Harriet Beecher Stowe
The text is taken from the Riverside Edition of The Writings of Stowe, Volume 2, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1896. I have retained all of the 19th c. spelling and punctuation (the contractions might seem especially odd to the modern reader).
A (very) little background: Like UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, this story was written in response to the Fugitive Slave Law passed in September, 1850. It was published in two installments in the New York Evangelist, June 12 and June 19, 1851. (The serialization of UTC began on June 5, 1851, in the National Era.)
I. The Altar of Liberty, or 1776
The well-sweep of the old house on the hill was relieved dark and clear, against the reddening sky, as the early winter sun was going down in the west. It was a brisk, clear, metallic evening; the long drifts of snow blushed lilac in the hollows; and the old wintry wind brushed shrewdly along the plain, tingling people's noses, blowing open their cloaks, puffing in the back of their necks, and showing other unmistakable indications that he was getting up steam for a real roistering night.
How it blows!" said little Dick Ward, from the top of the mossy wood-pile.
"Oh, yes, I will," said Grace; "but you see the chips have got ice on 'em, and make my hands so cold!"
"Oh, don't stop to suck your thumbs! Who cares for ice? Pick away, I say, while I set up the flag of liberty."
So Grace picked away as fast as she could, nothing doubting but that her cold thumbs were in some mysterious sense an offering on the shrine of liberty; while soon the red handkerchief, duly secured, fluttered and snapped in the brisk evening wind.
you must hurrah, Gracie, and throw up your bonnet," said Dick, as
he descended from the pile.
"Oh, never fear; give it to me, and just holler now, Gracie, 'Hurrah for liberty!' and we'll throw up your bonnet and my cap; and we'll play, you know, that we are a whole army and I'm General Washington."
So Grace gave up her little red hood, and Dick swung his cap, and up they both went into the air; and the children shouted, and the flag snapped and fluttered, and altogether they had a merry time of it. But then the wind -- good-for-nothing, roguish fellow! -- made an ungenerous plunge at poor Grace's little hood, and snipped it up in a twinkling, and whisked it off, off, off, -- fluttering and bobbing up and down, quite across a wide, waste, snowy field, -- and finally lodged it on the top of a tall, strutting rail, that was leaning, very independently, quite another way from all the other rails of the fence.
see, do see!" said Grace; "there goes my bonnet! What will Aunt
Hitty say?" and Grace began to cry.
don't cry, Gracie, you foolish girl! Do you think I can't get it? Now,
only play that that great rail is a fort, and your bonnet is a prisoner
in it, and see how quick I'll take the fort and get it!" and Dick
shouldered a stick, and started off.
By this time Grace had lugged her heavy basket to the door, and was stamping the snow off her little feet, which were so numb that she needed to stamp, to be quite sure they were yet there. Aunt Mehetabel's shrewd face was the first that greeted her as the door opened.
"Gracie -- What upon airth! -- wipe your nose, child; your hands are frozen. Where alive is Dick? -- and what's kept you out all this time? -- and where's your bonnet?"
Poor Grace, stunned by this cataract of questions, neither wiped her nose nor gave any answer, but sidled up into the warm corner where grandmamma was knitting, and began quietly rubbing and blowing her fingers, while the tears silently rolled down her cheeks, as the fire made the former ache intolerably.
"Poor little dear!" said grandmamma, taking her hands in hers; "Hitty sha'n't scold you. Grandma knows you've been a good girl, -- the wind blew poor Gracie's bonnet away;" and grandmamma wiped both eyes and nose, and gave her, moreover, a stalk of dried fennel out of her pocket, whereat Grace took heart once more.
"Mother always makes fools of Roxy's children," said Mehetabel, puffing zealously under the tea-kettle. "There's a little maple sugar in that saucer up there, mother, if you will keep giving it to her," she said, still vigorously puffing. "And now, Gracie," she said, when, after a while, the fire seemed in tolerable order, "will you answer my question? Where is Dick?"
"Gone over in the lot to get my bonnet."
"How came your bonnet off?" said Aunt Mehetabel. "I tied it on firm enough."
