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The Cabin and the Parlor; or, Slaves and Masters


Pro-slavery novel contrasting life in Southern plantation society and Northern cities; by Charles Jacobs Peterson, under the pseudonym of J. Thornton Randolph (Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson, 1852). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


Charles Jacobs Peterson (1819-1887), who published The Cabin and the Parlor under the pseudonym of J. Thornton Randolph, was well-known as a mid-century historical novelist and American military historian. Peterson was born in Philadelphia and made his business reputation there by publishing inexpensive unauthorized reprints of British novels and Peterson's Ladies National Magazine. He was a prolific novelist whose work included The Algerine, and Other Tales (1846), Grace Dudley; or, Arnold at Saratoga (1849), The Valley Farm: The Autobiography of an Orphan (1850), Kate Aylsford: A Story of Refugees (1855), The Old Stone Mansion (1859), and The Heiress of Sweetwater (1873). Peterson published many further titles on early American military history. For further on his career, see Barrie Hayne, "Standing on Neutral Ground: Charles Jacobs Peterson of Petersons", Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1969) 93:510-526.

Peterson shared the pro-slavery disposition of the antebellum Philadelphia business community, which relied heavily on commercial trade with Southern states. This support for slavery finds expression in The Cabin and the Parlor, which was also published under the title Courtenay Hall; or, the Life and Hospitality in a Planters Family. A True Tale of Virginia Life. Peterson’s novel was one of a small wave of pro-slavery novels published as a response to the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The novel traces the lives of several black and white characters from the Courtenay plantation in Virginia, which falls upon hard times with the death of its master. Threatened with sale, two young slaves in love, Charles and Cora, run away and find their fortunes sinking rapidly in the North. Trusting old family servants, Uncle Peter and his wife Aunt Vilet, find themselves in good circumstances despite the plantations closing. The master’s son, Horace, also seeks his fortune in a northern Philadelphia-like city, only to find poverty, illness and death. Peterson repeatedly elaborates the argument made by pro-slavery advocates that black slaves received far better care and treatment than the white working classes of northern cities (see chapter XV). To make this point further, he emphasizes the anti-black violence of northern cities and provides a vivid reconstruction of one of Philadelphia’s anti-black riots of the 1830s and early 1840s.

Back in Virginia, the deceased master’s wife, his daughter Isabel, and small son Alfred experience poverty and vicissitudes, but receive support from their neighbors and ex-slaves. Isabel opens a school in order to support her family. After surviving poverty, illness, and misadventure, Isabel encounters and falls in love with handsome and wealthy Walworth, who coincidentally attended Horace on his death-bed and saved Cora’s life during the urban riot. The Courtenay family fortunes are restored after business mis-dealings are reversed; they take up residence on the plantation again; the fugitive Cora returns to serve her mistress; and Isabel and Walworth marry.

- Joe Lockard