Corrupted Institutions, Broken Minds, and Religious Salvation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

a run down cabin
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For as long as the United States has been independent of Great Britain, autonomy has been a cornerstone of American national identity. Key aspects of this desire, like the right to own property and freely pursue economic opportunities, are strongly linked to support for a capitalist economy. Therefore, if true, the criticism that capitalism perpetuates bondage may trouble some modern Americans and motivate adjustment of the national identity. This essay aims to analyze one such literary criticism thoroughly: through her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe claims that nineteenth-century capitalism and slavery are ideologically intertwined and corrosive to three fundamental institutions: the church, the family, and the government. Furthermore, intermixed with her depiction of slavery as capitalism’s complement, Stowe argues that Christianity lessens commodification’s adverse psychological effects on enslaved people.

Stowe begins her novel by introducing Haley, a slave trader who embodies self-interest. To understand Stowe’s representation, sufficient context on early economic thought is needed: the conceptual basis for nineteenth-century capitalism is predicated on Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which suggests the individual’s desire for profit is the primary driver and regulator of the economy. In David Weimer’s article, “Individual, Institution, and Society: Religion and Political Economy in Harriet Beecher Stowe,” he explicates Stowe’s opposition to basing society on Smith’s invisible hand: “The mechanical workings of the political economy were inadequate precisely because they denied revealed religion” (263). Under Stowe’s affirmation of the moral soundness of Christianity, Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be read as a reductio ad absurdum against these “mechanical workings of the political economy.” Stowe crafts Haley as one such example by describing him as having a “swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much overdressed” (41). Here, Stowe suggests that a man who prides himself on achieving profit cannot be virtuous or deserving of power, hence his “air of pretension.” Haley’s flamboyant outfit also characterizes him as materialistic and gaudy. After establishing Haley as her leading exemplar of capitalism, Stowe elaborates on his sour moral character by having him discuss his slave-owning philosophy: “I never could do things up the way some fellers manage the business. I’ve seen ’em as would pull a woman’s child out of her arms, and set him up to sell [...] damages the article–makes ’em quite unfit for service” (47). Stowe characterizes Haley as cold-hearted through his dehumanization of a mother who lost her child. By stripping them both of their human labels through commerce-related words like “article” and “service,” Stowe represents how enslavers directly commodify their slaves. Additionally, Haley’s slave-owning approach suggests that Smith’s self-interest principle allows slavery’s proponents to avoid a guilty conscience. Under the capitalist view, Haley is a rational agent in disregarding the awfulness of separating a child from their mother to execute a profitable action. Stowe expresses through Haley that capitalism is slavery’s complement and cannot suffice as society’s moral foundation, as shown by its incompatibility with “revealed religion.”

In Stowe’s depiction of nineteenth-century America, however, capitalism has already overtaken revealed religion as society’s foundational ideology (Weimer 263). Consequently, the church, family structure, and government institutions have begun to degrade morally. Beginning with arguably the most significant of these degradations, Stowe contends through Marie St. Clare that Southern Protestants have fallen to the temptation of a capitalism-based society. Stowe envisions Marie as the quintessential product of this corrupted antebellum enslaver culture: “[Marie was] reigning belle of the season” (240). Thus, at least from Stowe’s vantage point, Marie’s religious attitudes and household provide an adequate proxy for the affluent white demographic in this era.

Firstly, Marie’s religious beliefs affirm slavery as natural law despite its inherently evil nature. In the same essay, Weimer argues that Stowe “shows the Southern church as an institution that, in accommodating slavery, has perverted itself” (263). Stowe does reference the Southern church’s accommodation of slavery, but Weimer fails to specify how Stowe explicitly challenges the church in his article. In fact, Stowe relates Marie’s unpleasantness with the perversion of the Southern church to demonstrate the disturbing change the church has undergone. Her connection raises the question for readers: What type of person would use Christianity to justify slavery’s brutality? Weimer’s claim finds textual support during Marie’s praise of her preacher’s most recent sermon: “[the preacher] proved distinctly that the Bible was on our side, and supported all our institutions so convincingly” (Stowe 279). By including “all [...] institutions,” Stowe expands the church’s corruption to support not only slavery in its gentlest form but in all its torturous practices. Indeed, through Marie’s inherently cruel enslaver philosophy, which demands she “put [slaves] down, and keep ’em down” (Stowe 265), her beliefs contradict Jesus’ principle of universal love. Finally, while Marie participates in religious rituals, she is motivated mainly by appearances as opposed to authentic regard for her faith: “[Marie] was going now, in full force– diamonds, silk, and lace, and jewels, and all,– to a fashionable church, to be very religious” (Stowe 275). Stowe sarcastically adds “to be very religious” to illustrate Marie’s misunderstanding of the religion’s purpose. For Marie, attending church is a foremost opportunity to flaunt her wealth, the capitalist measure of fulfillment, as opposed to engaging in any sincere religious experience. By imagining Marie St. Clare in fervent support of augmented pro-slavery Christianity and as vicious and ingenuine, Stowe forces her readers to realize slavery’s incompatibility with actual Christian values and the extent of capitalistic corruption in the Southern church.

