The image of American slave traders popularized and ingrained upon the national consciousness is based predominantly upon the character of Mr. Haley in Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is one of brash and opportunistic men of dubious background, character and principles, inherently racist and brutish in nature, motivated solely by profit. Ironically this largely echoed the view depicted publicly in the pro-slavery oratory and writings, which typically minimized the importance of the trade and portrayed the traders as social outcasts from the genteel antebellum culture of the South, thus reinforcing this fictitious version of history. Close scrutiny by many prominent historians has unquestionably shown this image is not historically accurate however. Far from being social outcasts with no community ties, many traders were in fact prominent citizens holding important positions in government and business. The most enterprising and successful of their number took full advantage of the latest innovations in modern transportation and employed effective market and advertising strategies thus introducing a spirit of commercialism which was so prevalent in the North to the South's agrarian culture. While it can not be disputed the most of these men held strongly racist views and many committed appalling acts in the course of the business, most saw themselves as men of vision who were simply pursuing their own American dream of happiness and prosperity. In their estimation their business practices were no more unethical than those of Northern entrepreneurs and served a viable need to the public at large.
Stowe introduces us to her fictitious Mr. Haley with an air of obvious distaste, describing him as “a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world.”1
Her description derides Haley's gaudy style of dress and crude manners and speech. This is starkly contrasted with the gentlemanly description of Mr. Shelby and the “easy, and even opulent circumstances”2 of the Shelby household. As the novel opens the Mr. Shelby and Mr. Haley are discussing the terms of a bargain Shelby reluctantly finds himself forced to make. He had speculated heavily on failed investments with borrowed money and now Haley had bought up the notes and was there to collect. Shelby did not have the cash to repay the loans and was going to have to sell some of his slaves to Haley or face financial ruin as Haley now held a mortgage on the Shelby's farm. He'd offered to sell his top hand Tom, for which the novel is named to Haley to cover his debts, but Haley means to press his advantage though and wants more to satisfy the debt. During the negotiations Haley's opportunistic nature and white supremacist views become glaringly clear as he likens slaves to livestock asking Shelby,
"Well, have n't you a boy or gal that you could throw in with Tom?"3,
as though he...