The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was perhaps the most politically explosive piece of legislation ever passed by the United States Congress. As part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act ostensibly did little more than strengthen a concept that was imbedded in the Constitution: that a "Person held to Service or Labour in one State" upon "escaping into another, shall ... be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due." (Article IV, Section 2)
Yet the provisions of the 1850 law were so extreme as to be (in one historian's words) "gratuitously provocative." (quoted by Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789–1859, University of North Carolina Press, 2008, pg. 235) The law allowed for the creation of federal commissioners to judge cases of runaway slaves; they would receive $10 for every case decided in favor of the slaveholder but only $5 for deciding for the alleged fugitive. Section 5 stated that "all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required." Section 7 held that "any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them from arresting such a fugitive" or "shall aid, abet, or assist such person ... to escape" or "shall harbor or conceal such fugitive" shall "be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months."
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Compromise of 1850, it was obvious that slavery was not fading away as some observers had hoped several decades earlier. Slavery was becoming stronger. Even in the relatively enlightened cities of New England, fugitive slaves could no long legally hide from the newly emboldened bounty hunters. For 3.2 million slaves in America in 1850, freedom was no longer possible anywhere in the United States or the territories. Freedom now meant escaping all the way to Canada.
Among the many Americans outraged and radicalized by the Fugitive Slave Act was a writer and mother of six children named Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Harriet Beecher was born in 1811 and grew up in a large family of over-achieving reformers and educators. Her father was Lyman Beecher, one of the major figures in the Calvinist and Evangelical movement known as the Second Great Awakening. Her oldest sister Catharine founded the Hartford [Connecticut] Female Seminary, one of the pioneering schools for women in the early 19th century. Harriet's younger brother was the Reverand Henry Ward Beecher, not quite but almost The Most Famous Man in America, as the title of a recent biography proclaimed him. In 1832 Lyman Beecher moved much of his family to Cincinnati where he became the President of the Lane Theological Seminary. Also teaching at the Seminary was Calvin Ellis Stowe, who married Harriet Beecher in 1836.
Cincinnati is on the northern bank of the Ohio River across from the state of Kentucky, at the time home to over 150,000 slaves. For slaves escaping from bondage in Kentucky, crossing the Ohio River was one of the first steps to freedom. Major stations of the Underground Railroad were in Ohio, and the state was also developing a growing Abolitionist movement. The proximity of Ohio to Kentucky served as a beacon of hope to fugitive slaves, but also attracted trouble as well. In 1837 the New Richmond, Ohio, offices of an anti-slavery journal the Philanthropist were trashed by a pro-slavery mob.
Throughout this period, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote frequently for small journals and magazines — a mix of fiction, sketches, and (increasingly through the 1840s) essays about slavery. In March 1851 — just 6 months after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act — she began writing scenes that soon evolved into chapters that told a story much longer and deeper than anything she had ever written. In June 1851 through April 1852, these chapters appeared in issues of The National Era, a small antislavery weekly newspaper based in Washington D. C.
By the time Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a book in 1852, it was already famous, and it soon became the best-selling novel in 19th century America. Despite the novel's later shaky reputation, its images of slave auctions, whippings, and heroic escapes have become part of American culture. Characters such as Uncle Tom, Eliza, Little Eva, and Topsy are as familiar to us as characters from any other American novel. But beyond plots and characters, the sheer emotional impact of the novel had a massive influence on antebellum politics: For many white Americans, Uncle Tom's Cabin made slavery very real, very scary, and — most importantly — clearly antithetical to the common Christian family values shared by its readers.
The first chapter of Uncle Tom's Cabin puts us right in the middle of the unseemly slave business. Mr. Shelby of Kentucky is a decent man as slaveholders go, but he's fallen on hard times and is forced to sell two slaves — a middle-aged man named Tom (often called Uncle Tom) and a boy named Harry, the son of Eliza and her husband George, a slave on a nearby estate.
Almost immediately, Harriet Beecher Stowe not only humanizes the slaves but emphasizes the familial bonds among them. These are not simply men, women, and children. They are husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. Uncle Tom and his wife Aunt Chloe live in a little cabin surrounded by their children. Chapter 2 about Eliza is entitled "The Mother" and Chapter 3 about George is "The Husband and Father." The suspense mounts as George and Eliza plan their separate escapes across the Ohio River and beyond, and Eliza's escape — holding her child while leaping between slabs of ice on the Ohio River — remains a powerful image of hope and determination.
