Uncle Toms Cabin Essay, Research Paper
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin may never be seen as a great literary work, because of its didactic nature, but it will always be known as great literature because of the reflection of the past and the impact on the present. Harriet Beecher Stowe seemed destined to write great protest novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: her father was Lyman Beecher, a prominent evangelical preacher, and her siblings were preachers and social reformers. Born in 1811 in Litchfeild, Connecticut, Stowe moved with her family at the age of twenty-one to Cincinnati. During the eighteen years she lived there she was exposed to slavery. Although her only personal contact with the south was a brief trip to Kentucky she knew freed and fugitive slaves in Cincinnati. She also had friends who participated in the Underground Railroad. She learned about slave life by talking to these people and reading antislavery tracts. She began writing while still living in Cincinnati. In 1836, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a distinguished bible scholar and theological professor, and they had seven children. After marrying, Stowe continued to write supplementing her husbands limited earnings.
In 1850, the United States congress voted to pass the Fugitive Slave Law, which prohibited Northerners from helping runaway slaves and required them to return the slaves to their owners in the south. Stowe having moved to Brunswick, Maine with her family had been planing to write a protest of slavery since her experiences in Cincinnati. The passage of the fugitive slave law proved a powerful catalyst. She began working on Uncle Toms Cabin and published it first in serial form in the abolitionist magazine The National Era. The first installment appeared on June 5, 1851, but before the serial could be completed, the novel come out in a two-volume set in 1852. The book became an immediate and extraordinary success, selling over one million copies in America and England before the year was out. Thus, Stowe became the most famous American female writer of her day.
Because his Kentucky plantation was overrun by debt, Mr. Shelby made plans to sell one of his slaves to his chief creditor; a New Orleans slave dealer named Haley. While they were discussing the transaction, Eliza’s child, Harry, came into the room. Haley wanted to buy Harry to, but at first Shelby was unwilling to part with the child. Eliza listened to enough of the conversation to be frightened. She confided her fears to George Harris, her husband, a slave on an adjoining plantation. After supper in the cabin of Uncle Tom and his wife, Aunt Chloe, the Shelby slaves gathered for a meeting. They sang songs, and young George Shelby, who had eaten his supper there, read from the Bible. In the big house, Mr. Shelby signed the papers making Uncle Tom and little Harry the property of Haley. Eliza, learning her child’s fate from some remarks of Mr. Shelby to his wife, fled with her child, hoping to reach Canada and safety. Uncle Tom hearing of the sale resigned himself to the wisdom of Providence. The next day, after Haley had discovered his loss, he set to capture Eliza; however, she had a good start. Moreover, Mrs. Shelby delayed the hunt by serving a later breakfast. When her pursuers came in sight, Eliza escaped across the Ohio River by jumping from one floating ice cake to another, young Harry in her arms. Haley hired two slave-catchers, Mark and Loker, to track Eliza across Ohio. For their trouble, she was to be given to them. They set off that night.
Eliza found shelter in the home of senator and Mrs. Bird. The senator took her to the house of a man known to aid fugitive slaves. Uncle Tom, however, was not so lucky. Haley made sure Tom would not escape by shackling his ankles before taking him to the boat bound for New Orleans. When young George Shelby heard that Tom had been sold, he followed Haley on his horse. George gave Tom a dollar as a token of his sympathy and told him that he would buy him back one day.
At the same time, George Harris began his escape. White enough to pass as a Spaniard, he appeared at a tavern as a gentleman and took a room there, hoping to find a station on the underground railway before too long. Eliza was resting at the home of Rachel and Simeon Halliday when George Harris arrived in the same Quaker settlement.
On board the boat bound for New Orleans, Uncle Tom saved the life of young Eva St. Clare, and in gratitude, Eva’s father purchased the slave. Eva told Tom he would now have a happy life, for her father was kind to everyone. Augustine St. Clare was married to a woman who imagined herself sick therefore took no interest in her daughter Eva. He had gone north to bring back her cousin, Miss Ophelia, to provide care for the delicate Eva. When they arrived at the St. Clare plantation, Tom was made head coachman.
Meanwhile, Loker and Marks were on the trail of Eliza and George. They caught up with the fugitives, and there was a fight in which George wounded Loker. Marks fled, so the Quakers who were protecting the runaways took Loker in along with them and gave them medical treatment.
Unused to lavish Southern customs, Miss Ophelia tried to understand the south. Shocked by the extravagance of St. Clare’s household, she attempted to bring order out of the chaos, but she received no encouragement. Indulgent in all things St. Clare was indifferent to the affairs of his family and property. Uncle Tom had an easy life and a loft over the stable. He and little Eva became close friends, with St. Clare’s approval. St. Clare bought an odd pixie like child for his prim and proper sister to educate.
