Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life among the Lowly
Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life among the Lowly
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the slave states of Kentucky and Louisiana and the free state of Ohio in 1850; published in 1852.
The plot traces the fates of three slaves from the upper South. Two of them escape north to freedom, while the third is sold into bondage in the lower South.
According to many, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not just reflect the author’s era. They contend that the novel actually affected the history of that era. When President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe during the Civil War, he reportedly exclaimed, “So this is the little lady who made this big war” (Lincoln in Gerson, p. 163).
Conflict over slavery mounts: 1830-1850
In 1830 the United States, a land of different subcultures, had been united for barely fifty years. During this time its two settled regions, the North and the South, headed in increasingly different directions. The North, consisting mainly of family farms and reliant on an economic system of free labor, began to industrialize and urbanize. Meanwhile, the South, made up of great plantations as well as family farms, became committed to large-scale agriculture and the use of black slave labor.
Until the 1830s the two regions shared some common ground concerning slavery. Southern liberals, who hoped the practice would die out naturally, had begun to push for emancipation. In 1831-32, the Virginia legislature openly debated such a proposal, and it was defeated by only fifteen votes. But afterward, opinions polarized. Southerners silenced their liberal neighbors and began to defend slavery not just as a necessary evil but as a positive good. Legal restrictions mounted against freeing slaves.
Southerners went on the offensive in part because the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had revived slavery’s profitability. The cotton gin made it possible to prepare short-grain cotton for market. This strain of cotton could be grown anywhere south of Kentucky and Virginia, and Americans who flocked to the lower South to establish plantations spread westward into Louisiana and east Texas. The upper South, which had a climate that did not lend itself to widespread cotton production, began to diversify its agriculture. To raise money for this purpose, or sometimes simply to get out of debt, residents of the Upper South—such as the novel’s Mr. Shelby—often resorted to the sale of slaves, now in great demand in the Lower South. By 1850 the price of a good field hand had climbed to $1,500, which led one Southern reviewer to criticize Stowe’s novel for having the slaveowner Mr. Shelby collect only about $1,000 for the sale of Uncle Tom.
Southerners defended slavery as a positive good on two grounds. First, they maintained that Africans were childlike and needed the protection of paternalistic masters. More commonly, Southerners argued that their system was more humane than the factory labor system prevalent in Europe and the northern United States. Indeed, there were serious inequities in the economic system of the North. In factories, men, women, and children worked six days a week from dawn until dark in dangerous, unhealthy conditions. Their employers paid them low wages, could fire them during slack seasons, and had no obligation to support them during illness or old age. In contrast, argued Southerners, most slaveowners treated their chattel with fatherly kindness, ministered to them in sickness, and provided for them in sickness, and provided for them in old age. In Stowe’s novel, the first slaveowners, the Shelbys, appear to fit this description.
COMPROMISE OF 1850
Included in the Compromise of 1850 were five provisions: 1) the admission of California to the Union as a free state; 2) the abolition of slave trading in the District of Columbia; 3) the establishment of Utah and New Mexico as territories that could determine the issue of slavery for themselves; 4) the transfer of some lands claimed by Texas to New Mexico; and 5) a harsher Fugitive Slave Law.
Northern antislavery sentiment
After 1830 Northerners attacked the very principle of human bondage with increasing frequency. Inspiring the Northerners were worldwide struggles for individual liberty—the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian Revolution led by blacks in 1791, and the wave of European revolutions in 1830. Common people seemed to be rising up everywhere, demanding equality and fairer working conditions. Indeed, these world events are alluded to in the novel; two characters, George Harris and Augustine St. Clare, refer to these political and social currents, which make slavery seem patently unjust and doomed to expire.
Also fueling the Northern attacks on slavery was the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement of the era. Influenced by Puritan traditions, evangelical leaders called for people to find salvation through Christ, and to act with Christian love, morality, and humility. People felt tormented by the questions of whether their souls were damned or saved and whether they had honestly tried to perfect society by stamping out sin. The religious impulse inspired a wave of reform movements to wipe out alcoholism, prostitution, and slavery. As noted in Stowe’s novel, religious leaders of the day hotly debated whether or not the Bible condoned slavery.
Stowe’s family history
Stowe, a mother of six and the wife of a struggling professor, lived in the center of this fervor. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was one of the era’s greatest evangelical preachers. Her brothers, meanwhile, were nationally prominent preachers, while her sisters were famous reformers. Her eldest sister, Catherine, spearheaded the cause of “true womanhood,” the notion that women were more spiritual and virtuous than men and could perfect the world through their influence inside and outside the home. Dominating the era was an idealized image of white women bearing intense mother-love for their children, and a new sentimentality about the young, especially about those who died early in life. These views are reflected in, for example, the moral purity and gentle but unmistakable power of Mrs. Shelby in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Despite the North’s distaste for slavery, strong antislavery sentiment was not widespread in the region. Abolitionists remained a radical fringe there, and some felt that obstacles to eliminating slavery were insurmountable. Issues such as reimbursement of slaveowners for their losses—slaves were an expensive investment—seemed insoluble. Moreover, many in the North shared the South’s racial prejudices, and some feared that once freed, the ex-slaves would move North, flooding the job market and reducing everyone’s wages.
Stowe saw firsthand the effects of such Northern racial prejudice when living in Cincinnati. Located on the Ohio River just across from the slave state of Kentucky, the city became a destination for both runaway slaves and free blacks. Prejudice against them erupted into mob violence in 1829 and again in 1841. Such outbreaks led to the belief that whites and blacks were simply incompatible; some argued that the only solution was to send the freed slaves back to Africa. In 1821 the American Colonization Society established Liberia, a colony in West Africa for this purpose, and at the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Harrises set out for Liberia in the hopes of establishing a new and better society there.
Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act
The North and South might have co-existed in an uneasy equilibrium were it not for America’s
westward expansion. After the Mexican War (1846-1848), America’s size increased by 20 percent, and tensions mounted as Congress debated which areas would be free states and which would be slave states.
The Compromise of 1850 temporarily resolved the question, but one aspect of it caused a furor. As a concession to the slave states, a harsher Fugitive Slave Law was passed. It denied blacks accused as fugitives the right of trial by jury and the right to testify on their own behalf. Free blacks falsely fingered as runaways had no way to protect themselves. Particularly galling to antislavery groups was a provision in the new law that made those who aided runaways liable to a fine of $1,000 and six months in prison.
One biographer maintains that late in 1850, outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, Stowe swore she would take action: “I will write something. I will if I live” (Stowe in Hedrick, p. 207). Stowe later said she wrote with such feverish inspiration that it was as though God had written the book, using her as the instrument.
In March 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in book form and quickly made publishing history. Presses ran twenty-four hours a day to keep up with the demand. In less than a year, 300,000 copies had been purchased in the United States, while another 1.5 million copies were sold in Great Britain. President Lincoln’s observation about the novel’s sparking the Civil War appears, to some degree, credible. The novel helped rouse the uninvolved and fueled passions that erupted into warfare.
Life under slavery
Contrary to the image of the South as a region of plantation slaveholders, only 30 percent of all white families owned slaves in 1860, and most possessed twenty slaves or less; only one percent owned large plantations with more than fifty slaves. Yet this tiny minority of planters dominated Southern culture and politics.
Living patterns for the slaves varied considerably: those on small farms often lived under the same roof as their owners and worked side by side with them in the fields; those on the larger farms and plantations had their own slave quarters and worked under an overseer or, more commonly, directly under their owners.
There were laws against excessive punishment of blacks. But more effective in checking excesses was public opinion: slaveowners known for their cruelty were shunned by polite society. Whippings and other brutal punishments occurred, but this was an era when people believed in the value of corporal punishment for black and white alike. A parent, said society, who spared the rod would be spoiling the child. Despite such ideas, slaveowners often refrained from bodily punishment for selfish reasons: slaves were expensive property, and scars reduced their value.
In many cases, at prescribed times slaves could visit with spouses on neighboring plantations, fish and hunt to supplement their diets, or hire themselves out to earn cash, as Uncle Tom’s wife did. Some were even able to save up enough money to buy their freedom. Owners encouraged marriage-type relationships since they produced children (new slaves), and weddings such as the one Mrs. Shelby organized for Eliza in the novel were not uncommon. Many masters tried not to separate families when they sold slaves. Approximately two-thirds of slave marriages remained intact in the prewar period, and it was supposedly illegal to sell children younger than ten separately from their mothers (though this law was sometimes ignored).
