In this lesson, we will explore the context, characters and plot of one of the country’s most influential novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Then, find out how it inched America closer to the Civil War.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was one of the most politically and socially influential works of fiction ever published.
A story that many consider to be a protest novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin chronicles the families of two slaves as they discover they are about to be sold and separated from each other. Motivated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (which protected the rights of the slave owner, while diminishing the legal protection of the slaves), Beecher felt the need not only to express her outrage, but to attempt to gain support in a mass abolitionist effort to end slavery. Beecher took her emotion and turned to her pen to create literature that was instrumental in inspiring the anti-slavery movement that ultimately led to the outbreak of the Civil War.This was a first; never before had a work of literature had such an influence on national events, and many took note.
Just imagine, a work of fiction having the power to change a nation. As the story goes (which some think has been embellished), even Abraham Lincoln acknowledged this upon first meeting Stowe. He is reputed to have said, ‘So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.’ The book, when published in 1852, flew off bookstore shelves, selling 10,000 copies in its first week and over 300,000 in its first year. In Great Britain, even more copies were sold.
In all kinds of ways then, this Uncle Tom’s Cabin made history.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Connecticut to a devout mother and reverend father. Ultimately one of 13 children, Harriet was like her siblings – extremely intellectually curious and aware of her need to change the world in a positive way (which she knew, at an early age, would involve writing). At the age of 21, she moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, which became important for one very crucial reason: the city exposed her to the true slavery divide in the United States. While the city itself was metropolitan and diverse (with freed and fugitive slaves), across the river was Kentucky, a slave state. Her experience there only solidified what she already believed – that injustice and inequality were at the very heart of the slave system. While in Cincinnati, she met her husband, Calvin Stowe, with whom she would have seven children.
Sadly, one of her children would die of cholera, which, she expressed, became a motivating force in her choice to include the mother’s perspective (and sense of loss) in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Characters and Context
The story starts on the farm of Arthur and Emily Shelby. They, along with their son, George Shelby, are generally good people with sympathetic hearts, although there is no denying that their lifestyle does perpetuate the slave system. Uncle Tom is their slave, well-liked and devoted to his faith. Eliza Harris is also owned by the Shelbys, along with her son Harry.
It is quickly revealed that the Shelbys have fallen into a difficult financial situation. Arthur is discussing the possibility of selling Uncle Tom and Harry to a slave trader to alleviate some of their financial burden.
Arthur Shelby agrees, unbeknownst to his wife, to sell Tom and Harry to alleviate his debt.
When Emily finds out, she is incredibly upset and expresses her disdain for the entire system of slavery. She knows what it will be like for her maid Eliza to be separated from her son. Throughout the novel, Stowe’s characters often get to a point where they comment on the immorality of the system.As Arthur and Emily discuss the situation privately, Eliza overhears. She discusses the situation with Tom, who says he will not run away; however, they both agree that it would be best for Eliza to leave. She leaves with Harry, intending to go north to Canada where she will meet up with her husband, George Harris, who has also escaped from another master.
Eliza, scared of what’s to come, travels frantically with Harry until she gets to the Ohio River. This is a hugely important point in their escape because the river separates the North and the South, and she knows that she must get across. With the slave broker hot on her heels, Eliza has no choice but to cross the icy Ohio River herself. She dramatically reaches the other side and finds help with locals sympathetic of her situation. She and Harry soon make it to a Quaker settlement, where her husband George reunites with them.Soon thereafter, Eliza and George find out that Tom Loker – the slave hunter – is after them, so they hide in a rocky area near a cliff.
When Loker and his men arrive, a fight ensues, the slave hunters back off and Loker falls unconscious down a cliff. Rather than leaving him there, Eliza convinces them to get medical treatment for Loker. After he is healed, Loker vows to change his ways.
Eliza, George, and Harry travel north and are eventually able to cross into Canada and gain their freedom.Back at the Shelby farm, Tom is taken by the slave trader. This is difficult for George Shelby to see since they have always been friends. Tom’s honesty and goodness were admired by all. George promises to buy his freedom someday. Tom is sent with other slaves down the Mississippi River into the South where they will be bought for plantation work. While on board, Tom befriends a sweet, young girl named Eva St.
