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The Impact of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most affecting and influential novel in American history. Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novel’s author, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said to her, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” One Southerner said the 1852 novel “had given birth to a horror against slavery in the Northern mind which all the politicians could never have created.”

David S. Reynolds’s new book  Mightier Than the Sword analyzes the enormous impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and shows how it broadened and deepened the public’s revulsion at slavery. And toward that end, it makes a point applicable to our day and time.

The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was known for his acidic rhetoric and denunciations of those whom he considered to be insufficiently anti-slavery. The Constitution, Garrison said, was “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” Harriet’s brother Henry believed Garrison was well-intentioned but lacking in “conciliation, good-natured benevolence, even a certain popular mirthfulness.” According to Henry, “Anti-slavery under [Garrison] was all teeth and claw…. It fought. It gained not one step by kindness…. It bombarded everything it met, and stormed every place which it won.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe took things in a different direction. According to Reynolds:

The novel’s relatively benign treatment of Southerners was deliberate. Because Stowe wanted the South to change its mind about slavery, she avoided the kind of wholesale demonization of slaveholders she feared might alienate all Southerners. She actually had two Southern characters, Emily Shelby and St. Clare, speak against slavery. By doing so, she felt she could challenge the South’s peculiar institution from within by having some slaveowners say that slavery was evil.

Reynolds adds, “In fact, her efforts to be compassionate made her seem far more dangerous than virulent abolitionists like Garrison, whose rancorous tone and calls for disunion made him easily dismissable in the South and unpopular even in the North.”

Stowe herself wrote a friend a year-and-a-half after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saying,

The effects of the book so far have been, I think, these: 1st. to soften and moderate the bitterness of feeling in extreme abolitionists. 2nd. to convert to abolitionist views many whom the same bitterness had repelled. 3rd. to inspire the free colored people with self-respect, hope, and confidence. 4th. to inspire universally through the country a kindlier feeling toward the negro race.

Stowe’s genius, then, wasn’t simply in the realm of imaginative literature; it was also in moving America in the direction of justice. She achieved that by appealing not to abstract appeals but to decency and compassion. She humanized slavery through vivid, memorable figures both heroic (Uncle Tom) and sadistic (Simon Legree). She understood the power of grace in the pursuit of a principled cause. And she knew that at its best and deepest level politics has to be understood as part of a great human drama. That is the way one shapes, in a lasting way, public sentiment and moral beliefs. And that is something only a very few political leaders grasp.

In all of this, Stowe found something of a soulmate inLincoln, “the brightest star in Stowe’s constellation of American heroes,” in the words of Reynolds.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “doing a magnificent work on the public mind,” one journalist said. “Wherever it goes, prejudice is disarmed, opposition is removed, and the hearts of all are touched with a new and strange feeling, to which they before were strangers.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe is the little woman who (with others) made the great war. She is also the little woman who (with others) made this great nation.