This Day In Writing History
On March 20th, 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the classic novel by the legendary American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published. Like most novels of the time, it first appeared in a serialized version. It was published by The National Era, an abolitionist magazine.
The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her husband, Calvin Stowe, were both ferocious abolitionists and dedicated their home to the Underground Railroad - the famous secret network of safe houses for fugitive slaves. The escaped slaves would move from house to house as they traveled en route to free states, where slavery was illegal.
In 1850, Congress, bowing to pressure from the South, tried to tighten the screws on the Underground Railroad by passing the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal for people - even those living in free states - to assist fugitive slaves.
The law also compelled local law enforcement to arrest fugitive slaves and provide assistance to the vicious bounty hunters privately hired to track runaway slaves.
The free states reacted with outrage to the Fugitive Slave Act, which resulted in gross abuses. Many openly defied it. Several free states passed laws granting personal liberties, including the right to a fair trial, to fugitive slaves.
Wisconsin's state Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. The law failed to disrupt the Underground Railroad; by the time it was passed, the network had become far more efficient. Afterward, it grew as the unjust law inspired scores of moderate abolitionists to become passionate activists.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act - to educate people about the horrors of slavery. The novel told the unforgettable story of a kind and noble slave whose faith and spirit cannot be broken by the evils of slavery. The novel opens on a Kentucky farm owned by Arthur and Emily Shelby, who like to think that they're kind to their slaves.
However, when he needs money, Arthur has no problem selling two of his slaves without regard to where they might end up. The slaves in question are Uncle Tom, a wise and compassionate middle-aged man, and Harry, the son of Emily's maid, Eliza. The Shelbys' son George, who looked upon Uncle Tom as a friend and mentor, hates to see him go.
Uncle Tom and Harry are sold to a slave trader and shipped by riverboat down the Mississippi. While on the boat, Uncle Tom strikes up a friendship with Eva, a little white girl. When she falls into the river, he saves her life.
Her grateful father, Augustine St. Clare, buys Uncle Tom from the slave trader and takes him to his home in New Orleans. There, the friendship between Uncle Tom and Eva deepens. Sadly, Eva becomes severely ill and dies - but not before sharing her vision of heaven.
Moved by how much Uncle Tom meant to Eva, her father vows to help him become a free man. His racist cousin Ophelia is moved to reject her prejudice against blacks. Unfortunately, Augustine St. Clare is killed at a tavern, and his wife reneges on his promise to help Uncle Tom. She sells him at auction to Simon Legree, who owns a plantation in Louisiana.
Simon Legree is an evil, perverse, sadistic racist who tortures his male slaves and sexually abuses the women. When Uncle Tom refuses to follow Legree's order to whip another slave, Legree beats him savagely.
It fails to break Uncle Tom's spirit or his faith in God. The sight of Uncle Tom reading his bible and comforting other slaves makes Legree's blood boil. He determines to break Uncle Tom and nearly succeeds, as the daily horrors of life on the plantation erode the slave's faith and hope.
Just when it seems that Uncle Tom will succumb to hopelessness, he has two visions - one of little Eva and one of Jesus himself. Moved by these visions, Uncle Tom vows to remain a faithful Christian until the day he dies.
He encourages two fellow slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, to run away. Later, when Simon Legree demands that Uncle Tom reveal their whereabouts, he refuses. A furious Legree orders his overseers to beat Uncle Tom to death.
As he lay dying, Uncle Tom forgives the overseers, which inspires them to repent. George Shelby arrives with money to buy Uncle Tom's freedom. Sadly, he is too late. Uncle Tom dies before he can become a free man. George returns to his parents' farm in Kentucky and frees their slaves, telling them to always remember Uncle Tom's sacrifice and unshakable faith.
That's actually just a bare outline of this classic epic novel. The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin caused a national uproar. In the North, it was regarded as the bible of abolitionism and inspired many closet abolitionists to come out and join in the fight against slavery. In the South, the book was regarded as an outrage. It was called utterly false and slanderous - a criminal defamation of the South.
Many Southern writers who supported slavery took to writing literature dedicated to debunking Harriet Beecher Stowe's expose of the horrors of slavery. Their writings, called "Anti-Tom" literature, portrayed white Southerners as benevolent supervisors of blacks, who were depicted as a helpless, child-like people unable to live without the direct supervision of their white masters.
To defend herself against the South's accusations of slander and defamation, Stowe wrote and published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), a non-fiction book documenting the horrors of slavery that she both witnessed herself and researched, which inspired her to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The book included surprisingly graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse of female slaves, who, in addition to being molested or raped by their white masters and overseers, were also prostituted and forced to "mate" with male slaves to produce offspring that would make a good profit on the auction block.
When Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared in book form in 1852, it was published in an initial press run of 5,000 copies. That year, it sold 300,000 copies. Its London edition sold 200,000 copies throughout the United Kingdom. It became a hit throughout Europe as well.
Ironically, by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the book was out of print in the United States, as Stowe's original publisher had gone out of business. She found another publisher, and when the book was republished in 1862, the demand for copies became huge.
That same year, Harriet Beecher Stowe was invited to Washington D.C. to meet with President Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said to her, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."
The novel would be adapted many times for the stage, screen, radio, and television.
In the 20th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin courted a new controversy that continues to this day. African-American activists have accused the abolitionist novel of being racist itself, with its racial stereotypes and epithets.
This, like the accusations of racism leveled against Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) comes from a failure to place the novel in its proper historical perspective and consider its overall message.
Quote Of The Day
"I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation." - Harriet Beecher Stowe on her classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Today's video features the rare 1903 silent film adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin - produced by Thomas Edison's movie studio! Enjoy!