The Peculiar Institution in America
In the early 1600s, American slavery began as the ‘headright’ system, under which jobless white men from England worked as indentured servants. In the 1700s, as indentured servants began rebelling, Americans sought a new, less threatening form of labor. The panacea to America’s problem was found on the West African coast. Colonists readily imported blacks from West Africa, thus introducing the pernicious institution of slavery to America. During the 1840s and 1850s, slavery became the most potent and divisive issue in America, which galvanized many northerners to take violent action. In response, southern slave-owners further dehumanized their slaves to deter revolt or escape. Soon after, the Compromise of 1850, authored by Henry Clay, conceded a new, more stringent fugitive-slave law to the South, which tightened the southern stronghold on slaves. The new law with sharper teeth aroused a retaliatory response from northerners, and ultimately led to the climactic Civil War. Three decades later, prominent author Mark Twain wrote his fictional portrayal of slavery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to expose the lurid realities of this peculiar institution. Twain heralds a new form of art, the runaway-slave poster, which blossomed during the mid-1800s and became the central facet of southern life. Literary works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were perceived as incendiary and only heightened tensions. Mark Twain and William Lloyd Garrison directed their efforts at older, more conservative southerners, whose beliefs had fueled division and destruction in America. A microcosm of the antebellum South, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn chronicles the life of white southern boy, Huckleberry, and his quest to liberate a runaway slave, Jim. Before the journey commences, we are introduced to the typical southern notion of slavery through Pap Finn, Huck’s crude and uneducated, but white, father. In his usual drunken and uncouth manner, Pap grumbles that “it was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this Country where they’d let a nigger vote, I drawed out” (Twain 35). Though seldom seen, Pap’s extreme racist views embody the older, more conservative generation. Pap later expresses how surprised he was when he saw a black man wearing, “the whitest shirt,” “the shinniest hat,” and “a gold watch and chain”(Twain 45). Though common among wealthy white individuals, such luxuries for black people were inconceivable to white southerners, and Twain substantiates this racism through Pap’s surprised reaction. Twain’s portrayal of Pap is meant to dissuade his audience from acting similarly. After Huck embarks on his journey, the Duke and Dauphin replace Pap as the conservative pro-slavery element. In fact, they disguise Jim in hideous attire to conceal his identity. Huck comments on Jim’s outfit as “the horriblest-looking outrage I ever seen” (Twain 229). This scene epitomizes slavery as Jim is forced to conceal himself from white folk, and is given shoddy clothing to do so by the superior Duke and Dauphin. Twain emphasizes the southern unwillingness to accept Jim unless he is seen in captivity. Additionally, Huck’s remark on Jim’s outfit reflects the parasitic relationship between white and black folk. The Duke and Dauphin supply Jim with such weathered attire because he is black and thus undeserving of dignity. In a final attempt to sway his audience, Twain even discusses the corrupted mindset of the children in southern society. Huck confronts a local white boy, who exclaims that “there's two-hundred dollars reward on him. It's like picking up money out'n the road”(Twain 306). The fact that a boy holds this conviction speaks volumes about the values and influences of southern society. Southern corruption...
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