"Dick wanted me to take it off for him, to throw up for liberty," said Grace.
"Throw up for fiddlestick! Just one of Dick's cut-ups, and you was silly enough to mind him!"
he put up a flagstaff on the wood-pile, and a flag to liberty, you know,
that papa's fighting for," said Grace more confidently, as she saw
her quiet, blue-eyed mother, who had silently walked into the room during
"Why, he wanted me to throw up my bonnet and he his cap, and shout for liberty; and then the wind took it and carried it off, and he said I ought not to be sorry if I did lose it, -- it was an offering to liberty."
so I did," said Dick, who was standing as straight as a poplar behind
the group; "and I heard it in one of father's letters to mother that
we ought to offer up everything on the altar of liberty and so I made
an altar of the wood-pile."
if I have the hoods and caps to make," said Aunt Hitty, "I hope
he won't offer them up every week, -- that's all!"
"Oh, yes! you're always up to taking forts, and anything else that nobody wants done. I'll warrant, now, you left Gracie to pick up every blessed one of them chips."
up chips is girls' work," said Dick; "and taking forts and defending
the country is men's work."
I ain't a man, I soon shall be; my head is 'most up to my mother's shoulder,
and I can fire off a gun, too. I tried, the other day, when I was up to
the store. Mother, I wish you'd let me clean and load the old gun, so
that, if the British should come" --
"Well, Aunt Hitty, how you scolded that peddler, last week, that brought along that real tea!"
be sure I did. S'pose I'd be taking any of his old tea, bought of the
British? -- fling every teacup in his face first."
"Because there was an unlawful tax laid upon it, that the government had no right to lay. It was n't much in itself; but it was part of a whole system of oppressive meanness, designed to take away our rights, and make us slaves of a foreign power."
"Slaves!" said Dick, straightening himself proudly. "Father a slave!"
"But they would not be slaves! They saw clearly where it would all end, and they would not begin to submit to it in ever so little." said the mother.
"I would n't, if I was they," said Dick.
"Besides," said the mother, drawing him towards her, "it was n't for themselves alone they did it. This is a great country, and it will be greater and greater; and it's very important that it should have free and equal laws, because it will by and by be so great. This country, if it is a free one, will be a light of the world, -- a city set on a hill, that cannot be hid; and all the oppressed and distressed from other countries shall come here to enjoy equal rights and freedom. This, dear boy, is why your father and uncles have gone to fight, though God knows what they suffer and" -- And the large blue eyes of the mother were full of tears; yet a strong, bright beam of pride and exultation shone through those tears.
"Well, well, Roxy, you can always talk, everybody knows," said Aunt Hitty, who had been not the least attentive listener of this little patriotic harangue; "but, you see, the tea is getting cold, and yonder I see the sleigh is at the door, and John's come; so let's set up our chairs for supper."
The chairs were soon set up, when John, the eldest son, a lad of about fifteen, entered with a letter. There was one general exclamation, and stretching out of hands towards it. John threw it into his mother's lap; the tea-table was forgotten, and the tea-kettle sang unnoticed by the fire, as all hands crowded about mother's chair to hear the news. It was from Captain Ward, then in the American army at Valley Forge. Mrs. Ward ran it over hastily, and then read it aloud. A few words we may extract.
"There is still," it said, "much suffering. I have given away every pair of stockings you sent me, reserving to myself only one; for I will not be one whit better off than the poorest soldier that fights for his country. Poor fellows! it makes my heart ache sometimes to go round among them, and see them with their worn clothes and torn shoes, and often bleeding feet, yet cheerful and hopeful, and every one willing to do his very best. Often the spirit of discouragement comes over them, particularly at night, when, weary, cold, and hungry, they turn into their comfortless huts, on the snowy ground. Then sometimes there is a thought of home, and warm fires, and some speak of giving up; but next morning out come Washington's general orders, -- little short note, but's wonderful what good it does; and then they all resolve to hold on, come what may. There are commissioners going all through the country to pick up supplies. If they come to you, I need not tell you what to do. I know all that will be in your hearts."
"There, children, see what your father suffers," said the mother, "and what it costs these poor soldiers to gain our liberty."
"Ephraim Scranton told me that the commissioners had come as far as the Three Mile Tavern, and that he rather 'spected they'd be along here to-night," said John, as he was helping round the baked beans to the silent company at the tea-table.
-- do tell, now!" said Aunt Hitty. "Then it's time we were awake
and stirring. Let's see what can be got."
"No," said Aunt Hitty; "I was laying out to cut it over next Wednesday, when Desire Smith could be here to do the tailoring."
"There's the south room, " said Aunt Hitty, musing; "that bed has the two old Aunt Ward blankets on it, and the great blue quilt, and two comforters. Then mother's and my room, two pair -- four comforters -- two quilts -- the best chamber has got" --
"Oh, Aunt Hitty, send all that's in the best chamber! If any company comes, we can make it up off from our beds," said John. "I can send a blanket or two off from m bed, I know, -- can't but just turn over in it, so many clothes on, now."
"Aunt Hitty, take a blanket off from our bed," said Grace and Dick at once.
"Well, well, we'll see," said Aunt Hitty, bustling up.
Up rose grandmamma, with great earnestness, now, and going into the next room, and opening a large cedar-wood chest, returned, bearing in her arms two large snow-white blankets, which she deposited flat on the table, just as Aunt Hitty was whisking off the tablecloth.
"Mortal! mother, what are you going to do?" said Aunt Hitty.
"There," she said, "I spun those, every thread of 'em, when my name was Mary Evans. Those were my wedding-blankets, made of real nice wool and worked with roses in all the corners. I've got them to give!" and grandmamma stroked and smoothed the blankets, and patted them down, with great pride and tenderness. It was evident that she was giving something that lay very near her heart; but she never faltered.
"La! mother, there's no need of that," said Aunt Hitty. "Use them on your own bed, and send the blankets off from that; they are just as good for the soldiers."
"No, I sha'n't!" said the old lady, waxing warm; "'t is n't a bit too good for 'em. I'll send the very best I've got, before they shall suffer. Send 'em the best!" and the old lady gestured oratorically.
They were interrupted by a rap at the door, and two men entered, and announced themselves as commissioned by Congress to search out supplies for the army. Now the plot thickens. Aunt Hitty flew in every direction, -- through entry passage, meal-room, milk-room, down cellar, up chamber, -- her cap border on end with patriotic zeal; and followed by John, Dick, and Grace, who eagerly bore to the kitchen the supplies that she turned out, while Mrs. Ward busied herself in quietly sorting and arranging, in the best possible traveling order, the various contributions that were precipitately launched on the kitchen floor.
Aunt Hitty soon appeared in the kitchen with an armful of stockings, which, kneeling on the floor, she began counting and laying out.
"There," she said, laying down a large bundle on some blankets, "That leaves just two pair apiece all round."
"La!" said John, "what's the use of saving two pair for me? I can do with one pair; as well as father."
"Sure enough," said his mother; "besides, I can knit you another pair in a day."
"And I can do with one pair," said Dick.
"Yours will be too small, young master, I guess," said one of the commissioners.
"No," said Dick; "I've got a pretty good foot of my own, and Aunt Hitty will always knit my stockings an inch too long, 'cause she says I grow so. See here, -- these will do;" and the boy shook his triumphantly.
"And mine, too," said Grace, nothing doubting, having been busy all the time in pulling off her little stockings.
"Here," she said to the man who was packing the things into a wide-mouthed sack; "here's mine," and her large blue eyes looked earnestly through her tears.
Hitty flew at her. "Good land! the child's crazy. Don't think the
men could wear your stockings, -- take 'em away!"
"Give me the stockings, my child," said the old soldier tenderly.
"There, I'll take 'em, and show 'em to the soldiers, and tell them what the little girl said that sent them. And it will do them as much good as if they could wear them. They've got little girls at home, too." Grace fell on her mother's bosom completely happy, and Aunt Hitty only muttered, --
"Everybody does spile that child; and no wonder, neither!"
Soon the old sleigh drove off from the brown house, tightly packed and heavily loaded. And Grace and Dick were creeping up to their little beds.