In addition, Stowe demonstrates capitalism’s destructive effects on the family by contrasting the domestic dynamics of St. Clare and Halliday’s household. Generally, critics have argued that Stowe’s primary evidence for slavery’s destructive effects on the family lies in the forced separation of slave families. For example, David Weimer encapsulates this typical analysis in his article: “Slavery tore apart families and, in so doing, threatened what Stowe considered to be one of society’s most important institutions” (263). While Stowe has verified this argument in The Key for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she also demonstrates how the corrupted institutions behind slavery can wreck non-slave families.

Specifically, as the product of these institutions and technically the maternal head of her household, Marie St. Clare demonstrates Stowe’s critique of capitalism’s domestic ramifications through her cruelty and utter incompetence as a parent. Stowe primarily characterizes Marie through excessive and disturbing rants. For instance, while complaining about her servants’ incompetence and her daughter’s tolerance, Marie grumbles, “But Eva somehow always put herself on an equality with every creature that comes near her. It’s a strange thing about the child. I never have been able to break her out of it” (265). Marie’s narcissistic parenting ethos echoes her detached slave-owning philosophy. As her slaves must be put down, Eva must be molded to Marie’s prejudiced ideals. Her haughtiness furthers Stowe’s argument against capitalist thought, for, once again, under Smith’s morally absent ideology, Marie is a mere rational actor shaping her dependent child to her preferences. Through Marie’s self-driven parenting ethos, Stowe demonstrates the damage capitalism can have on non-slave family structures.

Furthermore, Stowe strengthens this criticism by imagining a domestic sphere isolated from the institutions corrupted by slavery and capitalism: The Halliday Household. David Weimer, in “Individual, Institution, and Society,” describes Stowe’s envisioning of Quakers as the utmost proponents of “individuals’ responsibility to obey their own divinely inspired consciences” (256). Because Quakerism solely relies on this individual conscience, their communities are effectively immune from broader society’s moral corruption. Originating from this ideological backing, Stowe conceptualizes the Quaker Halliday household as a warm, egalitarian haven. Their home is centered around Rachel Halliday’s rocking chair, which exudes “loving words, and gentle moralities, and motherly loving kindness” (Stowe 215). Like Marie’s embodiment of Southern high society, Rachel Halliday personifies this isolated society’s Christian values. Stowe achieves this personification by explicitly characterizing Rachel as genuinely “loving.” Moreover, Stowe also describes the effectiveness of Rachel’s mothering technique: “head-aches and heart-aches innumerable had been cured there,–difficulties spiritual and temporal solved there,–all by one good, loving woman” (216). Here, Stowe implicitly contrasts the results of Rachel’s parenting with Marie’s. Marie cannot cure her own innumerable “head-aches and heart-aches” through her selfish capitalistic worldview, much less those of her family. Contrastingly, Rachel’s “gentle” and “loving” attitudes produce exceptional results in her household management. Through these two polar opposite exposures to capitalist thinking, Stowe demonstrates how the tainting of a mother’s conscience corrupts the institution of the non-slave family.

Stowe also criticizes the political sphere’s tolerance of slavery through Senator Bird. Stowe’s lineage often denounced forms of civil government. For example, the Beecher family generally believed that “robust voluntary religious institutions could produce a better society” than any formal establishment (Weimer 253). In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, Stowe advances her family’s criticism of the American institution of government by demonstrating how capitalism’s supplantation of revealed religion led to the immoral Fugitive Slave Act. After revealing to his wife that he supported the act, Senator Bird argues, “there is such a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings” (Stowe 144). While it may seem contradictory, Senator Bird’s suggestion to put aside “private feelings” exemplifies how capitalism has imbued Stowe’s image of the world. The irony in the Senator’s argument is that enslaved people are currently experiencing literal torture at the hands of this “agitation.” By perpetuating slavery, the Senator is acting in his self-interest by delaying the inevitable conflict necessary to end slavery. Consequently, he neglects the suffering of enslaved people to insulate himself. In other words, the individual’s fear of civil war drives him to ratify deeply immoral legislation. Stowe adds to this argument by having Senator Bird contradict his official policy when faced with an actual runaway (153). By differentiating between the man and his occupation, Stowe specifically attacks American political institutions for accepting pragmatic capitalist values as its moral foundation.

