Thoreau, Stowe, Melville and Douglas: Reflections on Slavery
Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Herman Melville and Fredrick Douglass all opposed the intuition of slavery in the United States in the middle of the nineteen century. This matter deeply divided the nation and ultimately led to the Civil War in 1860. While southerner's saw the matter as a state's rights issue, abolitions framed the debate from a moral perspective. Most people in the south felt that slaves were their property, and it was for them to decide the moral and religious right of the slavery question. They saw the abolition of slavery as a threat to their very way of life. Abolitionists believed there was no distinction between slavery and liberty, a nation that condoned slavery could not be truly free (Foner). Each of these writers presented their views of slavery in there literary works.
Henry David Thoreau
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Thoreau examines an individual's relationship to the state and why men obey governmental law even though they believe them unjust. The essay is his response to being imprisoned for breaking the law. Thoreau hated slavery and because tax revenues contributed to its support he refused to pay the poll tax. He was incarcerated and was supposed to remain in jail until the tax was paid, however relatives settled the debt and he was released after one night. Thoreau argues that the government's power arises from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because their viewpoint is correct. Thoreau states that an individual's first obligation is to do what they believe is right, not to follow the law by the majority. When a government is unjust a person has an obligation to refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government. He questions the effectiveness of reforming the government, contending that voting and petitioning have little effect. Thoreau contends that refusing to participate in an unjust government institutions is preferable to trying to change the government from within stating that one cannot see the government for what it is when one is working within it.
Harriet Beacher Stowe
Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Stowe, is a credited by many of raising the awareness of northerner's about the human consequences of slavery. The story, published in 1952, created a national debate centered on abolitionism. Many people in the north had never interacted with African-Americans nor experienced slavery first hand. The publication of the book came at a time of great consternation concerning the slavery issue. It went straight to the hearts of tens of thousands of people who had never before considered slavery except as a political institution for which they had no personal responsibility. The book had the effect of exposing the degrading aspects of the fugitive slave law and to arouse the public conscience, emphasizing the necessity of obedience to the moral law, and compelling recognition of the responsibility of the North for slavery.
Melville's novella, Benito Cereno (1855) portrays the institution of slavery as a betrayal of humanity. The story is about a South American slave ship where the blacks have successfully mutinied, killed some whites, and now hold others hostage. The Chilean captain, Dom Benito Cereno, had previously and uncritically taken slavery for granted. His own reversed role as a helpless slave forces him to confront the true horror of human slavery. Eventually Cereno comes to recognize the true evil of slavery. Though the slaves commit the crimes of mutiny and murder, the society they threaten is one that has immorally institutionalized their oppression.
Frederick Douglass was born in slavery as Frederick Augusta Washington Bailey near Easton in Talbot County Maryland. The exact year of his birth is unknown, however Douglass knew it was either 1817 or 1818. Douglass witnessed many acts of cruelty during his childhood that had a profound effect on the man. While a slave he had two masters. The first, Anthony, was not considered a rich slaveholder, owning two or three farms, and about thirty slaves. His farmers and slaves were under the care of a man named Plummer, who Douglass describes as "a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster" (Douglass). To compound the matter the master was not a humane slaveholder, but cruel, and would take pleasure…