Long before the vicious slavemaster Simon Legree shows up in Chapter 30 of Uncle Tom's Cabin, we have witnessed many separations and attempted separations of families. This depiction of slavery as destructive to the family went straight to the hearts of the men and women who read Uncle Tom's Cabin, and it's even acknowledged by the men hunting down Eliza. As one of them says, "If we could get a breed of gals that didn't care, now, for their young uns ... I think 't should be 'bout the greatest mod'rn improvement I knows on." (Ch. 8)
Very many families of the 19th-century lost young children to disease. Although these deaths were common, their prevalence didn't make them any less horrifying. In July 1849, Harriet Beecher Stowe's own 11-year-old son Charley died during a cholera epidemic, and one of her brilliant strategies in Uncle Tom's Cabin was to relate the reality of slavery to the deaths of children. Here's the scene where Eliza is taken into a house in Ohio, not quite sure if it's safe or not:
[Eliza] looked up at Mrs. Bird, with a keen, scrutinizing glance, and it did not escape her that she was dressed in deep mourning.
"Ma'am," she said, suddenly, "have you ever lost a child?"
The question was unexpected, and it was thrust on a new wound; for it was only a month since a darling child of the family had been laid in the grave.
Mr. Bird turned around and walked to the window, and Mrs. Bird burst into tears; but, recovering her voice, she said,
"Why do you ask that? I have lost a little one."
"Then you will feel for me. I have lost two, one after another, — left 'em buried there when I came away; and I had only this one left. I never slept a night without him; he was all I had. He was my comfort and pride, day and night; and, ma'am, they were going to take him away from me, — to sell him, — sell him down south, ma'am, to go all alone, — a baby that had never been away from his mother in his life! I couldn't stand it, ma'am. I knew I never should be good for anything, if they did; and when I knew the papers were signed, and he was sold, I took him and came off in the night; and they chased me... (Ch. IX)
Mr. and Mrs. Bird are not just any married couple trying to decide whether to help a fugitive slave. Mr. Bird is actually Senator Bird of Ohio, just returned home from Washington D.C. after voting in favor of the Fugitive Slave Act. Right before Eliza's arrival, Mrs. Bird had asked her husband if he was really "passing a law forbidding people to give meat and drink to those poor colored folk that come along? I heard they were talking of some such law, but I didn't think any Christian legislature would pass it!" The couple debate the Fugitive Slave Act, and whether it would be right or wrong to turn away a fugitive slave, but nothing puts the debate in perspective like the actual arrival of Eliza and her son. People all over the North were having similar abstract discussions about the Fugitive Slave Act and it was Uncle Tom's Cabin that made the abstract issues real.
In the 19th century, women were not supposed to write about politics, or indeed to have any presence in the public sphere. The proper domain of the woman was the private domestic sphere, and if women were to write novels, they should focus solely on domestic issues.
Very cleverly, in Uncle Tom's Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe did indeed restrict herself to the proper domestic sphere into which society had relegated her! She wrote — as other women had before her — about families dealing with adversity. The difference was that her families had dark skin, and the adversity was slavery. She shows how families are torn apart by slavery, and if that means getting involved in a political discussion, well, it just can't be helped. By conflating the domestic and the political, Uncle Tom's Cabin convinced more people of the wrongs of slavery than many other previous political or philosophical arguments.
Just as importantly, Harriet Beecher Stowe didn't flinch from alluding to the sexual exploitation of girls and women under slavery. It is important to remember that slavery was an institution not just about labor but about rape. In her celebrated and candid Civil War diaries, South Carolinian Mary Chesnut categorized the slaveholder as a "magnate who runs a hideous black harem with its consequences under the same roof with his lovely white wife, and his beautiful and accomplished daughters." This was something few people talked about, and those most affected lived in a state of denial:
His wife and daughters in the might of their purity and innocence are supposed never to dream of what is as plain before their eyes as the sunlight, and they play their parts of unsuspecting angels to the letter. They prefer to adore their father as model of all earthly goodness....
Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children — and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.
(C. Vann Woodward, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, Yale University Press, 1981, pgs. 168, 169, 29)
Nineteenth-century decorum prohibited Mrs. Stowe from going into details about this aspect of slavery, but with just a few words she could let the reader's imagination do the rest. "By Jupiter," says the slave-trader in Chapter 1 after seeing Eliza, "there's an article, now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I've seen over a thousand [dollars], in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer."
Here's another scene where a mother fears for the fate of her attractive 15-year-old daughter:
Susan remembered the man's [Simon Legree's] looks and words. With a deadly sickness at her heart, she remembered how he had looked at Emmeline's hands, and lifted up her curly hair, and pronounced her a first-rate article. Susan had been trained as a Christian, brought up in the daily reading of the Bible, and had the same horror as any other Christian mother might have; but she had no hope, — no protection. (Chapter 30)
As Joan Hedrick pointed out in her biography of the author, "Stowe dragged out the hidden things of darkness into the light of day, insisting that the private relations between master and slave be subjected to the scrutiny of public opinion. This broke down the ideological barriers between the public and the private spheres, a revolutionary act that had the potential to free white women as well as male and female slaves." (Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1994, pg. 219)
Uncle Tom's Cabin performed its persuasive and transformative powers over many thousands of readers, leaving them appalled that such a hideous practice continued in the very country in which they lived. When Harriet Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1862, he is said to have greeted her with the words "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" (Hedrick, pg. vii)
Of course, it wasn't Uncle Tom's Cabin that triggered the Civil War. It was the Fugitive Slave Act, the extension of slavery into the terroritories, and most of all, the American South's continued obstinacy (and even celebration) of the moral cesspool in which they had sunk.
With its tales of heroic escapes, and its horrifying views of slave warehouses and auctions, Uncle Tom's Cabin is still a great read. Yet, Harriet Beecher Stowe was also very much a person of her times, and there is much in Uncle Tom's Cabin that causes the modern reader to cringe.
She believed in what historian George M. Frederickson (in his 1971 book The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914) called a "romantic racialism." In this formulation, a racialist doesn't rank races in terms of superiority as a racist does, but still believes that races are inherently different. In particular, Mrs. Stowe thought that the African races were more predisposed to Christian benevolence and charity. She also tends to give different personality types to those characters classed (to use the antiquated terms) as mulatto or quadroon, and to use different degrees of dialect depending on the blackness of the speaker.
Consequently, Uncle Tom's Cabin has had a rocky history in the 150-odd years since it was first published. After the Civil War, it became the basis for minstreal shows, often stripped of its political content. Like a myth or fairy tale, the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin was recycled through the first half of the 20th century in cartoons and movie shorts.
In an 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," novelist James Baldwin trashed both the sentimentality of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the child-like nature and passive subservience of its title character. In the militant 1960s, the term "Uncle Tom" or even just "Tom" began being applied to black men all too eager to satisfy white dictates. In more recent years, several scholars have attempted to rehabilitate Uncle Tom's Cabin, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose interest in the novel became the basis for The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin (W. W. Norton 2007), an attractive and nicely organized edition that I heartily recommend.
But even at the time of publication, Mrs. Stowe was criticized by some prominant abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison wondered whether Stowe's portrayal of Tom's passivity would also be recommended for white men under similar extreme circumstances of oppression. (The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin, pg. xxxvii-xxxviii) Frederick Douglass approvied of most of the novel, but opposed the apparent endorsement of the colonization of ex-slaves in Liberia as described in Chapter 43. (Ibid, xxxviii)
Partly in response to those criticisms, Harriet Beecher Stowe's second novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856) presented a much more militant anti-slavery theme. The Great Dismal Swamp of the title is an actual place on the eastern border between Virginia and North Carolina, and provided refuge for fugitive slaves. This is where the title character of Dred is living and seemingly amassing forces necessary for an armed assault against the slaveholders.
