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Great Finds

Anti-Abolitionists Call Upon Uncle Tom

April 13, 2023

A fun aspect of collecting is discovering previously unknown pieces. It’s even better when the item aligns with your collecting interests and you’re able to “land it” for your collection. We picture a recent example which recently crossed the auction block at an upper Plains venue. It is a silk ribbon measuring 2 3/4” x 8”. Titled “Secession Club. Protect Uncle Tom!”. It pictures a contented-looking, older African-American gentleman, captioned “The Real ‘Uncle Tom’.” He declares “O Massa! bus’ up de Union, for it am a Nuisance.” 

For those unfamiliar with “Uncle Tom”, he is the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s groundbreaking 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly”. It first appeared in serialized form in 1851, then published in a two-volume hardbound set the following year. It was a runaway sensation, selling over 1 million copies worldwide, setting a record for the most successful novel of the 19th century. It spawned a whole string of theatrical productions for the ensuing fifty years. Uncle Tom was presented as a dignified and almost-saintly character who meets a grisly fate, as he is beaten to death rather than disclose any information that would assist in the capture of two runaway slaves. 

The novel energized the abolition movement. Though widely popular in the North, it elicited a visceral reaction among Southern slaveholders who viewed the ensuing agitation with alarm. There is little question it played an important role in catapulting the country into civil war. 

The character of Uncle Tom was inspired by a real person, Rev. Josiah Henson (1789-1883), a former slave who escaped to Canada with his family in 1830. He established a self-sufficient community of former slaves in Dawn Township, Ontario, while actively assisting runaway slaves in their quest for freedom. He published his autobiography in 1849 and met with Stowe prior to the publication of her novel. The bio went through three editions, the last of which was retitled to include a reference to himself as “Uncle Tom”. Unfortunately, in later years, the term “Uncle Tom” took on a pejorative connotation, as someone who acted in a subservient or demeaning manner. 

Dating the ribbon is somewhat problematic. The point-of-view is clearly pro-slavery and anti-abolitionist. It is critical of the attention paid to enslaved blacks who, like the character depicted, are viewed as relatively comfortable and well-off, in contrast to the bleak picture presented in anti-slavery literature and publications. It asserts that if the Union is broken up, it will be the fault of the agitation over the slavery issue. Given that the directive to “bus’ up de Union” is aspirational and presumptive, it likely dates from 1860, prior to the secession of South Carolina on December, 20, 1860. Given the graphics, subject matter and historical importance, it is truly “Another Great Find!”