Liberty and Justice for All
Born into one prominent abolitionist family and married into another, Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of the most influential women of her day. She received a classical education—a rare privilege for girls at the time—and wrote dozens of books and pamphlets, principally on religious, political, and historical topics. With her husband, Stowe participated in the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves over the border into Canada, which was a federal offense under the Fugitive Slave Act.
But her most celebrated work was her abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which set the United States by the ears when it came out in 1851. Based largely on reports she had from escaped slaves, the novel was an instant success in both the United States and Great Britain (and inspired rage among slave-owners and their sympathizers). Throughout the whole nineteenth century, only the Bible sold more copies. During the Civil War, Stowe visited the White House, where Abraham Lincoln greeted her with the words, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin recounts several intertwined lives, primarily those of Tom and Eliza. Both begin as slaves of the Shelby family in Kentucky. The Shelbies, to their son’s chagrin, decide to sell both Tom (a devout Christian who has a wife and children) and Eliza’s son, in order to settle some debts. Eliza, overhearing the plan, runs away with her son in the middle of the night and reunites with her own husband. Tom is sold to a New Orleans plantation owner named St. Clare; after St. Clare’s unexpected death, he is sold again, this time to an exceptionally cruel master named Simon Legree, who brutalizes his slaves both physically and sexually. Tom, drawing strength from his faith, does his best to comfort and protect his fellow slaves. After Tom helps another slave, Cassy, and her daughter escape, Legree orders his overseers to beat Tom to death; the Shelbies’ son arrives to purchase Tom’s freedom, only to find he is too late. Nonetheless, the novel concludes on a happier note: Cassy is Eliza’s mother, and, thanks to Tom’s self-sacrificing aid, she and her other daughter are able to rejoin Eliza and her family.
The novel’s message is straightforward and, in a sense, simple: that slavery is wrong. However, it is subtler than most “propaganda literature,” particularly in the way it paints its antagonists. There are obviously villainous characters like Legree, or the slave-catcher Tom Loker, who are frank both with others and themselves about their racially motivated hatred. But even the white characters who consider themselves unprejudiced and benevolent show moral grey. St. Clare and the Shelbies treat their slaves well, but those slaves are, at the end of the day, property to be used—and, when it is expedient, sold, in defiance of any affections or relationships they may have. St. Clare admits that slavery is evil, but is unwilling to forfeit the wealth it brings him. It is not simply a question of some masters being personally corrupt; the institution of slavery, as such, is corrupt, and corrupts those who partake in it.
A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. … Not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!Harriet Beecher Stowe
Nor is slavery the only social issue that Uncle Tom’s Cabin touches upon, or the South the only part of the US that is implicitly criticized—Legree himself is a Northerner by birth. St. Clare’s Northern cousin, Ophelia, is an abolitionist, but she displays overt racist attitudes against Black people (which was not uncommon even among abolitionists at the time). Earlier on, Stowe shows us that Emily Shelby, Eliza’s initial mistress, is horrified by her husband’s decision to sell Eliza’s son, but powerless to stop it, since all their property legally belongs to him.
This is not to say that Stowe’s work is beyond reproach. Her style has drawn criticism for sentimentality, and also for entrenching certain stereotypes about slaves and about Black people in general. Objections to the melodrama seem to be at least partly snobbish or subjective; melodramas win an audience for a reason. However, the harmful effects of stereotypes are not so easy to dismiss. The “tragic mulatto,” embodied in Cassy, is a useful example: presumed to be in perpetual anguish over not fitting into either white society or the Black underclass, sometimes framed as a sex object, even used as a way to “humanize” Blacks to a white audience by presenting a character with lighter skin! Stereotypes like this did (and, some argue, still do) damage the Black community even after the Civil War, partly by affording justification for Jim Crow laws. The “tragic mulatto” did a good job of evoking pity; but pity is not respect, and some of Stowe’s own characters highlight the difference between having warm feelings for a person and doing justice to them. The depiction of Tom himself has been much criticized; many readers perceive him as too eager to please his white masters, too accepting of cruelty, too ready to forgive. Even if this is a bad reading of the character, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves why a bad reading should be so prevalent, and whether it is prompted by an ugly truth that may or may not attach to Stowe’s work but does, perhaps, attach to something in American culture.
Nonetheless, valid criticisms should never blind us to the value of any work, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not outrage slave-masters for nothing. Stowe’s unsparing depiction of the plantation system, and her refusal to exculpate the North, really did help to arouse the conscience of the nation. The book serves as a reminder that, though never without flaws of its own, literature can be a powerful force for the growth of the human spirit, both for individuals and for whole societies.
If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other posts here at the journal, like these author profiles of Tertullian, St. Thomas à Kempis, or James Baldwin; you might also enjoy this three-part series from Dr. Anika Prather on the history of the great books in Black education. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored.