Uncle Tom’s War? (Article 36)

At about 10PM, Harriett put down her pen. She was exhausted, had done her best, and simply had no words left about these people who now meant so much to her. She later recalled her thoughts that evening. Would her words about Tom persuade the readers to understand the deep faith by which he lived? She wondered if she had done justice to Eliza; did she adequately describe her courage and resolve? Did she convey the compassionate spirit of Eva? Would Simon be seen for the pure evil he represented? She also wondered whether readers, if there would be any readers, would find her themes of redemption, epiphany, faith, and courage applicable in their own lives; and perhaps move some to also oppose slavery.

She was unsure. She said later, “I felt that I had not done enough.”

But she could do no more. Her book was written under the working title “The Man That Was a Thing” and she remembered lamenting, “After all of these words, why can not a better title come to me?” When she awoke the next morning, she went quickly to the table where the five hundred hand-written pages were neatly stacked, and penned the title that had come to her during the night. She wrote:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and then added, “Life among the Lowly.”

She need not have worried. The National Era, a periodical that often promoted abolition, agreed to publish her novel, in serial form, over a forty-week period, beginning in June 1851. With an average circulation of 10,000, she thought at least a few of the subscribers would be interested in Tom’s story.

Then the flood-gates opened. Mrs. Beecher’s story captured a new audience for the magazine. The National Era became oversubscribed for the first week and had to print another 5,000 copies. The next week’s edition, which included the second episode of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” required several printings and sold over 20,000 copies. This rapid acceptance is remarkable as it occurred in an era when “word of mouth” meant just that; with no radio, television or social media to help spread the word about the serialized story.

But not everyone was impressed. One literary critic wrote, “Pay no mind, it is only a book written by a woman.” And, another wrote, “The book is nothing but a Sunday School fiction.”

But the public did “pay a mind” and by the third week, the circulation of The National Era surged to the highest total of any weekly publication in the country, at nearly 50,000 copies.

A few months later, the publisher issued the entire manuscript in a new book with seven illustrations and then, within months, issued a “deluxe” edition with one hundred illustrations. Several more editions were then printed over the next few years as the book reached a total of over 400,000 copies in print, which made “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” one of the best-selling American novels of the 19th century. Historians believe at least one million people had read the story before the Civil War began.

Mrs. Stowe’s depiction of the lives affected by slavery emotionally touched many people of the northern states; but was seen as a dagger in the side by many in the south. Abolitionists, of course, lauded the book but they were a small minority so it was the masses in the North, who had never given much thought to slavery, who were buying the periodical and the books. But in most Southern regions people were outraged, deeming the book an untruthful and inflammatory characterization of slavery; which was still legal under the Constitution. Several books soon emerged which painted a more benevolent portrait of slavery, including “Aunt Phyllis’s Cabin” by Mary Henderson, a well-known Southern author. In these counter-novels, slaves were depicted as generally unsuited to function as freemen, grateful for their care, happy in their circumstances, and treated well by their owners to whom the slaves were loyal.

The national debate over this little book began. So, what was the plot of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that attracted, or repelled, so many readers?

Tom had been born a slave, was married with two children, and was an excellent carriage driver and horse handler. Arthur Shelby, Tom’s owner, assured that Tom learned to read and encouraged Tom’s Christian faith to the point that Tom became a spiritual leader to other slaves. Mr. Shelby, while clearly a master to Tom and to other slaves, including Mrs. Shelby’s house servant, Eliza, treated his slaves “far better than most” who were simply chattel property to the slave-owners. Mr. Shelby trusted Tom, who was often permitted to travel alone to obtain supplies or deliver goods; and even carried funds to conduct financial transactions. However, when Mr. Shelby could not meet overwhelming debts, he was forced to sell most of his slaves, including Tom and Harry who was Eliza’s young son. Before the slaves could be delivered to a slave trader, Eliza took Harry and made a harrowing, but eventually successful, escape. Tom, however, was sold to the slave trader and separated from his wife and children, never to see them again. During the steamboat passage to a slave auction, Tom saved a young White girl, Eva, from drowning and was bought by Eva’s father. Eva was a devout Christian who appreciated Tom’s sincere faith, and she and “Uncle Tom” become very close. After several years, recognizing Tom’s devotion to Eva, his honesty and hard work, Eva’s father pledged to free Tom. But Eva’s mother, with more interest in Tom’s value than in her husband’s promise, quickly sold Tom when her husband died. Tom’s new owner was Simon Legree, a malevolent plantation owner who was determined to “break” Tom. While enslaved to Legree, and enduring harsh treatment over several years, Tom encountered other mistreated slaves, one of whom kills her newborn rather that see the child become a slave. Scornful of Tom’s faith and angry that Tom would not disclose the route taken by a run-away slave, Legree ordered two overseers to beat Tom. In the meantime, the son of Arthur Shelby, Tom’s original owner whose family had financially recovered, was searching for Tom intent upon buying his freedom. However, when the son arrived at Legree’s plantation, he was one day too late as Tom had died from the beating.

