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Abolitionist Sentiment Grows

28d. Harriet Beecher Stowe — Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin
Kim Wells, Domestic Goddesses
Eliza is forced to flee dogs and slave-catchers in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war."

This was Abraham Lincoln's reported greeting to Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her ten years after her book Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. Although the President may have been exaggerating a bit, few novels in American history have grabbed the public spotlight and caused as great an uproar as Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Across the north, readers became acutely aware of the horrors of slavery on a far more personal level than ever before. In the south the book was met with outrage and branded an irresponsible book of distortions and overstatements. In such an explosive environment, her story greatly furthered the Abolitionist cause north of the Mason-Dixon Line and promoted sheer indignation in plantation America.

Uncle Tom's Cabin poster
Library of Congress LC-USZC4-6171 (3-10)
Stage plays and movies were made of the controversial abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, although most of the characters were played by white actors and many of the characters became stereotypical caricatures.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born into a prominent family of preachers. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was one of the most renowned ministers in his generation. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher was already an outspoken Abolitionist, and by the mid 1850s would become the driving force behind aiding the Free-Soil cause in "bleeding Kansas" (not permitting slavery in the new territory). While living for a short while in Cincinnati, Stowe became exposed to actual runaway slaves. Her heart ached at the wretched tales she heard. She began to write a series of short stories depicting the plight of plantation slaves.

Encouraged by her sister-in-law, Stowe decided to pen a novel. First published as a series in 1851, it first appeared as a book the following year. The heart-wrenching tale portrays slave families forced to cope with separation by masters through sale. Uncle Tom mourns for the family he was forced to leave. In one heroic scene, Eliza makes a daring dash across the frozen Ohio River to prevent the sale of her son by slave traders. The novel also takes the perspective that slavery brings out the worst in the white masters, leading them to perpetrate moral atrocities they would otherwise never commit.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe lost a child in infancy, an experience that she said made her empathize with the losses suffered by slave mothers whose children were sold.

The reaction was incredible. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 300,000 copies in the North alone. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, could hardly be enforced by any of Stowe's readers. Although banned in most of the south, it served as another log on the growing fire.

The book sold even more copies in Great Britain than in the United States. This had an immeasurable appeal in swaying British public opinion. Many members of the British Parliament relished the idea of a divided United States. Ten years after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the British people made it difficult for its government to support the Confederacy, even though there were strong economic ties to the South. In the end, Mr. Lincoln may not have been stretching the truth after all.

On the Web
A Little Bit of a Woman
This fairly comprehensive biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe also offers some analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Of particular interest is the mention of how the novel was caricaturized in the 1800s and fell out of favor as a result.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
This page from the PBS "I Hear America Singing" website briefly looks at the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin to antebellum politics and social thought.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Mother and Reformer
The death from cholera of her young son Charley caused Harriet Beecher Stowe to empathize with slave mothers whose children were so often torn from them, and so it planted the seed for Uncle Tom's Cabin. This beautifully illustrated website offers excerpts of the book and several of Mrs. Stowe's personal letters touching on issues of motherhood.
The Beechers
Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine Beecher were advocates of women's education. Although they collaborated on "The New Housekeeper's Manual," a guide to the "woman's domain" they disagreed on whether women should step beyond that sphere to engage in political action. This short commentary from the University of Pennsylvania explains.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life among the Lowly
Here is the complete text of Uncle Tom's Cabin from the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Reading a lengthy work from a computer screen can be tiring, but if finding a hard copy is difficult, etexts offer a reasonable alternative. And they are searchable!
Uncle Tom's Cabin: Traditions and Interpretations
This first page of this website from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee presents a brief but informative biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Clicking on "next" at the bottom of the page will bring forward additional well-written, scholarly articles on Uncle Tom's Cabin, on a number of specific editions of the book, on another of Mrs. Stowe's novels, and more. Many of the articles are illustrated.
... I HAVE BEEN the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.
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Puzzles, games, advertisements, and souveniers — Uncle Tom has infiltrated our lives since Stowe published her famous book.
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Who was the "real" Uncle Tom?
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