The release of a book by a New England woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe whipped both abolitionists and slaveholders alike into a frenzy. Published on 20 March 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, subtitled Life Among The Lowly, told the fictional tale that supposedly exposed the reality of slavery.
The impact of the globally bestselling novel of the 19th century was felt all over the United States, galvanizing abolitionists in the North and infuriating slave-owners in the South to the point of banning the book. Starting out as a serial in an abolitionist periodical, within its first year of publication the book sold 300,000 copies in the US.
Born into a family of ministers and abolitionists who worked with the Underground Railroad, it would have been surprising for Stowe not to have been a bold free thinker.
An outspoken abolitionist Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts a variety of slave situations with the eponymous Uncle Tom moving among the varying characters that portrayed life in the South. Tom’s owners fall on hard times and are forced to sell some of their slaves. One of the slaves, Eliza, flees to prevent being separated from her child. The slave hunter who pursues her is injured and nursed back to health by members of the Underground Railroad. Meanwhile, Uncle Tom is sold to a kind owner and joins a household where Little Eva, a white child, and Topsy, a slave child, do not seem to recognize the difference in their skin color or their stations in life. After Little Eva dies, Tom is sold again and has the misfortune to become the property of a brutal man named Simon Legree.
“You’re the little lady”
Some historians have suggested that the book so heightened the North-South tension that it triggered the American Civil War of 1861-1865. One story tells of a meeting between US President, Abraham Lincoln, and Stowe in 1862 where the President greets the author with the words, “So, you are the little lady who started this great big war.” The book has also been blamed for forestalling the acceptance of African Americans as equals in the United States because of the negative stereotypes its characters portray.
The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly exacerbated the tensions between the North and the South. Some Southern authors retaliated with their own “Anti-Tom” literature, defending slavery and condemning Stowe’s work. One of the most popular Anti-Tom novels of its day was The Planter’s Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. The story is seen through the eyes of a Northern abolitionist’s daughter who marries a benign slave owner.
Stowe was much criticized for writing a book on a subject she knew little about, having never been to the South. A year after the novel’s publication, Stowe felt obliged to justify her work and wrote an account of her research in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which also went on to become a bestseller.
See also Louisa May Alcott and the American Civil War