The Power of Words to Create Change
Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was described by Abraham Lincoln as the “book that started the Civil War”. It was published in 1852 and sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year. It was also performed as a play in many towns and cities throughout the North. In this excerpt, the dialogue, spellings, and “accent” are from the original and were Stowe’s attempt to represent uneducated speech. However, it will be somewhat difficult for many readers to understand. Haley is a slave trader and Tom, and Marks are slave catchers talking about the enslaved people they are seeking to recapture. The last paragraph is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s commentary on how she hopes people will respond.

  • Read the section of dialogue aloud or as a readers theatre. In groups of four, spend about 15 minutes discussing the excerpt to clarify the meaning. Create a poster describing the character of the men in the dialogue.
  • After sharing the posters, discuss the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work as a class.
  • How might Beecher’s book have affected a Northerner who had been indifferent to slavery? Why?
  • Describe how your own opinion about an issue or event has been influenced by a book, TV program, or movie.
  • Are there issues or concerns subject to debate today that you predict in the future will be considered as evil and/or unethical as slavery?

Excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
By Harriet Beecher Stowe

The setting of this excerpt is a tavern in Kentucky. Haley, a slave trader, has purchased a young African American child, planning to take him to New Orleans for sale. Before he can complete this transaction, the child’s mother Eliza escapes to Ohio (a free state) and takes her child with her. Tom Loker and Marks are professional slave catchers who are being hired to go North to retrieve Haley’s property.

"This yer young-un business makes lots of trouble in the trade," said Haley, dolefully.

"If we could get a breed of gals that didn't care, now, for their young uns," said Marks; "tell ye, I think 't would be 'bout the greatest mod'rn improvement I knows on,"--and Marks patronized his joke by a quiet introductory sniggle.

"Jes so," said Haley; "I never couldn't see into it; young uns is heaps of trouble to 'em; one would think, now, they'd be glad to get clar on 'em; but they arn't. And the more trouble a young un is, and the more good for nothing, as a gen'l thing, the tighter they sticks to 'em."

"Wal, Mr. Haley," said Marks, "'est pass the hot water. Yes, sir, you say 'est what I feel and all'us have. Now, I bought a gal once, when I was in the trade,--a tight, likely wench she was, too, and quite considerable smart,--and she had a young un that was mis'able sickly; it had a crooked back, or something or other; and I jest gin 't away to a man that thought he'd take his chance raising on 't, being it didn't cost nothin';--never thought, yer know, of the gal's taking' on about it,--but, Lord, yer oughter seen how she went on. Why, re'lly, she did seem to me to valley the child more 'cause 't was sickly and cross, and plagued her; and she warn't making b'lieve, neither,--cried about it, she did, and lopped round, as if she'd lost every friend she had. It re'lly was droll to think on 't. Lord, there ain't no end to women's notions."

"Wal, jest so with me," said Haley. "Last summer, down on Red river, I got a gal traded off on me, with a likely lookin' child enough, and his eyes looked as bright as yourn; but, come to look, I found him stone blind. Fact--he was stone blind. Wal, ye see, I thought there warn't no harm in my jest passing him along, and not sayin' nothin'; and I'd got him nicely swapped off for a keg o' whiskey; but come to get him away from the gal, she was jest like a tiger. So 't was before we started, and I hadn't got my gang chained up; so what should she do but ups on a cotton-bale, like a cat, ketches a knife from one of the deck hands, and, I tell ye, she made all fly for a minit, till she saw 't wan't no use; and she jest turns round, and pitches head first, young un and all, into the river,--went down plump, and never ris."

"Bah!" said Tom Loker, who had listened to these stories with ill-repressed disgust,--"shif'less, both on ye! my gals don't cut up no such shines, I tell ye!"

"Indeed! how do you help it?" said Marks, briskly.

"Help it? why, I buys a gal, and if she's got a young un to be sold, I jest walks up and puts my fist to her face, and says, 'Look here, now, if you give me one word out of your head, I'll smash yer face in. I won't hear one word--not the beginning of a word.' I says to 'em, 'This yer young un's mine, and not yourn, and you've no kind o' business with it. I'm going to sell it, first chance; mind, you don't cut up none o' yer shines about it, or I'll make ye wish ye'd never been born.' I tell ye, they sees it an't no play, when I gets hold. I makes 'em as whist as fishes; and if one on 'em begins and gives a yelp, why,--" and Mr. Loker brought down his fist with a thump that fully explained the hiatus.

(The men then bargain over shares they will get if Eliza is caught.)

If any of our refined and Christian readers object to the society into which this scene introduces them, let us beg them to begin and conquer their prejudices in time. The catching business, we beg to remind them, is rising to the dignity of a lawful and patriotic profession. If all the broad land between the Mississippi and the Pacific becomes one great market for bodies and souls, and human property retains the locomotive tendencies of this nineteenth century, the trader and catcher may yet be among our aristocracy.
Stowe as narrator Chapter 8 Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Margaret Hill, Ph.D.
H-SS Coordinator
San Bernardino Co. Supt. of Schools
Text source: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture
Adapted from Creative Strategies for Teaching American History
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1991