Slave insurrections are not mentioned at all in Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Dred they are part of the fabric of slavery itself. Following the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the idea of the passive and acquiescent black man was challenged by works of fiction by African-American authors — The Heroic Slave (1853) by Frederick Douglass and Clotel (1853) by William Wells Brown — and Stowe had herself written a preface for The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855) by the pioneering Boston-born African-American historian William Cooper Nell. She now appreciated that far from being passive, slaves and ex-slaves were quite capable of fighting for their rights.
When we hear the name Dred, we think of course of the infamous Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Although the case was in the news during 1856 while Mrs. Stowe was writing Dred, the actual decision didn't occur until March 1857, and it doesn't seem to have influenced her choice of the name. In Appendix I of the novel, she says that one of the men who accompanied Nat Turner in his slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 was named Dred, but she makes the character a fictional son of Denmark Vesey, who led an earlier aborted slave rebellion in 1822. She also says that Dred was "a name not unusual among the slaves, and generally given to those of great physical force." (Pt. I, Ch. XIX)
Dred's first appearance, about a third of the way into the novel, is unforgettable:
He was a tall black man, of magnificent stature and proportions. His skin was intensely black, and polished like marble. A loose shirt of red flannel, which opened very wide at the breast, gave a display of a neck and chest of herculean strength. The sleeves of the shirt, rolled up nearly to the shoulders, showed the muscles of a gladiator. The head, which rose with an imperial air from the broad shoulders, was large and massive, and developed with equal force both in the reflective and perceptive departments. The perceptive organs jutted like dark ridges over the eyes, while that part of the head which phrenologists attribute to the moral and intellectual sentiments, rose like an ample dome above them. The large eyes had that peculiar and solemn effect of unfathomable blackness and darkness which is often a striking characteristic of the African eye. But there burned in them, like tongues of flame in a black pool of naphtha, a subtle and restless fire, that betokened habitual excitement to the verge of insanity. If any organs were predominant in the head, they were those of ideality, wonder, veneration, and firmness, and the whole combination was such as might have formed one of the wild old prophets of the heroic ages. He wore a fantastic sort of turban, apparently of an old scarlet shawl, which added to the outlandish effect of his appearance. His nether garments, of coarse negro-cloth, were girded round the waist by a strip of scarlet flannel, in which was thrust a bowie-knife and hatchet. Over one shoulder he carried a rifle, and a shot-pouch was suspended to his belt. (Vol. I, Ch. XVIII)
Even before the mention of the rifle, it's clear that Dred is no Uncle Tom! He is instead an authentic Black Revolutionary figure with a powerful moral authority that equals his command of Old Testament prophecy.
But the novel actually begins rather inauspiciously. Nina Gordan — the daughter of the deceased Colonel Gordan and now mistress of the plantation he left — is juggling three suitors and seemingly as ditsy as Scarlett O'Hara. But in contrast to the Eden of Tara, an aura of decrepitude envelops this plantation and apparently the rest of the South:
there appeared evidently on the place signs of that gradual decay which has conducted many an old Virginian family to poverty and ruin. Slave labor, of all others the most worthless and profitless, had exhausted the first vigor of the soil, and the proprietors gradually degenerated from those habits of energy which were called forth by the necessities of the first settlers... (Pt I, Ch. IV)
Managing the estate is a mixed-race slave named Harry, who is married to a slave named Lisette living on a nearby estate. As in the earlier novel, the slaves have firm familial relationships. But there's another familial relationship in Dred that lets Mrs. Stowe allude again to the sexual exploitation of slaves: What Harry knows but Nina does not is that Colonel Gordon is his father as well, and that he is Nina's half brother.
While not quite matching Dred's militancy, Harry is no Uncle Tom either:
"I could serve you," he said, in a low voice, "to the last drop of my blood! But," he added, in a tone which made Nina tremble, "I hate everybody else! I hate your country! I hate your laws!"
"Harry," said Nina, "you do wrong — you forget yourself!"
"Oh, I do wrong, do I? We are the people that are never to do wrong! People may stick pins in us, and stick knives in us, wipe their shoes on us, spit in our face — we must be amiable! we must be models of Christian patience! I tell you, your father should rather have put me into quarters and made me work like a field-negro, rather than to have given me the education he did, and leave me under the foot of every white man that dare tread on me!" (Pt. I, Ch. XIII)
It's almost as if Harry had read Uncle Tom's Cabin and is taking issue with its author's racialist ideology!
