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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"It's a free country, sir; the man's mine!"

Towards the beginning of Uncle Tom's Cabin, George Harris is introduced as a slave whose "adroitness and ingenuity" leads to his invention of "a machine for the cleaning of hemp" (11). The machine and its inventor receive high praise from everyone working at the factory, whites and blacks alike. In fact, Stowe makes it a point to put George's machine on the same level of "mechanical genius as Whitney's cotton-gin" (11). Such productivity and success would surely please George's owner Mr. Harris, right? Wrong. Mr. Harris is bluntly described by Stowe as "a vulgar, narrow-minded, tyrannical master" whose only concern is money (12). Once word of George's invention reaches Mr. Harris he decides to take "a ride over to the factory, to see what this intelligent chattel had been about" (12). To Mr. Harris' disgust, he finds George speaking and acting with more confidence than any slave was expected to have. This type of behavior quickly causes Mr. Harris to remove George from the factory and never allow him to return. George's boss makes a few attempts to reason with his owner, but Mr. Harris' final answer is "it's a free country, sir; the man's mine, and I do what I please with him,--that's it!" (13) For Mr. Harris, of course, it is a free country. He can own whatever or whoever he wants. However, for George and the other slaves Mr Harris' cry for freedom is nothing but a sorry excuse for cruelty which seems to torment George throughout the novel. Such a blatant and shocking cry for one man's freedom to be granted while another man's freedom is diminished causes me to ask two questions:

1. What, if anything, was Stowe trying to accomplish by having Mr. Harris play the "it's a free country card"?

2. How do the slaves, particularly George Harris, respond to the slave owners' contradictory definition of freedom?

To start, I have to point out how conscious I think Stowe was of including Mr. Harris' famous, but contradictory line. She had to have known that this would catch the attention of those readers who used that same type of flawed reasoning in order to justify the practice of slavery. I think Stowe included Mr. Harris' "it's a free country" bit in order to show how ridiculous that sounds when those freedoms are not available to all.

After having sold over 300,000 copies the first year it was published, it's safe to say that people who supported slavery read Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe was surely aware that this would be the case even before completing the book. I sound so confident in this claim because the book is full of shots at the pro-slavery population. One of the first shots is Mr. Harris' remark on freedom. Although subtle, Stowe uses the "it's a free country" line in order to show how contradictory and unreasonable the slave laws really were. This lack of reason in both slave owners and legislators is furthered by Stowe's description of Senator Bird. Although readers sympathize with Bird because he helps out Eliza and her son, Stowe also depicts him as a coward. Senator Bird has a good heart, but his reasoning gets in the way of his kindness. The saddest part about this is that this probably really happened. I don't know if there was a Senator Bird who supported the Fugitive Slave Act, but there were likely legislators who supported the law even though they knew they wouldn't be able to live up to it themselves. This is another critique of those who used law to support their own freedoms, yet trampled the freedoms of others.

Although George is a slave, his idea of what freedom is and how it should be extended is more enlightened than any other character in the novel. He knows that he's been wronged throughout his life, but that doesn't stop him from hoping for better days. It seems that Stowe uses George as an example of someone who understands the concept of a free country and uses him to propagate her own beliefs on freedom and laws. The problem that George has with slave owners has to do with their reliance on freedom to protect their rights even though they diminish the rights of others. This contradiction of what freedom is is summarized above in the words of Mr. Harris. In the chapter titled "The Freeman's Defense," George reminds his pursuers of his and the other slaves' stance on laws, "we don't own your laws; we don't own your country; we stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are" (168). This attitude towards the white man's laws is dangerous, but also inspiring. George sees freedom as something that can't be limited by laws or decrees. He sees freedom as an "inalienable right."

Readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin both today and when it was first published learn about what it means to be free, but perhaps more importantly, what it means to support freedom. For the majority of the slave owners freedom was a word they used in order to support slavery. However, for George freedom was something that was cherished even though he didn't have it. To play the "it's a free country" card without really knowing what that means is an error that Stowe recognized and sought to correct in her novel. Sometimes it takes learning about people like George before freedom can be truly understood and appreciated. And now, we can say with pride "it's a free country!"


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I concur with what was written but also want to support it with the complex issue that arose at this time for early american settlers of just what it meant to be free and what it meant to live in a nation established under God in accordance to divine principles and commandments. Is freedom a free-for-all, even when it comes to standards? Does freedom mean you can inflict pain and bondage on another because "it's a free country, you are a free man and you want to freely do so"? Or does a free country require boundaries and limits for people to be able to truly be free. I believe that freedom is a complex issue, and that America's standard of freedom should be altered today as the american society and country has evolved and changed.

  2. I also really enjoyed this post. I liked your insight about the comparison between George's invention and "Whitney's cotton-gin" (Stowe 16). I hadn't really thought about the significance of comparing a machine made by a slave to a machine made by a white male. By saying that George's invention was basically equal in "mechanical genius" to Whitney's (16), Stowe suggests that George, a slave, can have equal intellectual ability and skill as a white man. (Way to go, Stowe!) I wonder how some slaveowners reacted to that. I thought your comment about Mr. Harris removing George from the factory because he behaved "with more confidence than any slave was expected to have" was interesting. When I was reading the novel, I thought Mr. Harris acted more out of jealousy rather than to put George in his place, but I think there is a case for both. In describing Mr. Harris's reaction to George's behavior, Stowe says, "his master began to feel an uneasy consciousness of inferiority" (17). I took this to mean that Mr. Harris was jealous of George and felt George was rising above him. Regardless of whether or not there was slavery, I think Mr. Harris would still want George removed from the factory because Mr. Harris seems like he feels the need to be on top.

  3. Very intelligent post. That is probably the most contradictory and ironic line in the book and I'm sure it really made people stop and think about the rationalization of the actual situation of slavery going on around them.

  4. You drew out the perfect examples to support this. Loved it! Stowe's book and the Civil War were a revolution of sorts in that they revolutionized what freedom meant by demonstrating situations that people typically thought were free--a white man claiming that he was free to own and order a black man--were far from free. The Civil War and Stowe's novel were the beginning efforts to extend freedom to people other than white, male landowners. We see this in Stowe's more free women characters, Miss Ophelia and Senator Bird's wife as well as with George, Eliza, etc.