This essay was originally written in 2015. It has been slightly adapted for this blog post.
When Harriet Beecher Stowe published her monumental work Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1862, two years had passed since Congress issued the Compromise of 1850, whose careful statements sought to avoid provoking any state to secede. Among them was the Fugitive Slave Act appointed commissioners to reclaim fugitives and required cooperation of citizens in the recapture, or else be fined $1000 or jailed six months (“Fugitive” sec. 1, 5-7).
Harriet Beecher Stowe addressed the ethics of the Fugitive Slave Law in her novel with the characters Senator Bird and Mrs. Bird. Senator Bird supported the Fugitive Slave Act, convinced of the righteousness of the law. When runaways Eliza and her endangered son Harry fell along the senator and his wife’s path, however, the couple defied the act. Though their choice transgressed the law set forth by their governing authorities, the Bible justifies Senator and Mrs. Bird’s decision to feed, clothe, and shelter Eliza and Harry.
To begin, Senator and Mrs. Bird’s decision to aid the slaves in their flight disregarded God’s command to obey authorities. In writing to his spiritual brother Titus, Paul instructed “[r]emind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (New International Version, Tit. 3:1).
The President and Congress – the ruler and authorities – organized the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Act. The act ordered the cooperation of bystanders in the capture of fugitives and prosecuted co-conspirators. Given this, Senator and Mrs. Bird were obligated to obey the act, a command of their government. By choosing to do otherwise, they ignored the caution in Titus 3:1.
Furthermore, authorities exist because God placed them, according to Romans: “[T]here is no authority except that which God has established… Consequently, whoever rebels against the authorities is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. …Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities…as a matter of conscience” (Ro. 13:1-2, 5).
Authorities possess their power from God. If God stands behind the authorities established, the citizens must obey if they believe in God’s wisdom. Given Titus 3:1 and Romans 13:1-2 and 5, Senator and Mrs. Bird had no place helping the runaways.
However, in abetting Eliza and Harry in their escape, Senator and Mrs. Bird also obeyed God’s command to help the needy. A notable mention of this command emerges as Jesus speaks to his disciples. Shortly before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples that at the end of times the King would invite all of his sheep to their inheritances, rewards for feeding, hydrating, sheltering, clothing, ministering, and visiting “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”, by which one serves him (Mt. 25:40).
Withholding food, drink, shelter, and clothes to Eliza and Harry compared to refusing such for Jesus. Isaiah, a prophet, also mentions this command. He defined true fasting was to “ ‘loose chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke’ ” (Is. 58: 6). In this reflection, Isaiah resolved to free slaves from injustice and oppression and adhere to the advice Jesus gave later in Matthew 25:35-40.
By opposing the Fugitive Slave Act, the Birds contributed to the goals of Isaiah’s fast. Senator and Mrs. Bird, in accordance with the expressions of Matthew 25:35-40 and Isaiah 58:6-8, resolved rightly to guide the poor wanderers.
In the end, the debate amounts to conscience over law; Senator and Mrs. Bird decided to reject the Fugitive Slave Law in favor of the law to love. While God does appoint our rulers, one must recognize that earthly authorities are only men. Men, despite God’s intervening hand and wise guidance, err. The Fugitive Slave Act treated slaves not as men but as things, things that no citizen may help in distress. Could this not be an error by men? As Mrs. Bird argued, “Obeying God never brings on public evils” (Stowe 115).
In this case, the Fugitive Slave Act contravened the second greatest commandment, and at that point obedience to conscience took precedence over obedience to the law. Senator and Mrs. Bird followed the greatest command – to love their neighbor as themselves – when they aided Eliza and Harry.
The Fugitive Slave Law, while put forward with the good intention to keep unified the states, served only to divide the states more, as well as to go against Christian conscience. Mrs. Bird spoke truthfully when she exclaimed to her husband, “It’s shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance” (Stowe 114).
Disclaimer: In sharing this post, I do not intend for engagement in grand theological or ideological debate about the veracity of the Bible or the validity of Christianity. These are merely my beliefs with regards to the Fugitive Slave Law, explored as an academic assignment a few years back.