From her choice of three suitors, Nina settles on Edward Clayton, and together they discover that they both share abolitionist sympathies. But that's not the case with Nina's other sibling (the one she knows about): Tom Gordon is a drunk and a son-of-a-bitch, and when he gets a glimpse of pretty Lisette and decides to buy her for himself, the reader recoils in horror.
As in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe drew upon published slave narratives and true incidents to create the rich tapestry of slave life and the quest for freedom in all its forms. Here's a newcomer to Dred's compound, on the run again after being a previous victim of the Fugitive Slave Act:
"I'm pretty much beat out," said the man. "It's been up over my knees every step; and I didn't know but they'd set the dogs after me. If they do, I'll let 'em kill me, and done with it, for I'm 'bout ready to have it over with. I got free once, and got clear up to New York, and got me a little house, and a wife and two children, with a little money beforehand; and then they nabbed me, and sent me back again, and mas'r sold me to the drivers ..." (Pt. II Ch. I)
In contrast, Harry is searching for freedom through legal means. Colonel Gordon actually signed a document emancipating Harry, but now Harry is told that it's no good.
"I know Mr. John Gordon's signature. But all the signatures in the world couldn't make it a valid contract. You see, my boy," he said, turning to Harry, "a slave, not being a person in the eye of the law, cannot have a contract made with him. The law, which is based on the old Roman code, holds him, pro nullis, pro mortuis; which means, Harry that he's held as nothing — as dead, inert substance. That's his position in law."
"I believe," said Harry, in a strong and bitter tone, "that is what religious people call a Christian institution!" (Pt. II, Ch. XIV)
Even more so than in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dred has a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy. As Mrs. Stowe was planning and writing the novel in 1856, she incorporated real-life incidents into the text. In January, for example, fugitive slave Margaret Garner killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than let her be captured and sexually exploitated the way she was. A similar incident is related in Part II, Ch. XX. (Toni Morrison's acclaimed 1987 novel Beloved was also inspired by the Garner case.) On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the senate chambers and beat him unconscious. In Dred, Pt. II Ch. XIV, Tom beats Harry with a similar cane after Harry tells him "I won't kneel to my younger brother!" Later in May, the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, by pro-slavery forces took place, leading to retaliation by John Brown and his men. In Dred, Pt. II, Ch. XXVII, Brown is actually mentioned – three years before he became really famous in the raid on Harpers Ferry!
Dred also goes beyond Uncle Tom's Cabin in its exploration of pro-slavery ideology. It is well known that the Southern churches of the antebellum era gave their full support to the institution of slavery, and we hear their voices in Dred and the tortured logic of their arguments. There is one anti-slavery pastor in Dred but his prospects are not good.
Yet, still, it is due to the degenerate Christianity of the slave states to say, that, during the long period in which the church there has been corrupting itself, and lowering its standard of right to meet a depraved institution, there have not been wanting, from time to time, noble confessors, who have spoken for God and humanity. For many years they were listened to with that kind of pensive tolerance which men give when they acknowledge their fault without any intention of mending. Of late years, however, the lines have been drawn more sharply, and such witnesses have spoken in peril of their lives; so that now seldom a voice arises except in approbation of oppression. (Pt. II, Ch. II)
This is one of many indications in Dred that conditions in the South were getting progressively worse. For the slave, the prospects for freedom were becoming more unlikely, while the white ruling class was descending deeper into its own delusions.
Although some critics found Dred to be too hastily written (Stowe completed it in 3 months) and somewhat sloppy, it still had many admirers, even across the Atlantic. To journalist Harriet Martineau, "Dred was so much a work of genius that English novelists might as well give up altogether, for, after Dred no one would have patience with anything but didactic writing." (R. K. Webb, Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian, Columbia University Press, 1960, pg. 38) In the October 1856 issue of Westminster Review, one essay entitled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" criticized the common sentimental romance novels then being written by women, while another essay praised what was definitely not a silly novel despite its flaws:
At length we have Mrs Stowe's new novel, and for the last three weeks there have been men, women, and children reading it with rapt attention — laughing and sobbing over it — lingering with delight over its exquisite landscapes, its scenes of humour, and tenderness, and rude heroism — and glowing with indignation at its terrible representation of chartered barbarities. Such a book is an uncontrollable power, and critics who follow it with their objections and reservations ... are something like men pursuing a prairie fire with desultory watering-cans. In the meantime, Dred will be devoured by the million, who carry no critical talisman against the enchantment of genius. We confess ourselves to be among the million... We have been too much moved by Dred to determine with precision how far it is inferior to Uncle Tom, too much impressed by what Mrs Stowe has done to be quite sure that we can tell her what she ought to have done....
