned you, and your husband, and your children, and your father and mother, and your brothers and sisters, and all your relatives and friends, to the horrible doom of Uncle Tom? I am sure you would, even though you should be branded as infidel by all the clergy and all the churches of Christendom. (¶ 12)

For myself, I do not know a single member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, who admits that the Bible sanctions such a system as that of American slavery. In any meeting of that Society, I believe such an interpretation of the Bible would be unanimously rejected. Ever since its organization, it has uniformly wielded that volume against the impious practice of chattelizing men, women and children and one of its heaviest and most frequent accusations against the slave system has been, that it makes the Bible an unlawful book in the hands of the slaves. (¶ 13)

Possibly, in this particular, you may be better informed than I am as to the Biblical views of the Garrisonian abolitionists. Possibly, some of them may believe that American slavery is sanctioned in some parts of the Bible; yes, in both the Old and New Testament. What then? First—in this opinion, they are sustained by nine-tenths of the evangelical clergy in the United States, and so cannot be heretical, if the latter are soundly orthodox. Second—so believing, they (unlike the clergy) declare the record to be false to that extent, and hold it to be a self-evident truth, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to liberty. They fill you with grief and sorrow, and you cannot refer to them without registering your protest against their course. But you can, and do, recognize the clergy aforesaid as the ministers of Jesus Christ, and sit at the same communion table with them, and have never called for their expulsion from the pulpit or the church, though they say and teach, first, that chattel slavery is sanctioned by the Bible; and, second, that therefore it cannot be sinful. How marvellously inconsistent is your conduct, as between these parties! Third—whatever may be the convictions of a few individuals in the anti-slavery ranks, as to the pro-slavery character of some parts of the Bible, the American Anti-Slavery Society entertains no such views of the book, as all its official proceedings will testify. A few years since, it twice offered to place five thousand dollars in the treasury of the American Bible Society, provided that the Society would agree to expend that sum, with some additional appropriations, in circulating the Bible among the slave population; but the offer was rejected. Moreover, it is a remarkable fact, that the American Anti-Slavery Society is the only organization in this country, that has ever caused to be written, and circulated broadcast through the land, a defence of the Bible against all its pro-slavery interpreters… Ought not your solicitude, as to the book, to be given to the American Bible Society, and to the great body of the Orthodox clergy, rather than to the American Anti-Slavery Society, or to any of its friends? (¶ 14)

You do me but simple justice in expressing your belief that I shall be well-pleased with your frankness and sincerity; and I will cherish the hope that you will be equally well-pleased with mine, as exhibited in this reply. (¶ 15)

Yours, with highest regards,

Wm. Lloyd Garrison