Stowe Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Selling more than 300,000 copies in its first year of publication, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin immediately garnered both praise and condemnation. The novel’s portrayal of the cruelties of slavery and its memorable characters proved effective tools in mobilizing support for abolitionism and helped to inflame the tensions that led to the U.S. Civil War.

Summary of Event

The Fugitive Slave Law Fugitive Slave Law of 1850;and Uncle Tom’s Cabin[Uncle Toms Cabin] of 1850, which strengthened procedures for the return of runaway slaves, reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to maintain the institution of slavery despite the presence of an outspoken abolitionist movement. The measure angered opponents of slavery throughout the United States. One of these opponents was Harriet Beecher Stowe, a fiction writer living in Brunswick, Maine. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly as a response to the Fugitive Slave Law. With the book she hoped to win new supporters to the antislavery cause by exposing slavery’s brutalities. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)[Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe)] Stowe, Harriet Beecher Literature;American Slavery;in literature[Literature] [kw]Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) [kw]Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe (1852) [kw]Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe Publishes (1852) [kw]Tom’s Cabin, Stowe Publishes Uncle (1852) [kw]Cabin, Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s (1852) Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)[Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe)] Stowe, Harriet Beecher Literature;American Slavery;in literature[Literature] [g]United States;1852: Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin[2860] [c]Literature;1852: Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin[2860] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1852: Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin[2860] [c]Social issues and reform;1852: Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin[2860] Bailey, Gamaliel Jewett, John Punchard

Uncle Tom’s Cabin began as a series of short stories published in the National Era in 1851 and 1852. The National Era, published weekly in Washington, D.C., and affiliated with the antislavery Free-Soil Party, proved receptive to Stowe’s proposed series. Its abolitionist editor Gamaliel Bailey Bailey, Gamaliel paid Stowe a fee of three hundred dollars for the stories, which he initially agreed to print in three or four issues of the newspaper. Stowe eventually received an additional one hundred dollars after the series expanded to occupy forty issues of the newspaper.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin represented something of a departure for Stowe, the daughter of a Connecticut minister who had been raised with antislavery but not activist principles. Her previous fiction and essays published in magazines and gift books concentrated on romantic tales or idyllic portraits of New England life. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was also something of a departure for antebellum publishing, for few prior antislavery novels had met with much success.

Poster for a late 1890’s dramatic production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was frequently adapted to the stage during the nineteenth century.

(Library of Congress)

Despite the positive response that the serial received in the National Era, the novel form of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was rejected by at least one publisher before John Punchard Jewett Jewett, John Punchard of Boston agreed to print the work. Jewett, a relatively small publisher, accepted Stowe’s novel at the urging of his wife, another fan of the National Era series. The book was released in two volumes on March 20, 1852, the hardcover selling for one and one-half dollars and the paperback for one dollar. Another paperback version of the book combining both volumes appeared before the end of the year and cost thirty-seven and one-half cents. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an instant success. It sold 10,000 copies in days and more than 300,000 copies during its first year, a feat then unmatched by any other book except the Bible. The novel was even more popular in England, where more than one million copies were sold in 1852.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin features parallel plots involving the fates of two slaves living on the Kentucky plantation of Mr. Shelby. Stowe follows Uncle Tom after he is sold by Shelby through two subsequent masters. The first is Augustine St. Clare, a genteel master in New Orleans. Tom forms a special bond with St. Clare’s daughter Eva, and her death scene is one of the most emotional in the novel. Tom is later sold to a rural Louisiana plantation owned by Simon Legree. Legree, a cruel master who eventually beats Tom to death, is made an even more powerful character because he originally hails from Vermont. Stowe thus uses her novel to show her readers both the variety of conditions slaves endure and the moral damage the slave system inflicts even on northerners who become involved. The novel also details the successful escape of Eliza Harris, a mulatto slave, from Shelby’s plantation after Shelby agrees to sell her four-year-old son, Harry. In one famous scene, Eliza and Harry cross the frozen Ohio River from Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. They eventually reunite with Harry’s father, George Harris, and the family emigrates to Liberia.

Stowe’s evocative tale prompted almost immediate praise from Northern and abolitionist circles. Encomiums came from Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Lloyd Garrison. Southern reviews of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were largely negative. Critics charged that Stowe had presented an inaccurate portrait of slavery in the South and rebutted that most masters treated their slaves well and that most slaves were content.

