“This Heart-Breaking, This Soul-Destroying System”

The 166th anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s world-famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin just passed (published Marche 20, 1852) and as such, I want to take a moment to look at how gender played a crucial role in abolitionist rhetoric as a whole!

(Disclaimer: academic writing ahead, continue with all caution!)

When Angelina Grimké stood before the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York in 1836 she delivered a message not only to her “respected friends” in the South, but also a message on the greatest contradiction of the American experiment. In her “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” Angelina referenced part of the Declaration of Independence, “the good old document of our forefathers,” that declared “this self evident truth that all men are created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Angelina bitingly argued that such claims were unfulfilled, stated that “if it is a self evident truth that all men, every where [sic] and of every color are born equal, and have an inalienable right to liberty, then it is equally true that no man can be born a slave, and no man can ever rightfully be reduced to involuntary bondage and held as a slave” [1].

This inherent conflict was seen by those on every side of the slavery issue. However, for those who either endured the hardships of slavery or opposed it, such contradiction became a point around which to rally. Popular abolitionist figures like the Grimké sisters, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe would all use a variety of approaches to espouse their goals, but the question of the inherent rights afforded to slaves as human beings proved a key point. Though varied in their techniques and styles, each sought to appeal to American notions of humanity, Christianity, and even gender norms to achieve their ends.

Angelina Grimke (1805-1879)

The decades leading up to the Civil War were marked by increasingly hostile debate between abolitionists, anti-slavery advocates, pro-slavery forces, and all those in between. Two key figures, the Grimké sisters, were no exception. Born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, Sarah and Angelina Grimké may have seemed like unlikely proponents of abolitionism. By the 1830s, however, both had begun a path of increasing radicalization highlighted by upsetting a bevy of churches and political organizations, not to mention the entire region of their former kin.

In their fiery rhetoric, the Grimkés utilized every weapon in their arsenal to attack the institution of slavery, but nothing was so mighty as their religious arguments. In her “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” Angelina asked a simple question of “[d]o you really believe that patriarchal servitude was like American slavery” and struck at one of the very roots of slavery religious thought [2]. She then laid out her counter argument in an extremely structured way, arguing that slavery contradicted the Declaration of Independence and the first charter of human rights given to Adam, how no such system existed under patriarchal dispensation or Jewish dispensation, how slavery in the U.S. reduced man to an animal and took his human rights away, and finally how slavery was contrary to God, Jesus, and the apostles themselves [3].

Angelina’s sister, Sarah made a similar argument in her “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States.” She argued not only that slavery was a sin, but that it was primarily because it could “destroy the image of God, blot him from creation as a man, and convert him into a thing–’a chattel personal’” [4]. Slavery broke the bond between God and man by dehumanizing them. Most importantly, the Grimkés connected these appeals with broader gender roles. As American society equated womanhood with ideals of religious morality, the Grimké sisters approached abolitionism from such an angle. “I know you do not make the laws,” Angelina said in her Appeal, “but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do” [5]. Although outspoken in many senses, the Grimké sisters were willing to conform to cultural expectations in some of their argument structures in order to achieve their radical ends.

Sarah Grimke (1792-1873)

The argument of dehumanization is very much seen in the work of other writers of the time, albeit in a more secular approach based on gender norms. In her memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs recounts her experiences in bondage with particular passages meant to work within presumed northern sensibilities on issues of gender and society. She tells the reader, “you never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel.” For Jacobs, it was not enough that slavery reduced humans to chattel, but it also made it impossible to be a proper mother. In such a system, Jacobs saw women sold with their children still at their breast and endured utterly inappropriate advances from her master. The mother of slaves, Jacobs states, “knows there is no security for her children. After they have entered their teens she lives in daily expectation of trouble” and she would never “know peace till my children were emancipated with all due formalities of law” [6]. Thus only freedom could grant enslaved women the ability to fulfill their prescribed duties of raising moral children.

