Harriet Beecher Stowe Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp Criticism - Essay

Harriet Beecher Stowe


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dred: A Tale by the Author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.Tait's Edinburgh Magazine 23 (October 1856): 613-20.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic discusses Dred as both a novel and an antislavery polemic.]

The bare statistics of slavery never caused so deep an impression on the world as Mrs. Stowe's first narrative—for we can scarcely call that a novel; which was supported by documents in its most thrilling statements. The cabin appears, however, to have been constructed in vain, so far as the population of the United States are concerned. It has made few converts if any, from the neutral party in the republic. The ecclesiastical bodies are still as busy as before with matters of minor importance, with missions to the heathen, and with dancing, and other symptoms of worldly-mindedness, at home; while they bear no testimony of any value against their crime of crimes.

A number of writers in this country have endorsed the stupid assertion of the friends of slavery in the States—that Britain is responsible for its excessive guilt, since our ancestors or our Government allowed slavery to descend as an inheritance of woe to the republic. The argument is extremely impudent; and we say so in no angry spirit, for we consider it altogether as a curiosity in effrontery. The people of this country, or their Government, at no period forced slavery upon the colonists of America. The Government permitted individuals to be drawn into this crime by their own greed or indolence; but they no more compelled the colonists to buy slaves than they obliged them to rear bullocks or horses, asses or oxen.

Even if the British Government had any share in the establishment of slavery in the United States, the Government of the republic should have imitated the example supplied to them, by liberating the slaves. They could afford this outlay better than a nation hampered by a debt unequalled now, or ever, in the world; and with the defence of constitutional principles in the face of the despotism of Europe.

The apologists here for abuses in the States, and the perpetrators of them there, have a consummate knack of shuffling their ancestry as they please. When anything good is to be drawn from ancient British history, they appropriate it as the work of their ancestors; and when anything objectionable appears, it belongs to us Britishers of the present hour and year. Even if the British Government of a century since had forced slavery upon the American colonies, the citizens of Britain are not more responsible thereupon than the citizens of the States; but, as the two streams have diverged, the elder branch have repented of and turned from, while the junior branch have clung to and magnified, the sin of their common ancestry, Jefferson attempted to cast the opprobrium of slavery upon the king of England; but George III never compelled any planter to buy and work negroes. The charge was absolutely false.

Slavery in our colonies was even a different sin from slavery as it exists now in the States. The negroes of the West India islands had their own churches and schools. A certain portion of their time was secured to them. At least the Sabbath was, in every place, their own. They could and did possess property, and in their circumstances the distant separation of families was impracticable. Even during the existence of slavery the negroes always could reckon upon the support and sympathy of the missionaries sent to them, and in extreme cases the latter kept their ground through their connexion with the mother country. The States have altered many features of slavery to the worse. They have left the negro nothing. They have made him nothing. Their internal slave trade has increased the evils of the system. The breeding of slaves has become a business. Indulgence in brutal vice is absolutely industry. Slaves, especially female slaves, bring prices in proportion to their shading. The fairest are the most valued, and the reason will be intelligible without any rent in the veil that does not conceal but covers filthy details. This internal traffic is not a craft of small bulk. One State alone bred and exported forty thousand slaves in a single year. The importations of three or four southern states amounted to two hundred and fifty thousand human chattels in one year. They all came from the northern states in the southern section of the confederacy, which are distinguished for the health, strength, skill, and symmetry of their negro productions. A very indifferent article is worth five hundred dollars. The average price must be considerably above that sum; but even at this low charge, the value of the annual importations from the north to the south must be twenty-five millions sterling, per annum. We are told that the number of slave-holders in the union is three hundred thousand. The breeding trade of the north is confined probably to one-third of the number, and its average value to each of them, therefore, is £250 annually—not a large trade, but a great help to a small business; and one that makes money circulate in a poor country.