Southerners admitted that the horrors Stowe described in her novel sometimes occurred, but they claimed that these cases were exceptions. Nonetheless, their constant terror of slave revolts suggests that in their hearts they knew slavery was brutalizing and oppressive. Under slavery 94
percent of America’s 4 million blacks had no civil rights. They could not even choose where to live, much less their occupations. They were bought and sold like cattle and subjected to humiliating slave auctions. Slaves sold “down South” experienced hard labor on large, isolated plantations, far from the free states.
Other abuses abounded. Slave marriages had no legal status. Many marriages ended when a slaveowner decided to sell a husband or wife, and slaves lived with the anxiety that their families might at any moment be separated against their will. Moreover, slave women lacked the power and, in the eyes of some owners, the right to resist their sexual advances. Despite the law, children younger than ten were sometimes sold away from their mothers. Finally, slaves were constantly reminded that their black skin rendered them inferior in American society.
While few rose up in open rebellion, there were slaves who attempted to escape. Between 1830 and 1860, an estimated fifty thousand slaves escaped through the “underground railroad,” a term used to describe the various routes to freedom in the North and Canada. Fugitive slaves took refuge in the woods or with other friendly slaves or, if they were light-skinned, escaped by passing as white. Once they crossed into the North, guides, usually free blacks, would shelter them and assist in their northward journey. The route that the characters George and Eliza take from Kentucky, across the Ohio River to Ohio and on up to Canada, was among the most commonly traveled.
Other slaves resisted their plight by embracing a rich culture they created out of their African and American roots. Close slave communities developed on many plantations. Members of these communities regarded themselves as one family and called all the older slaves “uncle” or “auntie,” a practice that explains how the character of Tom came to be known as “Uncle” Tom. From one generation to the next, the slave community passed on dances, songs, funeral rites, and oral lore such as folktales about Br’er Rabbit, who always outsmarted his powerful adversary, the fox. Like the slave, the rabbit only seemed to be weak.
Religion was another cornerstone that sustained the slaves. Though mostly Baptists, they mixed their Christianity with elements of traditional African religions. Like Uncle Tom, many of the slaves became preachers, and a few preached so powerfully that they even earned the respect of whites, who sometimes attended their services. Their sermons and especially their gospel songs drew upon biblical images of the Jews who had once been in bondage and, like the slaves, longed for freedom. Eloquently expressed in the spirituals of the slaves were sorrows and hopes for freedom—in this world or the next. For many, the biblical River Jordan represented the rivers that separated the American slave states from the free states, and the biblical Promised Land symbolized the North.
The novel opens with an incident that brings out one of the worst pitfalls of the slave system. A kind Kentucky slaveowner, Mr. Shelby, has fallen into debt. The only way he can save his home is to sell two slaves for whom his family has great affection. The coarse slave trader, Haley, will accept only Uncle Tom and little Harry, the son of the genteel mulatto Eliza. Shelby feels forced to agree to this arrangement and, despite his good intentions, capitulates.
When Eliza and Uncle Tom discover the bargain, they react quite differently. Eliza has just learned that her husband George, who lives on a neighboring plantation, has planned his own escape. He can no longer bear the cruelty of his master. Eliza has no one to turn to for help, but she will not, as a mother, tolerate having her child torn from her. She resolves to escape and in the middle of the night carries young Harry to the Ohio River. When she finally reaches the river, it is so choked with ice that no boats can cross. But the slave trader Haley has caught up with her. In desperation and with grim determination, Eliza grabs her son, leaps onto the ice floes, and crosses to the Ohio shore.
Eliza first seeks refuge in the home of Senator Bird, who has just voted “yes” on the Fugitive Slave Act. When he is actually confronted with the sight of this poor woman and her son, though, he realizes he must disobey the very law he helped pass. As Eliza travels further north, she is protected by whites of the Quaker faith. Finally, she is reunited with George, and they head north to Canada.
