When the author of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House in December 1862, Lincoln reportedly greeted her by saying, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?”
Lincoln may never have actually uttered that line. Yet it has often been quoted to demonstrate the importance of Stowe's enormously popular novel as a cause of the Civil War.
Was a novel with political and moral overtones actually responsible for the outbreak of war?
After the election of Lincoln in 1860 on the anti-slavery Republican ticket, a number of southern states seceded from the Union, and the secession crisis triggered the Civil War. And there’s no denying that the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had helped opposition to slavery come into the political mainstream in the North.
So while it would be an exaggeration to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel directly caused the Civil War, there’s no doubt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by helping to shape public opinion in the 1850s, was indeed a factor leading to the war.
Harriett Beecher Stowe Wrote a Novel With a Purpose
In writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriett Beecher Stowe had a deliberate goal: she wanted to portray the evils of slavery so a large part of the American public could easily relate to the issue. There had been an abolitionist press operating in the United States for decades, publishing passionate works advocating the elimination of slavery. But abolitionists were often stigmatized as extremists operating on the fringe of society.
By crafting a work of fiction that general readers could relate to, and populating it with characters both sympathetic and villainous, Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to deliver an extremely powerful message.
Her characters, white and black, in the North and in the South, all grapple with the institution of slavery. There are portrayals of how slaves are treated by their masters, some of whom are kindly and some of whom are sadistic.
And the plot of Stowe’s novel portrays how slavery operated as a business. The buying and selling of humans provide major turns in the plot, and there is a particular focus on how the traffic in slaves separated families.
The action in the book begins with a plantation owner mired in debt making arrangements to sell some of his slaves. As the plot proceeds, some escaped slaves risk their lives trying to get to Canada. And the slave Uncle Tom, a noble character in the novel, is sold repeatedly, eventually falling into the hands of Simon Legree, a notorious drunkard and sadist.
While the plot of the book kept readers in the 1850s turning pages, Stowe was delivering some very forthright political ideas. For instance, Stowe was appalled by the Fugitive Slave Act which had been passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. And in the novel it is made clear that all Americans, not just those in the South, are thereby responsible for the evil institution of slavery.
The Controversy Over Uncle Tom’s Cabin Was Enormous
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in installments in a magazine. When it appeared as a book in 1852, it sold 300,000 copies in the first year of publication. It continued to sell throughout the 1850s, and its fame spread to other countries. Editions in Britain and in Europe spread the story.
In America in the 1850s it was common for a family to gather at night in the parlor and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud. Yet in some quarters the book was considered highly controversial.
In the South, as might be expected, it was bitterly denounced, and in some states it was actually illegal to possess a copy of the book. In southern newspapers Harriet Beecher Stowe was regularly portrayed as a liar and a villain, and feelings about her book no doubt helped to harden feelings against the North.
One reason why the book resonated so deeply with Americans is because characters and incidents in the book seemed real. There was a reason for that.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Was Based On Actual Incidents
Harriet Beecher Stowe had lived in southern Ohio in the 1830s and 1840s, and had come into contact with abolitionists and former slaves. She heard a number of stories about life in slavery as well as some harrowing escape stories.
Stowe always claimed that the main characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin were not based on specific people, yet she did document that many incidents in the book were based in fact. While it’s not widely remembered today, Stowe published a closely related book, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1853, a year after the novel's publication, to showcase some of the factual background behind her fictional narrative.
The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides copious excerpts from published slave narratives as well as stories that Stowe had personally heard of life under slavery. While she was obviously careful not to reveal everything she might have known about people who were still actively helping slaves to escape, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin did amount to a 500-page indictment of American slavery.
The Impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Was Enormous
As Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the most discussed work of fiction in the United States, there’s no doubt that the novel influenced feelings about slavery. With readers relating very deeply to the characters, the issue of slavery was transformed from an abstract concern to something very personal and emotional.
There is little doubt that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel helped to move anti-slavery feeling in the North beyond the relatively small circle of abolitionists to a more general audience. And that helped to create the political climate for the election of 1860, and the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose anti-slavery views had been publicized in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and also in his address at Cooper Union in New York City.
So while it would be simplification to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel caused the Civil War, her writing definitely delivered the political impact she intended.
Incidentally, on January 1, 1863, Stowe attended a concert in Boston held to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln would sign that night. The crowd, which contained notable abolitionists, chanted her name, and she waved to them from the balcony. The crowd that night in Boston firmly believed that Harriet Beecher Stowe had played a major role in the battle to end slavery in America.