Both "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" and the review of Dred were unsigned but written by Marian Evans, soom to achieve fame as the novelist George Eliot.
But if Harriet Beecher Stowe was now expected to continue her role as the inventor (in Marian Evans' words) of "the Negro novel," her third novel — published in December, 1859 — 150 years ago this month — after being serialized in a new magazine called The Atlantic Monthly — probably came as a surprise.
The Minister's Wooing takes place not in the present day (as we know now, on the eve of the Civil War), but in the early 1790s. It is situated not in the American South but in Newport, Rhode Island. And although slavery is present in the world of The Minister's Wooing, the novel is really nothing less than a domestic comedy about Calvinist theology — probably one of the very few comedies about Calvinism!
In the 1790s, Newport was a major hub in the triangle slave trade, and remained so until the slave trade was banned by federal law in 1807. Although Rhode Island had passed a law in 1784 to emancipate slaves, it was a gradual process where children of slaves became "apprentices" and later freed. The narrator of The Minister's Wooing certainly doesn't justify slavery in Rhode Island but does distinguish a bit from its practice in the South.
In those days, when domestic slavery prevailed in New England, it was quite a different thing in its aspects from the same institution in more southern latitudes. The hard soil, unyielding to any but the most considerate culture, the thrifty, close, shrewd habits of the people, and their untiring activity and industry, prevented, among the mass of the people, any great reliance on slave labor.
Added to this, there were from the very first, in New England, serious doubts in the minds of throughtful and conscientious people in reference to the lawfulness of slavery; this scruple prevented many from availing themselves of it, and provided a restraint on all, so that nothing like plantation-life existed, and what servants were owned were scattered among different families, of which they came to be regarded and to regard themselvs as a legitimate part and portion. (Ch. VII)
That sounds self-serving, but the actual numbers also reveal a big difference: The 1790 census counted 958 slaves in Rhode Island compared with 21,192 in New York, and 292,627 in Virginia. By 1840, there were 5 slaves in Rhode Island, 4 in New York, and 449,757 in Virginia.
Seemingly hovering over the action of The Minister's Wooing is the presence of Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) and the Calvinist theology he developed and promulgated. Edwards is one of the major figures associated with the movement now known as the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. His severe interpretation of predestination and sermons such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" cast an austerity over New England but perhaps also made possible the egalitarianism of the early American republic.
Two major characters in The Minister's Wooing are real-life descendents (of sorts) of Jonathan Edwards. Dr. Samuel Hopkins (1721 – 1803) was a disciple of Edwards and associated with the beginnings of the Second Great Awakening that characterized the first half of the 19th century. The other real-life character in The Minister's Wooing is Aaron Burr (1756 – 1836), whose maternal grandfather was Jonathan Edwards.
The exact time of The Minister's Wooing is a bit vague. The American Revolution is still fresh in everyone's memory, and some characters even have fond anglophiliac memories of their origins. It is at least far enough into the French Revolution (1789 and thereafter) that upper-class refugees have been "driven here by the political disturbances in France" (Ch. XVI). Samuel Hopkins is still working on his System of Doctrines Contained in Divine Revelation (published 1793). Aaron Burr is a Senator (Ch. XIII), which he was from 1791 to 1797, and he is also a widower (Ch. XVI) which he became in 1795. On the other hand, John Adams is Ambassador to England (Ch. XII), which he was from 1785 to 1788.
