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Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896
Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. In Two Volumes. Vol. II
Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1856.

Summary

Harriet Beecher Stowe published Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp in 1856 as a follow up to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), the most successful and controversial abolitionist tract ever written. Dred is set in Chowan County, near the Great Dismal Swamp. The title character is an escaped slave and religious zealot who aids fellow slave refugees and spends most of the novel plotting a slave rebellion. He is a composite of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, two real leaders of slave insurrections. In fact, Stowe includes a copy of Turner's famous confessions as an appendix to the novel. On the on hand, Dred is a character of great strength and intellect who represents a much more assertive and potentially dangerous slave character than the loyal slaves, passive victims, or doomed escapees who inhabit Uncle Tom's Cabin. On the other hand, Stowe imbues Dred with many of the prevailing racial stereotypes of African American men as savages. As Stowe describes him: "The large eyes had that peculiar and solemn effect of unfathomable blackness and darkness which is often a striking characteristic of the African eye. But there burned in them, like tongues of flame in a black pool of naphtha, a subtle and restless fire, that betokened habitual excitement to the verge of insanity" (p. 241).

Dred, however, is only a peripheral character in the novel. Instead, most of the plot is centered on white and mixed race, or mulatto, characters and the way the Southern legal system supported slavery. (For more on North Carolina's slave codes, see Slavery/Slave Laws & Regulations.) Indeed, it was not so much the cruelty of masters towards their slaves, but rather the violence between white pro- and anti-slavery forces, which had erupted since the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that helped inspire Stowe to publish Dred in 1856. That year, South Carolina United States Senator Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner, the irascible abolitionist colleague from Massachusetts. The Kansas territory had also erupted into civil war over the extension of slavery. Then, in 1856, a group of antislavery guerillas, under the leadership of John Brown, murdered several proslavery men.

The major characters in the legal drama and star-crossed romance come from two slave-owning families, the Gordons and the Claytons. The two most sympathetic members of the Gordon family (of Canema plantation) are Nina and her mulatto half-brother, Harry, who is the son of their father, Colonel Gordon, and his slave mistress. Colonel Gordon and his son Tom, are cruel-hearted masters who also wield great political power. Nina Gordon is in love with Edward Clayton, a lawyer and planter who secretly hopes for an end to slavery and treats his slaves kindly in the mean time. Edward's father, Judge Clayton, is the Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court.

There are two central court cases that propel the action of the novel, complicate familial and romantic relations, and present Stowe's thesis that slavery corrupted Southern justice and humanity. Both of the lawsuits are based on actual state court decisions, as Stowe records in her second appendix. The first legal challenge is set in motion when Nina hires out Milly, her personal slave, to Mr. Baker in order to raise money for the ailing Canema plantation. Milly is the opposite of Dred. She embodies the loyalty of slaves and the femininity and Christian grace of women. When Baker, in a drunken rage, tries to punish a slave for a small offense, Milly intervenes. Baker hits Milly, then shoots her when she tries to escape the punishment. Nina is outraged and retains Edward to sue Baker. (The suit was based on state law, which allowed slave-owners to seek recompense for damage to their personal property.) Edward jumps at the chance to both please Nina and strike a blow against the abuse of slaves. Edward wins the case, but loses when Baker appeals to the state Supreme Court. What is worse, Edward's father, Chief Justice Judge Clayton, writes the opinion. (Stowe notes in the preface that she based Judge Clayton on the real North Carolina Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin, who presided over a similar case, State v. Mann, in 1829.) In a fashion typical of sentimental Victorian fiction, Stowe has her hero resign from the practice of law, and Nina, too pure to live in a sinful world, dies of cholera.

The second lawsuit in the novel involves Cora, the slave sister of the mulatto Harry Gordon. Colonel Gordon's sister, Mrs. Stewart, takes Cora with her to Louisiana there. Cora is emancipated after she marries Mrs. Stewart's son, George. When George dies, the former slave Cora inherits his plantation. But Mr. Jekyl, an evil lawyer, uses the law to rob Cora of her property and return her to slavery.

In the meantime, Edward Clayton and his sister, Anne, have become devoted to the uplift, if not the emancipation, of their slaves. Edward and Anne begin to tutor their slaves, but an angry white mob sabotages the effort. Only the intervention of Edward's friend, the pragmatic lawyer-politician Frank Russell, who opposes slavery in private but supports it in public, stops the destruction. The siblings soon leave North Carolina for Canada.

Harry Gordon's battle of conscience mirrors that of Edward Clayton and Frank Russell. Stowe seems to use Harry to represent the divided mind of Southern slaves. On one extreme is Milly, a loyal slave, who counsels love for the master and patient endurance of earthly tribulation for the reward of eternal freedom in heaven. On the other extreme is Dred, the leader of a potential slave insurrection. Despite Milly's warnings, the wavering Harry eventually brings his family to join Dred's forces. Just as they are preparing to assault the white community, however, Milly appears in the swamp, singing a gospel tune. Miraculously, the song touches Dred's heart and his thirst for vengeance disappears. Instead, he leads his band of refugees out of the swamp and north to freedom.

There are several ways in which Dred represents both a continuation and an extension of the abolitionist arguments Stowe made in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like its predecessor, Dred was aimed primarily at Northern white readers in an effort to convince them of the humanity of slaves and the ways in which slavery corrupted white Southerners. Uncle Tom's Cabin, however, had presented both kind and cruel masters, thus placing blame on the individual, not the larger institution. By contrast, in Dred, Stowe indicts the entire system of Southern slave statutes. Stowe argues that enshrining slavery in law did not prevent abuses. Rather, it released the passions of slave-owners from personal control and gave social sanction to the horrors of slavery. In addition, Stowe uses the swamp setting of Dred to represent the indolence and stagnation of Southern civilization and morality caused by slavery. Aside from its symbolic value, the Great Dismal Swamp was also where runaway slaves from nearby plantations in North Carolina and Virginia actually did hide out. Some of them even plotted rebellions.

Stowe was even more concerned in Dred than in Uncle Tom's Cabin with making her portrayal of slavery seem as real as possible. Southern and Northern critics had tried to dismiss Uncle Tom's Cabin as an exaggeration of the truth, if not an outright slander. To answer those charges, Stowe followed up the first novel with a "Key" documenting her sources. For Dred, Stowe included appendices of citations with the novel to prove the plot was based on real events.

Finally, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred differed from each other in their popularity and influence. Dred may have been an even more militant abolitionist tract, but it did not have the impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin, either in stirring up antislavery sentiment in the North or proslavery rejoinders in the South. North Carolinians and other Southerners still rejected Dred as abolitionist propaganda, but novel had far less influence on the state and national debate over slavery than Uncle Tom's Cabin had had three years earlier or Hinton Rowan Helper's inflammatory nonfiction critique The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) would have a year later. (For more on the pro and anti-slavery sentiment in North Carolina, see those subsections of the list of slavery topics.)

Works Consulted: In 1997, Brophy, Alfred L., "Humanity, Utility, and Logic in Southern Legal Thought: Harriet Beecher Stowe's View in Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp," University of Alabama Law School; Hovet, Theodore R., The Master Narrative: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Subversive Story of Master and Slave in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989.

Kevin Cherry

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