In their day-to-day lives in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, enslaved people are also impacted by the corruption of American institutions. However, their commodification under this corruption’s causal source, capitalism, negatively affects their psychology differently than non-slaves. Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s essay “The Mask of Obedience: Male Slave Psychology in the Old South” discusses a myriad of negative archetypes and coping mechanisms that manifest in enslaved Americans due to their bondage. Stowe suggests that religion provides slaves relief from capitalism’s damages, despite their highly traumatic nature. The character arcs of Uncle Tom and Topsy illustrate Stowe’s vision for this application of Christianity.

Firstly, Stowe roughly mirrors the story of Job by exposing Tom to incrementally worse aspects of slavery to test his faith as he approaches his eventual sacrifice. For enslaved people in general, Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues that “as a means of day-to-day survival, [slaves] accepted their position, only questioning, consciously resenting it, when crises arose” (139). A similar understanding of slave psychology exists in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At the novel’s beginning, Stowe presents Uncle Tom as fully assimilated into his ideal master-slave relationship. He has a relatively private home, a loving family, and a strong sense of Christian love. However, after accepting that he is to be sold, Uncle Tom leans “over the back of the chair and covered his face with his large hands. Sobs, heavy, hoarse and loud, shook the chair” (Stowe 90). With that, Stowe ends Uncle Tom’s facade of independence and begins his martyrdom. However, Uncle Tom does not continue to resent his situation, as Wyatt-Brown suggests. Instead, Uncle Tom submits himself to the “Lord’s hands” and falls deeper into his already strong faith: “the Lord, he’ll help me–I know he will” (Stowe 163). Throughout the novel, Stowe continues this pattern of inciting a crisis in Tom’s life, forcing him to question his position but ultimately deepening his trust in and love for God. His principles are so strong that Tom actually prays for his overseers on Simon Legree’s plantation, who mercilessly beat him, to be “[brought] to Christ” rather than curse them for their involvement in his suffering (Stowe 585). Ultimately, Uncle Tom relies on his faith to justify and endure the blatant awfulness he experiences as property. Thus, through Christian love, he avoids the many psychological traps outlined by Wyatt-Brown.

Furthermore, Stowe expands on her valuation of Christian love through Topsy’s radical personality change. In the article “Mask of Obedience,” Wyatt-Brown claims that some enslaved people found “freedom from the restraints and rules of dignity” through “wildly articulate lies [and jests]” (143). This archetype appears in Stowe’s character Topsy albeit to a more offensive, caricatured extent. When first introduced, Topsy is a nine-year-old slave girl accustomed to being motivated solely through “whippin’” (367). From Wyatt Brown’s coping framework, Topsy adopted “every species of drollery, grimace, and mimicry” to gain a semblance of control over her life (Stowe 364). Additionally, Topsy believes, “There can’t be nobody love n******, and n****** can’t do nothin’!” (Stowe 409). Stowe cleverly flips the novel’s comic relief into a source of sympathy by revealing that her depravity is not because of her biological race as stereotypes of the time suggested; instead, she has been ironically socialized to believe her race is worthless because of enslaved people’s constant punishment. Topsy’s counterpart, Eva, is the first to declare Topsy worthy not only of love but also of heaven: “you can go to heaven at last [...] just as much as if you were white” (Stowe 410). In response to her first sign of love, Topsy “offered flowers” to the dying Eva (Stowe 414). Here, Stowe shows the transformative power of Christian love on Topsy’s maladjusted behavior. With the promise of love and salvation, Topsy can rise above her need for the “mischief” that Wyatt-Brown proposes (142). To cement her claim of the power of Christian love in healing Topsy, Stowe resolves her character arc by making her the adopted child of a reformed Ophelia. Eventually, Topsy becomes a missionary for African children. Topsy’s transformation embodies Stowe’s argument that Christian love can mend the psychological trauma endured by enslaved children.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe holds capitalism responsible for corrupting the family, church, and government and effectively allowing society to justify slavery. In addition, she argues that the psychological damage incurred by capitalism on enslaved people can be rectified through genuine Christian love. Since the abolition of slavery, some Americans naturally assume that Stowe’s criticism of capitalism no longer holds modern relevance. In reality, many aspects of her fundamental criticism of capitalism’s “mechanical workings”–society should not base itself on selfish desire–undoubtedly apply to a culture of consumerism and excess. Through her model of Christian love, Stowe represents the importance of empathy in modern citizenship.

Works Cited

Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Penguin, 1852.

Weimer, David. “Individual, Institution, and Society: Religion and Political Economy in Harriet Beecher Stowe.” J19: The Journal of Nineteeth-Century Americanists, vol. 4, no. 2, 2016, pp. 249–76. EBSCOhost,,url,uid,cookie&db=mzh&AN=2019303817&site=ehost-live.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. “The Mask of Obedience: Male Slave Psychology in the Old South.” Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, edited by Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson, University of Virginia Press, 1997, pp. 23–55. EBSCOhost,,url,uid,cookie&db=mzh&AN=1997064120&site=ehost-live.