One day, Dinah notices that Prue has not been around for a while, and another woman reports that Prue was beaten by her owner in a cellar, on account of her drunkenness, and left there to die. Miss Ophelia is outraged to hear this and reports it to St. Clare, who accepts it resignedly and states that such cruelty is a natural consequence of slavery, which places “debased, uneducated” people in the hands of owners who are tempted to exercise their absolute powers.
St. Clare further elaborates his theory that slavery breeds immorality on the part of slaves and owners. He is coming to realize, however slowly, that the system of slavery really is a “disease” that harms both master and slave.
St. Clare begins a long speech describing his relationship to slavery. St. Clare does not defend slavery. He participates in it though he knows it to be morally wrong, a system where the strong maintain an advantage over the weak. He believes that eventually there will be a correction of the system, when whites guilty of protecting the institution will be made to pay penance. Miss Ophelia finds this attitude, by which she is surprised, deeply radical.
St. Clare is perhaps the most morally complex character in the novel (Mrs. Shelby being a close second). He participates in the slave system but attempts to treat his slaves as humanely as possible; he knows that owning humans is wrong, but he feels he cannot change the entire institution or the country’s laws.
St. Clare relates to Miss Ophelia the story of his family slave ownership. He and his twin brother, Alfred, grew up on their father and mother’s Louisiana plantation. His father was a hard taskmaster, as was his brother; he and his mother felt for the slaves and helped them as best they could. On his parents’ death, St. Clare attempted to co-manage the plantation with his brother but could not endure treating slaves so harshly. He took over instead the family banking interests in New Orleans. After telling his story, St. Clare repeats that, once slaves become educated, they will overthrow their masters and cause a “day of reckoning.”
Alfred is, in many ways, the opposite of St. Clare. He is a shrewd businessman and a harsh taskmaster. St. Clare, on the other hand, takes after his mother, whose Christian charity he recollects fondly. Eva embodies a good number of the characteristics St. Clare attributes to his deceased mother.
Over dinner, St. Clare tells another story, this time of a slave named Scipio who fought his overseer and escaped the family plantation. St. Clare and others tracked him into the swamps, surrounded him, and shot him, but St. Clare interfered before the man could be killed. Scipio was then faithful to St. Clare for the rest of his life. Later, Eva tries to help Tom write a letter to Aunt Chloe. When the effort proves difficult, St. Clare steps in to help, and mails the letter immediately.
Although it appears that St. Clare “disciplined” his slave, as he tells his story it is revealed that his act of kindness cemented the bond between master and servant. This again shows the complicated morality of St. Clare—he is willing to go on the hunt for the fugitive slave, but once the man is captured, St. Clare wishes to protect him.