Although the number of absolute slave-holders is comparatively small, yet the institution has extensive ramifications. The families of the slave-holders, added to their own number, embrace probably one and a half millions of persons. Their friends or relatives have an indirect, or perhaps a prospective interest, exactly as in this country many persons are concerned in the value of land who are not yet landholders. The southern states also contain a numerous white population misera plebs, so low, so poor, so wretched, that they find comfort in seeing beneath them a lower, although it should be a fatter, stratum of humanity. The reason is obvious. The poor pale face of Carolina, like the poor Magyar of Hungary, is a noble, for he is a privileged person, who can strike his neighbour's black in the company of a dozen of niggers, without any dread of punishment, because no witness is there against him. He may even seize his black neighbour's poultry, before his eyes, without incurring punishment for theft, because the evidence of an honest and industrious negro is unavailable against an idle and worthless white skin.

The feeling of superiority imparted to vulgar minds by these distinctions, has more influence than we can comprehend in this country, where the practice does not exist; and therefore nearly all the white population of the slave states, those of them who have, and those of them who have not, living property, are alike opposed to the emancipation of the negroes: while we should destroy the strongest argument against slavery by saying or supposing that it can exist without deteriorating the character of its victims.

The story of Dred consists of many plots, and several heroes and heroines. It is very difficult to name the leading character. Nina is a heroine, and probably as she begins the volume, and occupies the larger share in the work, may claim precedence. Mr. Clayton is the most patriotic and practical white man of the corps, and as Nina's lover, should be considered the hero, especially as he is an unexceptionable person. Two leading negroes appear in the book. Dred is one; dark, enthusiastic, gloomy, plotter, and prophet of destruction on the enemy—deeming himself set by Heaven in the dismal swamp to call down evil upon a sinful people. Tiff is the other—loving, patient, and toiling—the man of all, both men and women-work—the faithful guardian of his master's beggared grandchildren, who struggles by day and night for their upbringing; and over all things desires that an entrance may be ministered to them into the kingdom of heaven, although he cannot make out the way. Dred and Tiff are both types of their race—representative men of extreme sections. The Tiffs are rare among the negroes—the Dreds are rarer. If the Dreds were much more numerous than they have been hitherto, the slave system would be ended. Dred resembles an old “confessor” in the days of persecution. He quotes from the prophets denunciations against oppression and the oppressors; applying them of course to slave owners. He lives upon the prospect of coming woes, carrying his bible in one hand, and his rifle in the other—reading and shooting, as either duty becomes necessary.

The narrative in the volume is only a scaffolding for the politics of the author. The work, like its elder brother, is a plea for the abolition of slavery. It brings out, more clearly than any previous volume of this character, an evil in slavery that has been much overlooked. The sufferings of the poor population with white skins in consequence of slavery have not hitherto been quoted in argument against the system. Necessarily white labourers are unable to obtain employment in a slave state. They are brought not only into competition with slaves, but slaves do not work well with them; and as the servile interest is stronger than that of “the white trash,” the poverty of the latter increases with the lapse of time. The ignorance and misery of this white population are deplorable, yet they cling to slavery. They cannot read, yet they are privileged persons. They cannot educate their children, yet they belong to the governing race. They are often obliged to eat the crumbs from the slaves' table, yet they can knock down a slave, or even kill him, in the presence of any number of negroes, without the dread of penal consequences—for black evidence against white crimes is nil.

