America’s Long Journey: Mrs. Stowe and Mrs. Hentz

Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to depict the evil effects of the slave system. Two years later, Carolyn Lee Hentz published The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854) by way of rebuttal. The novels, like the novelists, are in many ways similar, but arriving at very different destinations.

The odd thing is how much the two women had in common. Both were deeply Christian teachers from Massachusetts who acquired national reputations by writing popular fiction while raising their families. They even became personal friends, in the years when they both lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they say that where you stand depends upon where you sit, and perhaps this is a case in point. Cincinnati is as far south as Mrs. Stowe ever traveled in her long lifetime, so her views of slavery were founded on what she learned from friends, from the news, and from fugitives and those who cared for them. Mrs. Hentz, in her short 55 years, lived in seven states, including Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and came to her understandings in a more first-hand fashion.

The Planter’s Northern Bride shows the South – shows slavery as an institution – as Southerners preferred to see it, master and slaves in a caring, interactive community relationship. Just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a mission to persuade readers that the slave system suffered from inherent evils that could be ameliorated but not removed, so The Planter’s Northern Bride had a mission to persuade readers that slavery provided fewer hardships and more security and community for its slaves than was enjoyed by free blacks, and for that matter poor whites.

She had a point. The arguments and portraits do ring true. They may be overdrawn, but that doesn’t make them intentionally distorted or false. There is no doubt that many a slave-owning family experienced just such community between master and slaves as she portrays. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Planter’s Northern Bride exudes passionate sincerity. Like Mrs. Stowe, Mrs. Hentz is in earnest, and you cannot doubt it.

But of course she goes too far. She believes, and intends you to believe, that left to themselves the slaves mostly are content with their lot in life, and it is only outside agitation that leads them astray. In her world, abolitionists are bigots, acting from ignorance or malice. Reading The Planter’s Northern Bride, you would never guess that Southern newspapers ran columns of ads describing runaway slaves; that cruel punishments could be exacted at the will of the master or (more commonly) the overseer; that hundreds of thousands of slaves were only awaiting a good opportunity to run away, as was eventually proved many times over during the Civil War.

And, while Southerners thought they were exalting an ideal of Southern Womanhood, they were actually exalting Southern White Women, and, more than that, Southern Rich White Women. The aristocratic Southern ideal, much like today’s de facto worship of the wealthy and famous, did not concern itself much with the great mass of the population except insofar as it supported or threatened life at the top of the pyramid. Northerners did something similar, only instead of concentrating on a numerically tiny elite, they identified with and promoted the interests of a broad, educated respectable middle class.

Nonetheless – and this is the reason for writing about these two books and their sincere and earnest authors – in their respective points of view and in the reaction each met you see the reasons for the war.

Mrs. Hentz shows eloquently and ably the plight of the working poor (black or white) in the North. She shows the perils of economic insecurity that later generations would come to know even better. Her indictments of the economic system that treats people as dispensable and disposable labor-inputs, rather than as fellow children of God are unanswerable. None of her points against free labor justify slavery. But they are irrefutable, and might better have been listened to!

Mrs. Stowe eloquently showed the inherent evils of the slave system, and without having to manufacture paper villains to do so. Her bill of particulars against the slave system did not justify the abuses of free labor. But they are irrefutable, and might better have been listened to!

Free labor or slave labor, America’s reality was not what Americans preferred to think it. Northerners criticizing slavery without condemning its practitioners – Southerners criticizing free labor without condemning its practitioners — might have groped their way toward constructive solutions. Working together they might have unknotted the worst of the tangles..

But, as in our own day (whenever this is read), it is easier to curse the darkness than to light a candle, because being willing to light a candle involves admitting to one’s own darkness, which is not the long suit of the politician or the reformer or the ideologue. Partisans of each system could see the mote in their neighbors’ eyes, but remained stubbornly insensible to the beams in their own. Think, if they had been willing to listen to each other, how much more clarity each could have obtained. Think, if they had been willing to work humbly together, how much they could have achieved to create a more perfect union.

But asking for that kind of intelligent open-hearted response is baying for the moon. The only really prominent politician who approached political life in that fashion was shot and killed in Ford’s Theater at the end of the war fanaticism had made.

 

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