“It is with the oppressed, enslaved African race that I cast in my lot; and, if I wished anything, I would wish myself two shades darker, rather than one lighter.”
There is an old story, now widely considered apocryphal, that when Harriet Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the president declared, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” Of course, the trouble between the North and the South had begun long before Stowe reached for her pen, but her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin did indeed spark a firestorm across the nation. While some (mainly in the North) hailed it as a book expounding the utter truth of American slavery, others (mainly in the South) felt it was an abominable novel, filled with grotesque exaggeration and sectional prejudice. The excerpted chapters below are a small sample of this crucial piece of nineteenth-century literature, highlighting the growing tension in the United States and illuminating a possible resolution for those removed from bondage.
Published in 1952, Uncle Tom’s Cabin further polarized a nation already deeply divided over the issue of slavery. In a sense, US domestic politics over the entire first half of the nineteenth century had been a chess game aimed at maintaining a peaceful balance of power between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South; however, the game was getting increasingly desperate. Much legislative debate had been expended over the issue of the westward expansion of slavery, and numerous compromises had been struck to ensure that neither side—slave states or free states—outnumbered the other in Congress as western territories achieved statehood. The rhetoric was becoming increasingly heated, and some in the South were already discussing the option of secession.
It was into this tense atmosphere that Stowe launched her fictional broadside against the institution of slavery. It tells of the travails of Tom, a kindly and pious middle-aged slave who starts out with a benevolent master, but through a series of unfortunate events ends up the property of a sadistic owner who ultimately has Tom beaten to death. Along the way, however, Tom’s Christian virtue influences many other characters for the better, including (as described in the presented excerpt) a white slave owner who later frees his slaves. The reader is thus left with the message that Tom is a hero whose example, if followed by everyone, promises to lead to the end of slavery. The excerpt prominently features the character George Harris, a slave who successfully runs away with his family and vows to start a new life in the African colony of Liberia.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in serialized form beginning in 1851 in the antislavery newspaper the National Era; it was published as a book in 1852. It was an immediate sensation, and is said to have sold more copies than any other book in the United States in the nineteenth century except for the Bible. Three hundred thousand copies were sold in the United States in the first year after publication (equivalent to about four million copies in 2013) and more than three times that many in Great Britain. Only two years after the publication of Stowe’s novel, passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act would result in the acts of violence between pro- and antislavery forces known as “Bleeding Kansas”—the clearest foretaste yet of the coming of the Civil War.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut, the sixth of thirteen children born to Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher (nine to his first wife, Roxana, and four more to his second, also named Harriet). A prominent religious leader of the Second Great Awakening and also active in the temperance movement, Lyman Beecher raised a family of ministers, educators, and activists. In 1824, Harriet enrolled at Hartford Female Seminary, a girls’ school founded by her eldest sister, Catharine. Harriet later taught there as well. In 1832, the Beecher family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lyman Beecher was appointed president of Lane Theological Seminary. There, Harriet met Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at the seminary, and the two were married in 1836. The Stowes were both abolitionists and supporters of the Underground Railroad, and would have seven children together.
In 1850, the Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine, when Calvin took a teaching position at Bowdoin College. Harriet began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin around this time, partly in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which among other things made harboring escaped slaves a crime, and required law enforcement officials even in nonslave states to assist in their capture and return. Stowe would later write, “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother I was oppressed and broken-hearted, with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity—because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath” (qtd. in Hedrick 237).
In 1853 the Stowes moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where Calvin took up a teaching post at Andover Theological Seminary. In 1864 he retired, and they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Harriet Beecher Stowe died in 1896 at the age of eighty-five. She was the author of over twenty books, though none achieved anywhere near the fame of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Whether or not Lincoln in fact referred to Stowe as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war,” her book did provoke a firestorm of criticism in the South, much of it aimed at Stowe herself. Southerners attacked the book and its depiction of Southern life and slavery, and many of the attacks centered on Stowe’s allegedly unwomanly behavior in writing it. Historian Joseph P. Roppolo investigated this topic in his 1957 article “Harriet Beecher Stowe and New Orleans: A Study in Hate,” which he opened by summarizing the respective sectional assessments of the book: “Before 1861 the book was, to the North, an exposé of the evils of the institution of slavery and, to the South, a slanderous and vicious attack on a comfortable and even moral way of life” (346). People in the South felt the book smacked of libelous insults.
