Novels are often viewed as valuable historical sources. Most are read as consequences of their time and culture, but it is rare that one is actually considered a cause in the narrative of history. Written nine years before the American Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was ground breaking in its depiction of slavery in the USA. According to Will Kaufman, it helped “lay the ground work for the Civil War”.
This might be something of an exaggeration, but the impact of the novel cannot be overstated. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and the second best selling book behind the Bible. In its first year, over 300,000 copies were sold in the United States, and a million in the United Kingdom. Lincoln’s supposed words on meeting Beecher Stowe- “So this is the little lady who started this Great War” might have been made up, but the novel’s effect on people’s consciousness is clear in the statistics.
Beecher Stowe wrote the novel when abolitionism was viewed as an extremist view, in both the North and the South of the U.S. Although many U.S. states had abolished slavery, there was little interest in enforcing the same laws on the South. To highlight this, the Fugitive Slave Bill passed through Congress two years before the novel was published. The bill meant warrants could be issued for slaves that had escaped to the North, forcing them to be returned to their owners.
By portraying slavery in a very human light, Beecher Stowe’s novel became a convincing argument for abolition. It focused on the human costs of slavery directly, rather than abstract political or moral arguments. The great triumph is the novel’s characterisation – the slaves are depicted as very real and moral people. Uncle Tom is able to relate to Eva due to their shared Christian belief. The story is the tale of a family separated by slavery, and the anguish that ensues. The slave characters are one’s that any reader can relate to on a personal level. At the time this was revolutionary.
The writer wanted citizens in the North of the U.S. to face up to the reality that the slave states were not just operating a different economic model. Slavery was harmful, and contradicted Christian values. One of the characters, Ophelia, is a Northerner, who although anti-slavery, harbours a prejudice against black people. Her ambiguity is a metaphor for the North as a whole, and something Beecher Stowe felt had to change.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s huge popularity in England was also politically significant. Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833, but the book still influenced British policy towards the Confederate States. Britain had economic interests that were more in line with the South. However, the novels popularity warned the British government that they could never support them- they could never lend support to a system that was clearly so unpopular.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still vital reading today. Some critics have argued that the novel relies too heavily on stereotypical black characters and Christian moralising. There is some truth to this, but one has to remember the context. This is a nineteenth century novel, the Christian themes were crucial as vehicle for the moral arguments, and the clichéd characters only seem condescending from a contemporary stand point.
The evil the book was created to stand against has disappeared, but the novel still holds value. The sense of the ‘other’, someone fundamentally different from one’s self, was debunked by the novel. Unfortunately, one does not have to look far to see that this ‘other’ still exists, and is still harmful today. Uncle Tom’s Cabin reminds us that ultimately, we all have the same needs, cares, and fears.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Or Life Among the Lowly
Vol. 2Vol. 2
by Harriet Beecher Stowe