in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred
Combing through the trial transcripts and newspaper clippings in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a dedicated reader of Harriet Beecher Stowe's first antislavery novel might have been pleased to come across a fictional vignette featuring two of the book's best-known characters, Simon Legree and Tom. Unlike the novel, however, in which the cruel master's brutality leads to the humble slave's death, this scene imagines the conflict between slaveholder and bondsman not in sentimental terms, as demonic violence and Christian martyrdom, but in juridical terms, as a legal dispute mediated by a benevolent white man.
Stowe offers the scene to demonstrate the futility of a South Carolina protective act that ostensibly guaranteed basic necessities to slaves by allowing concerned whites “to make complaint to the next neighboring justice in the parish” on their behalf.1 “Now suppose,” Stowe introduces the scene, that Simon Legree's slaves, “getting tired of being hungry and cold, form themselves into a committee of the whole, to see what is to be done.”2 The leader who quickly emerges in this scene of nascent organized resistance is a “broad-shouldered, courageous fellow” named Tom, who, “having by some means become acquainted with this benevolent protective act, resolves to make an appeal to the horns of this legislative altar … determined that, if there is such a thing as justice to be got, he will have it.”3 “After considerable research,” Tom finds a “white man … verdant enough to enter the complaint for him,” a Master Shallow.4 In due time, Legree is brought before the justice of the peace to answer the charges against him. After some whiskey and conversation, the judge finally turns to “this nigger business,” demanding, “How plagued did you ever hear of that act, Shallow? I'm sure I'm forgot all about it.”5 Cursing and rifling through his law books, Justice Dogberry reminds Shallow, “The act says you must make proof, you observe”: