The Auction Sale
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Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852
Rudy Lamont Ruggles Collection
Vault Ruggles 322 No. 1
This engraving by the abolitionist artist Hammatt Billings appeared in the 1852 edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Illustrations like this were very important because they helped viewers visualize what they were reading. But in this case, they also helped Americans feel empathy for slaves.
In this scene, Tom's master, Haley, has gone to Kentucky buy slaves for his plantation. You can see Haley standing in the dark hat and checked pants with other slave owners and traders who are closely examining slaves for sale. Haley buys a fourteen-year old slave named Albert, but refuses to buy his mother. Albert’s mother desperately tries to convince Haley to buy her, too. But he refuses because she is old, and the family is separated, probably never to see each other again.
Such scenes occurred frequently at slave auctions. Note that the artist has emphasized the way that people were treated like things or animals—they sit on the floor, crowded into a corner, while the slave trader stands above them, whip in hand. On the right, see the runaway slave advertisement; such notices, offering money for the capture of an escaped slave, were common in the South. Stowe herself had helped runaway slaves escape through Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad network.
Stowe’s novel made the horrors of slavery real for readers. The story was very popular, before and after the Civil War, becoming the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century. It was also performed as a play.
1. How are the black characters positioned in the drawing in comparison to the white characters? What message does this positioning tell you about the experiences of slaves at this time?
2. How could a novel—a made-up story—have an influence on politics? If you wanted to change something, what kind of a story would you tell?
Morgan, Jo-Ann. Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly. Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852.