Describe and compare the three slave owners in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Is there a moral hierarchy among them?
There is a moral hierarchy among the three slave owners.
The middling master is Tom's first, Arthur Shelby. He treats Tom and the other slaves kindly, but Shelby is also selfish and mismanages his finances and eventually has to sell Tom to settle his debts. His wife, a morally upright woman, would rather economize and do without luxuries in order to keep Tom, as his sale will separate him from his wife and young children. However, her husband is not willing to sacrifice his own pleasures for the sake of a slave. He is not the worst of the three slave owners, but he doesn't question the system in which he lives. Shelby feels badly about selling Tom, but he puts his own needs first.
The best of the lot is Augustine St. Claire, the master in New Orleans to whom Tom is sold to settle Shelby's debts. St. Claire understands that slavery is a corrupt system that brutalizes both masters and slaves. He treats his slaves kindly, if carelessly, and agrees to free Tom, but then dies suddenly. His wife, a narrow-minded, selfish woman who lacks imagination, does not believe in freeing slaves and refuses to honor her husband's promise. She sells Tom and some of her other slaves on the New Orleans slave market.
This sale goes very badly for Tom, who finds himself purchased by the brutal, drunken, and depraved Simon Legree. Legree takes him to his isolated plantation, where Legree abuses his slaves, as he finds it more economical to work his slaves to death and replace them than to treat them decently. He wants to use Tom as an overseer to help oppress the other slaves. When Tom refuses to do what is morally wrong, saying that Legree owns his body but not his soul, Legree beats him to death.
By showing a range of slave owners, Stowe attempts to paint a balanced picture of slavery. Part of her aim was to show that even under good masters, slavery was a terrible system.
Tom's first master is Arthur Shelby. He is comparatively benevolent in his treatment of his slaves, is known as a "kind master", and is reluctant to sell Tom when he finds himself in financial straits. Ultimately however, his business sense takes precendence over his "humanity", and he sells Tom to a slave trader in order to pay his debts.
Augustine St. Claire, Tom's second master, is sensitive and kind, somewhat of an idealist who opposes the idea of slavery and plans to eventually emancipate Tom. He does not act quickly enough, however, and is killed before he can give Tom his freedom.
Simon Legree is Tom's final master, a brutal, depraved man who represents slavery at its worst. Infuriated at Tom's steadfast refusal to be corrupted, Legree finally beats him to death.
In a moral hierarchy, St. Claire would be at the top, because he has thought about the reality of slavery and understands it is wrong. Shelby, who is sensitive to a degree towards his slaves as people, would come second, while Legree, in his unspeakable cruelty, would be last. All three men are irrevocably mired in the destructive institution, even Shelby, whose avariciousness takes precedence over his tendency to be kind, and St. Claire, who opposes slavery in theory but cannot bring himself to take action to extricate himself from the system and set his slaves free. The men do differ, however, in their levels of morality and their respective senses of humanity.