Why Didn't They Tell You?


… that the real Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not an Uncle Tom?

… that the real Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not an Uncle Tom?

Being called an Uncle Tom is one of the worst things a black person can be called. An Uncle Tom is as bad or worse than a Benedict Arnold. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, Uncle Tom is a disparaging term applied to a black person who is overeager to win the approval of whites or who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority1. The term comes into the English language after the appearance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that was so influential that Abraham Lincoln credited it with having started the Civil War2. Is this characterization of Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fair?

If you have not read the novel, you probably have an image of Uncle Tom as looking like Uncle Remus singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bWyhj7siEY) in the Disney movie Song of the South, the furthest thing from the appearance of Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Based on physical descriptions of him and illustrations in the book3, Tom is a big, virile, stalwart man in the prime of life and the father of three small children. It is true that he is the perfect servant: intelligent, organized, and obedient in carrying out his duties as a slave. His material circumstances were comfortable and easy to deal with under his first two owners. His second owner, who had every intent to free him, was unexpectedly killed in New Orleans. He was then sold to the infamous Simon Legree.

Simon Legree had a cotton plantation in the Louisiana swamps where he drove his slaves beyond the point of human endurance. Because of Tom’s perceived abilities, Simon Legree wanted to make Tom his overseer and wanted him to become the Uncle Tom that Tom is accused of being. Legree was determined to harden Tom and break him. After deciding that a young girl should be beaten, he said to Tom, “You see I telled ye I didn’t buy ye jest for common work; I mean to promote ye, and make a driver of ye; and tonight ye may jest as well begin to get yer hand in. Now, ye jest take this gal and flog her; ye’ve seen enough on’t to know how.” Tom’s reply was, “It’s what I ain’t used to – never did- and can’t do, no way possible.” After this response, Legree begins to beat Tom and asks him, “… now, will you tell me ye can’t do it?” Tom’s reply “… this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do; and, Mas’r, I never shall do it – never!4 (p. 327) [Italics added].

The exchange between Tom and Legree continues with Legree saying, “… So you pretend it’s wrong to flog the gal!”, to which Tom replies, “I think so, Mas’r, … Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but, as to my raising my hand agin anyone here, I never shall – I’ll die first!” Legree presses on, saying, “Ain’t yer mine, now, body and soul?” Tom’s reply is “No! no! no! my soul ain’t yours, Mar’r! You haven’t bought it – you can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for by one that is able to keep it; no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!” (p. 328) [Italics added]. At that point, Legree brings in his two black goons, Sambo and Qimbo, who beat Tom almost to the point of death. However, he does recover with the help of Cassy, who knows how to maneuver about the place and who has a certain amount of influence over Simon Legree.

By now Tom is the acknowledged spiritual leader of the slave community. Indeed, Cassy begins calling him Father Tom, not Uncle Tom. Tom tells Cassy that she and the young girl Emmeline must find a way to escape. He, however, must stay because the plantation is his mission field. Cassey and Tom concoct a scheme that results in Cassy and Emmeline escaping with Tom’s help. After their escape, Legree asks Tom to tell him how they escaped. Tom does not deny having knowledge of the escape but refuses to tell Legree anything, at which point he decides to beat him to death. Tom’s response was, “O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ‘twill me! Do the worst you can, my troubles will be over soon; but if you don’t repent, yours won’t never end!” Tom died after this brutal beating by the same two goons, Sambo and Quimbo, but not before they repented.

Now I ask you, the reader, does this sound like an “Uncle Tom”, in the sense that we use that term today? The fact is, Tom is a Christ like figure. Indeed, he sacrificed himself for the two women who escaped to freedom; he saved their lives. Tom felt that they would not survive if they did not find a way of escape.

Why has Uncle Tom been so badly maligned? I do not have a satisfactory answer. It may partly be because some influential abolitionists felt that Harriet Beecher Stowe did not go far enough; they felt that she should have outright called for the abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, her book undoubtedly strengthened the opposition to slavery, a point of view supported by both Abraham Lincoln and historian Dr. John Hope Franklin. Some people may be offended by her strong advocacy for Christianity. Indeed, you could say that Harriet Beecher Stowe was an apologist for Christianity. Strangely enough, another factor that may have worked against her acceptance by some was her strong positive view of the black race. It runs throughout the book. Furthermore, it is evident that she had a good knowledge of the true history of Black People, from ancient times up to her time. I could nitpick but I cannot bring any charge against Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Notes and Referenes

1. “Uncle Tom.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Uncle%20Tom. Accessed 19 Mar. 2020.

2. On a visit to the White House in 1862, President Lincoln allegedly said to her, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.”, quoted in (1991), The World’s Best Reading, Reader’s Digest

3. Drawing from page 35 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Tom & his Baby

4. All the quotation are from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Reader’s Digest edition. Page numbers are indicated at the end of the passage.

4 thoughts on “Why Didn’t They Tell You…

  1. Bobbie House says:

    Very interesting. Uncle Tom was not and “Uncle Tom”


    1. Exactly! The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is good reading. One of the pegs in the death knell of slavery.


  2. Samuel Martin says:

    It’s shameful this day and age that an intelligent, highly esteemed black man would refer to a black state representative as an Uncle Tom, because he endorsed a presidential candidate.


    1. Whos is the black man that made the accusation?


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