The human tragedy Mrs. Stowe describes is palpable.

One person who purchased the book was a Springfield, Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. He was just emerging from a self-imposed hiatus from politics after his one term as a U.S. Congressman and was speaking and writing against the attempts in Congress to further accommodate slavery. Both Lincoln and Mrs. Stowe, who did know one another, were concerned that Congressional compromises would lead to the expansion of slavery to other states and could entrench the “peculiar institution” in the United States for generations to come.

That concern was her motivation to write her book, and his to re-enter politics.

Ten years later, Harriett Beecher Stowe met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. It was reported that Lincoln said as he approached her, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that caused this great war,” which certainly sounds like something Lincoln might say. However, neither he nor Mrs. Stowe ever confirmed that remark but she did write a letter that evening in which she said “Mr. Lincoln was so inviting and entertaining to us.”

Who was this woman who put pen to paper and created these memorable characters?

Harriett Beecher Stowe grew up in Connecticut in a family of dedicated abolitionists. Her older brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister who led a large New York congregation which denounced slavery as “against God’s will” and sponsored several abolitionist societies. In 1833, Harriett visited a family friend in Kentucky and, for the first time, witnessed the impact of slavery on real individuals; not just as a theological or philosophical discussion. She was appalled at the living conditions prevalent in the slave quarters; and, after she attended a slave auction, she said that she was “heartbroken at the awful scenes of God’s creatures treated so.” And, from that day on, her life was changed.

Harriett and her husband, Calvin Stowe, began to support the “underground railroad” which facilitated the northern migration of escaped slaves; and they sometimes harbored fugitive slaves in their home. In 1848, Harriett and Calvin moved to Maine where he taught at Bowdoin College and she began writing her novel.

Her book exposed “man’s inhumanity to man” in a story with characters who were each so craftily described by the author that they seemed real to the reader (well, at least to most readers). There had been numerous earlier books which had opposed slavery as a theme, but most were simply a recitation of generalizations. Mrs. Stowe’s characters were, above all else, human beings; whether they were slaves, slave-holders, free Negroes, abolitionists, or White citizens to whom slavery was “other people’s” problem.

However, she rapidly lost control over the characters she had created. In 1852, the copyright laws were minimal and many minstrel shows were titled with some variation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” but parodied Mrs. Stowe’s original characters. These productions were never sanctioned by her; however, some of the outlandish scenes, with white actors in blackface behaving in a frivolous manner, became part of the Uncle Tom story to many Americans. Mrs. Stowe relentlessly criticized these “fake” productions, but her protests had little impact.

After the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which declared slavery illegal and “guaranteed” civil rights, the influence of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on society began to wane. In the north, those who had opposed slavery moved on to other issues. In much of the south, former slave owners became land-lords to freed slaves who continued to work for a meager existence, and “Jim Crow” laws in the south assured the Negroes, while no longer slaves, were largely left in poverty, uneducated, and without basic rights. The term “Jim Crow” came from a character in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” who was forced to dance whenever commanded by his owner; and that character was often outlandishly portrayed in the minstrel shows. “Jim Crow” soon became another euphemism for Negroes and then, after reconstruction, was forever synonymous with restrictive laws. Mrs. Stowe was understandably appalled at this miss-appropriation of one of her characters.

By about 1890, the book began to disappear from High School and University reading lists, even in the Northern states, as fewer academics gave any attention the old battle to end slavery, and many considered “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to be melodramatic, without much literary merit.

There was a minor revival of interest in the 1960s as the push for civil rights began but, unfortunately, the term “Uncle Tom” became an epithet for many African-Americans who denounced the book and its title character as demeaning and stereotypical.

That was certainly not Mrs. Stowe’s intent.

She wrote from the mindset and experiences of the American population over one hundred years earlier, when slavery was still legal under the U.S. Constitution, and those who helped slaves escape were subject to prosecution in every state! At that time, Mrs. Stowe lived among many neighbors who did not share her abolitionist views; but she stayed the course.

It seems unfair that Mrs. Beecher, and her book, should be criticized without regard to the times in which she lived and the “high-jacking” of her story by minstrel shows which ridiculed her characters. Uncle Tom was, to her, the epitome of her own Christian faith. Her description of Tom forgiving his worst tormentors, and their epiphany as they repudiated their past harsh treatment of slaves, was intended to show Tom’s power, not his weakness. She considered him a “noble hero” and she absolutely believed that “love your enemies and forgive them for they know not what they do” were essential guides to his righteous creed (and hers).

We need to remember that she moved hundreds of thousands of people to first begin to reflect on the evil of slavery, and then to fight to abolish it. In her time, and in her place, her book was remarkably effective.

So, did her little book “start this great war?” Certainly not by itself, but it was one of many factors, including economic disparity, which sharpened the distinctions between north and south; and eventually resulted in the Civil War and the eradication of slavery.

Harriett Beecher Stowe deserves our appreciation for fighting the good fight.

Contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com