Harriett Beecher Stowe's
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, the most influential book of the 19th century, is more antislavery polemic than novel. The suffering of the slaves Eliza and Uncle Tom touched many people otherwise unmoved by the cold rhetoric of the abolitionists. Its message is clear: "Slavery is evil, but the evil is in slavery itself, not the South." Stowe urged white Northerners to welcome escaped slaves and treat them with respect. Despite its stereotypical characters, convoluted plot, and stilted writing, the novel so inflamed the nation that when Stowe met Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, he said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war!"
Written after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal for anyone to offer aid to a runaway slave, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN attacked this law and preached the immediate emancipation of all slaves. Because she thought that few Northerners would believe her tale if she presented slavery at its cruelest, Stowe had set out to "show the best side of the thing, and something faintly approaching the worst." For instance, slave owners Shelby and St. Clare are benevolent, but nonetheless still slave owners, which makes them venal hypocrites. Despite Stowe's efforts to tone down her rhetoric, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN was so strong that her own children sobbed when they read it.
Stowe's novel seems racist today in its patronizing attitudes toward blacks -- Uncle Tom, one of the novel's primary Christ symbols, is now widely regarded as a symbol of the cowardly bootlicking slave because he forgives slave owner Simon Legree. However, when the novel was published in 1852 it was radical in its portrayal of slaves' courage and dignity. Previous