Caitlin Marshall

"Power in the Tongue"

On October 7, 1855, Harriet Beecher Stowe composed a letter to National Anti-Slavery Standard Associate Editor, Oliver Johnson, announcing the upcoming dramatic reading of her stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s attempt to reclaim the message and political work intended for her text in light of its migration to the minstrel and melodramatic stages, The Christian Slave was a mono-drama whose pathetic appeal was inspired by and pivoted on the virtuosic voice of one freeborn Philadelphia dramatic reader: Mary E. Webb. The biracial daughter of a fugitive slave and a Spanish (“Moorish”) gentleman, Webb was well trained in elocution, but valuable to Stowe for her “peculiar faculty of rendering the negro character and intonation”—a singular “power in the tongue” that gave Stowe’s Anti-Slavery stance full rhetorical force.1 In this dissertation chapter I will examine Stowe’s belief that “mixed” voices demonstrated the greatest elocutionary prowess, moral pathos, and political prerogative. How did a model and metaphor of vocal miscegenation contribute to and undercut understandings of freedom and sovereignty in antebellum America, and how did “power in the tongue” serve a larger democratic project?