Uncle Tom reacts quite differently to the news that he is being sold. A pious Christian, he submits to his fate and sadly bids farewell to his wife and children. He is taken south down the Ohio and then the Mississippi rivers to the big slave auctions in New Orleans. On the way, he witnesses the anguish of fellow blacks in bondage. He sees children torn from their mothers and virginal young women being sold into prostitution during grim slave auctions taking place at various landings.
Uncle Tom and little Eva St. Clare, the five-year-old daughter of a rich planter, develop a friendship on the boat, and Eva persuades her father to buy Tom. She is an angelic child, full of Christian faith and sweetness, who recoils at the evils of slavery. Her father, a sophisticated man named Augustine St. Clare, realizes that slavery is wrong but does nothing about this conviction. Eva develops tuberculosis and dies. Her father has promised Uncle Tom his freedom, but shortly after Eva’s death he is killed in a brawl, and Tom’s fate hinges on his widow. The callous Mrs. St. Clare proceeds to sell him.
Uncle Tom now descends into the deepest hell of slavery, a remote Red River plantation devoid of the saving influence of women or the Christian faith. His new owner is the cruel Simon Legree. Enraged by Uncle Tom’s piety and goodness, Legree tries to destroy both traits. His other slaves have already been defeated in spirit and dehumanized, but Uncle Tom struggles against this fate and finally marshals the spiritual strength to
|Fictional Name||Real-life Source|
|Uncle Tom||Rev. Josiah Henson, an ex-slave whose master finally freed him, but whose life and character resemble that of Uncle Tom|
|George Harris||Lewis Clark, an escaped slave educated in the home of Stowe’s brother|
|Simeon Hailiday||John Hunn and Tho’s Garrett, Quakers convicted of helping a fugitive slave family escape in Maryland in 1946; John Van Zandt, Stowe’s neighbor|
|Senator Bird||Stowe’s neighbor, Professor Upham, who believed the Fugitive Slave Law should be followed yet aided a fugitive when he appeared at his door|
resist. When Legree’s embittered slave-mistress, Cassie, begs Uncle Tom to help her murder Legree, he refuses to sink into such sin. Legree finally has Tom beaten mercilessly until the old slave loses all strength. Just as Eliza and George step onto the free shores of Canada, Uncle Tom, pummeled to death, rises in triumph to heaven like a Christian saint.
An antislavery tract
Stowe’s novel does not condemn all Southerners, for it represents them as a mix of both good and bad people. The practice of slavery, though, is roundly condemned. Through the story of St. Clare’s father and uncle, the novel suggests that circumstances, not character, make slaveholders. Both of the older men were upright Yankees, but one settled in New England and the other on the Louisiana frontier. The same qualities that made one a successful pillar of the community in Vermont turned the other into a rich, stern slaveholder.
Nor does the novel let Northerners off the hook, for it laments that “[b]oth North and South have been guilty before God” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 629). As a national institution, the novel argues, slavery requires the collusion of all Americans. Indeed, the ugliest slave drivers and traders, Simon Legree and Haley, hail from the North.
The novel examines how slavery affects people’s characters and souls. Slavery corrupts whites who, either by chance as in Mr. Shelby’s case, or by intention as in the case of Simon Legree, fall into the sin of treating human beings as animals. More important are the effects of the institution on the slaves themselves. Stowe’s novel was one of the first works to present the slaves’ points of view and to show that they, too, were God’s children. Like whites, they cared intensely for their families, and mother-love flowed strongly for them as well. They also felt driven to maintain their dignity and self-respect, and they too sought religious salvation. The novel, though, reflected the fear that slavery would destroy blacks’ chance for salvation. The slaves Topsy and Cassie are so brutalized that they are almost lost to religious belief. Even noble George Harris is so embittered that he cries out, “O, I’ve seen things all my life that have made me feel that there can’t be a God” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 191).
Most importantly, the novel addresses the question of what people should do when their “nation carries in its bosom great and unredressed injustice” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 629). Its answer is clear: The novel advocates active resistance, even violence if necessary, as when George and his party shoot it out with the slave catchers.
