In Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mr. Wilson is the owner of the bagging factory in which George Harris works. After George escapes, he encounters Mr. Wilson in a tavern, where ensues an argument in which Mr. Wilson tries to convince George that he should not have escaped slavery because religion and law enjoin him to remain in that condition.
George replies to Mr. Wilson’s brief, halting overtures—Wilson does not seem to have great conviction that the course he advocates is proper—with a brief parable. He suggests to Mr. Wilson that, where he taken from his wife and children, imprisoned by Indians, and forced to spend his life hoeing corn, he would view a stray horse rather as a “Providence” than stay enslaved because the Bible called him to “abide in the condition in which you were called.” The narrator’s characterization of Mr. Wilson’s response differs in the Era and the 1852 Jewett edition. I give both versions, with the crucial variant highlighted.
The little old gentleman stared with both eyes at this illustration of the case; but, though not much of a reasoner, he had the sense in which some logicians on this particular subject excel—that of saying nothing where nothing could be said.
(Era, 14 August 1851, 129)
The little old gentleman stared with both eyes at this illustration of the case; but, though not much of a reasoner, he had the sense in which some logicians on this particular subject do not excel,—that of saying nothing, where nothing could be said. (Jewett, vol. I, 163)
So which of the two versions offers a more apt characterization of logicians or Mr. Wilson? The Era version indicates that logicians (which may include Christian ministers and moral philosophers) excel in saying nothing because it is not possible to say anything. Put another way, the silence of logicians offers convincing evidence that they have nothing to say. Please note that the Era version has no comma, so “where nothing could be said” is a restrictive clause that applies presumptively only to “saying nothing.” The emphasis is on “saying nothing,” which I presume to mean that logicians keep silent.
The Jewett version is considerably more subtle. Mr. Wilson is “not much of a reasoner.” But though he is unlike logicians, he does have one bit of sense. He says nothing when there is nothing to say. Note, in contrast to Era version, the presence of a comma after “nothing” in the Jewett version. The emphasis here is that logicians continually prattle on even if there is, in fact, nothing worth saying.
It is not easy to know whom Stowe might mean by logicians. In the next newspaper installment, she blasts Emerson and Carlyle because they reason away the truth of Bible (a passage she would remove for Jewett). Are these the “logicians” in her cross-hairs? Or could the logician be a pro-slavery empiricist like Hume?
In any case, these are my readings. Is one version an error? Or are both equally acceptable alternatives. What do you think?