Tom’s first master, Mr. Shelby, is kind but careless. On his Kentucky farm, Mr. Shelby treats his slaves relatively humanely – but when his mismanagement of the household finances causes him to fall into debt, he breaks his word and his code of ethics and sells both Tom and Eliza’s son, Harry. He considers himself above the low slave trader, Haley, who buys them, but he doesn’t fully reflect on the fact that his dealings with Haley implicate him in the entire slave-trade system.
Although Mr. Shelby drops out of sight relatively quickly in the novel, he is a foil to the other major slaveholding characters in the book – St. Clare, who thinks about the moral problem of owning slaves all the time but fails to do anything about it, and Legree, who, like Shelby, wastes no time thinking about the morality of owning slaves, but unlike Shelby, is a cruel despot who wields his power with impunity.
Stowe hints to us that one of Mr. Shelby’s big mistakes is not to trust Mrs. Shelby with more information about the state of his finances. By preventing her from exercising her full power as housekeeper – at one point he explicitly refuses to tell her what their debts are – he undercuts her moral influence. When he dies, Mrs. Shelby and her son are able to straighten out his affairs relatively quickly, suggesting that Mr. Shelby wasn’t very good at handling money responsibly.