The biggest time-warp of the The Minister's Wooing involves the age of Samuel Hopkins. In 1791, the real Samuel Hopkins turned 70 years old, but the fictionalized Samuel Hopkins is only 40. (Ch. XII) This severe reduction in age is necessary to make Dr. Hopkins a suitable suitor to the 19-year-old Mary Scudder. A 40-year-old man marrying a 19-year-old woman raises a few eyebrows (then as now) but a 70-year-old man marrying a 19-year-old woman is just plain creepy.
Mary Scudder is the main character of The Minister's Wooing. He father died long ago and she lives with her mother. Samuel Hopkins is their boarder, managing his church while working on his System of Doctrines.
Mary Scudder and James Marvyn are second cousins and friends since childhood, and they also discover that they are in love. The only obstacle to a successful marriage is that James has a problem with the fine points of Calvinism. "I can't understand all the hang of predestination, and moral ability and natural ability, and God's efficiency, and man's agency, which Dr. Hopkins is so engaged about; but I can understand you, — you can do me good!" (Ch. III) Later in a letter James says "One Sunday he tells us that God is the immediate efficient Author of every act of will; the next he tells us that we are entire free agents. I see no sense in it, and can't take the trouble to put it together." (Ch. V)
Mary's mother disapproves of James. She calls him an "infidel" or if not an infidel, certainly an "unbeliever." (Ch. VI)
The Marvyn family have two slaves who are actually emancipated by Mr. Marvyn during the course of the novel, but who choose to stay with the family. It is Candance who has a rather suprising role in The Minister's Wooing despite an initial description that sounds much like a stereotype:
Candace was a powerfully built, majestic black woman, corpulent, heavy, with a swinging majesty of motion like that of a ship in a ground-swell. Her shining black skin and glistening white teeth were indications of perfect physical vigor which had never known a day's sickness; her turban, of broad red and yellow bandanna stripes, had even a warm topical glow; and her ample skirts were always ready to be spread over every childish transgression of her youngest pet and favorite, James. (Ch. VII)
The major plot in The Minister's Wooing is set in motion when James, a sea-faring young man, sets off on a 3-year voyage with a Bible from Mary in hand, and soon gets lost at sea and is presumed dead.
By the tenets of Calvinism, only a small fraction of the population is predestined to join God in heaven, and there's nothing anybody can do about it. No amount of good work has any effect on the original division into elect and condemned. However, a member of the elect often indicates his or her status through evidences, which can include good works.
James Marvyn's apparent death causes much distress to his mother and to Mary because while he was basically a good person, he displayed no evidences at all, and hence he must be assumed to be among the condemned. (Harriet Beecher Stowe knew whereof she wrote. In July 1857, Stowe's own 19-year-old son Henry drowned with about the same amount of divine evidences as James Marvyn.) Mrs. Marvyn, in particular, seems on the verge of a complete breakdown, and Dr. Hopkins provides no consolation whatsoever, for it is his hard-code concept of predestination that is part of the problem. As Mrs. Marvyn wails,
I cannot, will not, be resigned! — it is all hard, unjust, cruel! — to all eternity I will say so! To me there is no goodness, no justice, no mercy in anything! Life seems to me the most tremendous doom that can be inflicted on a helpless being! What had we done, that it should be sent upon us? Why were we made to love so, to hope so, — our hearts so full of feeling, and all the laws of Nature marching over us, — never stopping for our agony?...
Dr. Hopkins says that this is all best, — better than it would have been in any other possible way, — that God chose it, but took means to make it certain, — that He ordains every sin, and does all that is necessary to make it certain, — that He creates the vessels of wrath and fits them for destruction, and that He has an infinite knowledge by which He can do it without violating their free agency. — So much the worse! ... It is not right! No possible amount of good to ever so many can make it right to deprave ever so few; — happiness and misery cannot be measured so! I never can think it right, — never! ..." (Ch. XXIII)
It is not Dr. Hopkins who can comfort Mrs. Marvyn in her extreme distress, but Candace:
I knows our Doctor's a mighty good man, an' learned, — an' in fair weather I ha'n't no 'bjection to yer hearin' all about dese yer great an' mighty tings he's got to say. But, honey, dey won't do for you now; sick folks mus'n't hab strong meat; an' times like dese, dar just a'n't but one ting to come to, an' dat ar's Jesus. Jes' come right down to whar poor ole black Candace has to say allers, — it's a good place, darlin'! Look right at Jesus. Tell ye, honey, ye can't live no other way now.... (Ch. XXIII)
It seems very innocent and obviously kind, but there's something subversive going on. Candace has usurped the male theological dominance and, in effect, altered the course of American religious history, for as Susan K. Harris notes in her Introduction to the 1999 Penguin edition of The Minister's Wooing, "Stowe sets her novel at the historical moment when American Calvinists shifted from a sect cathected [ie, focused] on the Father to one cathected on the Son.... For Calvinists, the transference from Father to Son was accompanied by transfers in the locuses of spiritual authority, from textual rationalism to experiential piety and, to a less extent, from men to women."
