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On a farm in Kentucky, during a cold February afternoon in the middle of the nineteenth century, two white men sit discussing a business transaction. Arthur Shelby, a gentleman and slaveholder, is negotiating to sell some slaves to Mr. Haley, a coarse slave buyer. Mr. Shelby has fallen into debt and must sell several slaves to raise money, or else he will lose all his land and property. He tells Haley of a fine slave he owns, Uncle Tom—an uncommonly good and honest man, and a devout Christian. Haley says that one slave alone will not suffice, and he asks for Shelby to include a boy or girl with the trade. Despite Shelby’s reluctance, they decide upon Harry, the son of Eliza, Mrs. Shelby’s maid. Before the trade is finalized, however, Mr. Shelby says he must talk the matter over with his wife. While the men are talking, Eliza approaches Mrs. Shelby and asks her worriedly if Mr. Shelby is going to sell Harry. Mrs. Shelby, uninformed of her husband’s financial woes, promises Eliza that Mr. Shelby would never consider such a thing.
We learn that the beautiful Eliza married a talented mulatto named George, but was separated from him when he was hired out to work in a factory nearby. He invented a machine to speed the process of cleaning hemp, thereby earning the admiration of the factory’s proprietor. However, George’s master removed him from the factory, saying that he only invented the machine because he was too lazy to work. He put George to work at menial labor, which meant that he could see his wife only infrequently. George and Eliza lost two young children, making Eliza very protective of her only surviving child, Harry.
George comes to see Eliza soon after her conversation with Mrs. Shelby and tells her that he is going to escape because he can no longer bear the miseries he has been suffering. Eliza urges him to practice Christian restraint and to trust in God, but George explains that his master is urging him to take another woman as his wife. Eliza protests, and George reminds her that there are no lawful marriages among slaves. As he leaves, he tells Eliza that he will head north for Canada in a week; once there, he will work to buy freedom for Eliza and Harry.
In Uncle Tom’s cabin, Aunt Chloe is cooking dinner for Tom and the children. Shelby’s son, young Mas’r George, is teaching Tom how to write the letter G. They laugh and talk, bantering about, then eating griddlecakes and discussing pies. After dinner they hold a prayer meeting at which the gathered slaves sing hymns and Mas’r George reads the last chapters of Revelation.
While this happy scene takes place in the cabin, Mr. Shelby agrees to sell both Tom and Harry. He signs the papers, and Mr. Haley relieves him of his mortgage. Shelby reminds Haley that he has promised not to sell Tom to any but the kindest master. Haley states unconvincingly that he will do his best.
That evening, Shelby tells his wife about the sale. Mrs. Shelby, appalled, tries to convince her husband not to sell the slaves—after all, he has promised to set Tom free, and she has promised Eliza that Harry would not be taken away from her. But Mr. Shelby tells her that he must either sell those two slaves, or sell all of his property. Mrs. Shelby declares that slavery is a sin, that she hates slavery and wishes that she could do something to stop it. She offers to sell her watch to save Harry. Shelby apologizes to his wife, but says that the papers are already signed.
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