Born on June 14th, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut to Lyman and Roxana Beecher, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was the seventh of thirteen children. Her family was strongly against slavery and were devout Christians. Her father and three of her brothers ended up being ministers. Even after marrying Calvin Ellis Stowe on 1836, the Stowe’s remained committed to supporting all Americans. This was emphasized by the fact the Stowe home was a stop on the Underground Railroad until the family relocated to Maine in the 1940s.
While living in Maine, Stowe experienced the death of a young child, just outside of her home. Her opinions of America soured with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. With America becoming more pro-slavery, she authored a book that would tell a story about the slavery problem. In 1851, her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, and the world saw the impact of slavery not only on whites, but slaves as well. Legend says that during the Civil War 15 years later, Stowe met Abraham Lincoln who said to her, “so you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” This moment may not have happened, but Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book did play a role in starting the Civil War. This happened by harshly highlighting the realities of slavery from a slave’s perspective, the cruelties of the American South were put on display for the entire country to read about. This led both the north and south to hold on tighter to their views on slavery, the north rejecting slavery and the south protecting slavery. Then the great American Civil War happened.
Understanding Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel’s role in separating the North and South begins by understanding her opinion of Negro slaves compared to whites, and painting involvement in slavery as “un-Christlike” and inhumane. Stowe accomplishes these themes through imagery and careful development of the characters in her book. She gave life like stories within her book. Overall, Uncle Tom’s Cabin offered multiple stories that allowed the readers to trace the influence that a single man could have across the country. The threat of a powerful slave, even in a fictional story, proved to be enough to cause tensions between the North and South.
First, Uncle Tom’s Cabin contributed to the division between the North and South because it threatened the idea of a slave being property. Instead, slavery was an idea that could be rejected even in the South. For example, in chapter 5, when the Shelby’s were discussing not selling the slaves. Although the idea of selling slaves was the decision, it did not have to be the decision. The Shelby’s had a choice not to sell. Mrs. Shelby’s reaction to selling her slaves influenced plantation wives and Southern white women’s opinions on slavery to change. The South rejected the idea’s proposed by Stowe in the novel.
Although Southerner’s did reject the reality portrayed by slave’s being sympathetic, Southern readers rejected another core concept of her novel. This concept was the white man as a villain. Through the book, we are introduced to a man whose feelings about slaves is clear from the start, Simon Legree. He was a cruel plantation owner and was all for slaves being property. Using a plantation owner divided America in two ways. In the North, Stowe lived in Connecticut and her book was to “address the slavery problem”, the idea of Legree made readers believe the way Southerners treated slaves was inhumane and cruel. Forcing slaves to whip each other, to killing slaves that don’t do as he says, Legree’s hatred became a common story in the North about the South. Seeing this hatred on display with sympathetic slave figures in the whole book made it easy for the North to hold tighter to their view that the practice of slavery should be ended.
In the South, Stowe’s depiction was rejected. Many southerners released their own, unsuccessful, books to combat the stories detailed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While they objected to the characters similar to Legree, he was not the only one. Characters who were objectively good people often upheld slavery, even when slaves suffered because of their complacency. Take the instance of Augustine St. Clare. He is considered, like Mr. Shelby in the beginning, to be a man of honor. Even though he was not a Christian, he is considered to be a man we can admire in the book. However, he still tolerates slavery. This upset Southerners who feared they may be blamed for their traditional views on slavery by the North. Rejecting this depiction caused the South to strengthen their belief in slavery, contributing to the start of the American Civil War.
While making slaves sympathetic, and whites the evil villains was enough to separate the county, Stowe truly contributed to the separation crisis through her opinion of Tom as a religious man with strong Christian beliefs. Tom was a devout Christian from the beginning of the book, “I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow.” (p.1), until his death, “I’m right in the door, going into glory! O, Mas’r George! … the Lord Jesus has given it to me! Glory be to His name!” (p. ch 41) His Christianity was important for Stowe given her own family’s involvement with the church. This made Tom seem more man than a slave to readers in the north. By showing Tom as a man of God who cared for others (Eliza), children (Eva), and his masters, Stowe made Tom seem acceptable to the Northern view of slavery.
Although Christianity was imposed on slaves in the South, seeing a black man be more Christ-like than several whites bothered a lot of people. As previously discussed, women were already known to treat slaves better than their husbands. However, the men Tom served were frequently described as drunks. St. Clare and Legree were painted as men who were not only drunks, but not religious. Portraying non-religious whites as the keepers of slaves was a reality in the South that could not simply be rejected or ignored. This challenging of the main story led to widespread concerns that the Southerner’s rights to own slaves and use slave labor could be infringed upon. The South was clear of their desire to maintain slavery. Therefore, Stowe’s use of a dominant American theme, Christianity, to uphold slaves while trying to expose the horrible things slave owners did was a challenge to the way Southerners. Stowe’s book revealed that slaves were good people and slave owners were not. This idea led them to further embrace their own perception of reality, further entrenching slavery, and ultimately leading to the Civil War.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we are introduced to a Northern white woman’s opinion of several slaves who we are supposed to love, and many more white people we hate and despise. Stowe’s intention was to highlight the problem of Slavery. Tom was the ultimate victim of the book just as slaves were the victims of the American slave trade. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book exposed the idea of hypocrisy and cruelty in the American South. This caused the “us vs. them” mentality regarding slavery that played a major role in causing the Civil War.
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