Joan Hedrick agrees:
Stowe's challenge to the male clergy was unmistakable.... Her elevation of a lay ministry of women and her pervasive anarchism toward theological structures puts the radicalism of this book in the same tradition as Uncle Tom's Cabin.... By valuing the human experiences of "lowly" characters, Stowe forces a reevaluation of white, male systems of thought and, as feminist critics have pointed out, depicts women and blacks as instruments of salvation history. (Hedrick, pg. 279)
As with novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, we pretty much can assume that The Minister's Wooing is going to have a happy ending, and if we glance ahead to the title of the penultimate chapter ("The Wedding") we can pretty much guess who will be married. The suspense is in the how, for after the presumed death of James Marvyn, two predators emerge — a "good" predator and a "bad" predator — who now set their sights on Mary Scudder.
The bad predator is Aaron Burr. The gene that drove Jonathan Edwards didn't make it down to his grandson, and Mrs. Stowe reminds us of the man's decadent life-style and his later downfall. His lascivious delight in Mary Scudder (or "my sweet little Puritan" as he refers to her in Ch. XVI) would be scary if we weren't quite sure that he wasn't going to get anywhere with her.
The other predator in The Minister's Wooing is — if you haven't guessed from the title — the good Dr. Samuel Hopkins. It may seem a little harsh to refer to Samuel Hopkins as a "predator" but the love that he thinks he feels for Mary is entirely in his head, and he does nothing to help her even like him in a romantic or sexual way. Instead, the Doctor has a little talk with Mary's mother, who then relays the information to Mary. Of course, Dr. Hopkins' religious authority in the community means that Mary is obliged to accept his proposal of marriage — a marriage that the reader perceives will require perhaps more Calvinist stoicism than Mary has available.
It is the teams of women in The Minister's Wooing who keep themselves safe from these predators. I particularly liked the way that Candace and Miss Prissy (Newport's pre-eminent dressmaker and gossip) conspire together to approach Dr. Hopkins with the truth to which he is oblivious (Ch. XXXIX), and the friendship between Mary and a French woman that crosses almost insurmountable religious barriers between Congregationalist and Roman Catholic.
In the course of The Minister's Wooing, Dr. Hopkins has been giving a lot of thought about the slave trade and decides to give a major sermon about the evils of slavery. (In real life, Hopkins' major assault against slavery was a 1776 pamphlet A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans; Shewing it to be the Duty and Interest of the American States to emancipate all their African Slaves. A 1785 reprint can be found among the online documents pertaining to The Abolition of the Slave Trade made available by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.)
We don't get to hear any of this sermon, but we do learn about the fallout. Those members of Hopkins' church who are most involved in the slave trade simply leave and begin attending a rival church where slavery is not condemned. In actually persauding anyone that slavery is wrong, the sermon is a failure because it argued from the head rather than the heart.
What's a more effective way of battling slavery? Harriet Beecher Stowe doesn't have to tell us, for she had already demonstrated that in her first two novels.
Earlier Entries in the Sesquicentenniality Series
1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)
1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)
1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)
1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)
1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)
1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)
1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)
1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)
1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (7/17/09)
1859 Music: Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (8/30/2009)
1859 Books: Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig” (9/5/2009)
1859 Speeches: Prince Albert’s Address to the BAAS (9/14/09)
1859 Books: Samuel Smiles’ “Self-Help” (9/29/09)
1859 Crusades: John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry (10/16/09)
1859 Books: Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” (11/21/09)
1859 Books: Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (11/24/09)