Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Stowe was little—under five feet tall—but what she lacked in height, she made up for in influence and success. Uncle Tom’s Cabin became one of the most widely read and deeply penetrating books of its time. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was translated into numerous languages. Many historians have credited the novel with contributing to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The daughter of an eminent New England preacher, Stowe was born into a family of eccentric, intelligent people. As a child, she learned Latin and wrote a children’s geography book, both before she was ten years old. Throughout her life, she remained deeply involved in religious movements, feminist causes, and the most divisive political and moral issue of her time: the abolition of slavery.
Stowe grew up in the Northeast but lived for a time in Cincinnati, which enabled her to see both sides of the slavery debate without losing her abolitionist’s perspective. Cincinnati was evenly split for and against abolition, and Stowe wrote satirical pieces on the subject for several local papers there. She often wrote pieces under pseudonyms and with contrasting styles, and one can see a similar attention to voice in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which dialects and patterns of speech contrast among characters. Though Stowe absorbed a great deal of information about slavery during her Cincinnati years, she nonetheless conducted extensive research before writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She wrote to Frederick Douglass and others for help in creating a realistic picture of slavery in the Deep South. Her black cook and household servants also helped by telling her stories of their slave days.
Stowe’s main goal with Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to convince her large Northern readership of the necessity of ending slavery. Most immediately, the novel served as a response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to give aid or assistance to a runaway slave. Under this legislation, Southern slaves who escaped to the North had to flee to Canada in order to find real freedom. With her book, Stowe created a sort of exposé that revealed the horrors of Southern slavery to people in the North. Her radical position on race relations, though, was informed by a deep religiosity. Stowe continually emphasizes the importance of Christian love in eradicating oppression. She also works in her feminist beliefs, showing women as equals to men in intelligence, bravery, and spiritual strength. Indeed, women dominate the book’s moral code, proving vital advisors to their husbands, who often need help in seeing through convention and popular opinion.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in episodes in the National Era in 1851 and 1852, then published in its entirety on March 20, 1852. It sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 300,000 by the end of the year, astronomical numbers for the mid-nineteenth century. Today, analysis of both the book’s conception and reception proves helpful in our understanding of the Civil War era. Within the text itself, the reader finds insights into the mind of a Christian, feminist abolitionist. For example, in the arguments Stowe uses, the reader receives a glimpse into the details of the slavery debate. Looking beyond the text to its impact on its society, the reader gains an understanding of the historical forces contributing to the outbreak of war.