A theme that ran through Southern criticism was the belief that, in writing her novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe was behaving in an utterly unladylike fashion. In the South, a bastion of traditional social values, proper ladies refrained from writing political and social commentary, keeping instead to what were seen as more female-appropriate subjects: children, homemaking, and religion. Attacking Stowe’s femininity was akin to attacking her credibility: how could her work be trusted if she was not behaving as a woman should? The editor of the New Orleans newspaper the Daily Picayune made pointed remarks on this topic, writing: She has degraded to her unseemly and mischievous labors the powers which might have been usefully and gracefully devoted to delicate and womanly compositions. The secret of this voluntary debasement is, we fear, to be found in a calculation of profit most greedily masculine, in the misusing of her thoughts for the sake of gain. . . . Hence, she dipped her pen in the bitterest gall of malevolence, and has written one of the most abominable libels which the age has produced. . . . Such a desecration of woman’s nature is a sorry and a rare sight. (qtd. in Roppolo 348–49)
She has degraded to her unseemly and mischievous labors the powers which might have been usefully and gracefully devoted to delicate and womanly compositions. The secret of this voluntary debasement is, we fear, to be found in a calculation of profit most greedily masculine, in the misusing of her thoughts for the sake of gain. . . . Hence, she dipped her pen in the bitterest gall of malevolence, and has written one of the most abominable libels which the age has produced. . . . Such a desecration of woman’s nature is a sorry and a rare sight. (qtd. in Roppolo 348–49)
This was not merely a negative book review, but a personal attack on the author. And this editor was not alone. Another southern newspaper editor also took the reins in this argument, declaring that, by promoting such lies and falsifications about her Southern brothers and sisters, Stowe was then being a false mother, sister, and daughter, tossing away all the womanly virtues she had been taught.
In response to the attacks on the factual credibility of her book, in 1853 Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work intended to document all the sources on which she drew for her portrayals of slavery and Southern life. This nonfiction book, also a best seller, did little to quell the furor over its fictional predecessor, with audiences in the North and South having similar responses—the former approving and the latter dismissive.
In the debate over slavery and whether or how to end it, there were many in both the North and the South who agreed that what should become of freed slaves was a thorny issue. Many people who were opposed to slavery in principle nonetheless felt that blacks and whites—or former slaves and people accustomed their whole lives to freedom—could never live together in the same society without problems. Some of the arguments for this point of view were cultural (the races were too different to get along productively), some were political (blacks were not mature enough as a people to handle democracy), and some were economic (free blacks would take jobs from working-class whites). This profound ambivalence about the perceived difficulties of ending slavery was perhaps best summarized in the famous comment by Thomas Jefferson regarding slavery, that “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go”—meaning slavery is morally wrong, but ending it would be difficult and dangerous for American society.
One of the solutions proposed for this issue was colonization—sending blacks back to Africa, their ancestral homeland. In 1817, a group of prominent white politicians and civic leaders who favored this idea founded the American Colonization Society, which gathered money from private donations and some modest federal funding for the purpose of buying up land in West Africa and establishing a colony, which it did in the early 1820s. This colony came to be called Liberia, after the Latin word for “freedom,” and its capital was named Monrovia, after US president James Monroe, a supporter of colonization. Only a few thousand free African Americans ever settled there, but it was enough for the colony to take root and gain a measure of self-sufficiency, and in 1847, Liberia peacefully declared independence. This was the background for the above chapter on George Harris’s emigration to Liberia.
The colonization of Liberia, even while still a concept and not yet a reality, provoked debate. For men and women like those in Stowe’s Harris family, it presented itself as the best solution: they were kept together as a family without fear of enslavement, and they joined a community of like-minded people an ocean away from the hostility of America. George, in part, wishes to make his way to Liberia as a minister and missionary: As a Christian patriot, as a teacher of Christianity, I go to my country,—my chosen, my glorious Africa!—and to her, in my heart, I sometimes apply those splendid words of prophecy: “Whereas thou hast been forsaken and hated, so that no man went through thee; I will make thee an eternal excellence, a joy of many generations!”
As a Christian patriot, as a teacher of Christianity, I go to my country,—my chosen, my glorious Africa!—and to her, in my heart, I sometimes apply those splendid words of prophecy: “Whereas thou hast been forsaken and hated, so that no man went through thee; I will make thee an eternal excellence, a joy of many generations!”
His wish to bring God to indigenous Africans, as well as to provide solace for African Americans emigrating like himself, is more than enough justification for him to go; to stay in the United States would be to tempt fate for himself, his wife, and their children. Stowe wrote these scenes in the early 1850s; freedom would not be assured for the real-life counterparts of the Harris family for more than another decade, with the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in the same year, forever abolishing slavery. In the early 1850s, both in the novel and in the real world, there was much unrest for those of African descent; there was no clear resolution in sight, especially with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. What support there was for the emigration of African Americans was described by historian Peter Kolchin as “a sign of the growing pessimism that gripped many free blacks during the 1850s” (85).
