Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe came to Brattleboro in hopes that the water cure would relieve her melancholia. Library of Congress photo

As America’s culture wars have become more bitterly divisive, it may seem that on a host of issues — race, abortion, voting rights, economics — we are two nations instead of one. North vs. South is the division with the greatest historical resonance. 

Another way to see our polar extremes is to look at the differences between Louisiana and Vermont.

That’s what Harriet Beecher Stowe did in writing the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” one of the most important novels of 19th-century America. Two central characters of the book are cousins —  Augustine St. Clare, a wealthy slaveholder who lives an indolent, irresponsible life in New Orleans, and the Vermonter who is his cousin. Ophelia St. Clare, whom he calls “Cousin Vermont,” lives an orderly and proper life in Vermont until she travels to New Orleans to help her cousin manage his chaotic household. 

There, she and the reader get a thorough education in the brutal realities of slavery.

I first encountered the book after reading an essay by novelist Jane Smiley in which she claimed that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” more than “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” deserved acclaim as a great novel, addressing with passion, depth and humanity the issue of slavery in its full complexity. 

Tolstoy, Dickens and George Eliot were of the same mind, she said. I had no idea.

Stowe used Vermont as a model of propriety and moral rectitude — the starkest possible contrast with the relentless cruelty and tropical decadence of New Orleans and the world of slaveholders, slave traders, and their suffering human chattel.

Here is how Stowe described the world of Ophelia St. Clare: “Whoever has travelled in the New England States will remember, in some cool village, the large farm-house, with its clean-swept grassy yard, shaded by the dense and massive foliage of the sugar maple; and remember the air of order and stillness, of perpetuity and unchanging repose, that seemed to breathe over the whole place. Nothing lost, or out of order; not a picket loose in the fence, not a particle of litter in the turfy yard, with its clumps of lilac-bushes growing up under the windows.” It’s a place of “wide, clean rooms … where all household arrangements move with the punctual exactness of the old clock in the corner.”

The world Ophelia finds in New Orleans is something else. It is a place of luxurious self-indulgence by wealthy white people who are attended by the enslaved people whom they own and whose destinies they hold in their hands. 

The lack of order in Augustine’s household scandalizes Ophelia. Augustine’s wife is a bed-bound hypochondriac who believes no one understands how much she suffers — certainly, she thinks, she suffers more than the Black people who wait on her. 

Augustine is a “good” master, in that he indulges his slaves, and they take advantage, as anyone would. But their fate is linked to his, and when he dies unexpectedly, they find themselves on the auction block. 

A prolonged debate between Augustine and Ophelia — between Louisiana and Vermont — is at the center of the book. Early on, Ophelia upbraids her cousin: “I think you slaveholders have an awful responsibility upon you…. I wouldn’t have it, for a thousand worlds. You ought to educate your slaves, and treat them like reasonable creatures, — like immortal creatures, that you’ve got to stand before the bar of God with.”

Augustine rebuffs her Vermont-style piety. “O! come, come, … what do you know about us?” But then he acknowledges that he knows she’s right. “Well, now, cousin, you’ve given us a good talk, and done your duty; on the whole I think the better of you for it. I make no manner of doubt that you threw a very diamond of truth at me….”

In fact, Augustine had left the family’s plantation under the management of his brother because he couldn’t stand the brutality of it and has retreated to his city home where he can indulge his slaves by giving them fine clothes and by not treating them harshly. 

A plantation in the South was little more than a forced labor camp, and Augustine wanted no part of it. In reference to a slave he calls Quashy, he says, “Because I don’t like work, Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun. Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it. … Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient. This I take to be about what slavery is. I defy anybody on earth to read our slave-code, as it stands in our law-books, and make anything else of it. Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse.”

At the same time, Stowe does not let Ophelia off the hook. Though Ophelia sees the iniquity of slavery, she admits her own prejudice against Black people, acknowledging she doesn’t like touching them, even the little girl, Topsy, who is put in her charge. And Stowe does not let the North as a whole off the hook. In biting language, she describes the financial investment that Northern businesses have in the human property that is bought and sold with their capital. 

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has been sentimentalized in stage versions over the decades and made into a sort of cliche. The term “Tom” is used to describe a docile or obsequious Black person who acquiesces in his own abuse. But the Tom of the novel is a tragic hero who resists the effort of his owner, Simon Legree, to turn him into a brute as overseer on the plantation to which he has been sold. 

In the end, Tom allows himself to be beaten to death instead of revealing the escape plans of two women at the plantation. Stowe describes Tom’s death in terms of Christian martyrdom and uses the language of Christianity throughout, which, like the frequent use of the n-word, may put off some readers. But Tom’s triumph is that he retains his humanity in the face of the most ruthless treatment.

Ophelia — Cousin Vermont — had to watch as Tom and others from the St. Clare household were sold off, and she returned to Vermont having seen the worst of America. 

So what remains of the divide between Vermont and Louisiana all these years later?

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” makes clear that the crime of slavery depended on the willingness of white people to look upon Black people as inferior and undeserving of any rights or any acknowledgement of their humanity. The imperatives of business override human considerations throughout the book. They are why Tom’s owner in Kentucky sells him South, forcing him to leave his wife and children behind. 

The imperatives of business are why mother and daughter are sold separately on the auction block after Augustine’s death, making the daughter the plaything of Simon Legree. All involved in the slave trade made sure to harden their consciences against the human toll — from the financier on Wall Street, to the so-called “good” owners, to the traders and slave drivers in the fields.

The willingness to look on specific categories of people as less than worthy is the great divider in America. Louisiana has rushed to impose restrictions on abortion. Vermont has put abortion rights in its constitution. Thus, the rights of women have been deemed less worthy of protection in Louisiana.

In the recent case on the use of race as a factor in college admissions, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson showed in her dissent how since the end of the Civil War, white people, North and South, have resisted actions designed to redress the crimes of slavery. In the post-Civil War era and up until today, actions proposed as a way to end white advantage and to put Black and white on an equal footing have been viewed by some as giving Black people an advantage. 

Viewed another way, our laws and practices, in discriminating against Black people, have worked as affirmative action in favor of whites. 

When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.” She was a New Englander who brought the truth of the nation’s greatest crime before the critical judgment of the whole nation. Her book was the first million-seller in the nation’s history, and though it was a fictional work, it had the effect of a great muckraking exposé. 

And yet the limits of Yankee righteousness were evident in the relationship between Cousin Vermont and Augustine of New Orleans. She preached at him about slavery, and he ultimately agreed with her, but he acknowledged to her that he felt trapped within the larger system. Preaching by self-righteous Yankees only goes so far.

As Justice Jackson has shown, the war may have ended slavery, but the conflict between Louisiana and Vermont continues in the struggle to rectify the abuses endured through the decades: convict leasing; sharecropping and debt peonage; segregation and discrimination in housing, education, and other areas; mass incarceration. 

For the University of North Carolina to take into account this legacy in its admission process was to accept reality. Instead, the Supreme Court has required the university to turn a blind eye to the nation’s history and the reality it represents in the present day. 

Augustine St. Clare, the guilt-ridden slaveholder, tells his cousin, after a close look at the cruelty of slavery, “I have been ready to curse my country, to curse the human race.”

Instead of cursing our country, it is more useful to strive for a clear-eyed view of the humanity of all categories of people who suffer abuse. The hardening of conscience is not a geographically limited phenomenon — racial profiling occurs in Vermont, too. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” shows how it’s imperative even for Cousin Vermont to confront harsh realities, past and present.

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a...