At his estate in Kentucky, Mr. Shelby, a gentleman and farmer, discusses repayment of a debt he owes to Haley, a rough and coarse slave-trader. Shelby offers to sell his most reliable slave, called Uncle Tom, whom he describes as uncommonly religious, honest, and dependable. Haley voices his belief that slaves can have such traits, but that even so he argues that another slave, in addition to Tom, is required to repay the debt in full.
Shelby is a gentleman while Haley is rough and coarse. And Shelby’s moral sense about slaves is more “refined” than Haley’s: To Shelby, slaves may be sold only in response to dire financial circumstances. To Haley, slave trading is just business, with no moral component. Yet despite Shelby’s “refinement” he’s still talking about selling human beings.
When an attractive young four or five year old slave, Harry, enters the room, Shelby has the boy perform for his and Haley’s amusement. The boy’s mother Eliza, a beautiful mixed-race slave, soon comes to retrieve Harry. After the boy and mother have left, Haley asks Shelby to consider selling Eliza as well. But Shelby states that his wife is too fond of her, and when Haley suggests Harry might serve as payment, Shelby again protests, saying he would not want to separate mother and son.
Shelby recognizes the strong bond between Eliza and her son, even as he decides to break up Eliza's family. This is a sign of Shelby’s attitude toward his slaves: he feels for them but does not acknowledge their full humanity. His biggest concern is not even the slaves; it’s not upsetting his wife. Also note how he treats Harry like a toy or pet; he sees Harry as being not quite human.
Haley replies by arguing that black people don’t feel for their children as white people do, although, he continues, it makes sense to treat slaves somewhat respectfully, since they fetch a higher price when they’re content. Others, such as his friend Tom Loker, are crueler to slaves, and their business suffers. Haley nevertheless insists he might buy Harry without upsetting Eliza too much, if she is kept away from the scene of separation. Shelby asks for time to think over the deal and privately curses Haley's business advantage, which will drive him to part with Tom and Harry.
Haley introduces the topic of perceived inherent inequalities between whites and blacks, which are used by some slave-owners to justify slavery. Shelby's position falls somewhere between Haley's and his wife's: slaves are not “just business,” and their families are a part of white estates, but the interests of white owners are more important than those of black families.
The narrator breaks in and describes Kentucky's milder form of slavery but insists any form of human ownership results in cruelty.
This is the first of Beecher Stowe's direct addresses to her readership, explaining the evils of slavery that have just been dramatized.
Eliza is standing near the door and overhears that Haley wishes to buy someone on the estate, but she hears Mrs. Shelby calling and must leave before she finds out whom. Later, when Mrs. Shelby wonders why she’s so distracted, Eliza confides her worries that Harry might be sold. Mrs. Shelby laughingly replies that her husband would never sell any of his slaves as long as they behave, and certainly not Harry. Shelby meanwhile dreads breaking to his wife the hard news of the impending trade.
Mrs. Shelby respects Eliza as a mother and as a woman, and wishes to protect her, but she is naïve in thinking nothing could cause the Shelbys to part with Harry. Although Mrs. Shelby is one of the novel's most benevolent slave-masters, her gentle laughter at Eliza shows how she still treats blacks as largely inferior and believes they require the guidance of whites.