However, in reality, only a minority of either blacks or whites ever supported colonization. Kolchin wrote that the ACS failed, in part, due to “a hostile response from many blacks, few of whom embraced the idea of being sent ‘back’ to Africa” (185). George’s own summary of the argument against his position is apt: But, you will tell me, our race have equal rights to mingle in the American republic as the Irishman, the German, the Swede. Granted, they have. We ought to be free to meet and mingle,—to rise by our individual worth, without any consideration of caste or color; and they who deny us this right are false to their own professed principles of human equality. We ought, in particular, to be allowed here. We have more than the rights of common men;—we have the claim of an injured race for reparation.
But, you will tell me, our race have equal rights to mingle in the American republic as the Irishman, the German, the Swede. Granted, they have. We ought to be free to meet and mingle,—to rise by our individual worth, without any consideration of caste or color; and they who deny us this right are false to their own professed principles of human equality. We ought, in particular, to be allowed here. We have more than the rights of common men;—we have the claim of an injured race for reparation.
George’s profound sense of alienation from American culture drives him to wash his hands of it altogether. The fact is, however, that by the mid-nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of African Americans were just that—Americans, born in the United States, and steeped in American culture, even if they were denied citizenship—and for them Africa was a foreign country that most could not imagine adopting as their own.
For this reason, this chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was actually controversial among both free blacks and white abolitionists; most people in both groups disagreed with colonization’s premise that blacks and whites could not live together peaceably, and instead advocated working to assimilate blacks into American society. Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, while generally highly supportive of Stowe’s novel, gently chided her about the above chapter, writing to her in an open letter: “The truth is, dear madame, we are here, and here we are likely to remain” (qtd. in Sonneborn 56).
As a matter of history, the Liberian experiment did not go terribly well. From the start, the African American immigrants, or Americo-Liberians, as they came to be called, had antagonistic relations with the indigenous tribes of Liberia, who did not welcome the newcomers. The Americo-Liberians formed a small ruling elite in the country and established harshly repressive policies, often aided by the United States, for dealing with natives. It is doubtful, however, that Stowe was aware of any of this; in the face of criticism, she later said she would have done better to leave the discussion of colonization out of the book. However, it does articulate one strain of American thought regarding the question of slavery and how to transition to a society without it.
The final chapter quoted above shows George Shelby, the son of Tom’s kindly original owner at the start of the book, freeing all his slaves as a tribute to Tom’s Christian example. Tom is dead by this point in the novel, having been beaten to death on the orders of Simon Legree, the particularly cruel slave owner to whom he had unfortunately been sold. Stowe—who came from a family of ministers and was married to a biblical scholar—infused her novel with Christian themes and meant Uncle Tom to be a paragon of Christian virtue, forgiving even his tormentors as they flog the life out of him, causing them to convert to Christianity afterward.
However, Tom’s benevolence toward his oppressors has also led to the novel’s other great cultural legacy: the conversion of the name “Uncle Tom” into an epithet to describe African Americans perceived as subservient and too eager to please whites. Despite the diversity of opinion regarding Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it was successful as a piece of art in that it provoked discussion and served as a conduit in making the lives of slaves more real to those far removed from the scenes of the cotton fields. Despite the negative reinvention of her principal character, the powerful impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work is still strongly felt in the twenty-first century.
Aside from the colonization idea, a key theme of the chapters relating to George Harris is that of his biracial identity. Born of a white father and black mother, George’s skin is fair enough that he could pass for white if he wanted to—thereby rising above his oppressed condition as an escaped slave and slipping secretly under the protection of white privilege. However, he makes a moral choice not to do this, instead choosing the African side of his heritage as his primary identity—as he says, casting in his lot with the “oppressed, enslaved African race.” This attitude is very much in line with the Christian theme of the rest of the book—the core Christian value of siding with the downtrodden. In fact, one of the things George looks forward to doing in Africa is helping bring Christianity to that continent. (Again, the historical record shows that this did not go well, but Stowe had no way of knowing that.) The main message of the George Harris character is that he has the option of identifying as either white or black, and because white people are responsible for the evils of slavery and racism, he chooses to be black.
The overarching theme of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the inherently evil and destructive nature of slavery and its fundamental incompatibility with Christian ethics. There was virtually universal agreement in Stowe’s day that American society should indeed govern itself according to Christian ethics, but something close to one half of the country had been working hard for decades, even centuries, to maintain a place for slavery within that ethical framework. Whatever its other flaws, Stowe’s novel argued eloquently against that attempt, thus clarifying and sharpening passions on both sides of the slavery issue in the decade prior to the Civil War.
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