Alongside Jacobs’ memoir, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave portrays slavery’s effects from a masculine perspective. Throughout his story, Douglass provides comparative examples of his experience within a sphere that was at least nominally masculine—politics. Upon being selected to go to the Great House Farm, Douglass admits that a “representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm” [7].

Douglass is keen to not only position himself within the masculine-political arena, but also to make it clear that even slave men understood the workings of American democracy. Finding himself unwilling to endure the torments of slavery any longer, Douglass appeals to one of America’s most fabled tales. With a “fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage” [8]. Slaves, Douglass argues, had the capacity to be even greater citizens than any others through their willingness for sacrifice at the altar of liberty. Thus upon emancipation, freedmen would be prepared to take their place in the republic and would do so with patriotic vigor.

The legendary Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

The power of slavery to degrade all it touched is a powerful common theme in the writings of the figures mentioned above, but takes on a particularly powerful tone in the memoirs of Jacobs and Douglass. For example, Douglass details the fall from grace of Mrs. Auld, as her “angelic face gave place to that of a demon” when the cancer of slavery overtook her [9]. All of this is done in order to contrast the descent of white plantation mistresses from feminine civility with the potential for black enslaved women to possess proper maternal virtue.

These battling figures play out in dramatic fashion in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe equates the entire race of African peoples with what dominant American discourse defined as feminine features. As she states, “their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart…their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness” all exhibited “the highest form of the peculiarly Christian Life” [10]. In opposition to the tendency toward violence shown by whites who were afflicted by slavery, people of African descent possessed female values that marked them as good Christians.

Yet in order for Stowe’s message to properly work, she first had to make her readers view enslaved people as just that—people. Upon hearing that he was to be sold by his master, Uncle Tom initially remained stoically calm. However, eventually he began to cry and “sobs, heavy, hoarse and loud shook the chair” in which he sat. Rather than belittle Tom for his emotional outburst, Stowe asks the reader to empathize with him. “For, sir, he was a man,” Stowe writes “and you are but another man” [11].

Stowe’s appeal is clear as she begs the reader to sympathize through gendered terms. Later, as Eliza makes her heroic crossing of the frozen Ohio River with her son in her arms, Stowe asks them “[i]f it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning…how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom…the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck” [12]. Eliza’s feats may have seemed extraordinary, but Stowe describes them as something that any true, virtuous, and Christian mother would do for their child—slave or free.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an international sensation (despite being banned in the US South) & was even turned into a successful play. Eliza’s escape across the ice is easily the most exciting part & happens surprisingly early if I have to be honest…

The style of arguments used in abolitionist writings were as varied as the backgrounds of the abolitionists themselves. However, key themes and trends can be seen throughout some of the most important and popular works. One such pattern was the appeal to American sensibilities as both Christians and, simply put, human beings. For the Grimké sisters, slavery was contrary to the Bible as it dehumanized slaves to the point that they lost their connection to God. On a more secular note, Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass highlighted moments in their lives that emphasized the capacities of enslaved people to be proper men and women within American political and cultural boundaries. Finally, Harriet Beecher Stowe asked readers to not only see slaves as full people, but also empathize with their experiences.

Although done to varying degrees, by appealing to the acknowledgement of the base humanity of slaves, each popular figure sought to bring about one thing—the end of “this heart-breaking, this soul-destroying system” of slavery. [13]


————— NOTES —————

[1] Angelina Grimké, in The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimké: Selected Writings 1835-1839, ed. Larry Ceplair (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 38.

[2] Ibid., 39.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Sarah Grimké, ibid., 92.

[5] Angelina Grimké, ibid., 54.

[6] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) 182, 183, 277. (Originally published 1861)

[7] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (New York: Modern Library, 2000) 26. (Originally published 1845)

[8] Ibid., 84.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Library of America, 2010): 186-187. (Originally published 1852)

[11] Ibid., 44.

[12] Ibid., 55.

[13] Angelina Grimké, 114.

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