Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
leaves little room for interpretation of the author's moral
point of view. Yet, there remains one big moral question that is not as
easily answered. This is the question of the character of Augustine
St. Clare--a man who espouses great ideals on the evils of slavery,
yet continues to hold his own slaves. Is he a hero because of his
beliefs or a villain because of his actions? And just how important
is this question to understanding and responding to the novel, as a
If St. Clare were a minor character, showing up in just a
chapter or two, as another stereotype, i.e. the southern slaveholder
who doesn't like slavery, he could almost be dismissed as just another
interesting element, one more point of view, on the issue of slavery.
But St. Clare dominates over one third of this book--his speeches are
Stowe's mouthpiece for her abolitionist politics. He and his moral
ambiguity cannot be dismissed. In many ways, St. Clare is at the
very center of this book. Not just literally and chronologically, but
morally. Josephine Donovan calls St. Clare, "one of the most interesting
characters in the novel" (79). Elizabeth Ammons goes even further
and calls him "the most tortured white man in the book" (175). Here
is a man who knows what is right and wrong, has the power to do
something about it, but does not.
In many ways, St. Clare is like Thomas Jefferson, a man who
spoke out for freedom, who espoused many ideals and even publicly
criticized the institution of slavery, but continued to hold all of his
slaves up until his death. Jefferson is not the only founding father
St. Clare can be compared to. Stowe herself, in her Key to Uncle
Tom's Cabin, compares him to Patrick Henry (73-74).
So St. Clare is like the founding fathers of America--he starts
something he cannot finish. St. Clare did not literally begin the
practice of slavery, but he supports it by his financial arrangements.
Like the founding fathers, he's a great thinker, a believer in ideals,
yet trapped by the practical world of reality. An issue very much
at the center of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
A world that appeared black-and-white to many of the
abolitionists with whom Stowe associated was not so clear-cut to
Stowe. She showed all sides of the issue as best as she could, despite
her obvious bias against slavery. And St. Clare, the slaveowner who
opposed slavery, is the biggest example of the moral ambiguity and
contradictions that theissue of slavery, and by extension this novel,
St. Clare's moral ambiguity makes him tough to figure out. He
says great things yet does horrible things. Perhaps not as horrible as
Simon Legree, but the principle is the same--just...