At a hotel in N-----, a village in Kentucky, a short, older traveller named Mr. Wilson enters. He speaks to the owner about the town’s news and is shown a poster advertising a $400 reward, dead or alive, for the return of an intelligent, light-skinned fugitive slave with an H branded on his hand, known to the reader as George Harris. An army veteran comes and spits tobacco juice on the poster, claiming that an owner who doesn’t know how to treat so distinguished a slave ought to lose that slave. The veteran, who works as a drover, sends his slaves to other cities and trusts them with money, with the idea that good treatment encourages good service.
Another example of “benevolent” slave-ownership. The drover cannot be considered a cruel man, since he is kind to his slaves and he trusts them, but of course he continues to own slaves in the first place. Beecher Stowe takes great pains throughout the novel both to highlight these instances of kindness and argue that, good though they are, they allow a bad system to continue.
Another man walks into the hotel as the drover is conversing with a “coarse man” who defends rough treatment of slaves. The newcomer has light skin, fine clothes, and carries himself like a foreigner, perhaps a Spaniard. His valet is a slave named Jim and he gives his name as Henry Butler. When shown the poster of the escaped slave, he says he might have seen someone like him earlier, but he can’t be sure. He requests a room at the hotel and management quickly arranges his for his luggage.
The first instance of a slave passing as a “distinguished foreigner.” This tactic will be used again by George and Eliza as they pass from Ohio to Canada. As with Eliza pretending to be white, earlier, George has only to act the part of a Spaniard—thus he is “performing” his race, meaning that his supposed racial inferiority is not biological, but instead a result of social forces.
Mr. Wilson believes he recognizes the newcomer. Following him to his suite, he calls to him as George, his former employee at the factory. George responds that it is he, and that he is traveling to freedom under the assumed identity of a foreign gentleman. Mr. Wilson warns George that the venture is risky, unlawful, and against the word of the Bible. He quotes the example of Hagar returning to her mistress. George replies that he is willing to take up with God later the legality and morality of his quest for freedom.
An example of the misplaced “duties” and “loyalties” of law-abiding white people. Mr. Wilson is a good man and has treated George with a great deal of respect. But he respects also the system that enables George’s bondage, because he respects the laws of the United States. George, in essence, supports a view of “civil disobedience” not unlike Henry David Thoreau’s: he believes he must break a law he feels to be immoral.
Mr. Wilson and George argue further over the morality of George’s mission. George shows two pistols and a knife to Wilson, saying he will do what is necessary to protect himself. Wilson states that George is breaking the laws of his country. George replies that Wilson has a country, but he, George, does not.
This is an important point. George makes clear the hypocrisy that black people, who are not considered fully human in American law, must nevertheless abide by the laws that white men create. He argues instead that he can't be a part of a country that makes it legal to enslave him.
George tells Wilson of his life. His father was a white Kentucky slaveholder who had children by one of his slaves, with George the youngest. On his death, his wife and the children were sold separately. His mother convinces her new master to trade in order that George might remain with one older sister, who is then beaten and sold into prostitution in New Orleans. George says that the only happiness he knew came for his work at Wilson’s factory, and with the love of Eliza and Harry. At the end of this speech, he says he fights desperately for the cause of his and his family’s liberty, and Wilson changes his mind, assenting to the rightness of George’s mission.
George’s plight is all-too-common—indeed, Haley wished initially to sell Eliza into this form of slave-prostitution, and Loker and Marks, if they catch her, want to do the same. George desires only the opportunity to work—he does not want anything from the government or from white people other than the chance to show that he is equal. At this, Mr. Wilson is convinced by George’s arguments.
George tells Wilson that his wife and child have escaped. Wilson gives George money, which George accepts as a loan with a promise to repay. Wilson states that George looks like a freeman, and George answers that he is free, moving about as he wishes—a new and exhilarating feeling. He asks Wilson to give Eliza a pin, a gift from Eliza to him one Christmas, and to tell Eliza that she must go to Canada at all costs. Wilson tells George to trust in God, and though George questions whether this is possible, Wilson replies that circumstances will improve either in Canada or in heaven.
George continues to have trouble placing his faith in God. He is more comfortable taking “fate” into his own hands. Just as George is capable of posing as a Spaniard, his experience of freedom can be learned as well. He is free so long as society treats him as free—it has nothing to do with the color of his skin.