Eva grew frailer. Knowing that she was about to die, she begged her father to free the slaves, as he had so offend promised. After Eva’s death, St. Clare began to read his bible and to make plans to free his slaves. He gave Topsy to Miss Ophelia legally. Then one evening he tried to separate quarreling men. He received a knife in the side and died a short time later. Mrs. St. Clare had no intentions to free the slaves. She ordered Tom sent to the slave market.
At auction Tom was sold to a brutal owner named Simon Legree. For weeks, Tom tried to please his harsh master. One day, he helped a sick woman by putting cotton in her basket. For this act, Tom was ordered to flog the woman. When Tom refused, his master flogged Tom till he fainted. A slave named Cassy came to Tom’s aid. Meanwhile, far to the north, George, Eliza, and young harry were slowly making their way through the stations of the underground railway to Canada.
Cassy and Emmeline, another slave, were determined to make their escape. Knowing the consequences if they get caught, they trick Legree into thinking they were hiding in the swamp. When Legree sent the dogs and men after them, they sneaked back into the house and hid in the attic. Legree suspected that Tom knew where the women were hiding and decided to beat the truth out of Tom. He had Tom beaten till he could neither speak nor stand. Two days later, George Shelby arrived to buy Tom back, but he was too late. When George threatened to have Legree tried for murder, Legree mocked him. George struck Legree in the face and knocked him down. Still hiding in the attic, Cassy and Emmeline pretended they were ghosts. Frightened Legree drank harder than ever. George Shelby helped them to escape. Later, on the riverboat headed north, the two women found a lady named Madame de Thoux, who said she was George Harris’ sister. With this disclosure, Cassy also learned that Eliza, her daughter who had been sold years before, was the Eliza who had married George and, with him and her child, had escaped safely to Canada. These relatives were reunited in Canada after many years. In Kentucky, George Shelby freed all his slaves when his father died. He said he freed them in the name of Uncle Tom.
When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, it created an immediate controversy in a United States that was divided-both geographically and politically-by the issue of slavery. It is impossible to Uncle Tom’s Cabin outside of historical forces that prompted Harriet Beecher Stowe to write it.
The early settlers of the Thirteen Colonies were well aware of the problem that was developing for the young nation as more and more slaves were kidnapped form Africa and brought to the U.S. to supply agricultural labor for the under populated colonies. Due to a complex combination of economic need, political indecision, scientific ignorance, and prior custom, no action was taken to rid the country of slaves while there were still few enough of them to return to their home in Africa. Thomas Jefferson said that America, ”had a tiger by the ears,” meaning that the slaves were dangerous because, like a tiger in captivity, they would turn on the people that captured them if they were ever released. Jefferson concluded, as did most Americans in the 18th century, that the only way to control the “tiger” was to keep holding the tiger tightly by the ears, as terrible as that dilemma was for both the slaves and the slave owners. Thus when Jefferson wrote in the declaration of independence in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” he did not conclude the African slaves.
The “triangular trade” was extremely lucrative. It was called “triangular” because the path of a trading ship, if traced on a map, describes a triangle over the Atlantic Ocean. The ships would take manufactured goods from England and Europe to trade in Africa for slaves. The slaves would be transported to the Indies or Americas (the notorious “middle passage”) and traded for staples like cotton, sugar, rum, molasses, and indigo which would then be carried to England and Europe and traded for manufactured goods. This procedure, repeated again and again from the time of the first slaves’ arrival in America in 1619 to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, made trades at each stop on the triangle very wealthy. The Founding Fathers agreed, with a clause in the Constitution, to end the slave trade, but this did nothing to end the slave system. Slave owners simply continued to supply the slave market through “natural increase.” The loss of an external source of supply only made slaves more valuable.
Nevertheless, by the 19th century most of the world had come to believe that slavery was wrong. Enlightenment ideals concerning the brotherhood of mankind had changed social perceptions, and slavery had been abolished almost everywhere in Europe and its colonies. It was very difficult for Americans to imagine ending slavery, however, because no one in the country had ever lived without it. In the seventy-five years since he foundation of the country, the North had gotten used to the idea that slaves were necessary to the South. Most of them believed that slave owners were kind to the slaves. They also believed that slaves were childlike and uneducable, and that if they were not kept as slaves they would not be able to take care of themselves. There was also the problem of what to do with the slaves if they were feed. No one, North or South, wanted to live with Negroes. Thus, for a long time, it was easier to live with slavery rather than to try to change it.
As the U.S. expanded westward, however, slavery became a more pressing issue. Each new state entering the union shifted the balance of political power in Congress between slaves states and free states. This, together with the rise of the Abolition Movement in the 1830s and the religions revival called the “Great Awakening,” which saw slavery as evidence of national sin, created an atmosphere of tension between North and South that had been postponed since the founding of the nation. Into this atmosphere came Stowe’s novel, which depicts the cruelties of slavery in a way that had never registered on the national consciousness before.
