American Treasures: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

By Stephen Oles
Stephen Oles
Stephen Oles
July 31, 2021 Updated: August 1, 2021

You may know the story. President Lincoln, frustrated in his effort to end slavery while preserving the Union, stooped wearily from his great height to shake the lady’s proffered hand. “So you’re the little woman,” he said, “who wrote the book that made this great war.” The book was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811. Her father Lyman, a fiery Calvinist pastor, instilled in his 11 children a passion for religion and social reform. All of Harriet’s brothers would make their mark as ministers, authors, and orators. One was Henry Ward Beecher, who, according to professor emeritus Barbara White’s “The Beecher Sisters,” became the most famous preacher in America. Her sister Catharine, a pioneer in women’s education, founded several schools to instruct girls in subjects usually reserved for boys, like Latin, algebra, and philosophy. In 1824, Harriet became first a student and later a teacher at her sister’s Hartford Female Seminary.

Uncle Tom
A portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe. National Portrait Gallery. (Public Domain)

Slavery was, in the words of historical author Eric Metaxas, “as accepted as birth and marriage and death … everywhere on the globe for 5,000 years.” The abomination of man owning man blighted human history from ancient Sumeria to Greece, Rome, Africa, Asia, Arabia, and the Americas. Native Americans bought and sold slaves. There were even black slaveholders. The 1830 census lists 3,775 black masters who owned a total of 12,760 slaves.

As the 19th century dawned, more and more Americans saw the glaring contradiction between the South’s “peculiar institution” and our Declaration’s “All men are created equal.” Christ’s “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others” drew many Christians to abolitionism, even as slave owners cherry-picked Bible verses to justify themselves. By 1804, all of the Northern states had outlawed slavery, setting up a North and South conflict that would lead to war.

Slavery Becomes Personal

In 1832, Harriet’s father was appointed president of Lane Theological Seminary and moved the family from Boston to Cincinnati. The Beechers had always opposed slavery but now it became personal. Escaping slaves forded the nearby Ohio River in desperate attempts to reach safety in Canada. Harriet’s Aunt Mary, horrified by the cruelty at her husband’s slave plantation in the West Indies, walked out on him, a shocking act at the time. In 1836, as race riots broke out across the nation, proslavery mobs rampaged through Cincinnati, attacking abolitionists and burning the homes of free black families.

For the Beechers, the last straw was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which compelled even Northerners to capture escaped slaves and return them to their owners. It made slave-catching a lucrative business and put even free blacks in danger. By then, Harriet was a mother of seven and married to Calvin Stowe, a professor at Lane. She taught at Catharine’s new school and wrote for magazines to supplement her husband’s meager income. Calvin encouraged his wife’s new career, telling her that she “must be a literary woman,” the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center relates.

Her first published book was a geography text for children. “Now, Hattie,” her sister-in-law Isabella wrote to her, “if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” Harriet set down the letter. She knew what she had to do.

The bestselling book of the entire 19th century began as weekly installments in an antislavery paper. Harriet based her novel on narratives written by ex-slaves, abolitionist literature, personal interviews, and her visit to an actual slave plantation in Kentucky. She used her own experience as well, stating later that her grief over the agonizing death of her baby Charlie taught her “what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her,” as related in the article “Harriet Beecher Stowe Changed History.”

Uncle Tom
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became a very famous stage play, with the most exciting scene being Eliza escaping with her child from slavers and their dogs across a nearly frozen river. Poster for a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1881. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

A Novel Divides a Nation

When “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly” appeared as a book in 1852, its impact was unprecedented. Almost overnight, Harriet became the country’s most famous and controversial woman. By the end of the year, 300,000 copies had been sold in America and a million in Great Britain, according to David Reynolds in “Mightier Than the Sword.”

Uncle Tom
There were so many stage productions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” touring the country that each boasted a bigger cast and more more spectacular scenes. A crowd scene in front of a plantation house from a circa 1901 production. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

The novel is a great read, even today. It follows Uncle Tom, a slave who is bought and sold several times, allowing Stowe to portray differing attitudes toward slavery. On a boat taking him down river to be sold, a young white girl falls overboard. When Tom saves her life, her grateful father, Augustin St. Clare, buys him. In his new home, Tom and the girl—Little Eva—discover they share a strong Christian faith and become friends. St. Clare is kindly but too weak to take a stand against slavery. His cousin Ophelia opposes it intellectually but shrinks from personal contact with its victims. An amusingly naughty girl, Topsy, provides comic relief.

But then Little Eva falls ill. Dying, she makes her father promise to set Tom and his people free. The saintly child’s protracted death scene, reflecting Harriet’s despair at losing Charlie, may have caused more readers to sob uncontrollably than any other pages in literature. When St. Clare dies before he can keep his promise, his cruel widow sells Tom to a vicious slave master, Simon Legree.

Uncle Tom
The death of Little Eva, a beloved friend of Uncle Tom, is one of the most touching in the story. (Public Domain)

When Tom refuses to beat a fellow slave as ordered, Legree resolves to crush his trust in God. Beating after beating tests Tom’s faith, but visions of Christ and Eva restore his spiritual strength. Tom encourages two women to escape. When he refuses to say where they’re hiding, Legree beats him to death. Tom dies like Christ, forgiving his tormentors. The women reach safety, and the white characters commit themselves to ending slavery.

Reactions to the book were sharply divided. Praise flowed from antislavery groups and ex-slave intellectuals like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, who wrote that the book’s “value to Abolition can never be justly estimated,” Reynolds relates. The poet Longfellow called it “one of the greatest triumphs recorded in literary history, to say nothing of the higher triumph of its moral effect.” His feeling was echoed by Tolstoy, George Sand, Heine, and many others.

Apologists for slavery, on the other hand, called the book a pack of lies and Harriet “loathsome,” a person “whose touch contaminates with its filth.” She fired back with “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a compilation of sources and real-life testimony that proved her depiction of slavery wasn’t exaggerated.

Uncle Tom
Stowe responded to criticism by writing “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1853), documenting the veracity of her novel’s depiction of slavery. (Public Domain)

Uncle Tom as Embodiment of Christianity

Ever-popular stage adaptations kept the story before the public for decades, performed at first by white actors in blackface, whose stereotypical antics coarsened the story. This, along with critics who mistook Tom’s Christian nonviolence for cowardly acceptance of his mistreatment, led unfairly to “Uncle Tom” becoming a slur applied, by Malcolm X, even to Martin Luther King Jr. But African American history professor Patricia Turner has said that she doesn’t see Tom “as any kind of a sell-out,” according to an NPR interview. “And so I’ve always found myself wanting to correct people who accuse someone of being an ‘Uncle Tom,’” she continued.

Uncle Tom
The novel showed many aspects of the inhumanity of slavery. An illustration of a slave auction from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” From an 1852 edition published by John P. Jewett, Boston. (Public Domain)

The Lincoln anecdote is probably apocryphal, but Stowe’s profound effect on history and literature is undeniable. She went on to write 30 books on various subjects. In her 60s, she taught herself oil painting and opened an art school. At her funeral in 1896, a simple wreath, from former slaves in Boston, was laid on her casket.  The accompanying card read, according to Haugen, “From the children of Uncle Tom.”

Stephen Oles has worked as an inner city school teacher, a writer, actor, singer, and a playwright. His plays have been performed in London, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, Calif. He lives in Seattle and is currently working on his second novel.

Stephen Oles
Stephen Oles