Although Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the late nineteenth century, he set his novel decades earlier when slavery was still legal, making his book an extended exploration of the morality of one person owning another human being. Slavery in the American South was a brutal institution involving the physical and psychological domination of black people who had been forcefully uprooted and transported—mainly from Africa—to serve as laborers on American cotton and tobacco plantations. By 1804 all Northern states had abolished slavery within their borders, but the free labor that slaves were forced to perform still constituted the major force behind the American economy. As long as the country as a whole condoned and benefitted from the practice of slavery, no black American could consider himself truly free, which is why Jim’s emancipation at the end of the book is bittersweet, rather than fully triumphant. His wife and children are still slaves, as are all the other enslaved characters in the story.
Although economically slavery advanced the whole nation, politically it proved divisive, and led the country to its greatest internal rift, the Civil War. Despite the North’s economic dependence on Southern agriculture, Northerners found slavery morally indefensible, and sought to abolish the institution in all states. Southern states resented the attempt of the federal government to restrict state sovereignty, which in 1791 had been enshrined in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. The issue of slavery brought the issue of states’ autonomy into sharp focus. Southern states banded together, formed the Confederacy, and seceded from the North, known as the Union. The Civil War ended with the collapse of the Confederacy and the liberation of four million slaves, but equality was still an elusive goal, as the South soon established a form of racist segregation known as Jim Crow. As Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the thirtieth anniversary of the Civil War’s end, readers would know that the years ahead for Huck and Jim would be far from easy, and Jim would continue to suffer racism, prejudice, and lack of opportunity.
By setting his novel in the antebellum, or “prewar,” South, Twain fully explores the tensions between North and South, and the mindsets that enabled slavery to endure. At the beginning of the book, Huck buys into many popular Southern sentiments about race, and is surprised to discover Jim has the same human emotions as he does: “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.” Despite sympathizing with Jim, he still believes that helping him escape is morally wrong. He ultimately decides not to betray Jim, but he remains conflicted because he doesn’t want to be seen as a “low down Abolitionist.” At the time the book is set, many Southerners argued that slavery was the natural lot of black people. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, wrote that the Confederate government was founded on the idea that black people were inherently unequal to whites, and that slavery was therefore a natural state of being.
Huckleberry Finn’s realistic depiction of Southern slavery is in part due to Twain’s own relationship with slavery and the ways it had been previously portrayed. Twain grew up in Missouri in the period before the Civil War. Missouri never became part of the Confederacy, but slavery was legal in the state. Twain’s parents owned slaves, but his wife’s family was staunchly abolitionist. Through the influence of his wife’s family as well as numerous African Americans who he met during his life, Twain developed into a humanitarian and vocal champion of African American rights. He also grappled with previous novelistic depictions of slavery, which tended to romanticize the institution. One example of this kind of unrealistic portrayal is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicts slavery in a nostalgic manner and includes characters who prefer slavery to freedom. The complex representation of slavery in Huckleberry Finn can be understood as Twain’s attempt not merely to comprehend an institution that had officially ended three decades prior, but to recognize slavery’s continuing legacy in American society and politics and to imagine literature’s role in addressing this legacy.