"There's been something put on the altar of Liberty tonight, has n't there, Dick?"
"Yes, indeed," said Dick; and, looking up to his mother, he said, "But, mother, what did you give?"
"I?" said the mother musingly.
"Yes, you, mother; what have you given to the country?"
that I have, dears," said she, laying her hands gently on their heads,
-- "my husband and my children."
setting sun of chill December lighted up the solitary front window of
a small tenement on ------ Street, in Boston, which we now have occasion
to visit. As we push gently aside the open door, we gain sight of a small
room, clean as busy hands can make it, where a neat, cheerful young mulatto
woman is busy at an ironing-table. A basket full of glossy-bosomed shirts,
and faultless collars and wristbands, is beside her, into which she is
placing the last few items with evident pride and satisfaction. A bright
black-eyed boy, just come in from school, with his satchel of books over
his shoulder, stands, cap in hand, relating to his mother how he has been
at the head of his class, and showing his school tickets, which his mother,
with untiring admiration, deposits in the little real china teapot, which,
as being their most reliable article of gentility, is made the deposit
of all the money and most especial valuables of the family.
From the inner room now daughter Mary, a well-grown girl of thirteen, brings the baby, just roused from a nap, and very impatient to renew his acquaintance with his mamma.
"Bless his bright eyes! -- mother will take him," ejaculates the busy little woman, whose hands are by this time in a very floury condition, in the incipient stages of wetting up biscuit, -- "in a minute;" and she quickly frees herself from the flour and paste, and, deputing Mary to roll out her biscuit, proceeds to the consolation and< succor of young master.
"Now, Henry," says the mother, "you'll have time, before supper, to take that basket of clothes up to Mr. Sheldin's; put in that nice bill that you made out last night. I shall give you a cent for every bill you write out for me. What a comfort it is, now, for one's children to be gettin' learnin' so."
Henry shouldered the basket and passed out the door, just as a neatly dressed colored man walked up with his pail and whitewash brushes.
"Oh, you've come, father, have you? Mary, are the biscuits in? You may as well set the table now. Well, George, what's the news?"
"Nothing, only a pretty smart day's work. I've brought home five dollars, and shall have as much as I can do, these two weeks;" and the man, having washed his hands, proceeded to count out his change on the ironing-table.
it takes you to bring in the money," said the delighted wife; "nobody
but you could turn off that much in a day."
"Tell ye what," said the little woman, taking down the family strong box, -- to wit, the china teapot aforenamed, -- and pouring the contents on the table, "we're getting mighty rich now! We can afford to get Henry his new Sunday cap, and Mary her mousseline-de-laine dress -- Take care, baby, you rogue!" she hastily interposed, as young master made a dive at a dollar bill, for his share in the proceeds.
"He wants something, too, I suppose," said the father; "let him get his hand in while he's young."
The baby gazed, with round, astonished eyes, while mother, with some difficulty, rescued the bill from his grasp; but, before any one could at all anticipate his purpose, he dashed in among the small change with such zeal as to send it flying all over the table.
"Hurrah! Bob's a smasher!" said the father, delighted; "he'll make it fly, he thinks;"
and, taking the baby on his knee, he laughed merrily as Mary and her mother pursued the rolling coin all over the room.
"He knows now, as well as can be that he's been doing mischief," said the delighted mother, as the baby kicked and crowed uproariously; "he's such a forward child, now, to be only six months old! Oh, you've no idea, father, how mischievous he grows;" and therewith the little woman began to roll and tumble the little mischief-maker about, uttering divers frightful threats, which appeared to contribute, in no small degree, to the general hilarity.
"Come, come, Mary," said the mother at last, with a sudden burst of recollection; "you must n't be always on your knees fooling with this child! Look in the oven at them biscuits."
"They're done exactly, mother, -- just the brown!" and, with the word, the mother dumped baby on to his father's knee, where he sat contentedly munching a very ancient crust of bread, occasionally improving the flavor thereof by rubbing it on his father's coat-sleeve.
have you got in that blue dish there?" said George, when the whole
little circle were seated around the table.