Stowe’s only direct contact with the South was a brief visit to Kentucky, but she read widely and was especially familiar with narratives of escaped slaves, antislavery tracts, and religious debates about slavery between various ministers. Stowe also knew freed and runaway slaves when she lived in Cincinnati. Stories circulated about women who had fled across the ice-choked river, their children in their arms, and Stowe herself helped a female runaway in 1839. These personal experiences became sources for the characterization of Eliza. Stowe also learned about slave life from ex-slaves who worked in middle-class homes. A cook in Stowe’s household, Eliza Buck, told how she had been abruptly sold to a Louisiana planter, how she had sneaked out at night to care for slaves “mangled and lacerated by the whip,” and how her next owner, a Ken-tuckian, had fathered all her children (Hedrick, p. 219). She became the inspiration for Cassie and other female characters. From her brother
Charles, who had worked in New Orleans for a year, Stowe heard detailed descriptions of slave auctions and plantation life. Charles had met an overseer who had boasted that his fists were hard from “knockin’ down niggers.” Stowe used her image of this overseer to develop the cruel character of Simon Legree (Hedrick, p. 222). Above all, Stowe was inspired by the death of her own two-year-old. “It was at his dying bed... that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her” (Stowe in Hedrick, p. 193).
Although each one of the novel’s characters was based on several different real people, Stowe singled out some specific individuals whom she used as models.
Reviews of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Stowe’s novel unleashed a storm of responses. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy hailed it as one of the greatest productions of the human mind; the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass described it as a beacon of light. Others warned that it was subversive, for it idealized those who disobeyed the law. Some antislavery supporters objected to its apparent support for colonization in Liberia and claimed that it made demeaning generalizations about blacks as a race. The London Times warned that it would “keep ill blood at the boiling point” and make slavery more difficult to abolish (Bailey, p. 399).
Southerners cursed the novel, and in a flood of reviews, articles, and books of their own, raged that it was slanderous, a “wild and unreal” portrayal (Bailey, p. 397). They complained that Stowe’s slaves were impossibly idealized, that she had portrayed them as if black skin automatically graced a person with beauty, nobility, and goodness. They also railed against its “unladylike” qualities, contending that no decent woman would have her characters speak in dialect or refer to the unmentionable topics of sexual relations and prostitution. Nationally, some readers praised its realism. Others criticized it as artistically sloppy. But all agreed on its power as a gripping tale of daring escapes and conflict between good and evil.
To critics who stormed about the novel’s inaccuracy, Stowe marshaled together instances from her own experiences along with new evidence to create a book much lengthier than the novel. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) cited laws, legal cases, books, and newspaper articles that supported her claim that her novel depicted slavery in a realistic way. To those who protested that Uncle Tom’s murder was unrealistic, Stowe cited law cases, particularly Souther vs. The Commonwealth, which described a slave torture and murder far worse than the one endured by Uncle Tom (Hedrick, p. 231). She also found ready support for other details in her novel—for example, a $500 reward in a newspaper notice about a runaway who sounded very much like George Harris in her novel. The runaway “without close observation, might pass himself for a white man, as he is very bright—has sandy hair, blue eyes, and a fine set of teeth” (Stowe, Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 17). Stowe’s research for the Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin horrified her. Slavery was “worse than I supposed or dreamed” (Stowe in Hedrick, p. 231).
The novel’s popularity, and the stir it caused among critics, faded after the Civil War. But the images of Eliza clutching her child and crossing the icy river survived, as did the images of little Eva’s and Uncle Tom’s saintly deaths. “Simon Legree” and “Uncle Tom” went on to become permanent expressions in the English language, and Stowe’s little work of fiction assumed its acknowledged place as a book that helped spark the Civil War. Ironically the term “Uncle Tom” would later take on a negative meaning—indicating a black who shows humiliating subservience to whites. The irony is that the source of this expression, Stowe’s novel, in fact aimed, and to a great extent managed, to dismantle a similar image of her own time—that of the contented slave.
Bailey, Thomas A., and David M. Kennedy. The American Spirit: United States History as Seen by Contemporaries. Vol. 1. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1987.
Gerson, Noel. Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Praeger, 1976.
Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1987.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life among the Lowly. Edited by Ann Douglas. New York: Penguin, 1981.
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