Critics also noted that Stowe had never lived in the South; indeed, her only visit to the South occurred in 1834, when she spent a few days in Kentucky. Although Stowe and her husband lived in the border city of Cincinnati, Ohio, for almost two decades, there is little historical evidence that she had much contact with either free or enslaved African Americans. These criticisms prompted Stowe to publish A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, which attempted to establish the verity of the depiction of slavery presented in the novel. Nonetheless, southern society threatened reprisal for advocates of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its message. Southern newspapers urged their readers not to buy the novel, and those who tried to sell it were subject to vigilante harassment. In Maryland, for example, a free African American named Samuel Green Green, Samuel received a prison sentence of ten years for being found in possession of the novel. He was released in 1862 on the condition that he leave the United States, which he did by emigrating to Canada Canada;African American immigrants .

Northerners were not without their own reservations about Stowe’s novel. Some were doubtful that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, given its sentimental style, would do much more than evoke emotional responses, leaving the political mobilization of antislavery sentiment unfulfilled. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison were also unnerved by Stowe’s endorsement of relocating freed African Americans to Africa, as the fate of George and Eliza Harris suggested.

Some northern critics of the novel, like their southern counterparts, argued that Stowe’s objections to slavery were unjustified because slavery was the appropriate and biblically determined condition of the African American. African American abolitionists bristled at the colonization issue and at Stowe’s depiction of Uncle Tom as unswervingly pious and obedient, although much of this criticism was muted. Frederick Douglass praised the novel, and the term “Uncle Tom” "Uncle Tom"[Uncle tom] would not assume its pejorative connotation until after World War II.

Contrary to popular assumptions, Uncle Tom’s Cabin exerted only limited direct impact on antebellum politics. Many of the responses to the work were literary; a rash of novels appeared in the 1850’s that claimed to show the truth of slavery by refuting Stowe’s description of its cruelty. Few politicians made public mention of the work.

The novel, however, proved most effective in winning converts to the antislavery cause through its adaptation for the stage. Theatrical Theater;and Uncle Tom’s Cabin[Uncle Toms Cabin] versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared a few months after the novel was published. The most successful script was written by George Aiken of Boston, whose cousin George Howard managed a theater troupe in Troy, New York. Aiken’s version was first performed at the Troy Museum theater in November, 1852; it moved to New York City’s National Theater in July, 1853, and was so popular that the theater began offering matinee performances and racially segregated seating.

Perhaps because Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a play could mediate the novel’s antislavery emphasis according to the tastes of the communities in which it was performed, most observers then and now consider the play responsible for promoting popular abolitionism in the North. Versions of the play toured throughout the North through the end of the nineteenth century. “Anti-Uncle Tom” plays were popular in the pre-Civil War South.

Significance

President Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Uncle Tom’s Cabin[Uncle Toms Cabin] is said to have quipped upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, “So this is the little lady who made this great war.” Southerners certainly blamed Stowe for encouraging the Northern aggression they considered at the root of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Most abolitionists did not begin attributing such agency to Uncle Tom’s Cabin until after the war.

In 1893, James Ford Rhodes Rhodes, James Ford became the first historian to elaborate on the social and political consequences of the novel. Even in the early twenty-first century, it is difficult to deny that Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its stage version influenced Northern sympathy for the plight of the slave and also southern hostility. While it would be perhaps overgenerous to describe Stowe as having “made” the Civil War, her novel drew from and intensified extant sentiments in the ongoing debate over slavery and likely convinced those who were otherwise unaffiliated that African Americans were owed their freedom.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. Thorough account of the composition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, northern and southern responses to the novel, and the novel’s ongoing cultural and political legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Definitive biography, using updated materials such as letters and diaries, to offer a fresh perspective on Stowe’s life and work. Winner of a 1995 Pulitzer Prize.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Robert S. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Compares and contrasts the responses of two leading African American abolitionists to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, particularly its advocacy of African emigration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pierson, Michael D. Free Hearts and Free Home: Gender and American Antislavery Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Considers the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on men and women within the Free-Soil Party.

Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments

Garrison Begins Publishing The Liberator

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

Douglass Launches The North Star

Underground Railroad Flourishes

Compromise of 1850

Second Fugitive Slave Law

National Council of Colored People Is Founded

Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile

U.S. Civil War

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Susan B. Anthony; Henry Ward Beecher; John Brown; Frederick Douglass; Paul Laurence Dunbar; William Lloyd Garrison; Sarah and Angelina Grimké; Sarah Orne Jewett; Abraham Lincoln; Wendell Phillips; Dred Scott; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Harriet Beecher Stowe; Bertha von Suttner; Harriet Tubman; Nat Turner; John Greenleaf Whittier. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)[Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe)] Stowe, Harriet Beecher Literature;American Slavery;in literature[Literature]

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