Harriet Beecher (1811-1896), born in Litchfield, Connecticut, belonged to a family of famous clergymen. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a strict Congregationalist, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, became a famous preacher during an era when preachers were admired as much as film or television celebrities are admired today. Harriet Beecher was a retiring woman, however, married to Calvin Stowe, a professor at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. For eighteen years, as she raised seven children, Stowe observed the effects of slavery in the slave state of Kentucky, just across the Ohio River to the free state of Ohio. Stowe supplemented her family income with freelance writing. She developed the idea of writing a novel about the horrors of slavery after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. Many Northerners were outraged by this law, which allowed slaves owners to pursue their runaway slaves into free states in order to recover their “property.” Stowe combined her religious backgrounds with her political beliefs by writing a book about a saintly slave who forgave his tormentors, just as Christ forgave His.
When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published it became an instant success, selling so many copies that it is considered today to be the first “best seller” in American publishing history. It was banned in the South, however, and prompted dozens of answering novel, essays, and poems by proslavery writers. Southern writers believe that Stowe exaggerated the condition of slaves in the South, representing the exceptional cruel master (Simon Legree) as the norm, and representing the kind master (Mr. Shelby) as too weak not to sell slaves in times of economic necessity. For nine years, between the time Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and the start of the Civil War in 1861, a writer and Southern pro-slavery writer was waged. Though many anti-slavery works had been written before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, most notable the fugitive slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and others, it was the combination of sentimentality and religious feelings in Stowe’s novel that triggered the controversy that ended in Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s famous comment when he met Mrs. Stowe (“So you are the little lady who made this big war”) implies that Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused the war, but Stowe only articulated in a new way the deep-seated problem that had been present in America since the foundation of the colonies in the seventeenth century.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a work, which can stand alone as a self-contained entertainment. It requires an understanding on the part of the reader of the conditions that made the author write it and which made the nation respond to it so passionately. It is difficult, today, to imagine a work of literature so powerful that it can truly be said to have hastened the onset of a war and the resolution of a problem so intractable that neither the Founding Fathers nor nearly a hundred years of congresses could find a solution. The fact that Abraham Lincoln decided to emancipate the slaves in 1863 without addressing the related problems of South would be bankrupt, is a testament to the fact that intense public feeling, rather than logic and negotiation, had made it possible for Lincoln to act unilaterally. Uncle Tom’s Cabin contributed greatly -even primarily-to that change of feeling in the nation. The first approach to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, therefore, must be the historical and biographical.
In the century and a half since Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, many scholars have reflected on the various ways one can read and understanding this complex text, and how Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been interpreted differently over the years, both before and after the Civil War. Cultural studies, such as Thomas F. Gossett’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture and Moria Davison Reynolds’ “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States provide the historical frame of reference needed to understand the religious, political, and racial issues addressed in the novel. Though early biographies of Stowe focus on the dramatic irony of a shy housewife making a massive impact on American history, more recent biographies, such as Joan D. Hedrick’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: A life place the facts of her career in the framework of the century and give the reader a history of an era in addition to a history of a life.
Once the historical frame is understood, however, the most central avenue of approach to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that which address its primarily theme of sin and redemption. When the reader considers that Harriet Beecher Stowe was from a family of preachers, it becomes clear that she is a preacher in her novel as a minister in his pulpit. The character of Uncle Tom is unmistakably modeled on Jesus Christ, and everything that happens to him is designed to demonstrate how evil can be transformed into good by love. Little Eva is another model of saintly behavior, designed to prompt all who know her to change, like Topsy, from being bad to being good. Stowe intended the reader, including the southern slave owner, to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “turn from sin and be saved.”
The theme of sin and redemption can be expressed in more general terms as the struggle between good and evil, with slavery as the metaphor for all that is evil in the world. This is the approach taken by Josephine Donovan in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. The full range of evil, from the heartless cruelty of Simon Legree, the subtle weakness of Mr. Shelby, and the humorous rascality of Topsy are all transformed by the power of Uncle Tom’s acceptance of his fate. It is for the reader to go into the actual world and transform it.
Donovan, Josephine. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. New York: Twane, 1991.
Gossett, Thomas F. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture.” Southern Methodist University Press 13 Feb. 1985: 1+.
Hedrick, John D. “Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life.” Oxford University Press 9 Feb. 1994: A2+.
Hughes, Langston. Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe Ed. Elizabeth Ammonds. Boston: G.K. Hall 1980. 102-104.
Lynn, Kynneth S. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: The Belknab Press of Harvard University Press, 1962. vii-xxiv.
Reynolds, Moria D. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States. Boston: McFarland, 1985.
Stern, Madeleine B. “Harriet Beecher Stowe.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. 12th ed. 1982. 425-433.
Yarborough, Richard. New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 45-84.