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Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and EthicsUncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics


Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)


Written by the American, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), pictured right, and set in the early 1850’s.


Fun facts

  • A hugely influential anti-slavery book that led to the American Civil War.
  • Criticized for Uncle Tomism, the servile obedience of the book’s main character, Uncle Tom, a slave.
  • The first million seller (the biggest seller in the nineteenth century)
  • Made into films in 1927 and 1987.

  Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics

It was the favourite book of... 


1. Leo Tolstoy 

(writer of War and Peace) - pictured right.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics


2. Adolf Hitler.

(the Nazi leader) - pictured right.


Key characters

Uncle Tom, a good Christian slave in his late 40’s

Arthur and Mrs Shelby, Tom’s owner in Kentucky and his wife

George Shelby, Arthur’s son and Tom’s friend

Eliza, Mrs Shelby’s maid

Augustine St. Clare, Tom’s owner in New Orleans

Eva, St Clare’s daughter

Ophelia, St Clare’s cousin

Simon Legree, Tom’s owner in Louisiana

Cassy, a slave.


The story

In the early 1850’s, the money problems of the kind slave owner, Arthur Shelby, threaten his Kentucky farm.

Much to his wife’s disgust, he sells two slaves to Mr Haley the slave trader:

  • Harry (the young son of her maid, Eliza). Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics
  • middle-aged Uncle Tom (who has a wife, Aunt Chloe, and children).

Eliza finds out and warns Uncle Tom (pictured right in the 1987 film with Cassy - see below).

Although Tom stays behind out of loyalty to his new master, Eliza flees to the North (where blacks are free) with Harry.

Chased by Haley and his men, they miraculously cross the frozen Ohio River (separating Kentucky from the North).

Eliza and Harry are helped by:

  • Mr. Symmes.
  • Senator Bird.
  • the Halliday family (who live in a Quaker settlement).

After Eliza is reunited with her husband,George (who has also escaped), the Quakers help them to escape to Canada before Haley's slave hunters, Tom Loker and Mr. Marks, can capture them.Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics

Uncle Tom is taken away on the Mississippi steamboat to be sold, sadly leaving behind his:

  • family.
  • close friend (George, the Shelby’s young son).

Uncle Tom saves a five-year-old white girl, Eva St Clare, from drowning and her grateful father Augustine St. Clare buys him for their home in New Orleans.

Uncle Tom is happy there and becomes particularly close to Eva, who is a devout Christian like him.

Augustine helps his cousin, Ophelia, to overcome her deep prejudice against blacks by buying her an abused slave, Topsy (pictured right above in the 1927 film), to educate.

Eva grows very ill and dies, inspiring Ophelia, Topsy  and her father to love everyone, black or white.

Augustine decides to free Tom (Eva's dying request) but, before he can do so, he is killed trying to settle a brawl.Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics

Augustine's cruel wife, Marie, sells Tom to a vicious plantation owner in Louisiana, Simon Legree.

Emmeline is also bought to replace another slave ,Cassy, as Legree's mistress. Cassy:

  • was separated from her daughter.
  • killed her second child (because she couldn’t stand losing another one).

Uncle Tom steadfastly:

  • keeps his Christian faith.
  • refuses to retaliate (despite the savage beatings of Legree and his men).

Uncle Tom dies, forgiving Legree.

Too late, George Selby arrives with money to buy Tom’s freedom, but he helps Emmeline and Cassy in their escape.

Cassy discovers that Eliza is her long lost daughter.

Cassy (pictured right below in the 1927 film), and Emmeline travel to Canada, where they meet Eliza, George and Harry. They all decide to live in Liberia, the African country created for former American slaves.

George Shelby:Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics

  • returns to his father’s farm in Kentucky.
  • buys the freedom of all the slaves there in honour of Tom’s memory.

He tells them to:

  • remember Tom every time they see his cabin.
  • lead a good Christian life like he did.


Lessons for racism and ethics


1. Morality before legality

Slavery is evil and so must be fought, even if it is legal (as it was in the Southern states).

The book shows the cruelty of slavery, leading to:

  • exploitation. Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics
  • the breaking up of families.

Senator Bird and his wife help Eliza  and Harry in Ohio, even though it is illegal to assist fugitive slaves.

Eliza (Margarita Fischer) is pictured right in the 1927 film.

 Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics

2. The importance of love

Tom has enough humility to:

  • selflessly give his love to others (like Cassy and Emmeline) .
  • forgive his enemies (like Legree and his overseers).

 Tom (James Lowe) is pictured right in the 1927 film.


3. Integrity inspires people

Uncle Tom’s character inspires George Shelby to beg for the freedom of the slaves at his father’s farm.

Tom Loker’s life is transformed by the love of the Quaker settlement that heals him physically and spiritually.


4. It’s never too late to change

Ophelia loses her racial prejudice through:

  • kind Eva’s example.
  • educating Topsy.

This shows Ophelia that black people are equal human beings.

 Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics

5. Faith is fantastic

Tom and Eva’s faith in God helps them become better people.

Tom keeps his faith, despite:

  • Legree’s cruelty.
  • the heartbreak of losing his wife and family.

 Tom (James Lowe) and Eva (Virginia Grey) are pictured right in the 1927 film.


6. Motivate people by treating them well

One slave owner treats his slaves so well (like “men” not “dogs”) that they don’t run away .

Arthur Shelby also gets the best from Tom by totally trusting him.Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Racism and Ethics

Tom (Avery Brooks) and Cassy (Paula Kelly) are pictured right in the 1987 film


7. Principle before profit

The book shows the depravity of:

  • selling people like cattle.
  • destroying their dignity and family life.

The evil slave trader, Mr. Haley, forces Arthur Selby to also give him Harry, Eliza's young son, for the price he paid for Tom.


Key quotes on leadership and management

The number of those men who know how to use wholly irresponsible power humanely and generously is small. Everybody knows this, and the slave knows it best of all.

Humanity, sir, I may say is the great pillar of my management, Mr Haley (explaining to Mr Shelby that humanity is taking slave children whilst their parents are busy with something else)


Key quote on ethics

There is one thing that every individual can do – they can see to it that they feel right.


Key quote on business ethics

I’ve got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to keep, Mr. Haley


Key quote on workers

I’ll give ye all the work of my hands ... but my soul I won’t give up, Tom (to Legree, on refusing to beat another slave)


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com


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