Clare. When Tom saves Eva after she has fallen overboard, her father Augustine shows his appreciation by buying Tom.While with the St. Clares, Tom’s bond with little Eva grows; they become close because of their common faith in God. After two years, Eva becomes sick and dies. Her father vows to free Tom as Eva had wished.
Unfortunately, and quite suddenly, Augustine dies. All of their slaves, including Tom, are sent off to be sold once more.Tom and another female slave, Emmeline, are bought by the awful and mean Simon Legree, who takes them off in chains. Legree’s plantation proves to be a hell, where the master has created an atmosphere in which the slaves themselves can’t trust each other.
Legree’s aim is to break Tom of his religious faith. Tom becomes close to Cassy, another female slave. She comes to Tom with the idea of killing Legree. Tom convinces her that escaping without violence would be a better idea. So, Cassy and Emmeline devise a plan and disappear.
Legree tells Tom he will kill him if he does not reveal what he knows about the women’s escape. Tom, choosing to die rather than reveal information, is beaten by Legree and Legree’s slave overseers who manage the plantation. In his final hours, Tom’s devotion to God and sense of forgiveness transform the overseers who are beating him – both men eventually turn to God.
Sadly, George Shelby arrives to buy Tom’s freedom just as he is dying. George vows to work to end slavery and returns to his Kentucky farm to free his remaining slaves.Meanwhile, Cassy and Emmeline, in the midst of their escape, board a boat with a woman they discover is George Harris’s sister. After hearing about George and his wife Eliza, Cassy realizes, in a strange twist of fate, that Eliza is her long-lost daughter. Once they are all reunited, they ultimately move to Liberia, a nation in Africa created for the resettlement of former slaves.
Reaction and the American Civil War
Stowe’s purpose in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to find a sympathetic ear in fellow Northerners.
In creating multi-dimensional, complex characters, her story delivers a message that was heard around the country: not only was slavery immoral and unjust, but it was antithetical to the very basic foundations of Christian beliefs.Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a groundbreaking work because most people, on some level, could relate to all the major themes:
- The pain and agony of having to lose a child
- The sacrifice someone would make for their family
- The belief in something good through the experiences of terrible pain
- An unrelenting faith in God.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only widely read among Northerners, who perceived it as fuel for their abolitionist cause, but it was read by Southerners, who felt it was a scathing view of their way of life.
The controversy it produced drove a wedge deeper between the North and the South, which most historians agree helped to lay the foundation for the Civil War.In terms of its place in literary history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a protest piece, was the first of its kind. It paved the way for other journalists and writers, who used fiction to reveal difficult realities and hypocrisies existing in the United States (like Upton Sinclair would in The Jungle later on). While opinions differ on her depiction of slave life and whether or not her characters were too stereotypical, most agree that Stowe created a story in which women were strong and capable (perhaps an underlying feminist message). The popularity and criticism it drew proved that literature could have a larger purpose, informing the public or trying to sway public opinion through story.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most influential works of American fiction ever written. The story begins with a Kentucky farm owner who must sell two of his slaves for much-needed money. What follows are two very different stories of slavery and survival, family, and friendship.
Eliza, her son, Harry, and eventually, her husband, George, fight to make their way north to Canada and freedom. Tom, a kind and devout Christian, does not fight but maintains his faith in the goodness of man as he is sold again and again. He does not break, but rather moves into death the same honest and forgiving Christian that he was in life.Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story of the slave experience galvanized abolitionist Northerners in their cause while creating resentment in the pro-slavery South. Many credit the novel with inching the country closer to war and ultimately, presenting slavery as a moral issue on a national scale. Translated into more than 60 languages and adapted into theater and screen productions, the legacy of the story has earned a permanent place in this country’s history.
At the end of this lesson, you’ll be able to explain the importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in American literature and to the American Civil War history.