Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second-best next to the Bible. Many historians say that the novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War”, according to Will Kaufman. The novel was subtitled, Life Among the Lowly and depicted the life of slaves in Kentucky who were about to be sold to pay their master’s debts.
Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852, the author was a wife and mother who resided in Cincinnati met former and fugitive enslaved people. Cincinnati, then the western frontier of the United States, was an ethnically and culturally vibrant city. On the Ohio River across from Kentucky, a slave state, the city exposed Stowe to the public face of slavery.
Stowe knew about slavery before she moved to Ohio. Her own grandmother kept African American servants who had probably originally been enslaved, and her father had preached in favor of the colonization movement, supporting the creation of Liberia as a settling point for freed people.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky as two enslaved people, Tom and 4-year old Harry, are sold to pay Shelby family debts. Developing two plot lines, the story focuses on Tom, a strong, religious man living with his wife and 3 young children, and Eliza, Harry’s mother.
When the novel begins, Eliza’s husband George Harris, unaware of Harry’s danger, has already escaped, planning to later purchase his family’s freedom. To protect her son, Eliza runs away, making a dramatic escape over the frozen Ohio River with Harry in her arms. Eventually the Harris family is reunited and journeys north to Canada.
Tom protects his family by choosing not to run away so the others may stay together. Sold south, he meets Topsy, a young, black girl whose mischievous behavior hides her pain; Eva, the angelic, young, white girl whose death moved Victorians to tears; charming, elegant but passive St. Clare; and finally, cruel, violent Simon Legree. Tom’s deep faith gives him an inner strength that frustrates his enemies as he moves toward his fate in Louisiana.
The novel ends when both Tom and Eliza escape slavery: Eliza and her family reach Canada; but Tom’s freedom comes with death. Simon Legree, Tom’s third and final master, has Tom whipped to death for refusing to deny his faith or betray the hiding place of two fugitive women.
The novel was a sensation, selling 10,000 copies in the first week and 300,000 in its first year of publication. In Great Britain, a country that had abolished slavery in 1834, the book sold 1.5 million copies in one year.
The America of the 1850s saw the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. Among the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 were the end of the slave trade, but not slavery, in Washington D.C., and the creation of a new, stricter, Fugitive Slave Law.
Helping runaways had been illegal since 1793, but the 1850 law required that everyone, law enforcers and ordinary citizens, help catch fugitives. Those who refused to assist slave-catchers, or aided fugitives, could be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for six months.
Stowe was furious about the two laws that she considered unfair and immoral. While she and her husband were living in Brunswick, Maine when he taught at Bowdoin College, Stowe disobeyed the law by hiding runaways. She was encouraged by her sister in-in-law who wrote: “…if I could use a pen as you can, Hatty, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an impact far beyond the borders of the United States. It personalized both the political and economic arguments about slavery. Stowe wrote in an easy, informal style that drew readers into the lives of her characters. In an era of more-formal political speeches, tracts and newspapers accounts, it attracted millions of readers to explore the institution of slavery.
By the 1850s slavery in the Northern states was almost non-existent. The vast majority of white Northerners had no experience with African-Americans and many had never met a person of color. Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave them that window into the world of slavery that they otherwise would never have experienced in their everyday lives.
Stowe was both lauded and criticized almost immediately after the publication of the novel. Extreme abolitionists thought that the book was not strong enough with its call for the immediate end of slavery. Stowe who believed in colonization was also criticized for advocating that policy. They also thought that her main character, Uncle Tom, was too weak.
Supporters of Stowe praised the book for putting a human face on those held in slavery, emphasizing the impact slavery had on families, and helping the public understand and empathize with the plight of enslaved mothers.
Pro-slavery advocates claimed that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, that Tom was too noble, and accused Stowe of fabricating unrealistic, one-sided images of Southern slavery.
Stowe responded to her critics by writing The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an annotated bibliography of her sources. Researching and writing The Key reinforced Stowe’s anti-slavery sentiments and turned her into an abolitionist. Her second anti-slavery novel, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), was much more forceful and advocated an immediate end to slavery.
During the Civil War, Stowe criticized British businesses that continued to trade with Southern cotton suppliers, and was impatient with President Lincoln’s willingness to postpone freeing people held in slavery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is believed to have been inspired by Josiah Henson, a Maryland slave, who escaped to Canada and returned on a number of occasions to lead slaves to freedom. He published his autobiography in 1849. Our next post will cover his life and exploits.