The moral evils of slavery are more coarsely displayed among the sinking class than even among the negroes on comfortable plantations The latter are often carefully fed and tended. They have medicines and physicians in sickness. They have a home at all seasons. They have no care respecting what they shall eat or drink, or wherewithal they shall be clothed. All these things are provided for them upon the principle that leads a prudent man to care for his horse. But for white trash no planter cares. They skulk in swamps. They are too proud to dig, but they are not ashamed to beg. They buy and sell, for the craft of the pedlar is not a menial employment; but their traffic is not always or often remunerative. The southern states must still contain abundance of unimproved land; but the whites who cannot keep blacks to work for them do not work well for themselves. They might establish small cotton and sugar plantations, but especially those of cotton; yet they prefer to be loafers and squatters, doing odd jobs which are not exactly within the pale of field labour. The upper classes of the south, according to Dred, think that the bondage of these brethren might be merciful to them; but they see no means of accomplishing even that piece of benevolence. We can almost understand how respectable men among the slave-holders encourage Cuban raids and filibustering schemes, not only to increase the slave lands and the relative value of slave property, but also to relieve their neighbourhood from the unprofitable presence of the wild fellows who support the domestic institution without deriving any profit from its possessions. In this way the Kansas war becomes more intelligible than it appears to be when considered solely as a political conflict. A new slave state in the west would increase the influence of the slave-holding territories in the union, while it would add a few more dollars to the value of every gentleman's human animals; but it would also give the poor white friends of slavery a new field whereon to seek fortune; because, although the present slave states include large tracts of waste land, yet they are probably unproductive under the present system, since only very fine soil can support slave tillage.

The free-soil, or northern labourers and speculators, know that if Kansas be inhabited by slaves the land is lost to them. The slave-holding population view the matter in precisely the same light. Thus the existing conflict, which has become serious, is not a war between two races, but between two political parties, not for political supremacy, but the exclusion of their opponents from a large region, out of which, in the interest of either, it is necessary that the other be excluded. The United States have arrived at that crisis in their history, when one half of their citizens cannot live on the same land with their fellow citizens. The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. How then can the Jews and the Samaritans be longer united in one republic?

Nina Gordon was the daughter of a planter in North Carolina who was descended from the Scotch Gordons—indeed, we know not whether there be any other Gordons. Her father was an autocrat, much as all the old planters were. He had a legitimate son and daughter, and however many more of illegitimate children he may have owned, we hear of two, also a son and daughter. The legitimates were, like all Scotch, either very good or very bad—for we ever run into extremes, a quality that may be assigned to that perfervidum ingenium whereby we are distinguished among the nations. The son was a perfect scapegrace. The daughter was a wild young thing. The son's inheritance was disentangled from that of the daughter, who possessed the paternal estate and all its living properties; placed by her father under the management of a clever quadroon, a slave, his eldest son, Nina's brother—although she knew not, and never knew, the relationship. This slave son and slave brother was known as Harry.

The book opens with Nina's return from New York. She had learned life in one of those fashionable boarding schools where young ladies acquire much knowledge which they go into the world to forget. She relates to Harry, who was a married slave—the most unfortunate position in the world for an educated man—the character of her lovers, and the nature of all her purchases. Of the former it was evident, from the usual symptoms, that Miss Nina preferred a Mr. Clayton, son of Judge Clayton, a young lawyer, moreover a young planter, and notwithstanding both obstacles, an honest man. The opening chapter is a pretty specimen of a difficult style. It details Nina's confessions to her elder brother, whom she only recognises as an attached and faithful guardian and slave. She thus describes her third and most dangerous wooer:—

“And the third?” said Harry.

“Well, you see, I don't like him a bit. I'm sure I don't. He's a hateful creature; he isn't handsome; he's proud as Lucifer; and I'm sure I don't know how he got me to be engaged. It was a kind of an accident. He's real good, though—too good for me; that's a fact. But then, I'm afraid of him a little.”

“And his name?”

“Well, his name is Clayton—Mr. Edward Clayton, at your service. He's one of your high and mighty people, with such deep set eyes!—eyes, that look as if they were in a cave,—and such black hair! and his eyes have a desperate sort of sad look, sometimes quite Byronic.”

