Chapter 1: Abolitionism: Harriet Beecher Stowe Writes Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, a book that quickly became a topic of polarizing national discussion. Harriet Beecher Stowe used the power of the pen to prompt a debate about change centered around the social movement of abolitionism.
Considered one of the precipitants of the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin raised awareness among abolitionists and northerners who had never interacted with African Americans or had never experienced slavery first hand. When slavery’s defenders vehemently disputed the novel’s authenticity, Stowe published the factual research for her novel in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin the following year.
After the Civil War, the book continued to be successfully utilized in other venues. It was published in over 60 languages, and minstrel theater companies all over the world used racist distortions of the compelling images of Eliza, Eva and Tom for their stage stories. By the end of the century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold almost as many copies as the Bible, proving to be one of the first bestsellers in the history of the publishing industry.
Unfortunately, much like the 19th-century performances of Shakespeare’s plays, the stage and film distortions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s characters have outlasted the well-developed images crafted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Consequently by the 20th century, the book’s main character was used as a derogatory term towards African Americans who appeared to buy into the Jim Crow and racist systems of the United States. Through the post-Cold War and post-911 America, the book continues to remain a topic of debate in the academic and activist worlds.
The Lasting Impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book portrayed a face, a mind, and a soul of black Americans that was a revolutionary shift in outlook for the time. This book was the culmination of years of social activism, which Stowe would later apply to women’s rights. When critics discredited her for portraying an inaccurate story of slavery in the South, she raised further awareness of the human situation of slavery by publishing a Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853.
This debate heightened the popular sentiment from distaste for slavery to desire for the abolition of it. When Stowe visited the White House in November 1862, President Lincoln commented on the powerful impact coming from a writer who stood at under five feet tall,“So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!" Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in part because he too was aware of the growing northern desire to eliminate an institution so antithetical to the ideals of American values.
In recent decades the label “Uncle Tom” has become a derogatory term to call a black person. As the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North began in the early 20th century, northern blacks began to call the newly arriving uneducated, unskilled, socially inexperienced black population “Uncle Toms” and “Aunt Janes.” Critique of Uncle-Tom’s Cabins characters even appeared in a commentary by James Baldwin in 1951.These racist misrepresentations of the book’s characters derive from the minstrel shows or Sambo stories.
Since the Civil Rights movements of the 1960, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin has continued to receive polarizing opinions from activists, academics, and laymen alike. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s freed the book from the sentimental, historically inaccurate prison the public and the academy had situated it. Judging her by the standards of her time, Stowe was an abolitionist who strove to make people aware of the humanity behind the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
In 2007, on the eve of the election of America’s first African-American president, Henry Louis Gates (one of the preeminent black literary historians), re-printed the book to convince the black reading public to contextualize Uncle Tom’s Cabin and to revisit the story of Uncle Tom, Eliza, and Eva with 19th century spectacles rather than judge it with 21st century opinions. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most reformative popular novel in the history of America, lending itself to nationwide debate on racial politics that continues through today.