"Well," said George , "we both work hard for our money, and we don't owe anybody a cent; and why should n't we have our treats, now and then, as well as rich folks?"
gayly passed the supper-hour; the tea-kettle sung, the baby crowed, and
all chatted and laughed abundantly.
"I want to know, now!" said his wife.
he did, and that was every cent I ever got of it; and, I tell you, I was
mighty bad off for clothes, them times."
"Henry, my boy, you must read -- you are a better reader than your father -- thank God, that let you learn early!"
boy, with a cheerful readiness, read, "The Lord is my Shepherd,"
and the mother gently stilled the noisy baby to listen to the holy words.
Then all kneeled, while the father, with simple earnestness, poured out
his soul to God.
"You are arrested in the name of the United States!" said the other.
"Gentlemen, what is this?" said the poor man, trembling.
"Are you not the property of Mr. B., of Georgia?" said the officer.
"Gentlemen, I've been a free, hard-working man these ten years."
"Yes, but you are arrested, on suit of Mr. B., as his slave."
Shall we describe the leave-taking, -- the sorrowing wife, the dismayed children, the tears, the anguish, that simple, honest, kindly home, in a moment so desolated? Ah, ye who defend this because it is law, think for one hour what if this that happens to your poor brother should happen to you!
It was a crowded court-room, and the man stood there to be tried -- for life? -- no, but for the life of life -- for liberty! Lawyers hurried to and fro, buzzing, consulting, bringing authorities, -- all anxious, zealous, engaged, -- for what? To save a fellow man from bondage? No; anxious and zealous lest he might escape; full of zeal to deliver him over to slavery. The poor man's anxious eyes follow vainly the busy course of affairs, from which he dimly learns that he is to be sacrificed -- on the altar of the Union; and that his heart-break and anguish, and the tears of his wife, and the desolation of his children are, in the eyes of these well-informed men, only the bleat of a sacrifice, bound to the horns of the glorious American altar!
Again it is a bright day, and business walks brisk in this market. Senator and statesman, the learned and patriotic, are out, this day, to give their countenance to an edifying and impressive and truly American spectacle, -- the sale of a man! All the preliminaries of the scene are there: dusky-browed mothers, looking with sad eyes while speculators are turning round their children, looking at their teeth, and feeling of their arms; a poor, old, trembling woman, helpless, half blind, whose last child is to be sold, holds on to her bright boy with trembling hands. Husbands and wives, sisters and friends, all soon to be scattered like the chaff of the threshing-floor, look sadly on each other with poor nature's last tears; and among them walk briskly glib, oily politicians, and thriving men of law, letters, and religion, exceedingly sprightly and in good spirits -- for why? --it is n't they that are going to be sold; it's only somebody else. And so they are very comfortable, and look on the whole thing as quite a matter-of-course affair, and, as it is to be conducted to-day, a decidedly valuable and judicious exhibition.
And now, after so many hearts and souls have been knocked and thumped this way and that by the auctioneer's hammer, comes the instructive part of the whole; and the husband and father, whom we saw in his simple home, reading and praying with his children, and rejoicing in the joy of his poor ignorant heart that he lived in a free country, is now set up to be admonished of his mistake. Now there is a great excitement, and pressing to see, and exultation and approbation; for it is important and interesting to see a man put down that has tried to be a free man.
"That's he, is it? Could n't come it, could he?" says one. "No; and he will never come it, that's more," says another triumphantly. "I don't generally take much interest in scenes of this nature," says a grave representative; "but I came here today for the sake of the principle!" "Gentlemen," says the auctioneer, "we've got a specimen here that some of your Northern abolitionists would give any price for; but they sha'n't have him! no! we've looked out for that. The man that buys him must give bonds never to sell him to go North again!" "Go it!" shout the crowd; "good! good! hurrah!" "An impressive idea!" says a Senator; "a noble maintaining of principle!" and the man is bid off, and the hammer falls with a last crash on his heart, his hopes, his manhood, and he lies a bleeding wreck on the altar of Liberty! Such was the altar in 1776; such is the altar in 1850.