We cannot quote the young lady's description of her lover at full length, for the details are interesting only to young ladies; but this is the way in which she got into the mesh:—

Well, you see, I wouldn't court him, and I plagued him, and laughed at him, and spited him, and got him gloriously wroth; and he said some spiteful things about me, and then I said some more about him, and we had a real up and down quarrel; and then I took a penitent turn, you know, and just went gracefully down into the valley of humiliation—as we witches can; and it took wonderfully—brought my lord to his knees before he knew what he was doing. Well, really I don't know what was the matter just then, but he spoke so earnest and strong that actually he got me to crying—hateful creature!—and I promised all sorts of things, you know—said altogether more than will bear thinking of.

Mr. Clayton had a sister, Anne, who did not approve clearly of Miss Nina's character, thinking her a flirt without a heart; and, although a very wise female, arrived at years of discretion, yet she was mistaken as to the heart. Miss Nina, on her side, had no person of this description to act as adviser and confidante. Her aunt resided on the estate, but—

Mrs. Nesbit, however, was simply one of those well-bred, well-dressed lay figures, whose only office in life seems to be to occupy a certain room in a house, to sit in certain chairs at proper hours, to make certain remarks at suitable intervals of conversation.

Mrs. Nesbit had, when young, been somewhat vain of her personalities, and had run the ordinary and usual round pursued by gay young ladies, making a short circle to an early marriage, and, having lost all her children and her husband, had gradually mellowed into a conventional religion, current in the world, but not sterling.

Miss Nina attempted to exhibit all her finery to this old lady, with the following result:—

The bed, arranged with extremest precision however, was covered with a melange of French finery, flounces, laces, among which Nina kept up a continual agitation, like that produced by a breeze in a flower-bed, as she unfolded, turned, and flattened them before the eyes of her relative.

“I have been through all this, Nina,” said the latter, with a melancholy shake of the head, “and I know the vanity of it.”

“Well, aunty, I havn't been through it; so I don't know.”

“Yes, my dear, when I was of your age I used to go to balls and parties, and could think of nothing but of dress and admiration. I have been through it all, and seen the vanity of it.”

“Well, aunt, I want to go through it, and see the vanity of it too. That's just what I'm after. I'm on the way to be as sombre and solemn as you are; but I'm bound to have a good time first. Now, look at this pink brocade.”

Had the brocade been a pall, it could scarcely have been regarded with a more lugubrious aspect.

“Ah, child! such a dying world as this, to spend to much time and thought on dress!”

“Why, Aunt Nesbit, yesterday you spent just two whole hours in thinking whether you should turn the breadths of your black silk dress upside down or downside up; and this was a dying world all the time.”

Aunt Nesbit was no match for this mocking bird, who reasoned in the most accurate, amusing, and lively manner, upon the virtue of artificial flowers, which her female relative regarded with horror, exclaiming, “Turn off my eyes from beholding vanity.”

Artificial flowers, she thought, were a sinful waste of time and money. So think numbers of old ladies with silver plate, gold rings, and silk apparel—all coming under the same condemnation, with their Brussels or Kidderminster carpets, their rosewood furniture, and a great many other things, belonging, for this matter, to the genus of artificial flowers. But Nina puts the business in a simple way, and one more satisfactory to the artificial flower makers.

Well, aunt, then why did the Lord make sweet peas, and roses, and orange blossoms for? I'm sure it's only doing as He does, to make flowers. He don't make everything grey or stone colour.

This is a reverent or an irreverent mode of stating the question, depending as it does upon the spirit of the pleader, and a short answer to the Aunt Nesbit class of cavillers.

The comparison instituted between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred only demonstrates both to be of one family. Tomtit is certainly a male counterpart of the girl.

Dred and Tiff are both required to make Uncle Tom, and together they make more than that respectable personage. Legree has a follower in Tom Gordon; but then Legree was an economical scoundrel, and Tom Gordon is an extravagant spendthrift. Harry has an almost literal predecessor in the cabin, although the class appears to have degenerated, and he wants the resolution of his type. Nina's sister is quite apparent all through Uncle Tom; and as the authoress brought Eva to an early death, even thus has she dealt with poor Nina.

The negro Tiff was a...

(The entire section is 8561 words.)