“Well, Tom’s got the real article, if ever a fellow had,” rejoined the other. “Why, last fall, I let him go to Cincinnati alone, to do business for me, and bring home five hundred dollars. ‘Tom,’ says I to him, ‘I trust you, because I think you’re a Christian—I know you wouldn’t cheat.’ Tom comes back, sure enough; I knew he would. Some low fellows, they say, said to him—Tom, why don’t you make tracks for Canada?’ ‘Ah, master trusted me, and I couldn’t,’—they told me about it. I am sorry to part with Tom, I must say. You ought to let him cover the whole balance of the debt; and you would, Haley, if you had any conscience.”
In the novel’s opening scene, Mr. Shelby, a Kentucky gentleman, has put up one of his slaves for sale. He bargains with a slave trader over Tom’s price. The scene exposes the stark reality of slavery: Tom, the hero of the novel, exists as a piece of property. Even Tom’s most heroic qualities, his trustworthiness and Christian faith, only serve to increase his market value. The author’s anti-slavery purpose adds irony to Mr. Shelby’s casual conversation. The slave owner talks of Christianity, trust, and conscience while selling another human being.
Tom had watched the whole transaction from first to last, and had a perfect understanding of its results . . . His very soul bled within him for what seemed to him the wrongs of the poor suffering thing that lay like a crushed reed on the boxes; the feeling, living, bleeding, yet immortal thing, which American state law coolly classes with the bundles, and bales, and boxes, among which she is lying. Tom drew near, and tried to say something; but she only groaned. Honestly, and with tears running down his own cheeks, he spoke of a heart of love in the skies, of a pitying Jesus, and an eternal home; but the ear was deaf with anguish, and the palsied heart could not feel.
Tom tries to comfort a fellow slave after her young child has been taken from her and sold, to be raised, trained, and resold at a hefty profit. But the slave mother’s suffering overwhelms her such that even Christian pity and love cannot comfort her. Tom’s religious point of reference reflects abolitionist rhetoric as much as authentic human feelings. The reader gets angrier at the separation of mother and child than Tom, the hero, does. Over the course of the story, the reader’s anger may grow with each new proof of the evils of slavery.
“But it’s no kind of apology for slavery, to prove that it isn’t worse than some other bad thing.” “I didn’t give it for one,—nay, I’ll say, besides, that ours is the more bold and palpable infringement of human rights; actually buying a man up, like a horse,—looking at his teeth, cracking his joints, and trying his paces, and then paying down for him,—having speculators, breeders, traders, and brokers in human bodies and souls,—sets the thing before the eyes of the civilized world in a more tangible form, though the thing done be, after all, in its nature, the same; that is, appropriating one set of human beings to the use and improvement of another, without any regard to their own.”
Miss Ophelia St. Clare, an abolitionist from Vermont, debates with her cousin, Augustine St. Clare, a slave owner in whose household she lives. Augustine has advanced the common argument that American slaves fare no worse than English laborers. Now he admits that slavery, because institutionalized, perpetrates worse wickedness. Augustine recognizes the evils of slavery and treats his own slaves responsibly. However, in spite of Miss Ophelia’s entreaties, he does not free his slaves. He doesn’t think one man’s actions can change such a strongly entrenched system. Augustine’s cynicism and indolence lead him to continue the evil.
“You see,” said the woman, “you don’t know anything about it;—I do. I’ve been on this place five years, body and soul, under this man’s foot; and I hate him as I do the devil! Here you are, on a lone plantation, ten miles from any other, in the swamps; not a white person here, who could testify, if you were burned alive,—if you were scalded, cut into inch-pieces, set up for the dogs to tear, or hung up and whipped to death. There’s no law here, of God or man, that can do you, or any one of us, the least good; and, this man! there’s no earthly thing that he’s too good to do. I could make any one’s hair rise, and their teeth chatter, if I should only tell what I’ve seen and been knowing to, here,—and it’s no use resisting! Did I want to live with him? Wasn’t I a woman delicately bred; and he,—God in heaven! what was he, and is he? And yet, I’ve lived with him, these five years, and cursed every moment of my life,—night and day![”]
Cassy, the enslaved mistress of Simon Legree, lashes out at Tom, her fellow slave, for believing in God. Tom feels at the lowest point of his life and prays for the strength not to give up. The novel devotes large sections of dialogue to debates about slavery. This debate between Tom and Cassy, two victims, stands as the most intense. Tom, the story’s hero, endures the harshest form of slavery with abuse that makes him more like Christ while confronting readers with the reality of slavery’s evils.