Every writer dreams of making an impact. Even the most self-effacing author is hopeful of producing a work that will create waves and make its readers sit up and think differently about matters. Exactly 165 years ago just such a book was published for the first time, and it arguably had the greatest impact on world history of any publication that came out in the 19th Century – with the possible exception of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
One of the ironies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was not, strictly, speaking, an abolitionist – at least, not at the time her best-known was published, and certainly not in the sense that bona fide abolitionists would have understood. She was in fact what is known as a colonizationist – that is, she supported moves towards emancipating slaves not so they could become equal citizens of America’s democracy on a par with whites, but rather so they could migrate to west Africa to furnish Liberia and Sierra Leone, the independent countries established and governed run by freed slaves. Beecher Stowe herself is quite explicit in the novel’s Preface about her colonizationist beliefs:
When an enlightened and Christianized community shall have, on the shores of Africa, laws, language and literature, drawn from among us, may then the scenes of the house of bondage be to them like the remembrance of Egypt to the Israelite – a motive of thankfulness to Him who hath redeemed them!
It must surely have seemed curious, to say the least, to some of the freed or fugitive slaves who read the book: essentially, Beecher Stowe’s creed was ‘We want you to be free, so you can get out of our country.’
Whatever their differences, both colonizationists and abolitionists could agree that slavery was an evil thing, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved to be one of the most popular and influential anti-slavery novels ever. It became an immediate best seller: in its first week of publication 10,000 copies were sold, with 300,000 going in its first year. Its fame and popularity spread farther, as it sold 1.5million copies in one year in Britain, and would ultimately be translated into 60 languages. The book certainly proved to crucial in swinging public opinion in the United States (at least in the North) firmly against slavery. In 1862, during his Civil War-dominated presidency, Abraham Lincoln even received Beecher Stowe at White House, and is reputed to have said to her, ‘So This is the Little Lady who Made This Big War!‘ – but this may well be an apocryphal story, as he was so quoted not by Beecher Stowe herself but by her son more than thirty years after the event. All the writer herself would say about the meeting, in a letter to her sister, was ‘It was a very droll time we had the White House I assure you. I will tell you all about it when I get home.‘
On top of its obvious anti-slavery theme is the novel’s great use of characterization, with such memorable characters as the fugitive slave couple George and Eliza Harris; the touchingly innocent Little Eva St Clare, who befriends Tom over their shared Christian faith, the brutal slave owners Tim Haley and Simon Legree, and of course the title character himself. Over the generations, while the book remains popular, the same cannot be said for the reputation of its titular hero and martyr. The term Uncle Tom has entered the language to mean someone who, instead of fighting back against his oppressors, is instead openly meek and subservient to them. Muhammad Ali, at the height of his fame, would frequently taunt opponents such as Joe Frazier and Ernie Terrell as “Uncle Toms” for their failure to support his causes.
Whether she had intended it or not, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel would prove hugely instrumental in fuelling America’s abolitionist movement, as growing numbers of people woke up to the realization that the United States, eighty years after its Revolutionary War, had not made good on the promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – though it must be said that those who drafted the Declaration included slave-owners like Thomas Jefferson. Even Emancipation in 1863 and the North’s victory in the Civil War two years later didn’t make good on the promise – not when you factor in the Jim Crow laws that would follow in the South. It would take the Civil Rights campaign of the 1950s and ’60s to offer African-Americans fresh hope of justice – though even then this campaign proved to be an imperfect one. As America’s racial divide remains raw and unresolved, there is little sympathy now for the hero of Beecher Stowe’s novel, as is clear in T-shirt slogans such as ‘Over 400 years of slavery – You’re damn right I got an attitude.‘