June 5, 1851

Paper Publishes First Installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin

On this day in 1851 an abolitionist newspaper published the first installment of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The following March, a Boston publisher issued the work in book form. It sold 50,000 copies in two months. That summer, while her book was fast becoming a phenomenon at home and abroad, Stowe and her family moved to Andover. They lived there for the next 12 years. An international celebrity, she made three speaking tours of Europe. The book's graphic depiction of the horrors of slavery, especially the severing of slave families, indisputably helped change attitudes in the North. However, the book also reflected how deeply ingrained racism was in American society, even among northern abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Stowe's novel spawned many dramatizations; in 1853 there were four different ones in New York City alone.

The National Era, an abolitionist newspaper based in Washington, D.C., paid Harriet Beecher Stowe $400 to publish Uncle Tom's Cabin in 40 weekly installments. When Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in book form, it sold more copies — 300,000 in the first year — than any other book, with the exception of the Bible, ever had.There were more than 1,000,000 copies in print by the time the Civil War began in 1861. According to family tradition, when Mrs. Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, the president asked, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?"

Harriet Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her father Lyman was one of the leading evangelical ministers of his day. During her years at the progressive Litchfield Female Academy, and later at her sister Catherine's Hartford Female Seminary, she demonstrated a love of writing. All five of her brothers followed in their father's footsteps and became clergymen. Nineteen-year-old Harriet wrote, "It is as much my vocation to preach on paper as it is that of my brothers to preach viva voce."

In 1829 she began teaching composition at the Hartford Female Seminary, but when her father became president of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Harriet moved with the family. She became involved in a social and literary club and published a number of essays and stories. Living just across the river from Kentucky exposed her to slavery for the first time.

Nineteen-year-old Harriet wrote, "It is as much my vocation to preach on paper as it is that of my brothers to preach viva voce."

Among the many horrors of slavery that affected young Harriet was the repeated breaking up of enslaved families. The law did not recognize marriage between enslaved men and women; couples that lived as man and wife were often separated and sold individually, according to their owners' wishes or whims. Even more heartbreaking, enslaved children were often sold separately from parents.

In 1836 Harriet Beecher married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a Biblical scholar and professor at Lane. In 1849 one of their seven children died in a cholera epidemic. "It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her," she wrote.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 enraged her as it did so many other northerners. In response, she began writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book portrays the forced separation of mother and child as the worst evil imaginable.

In 1850 Calvin Stowe accepted a job on the faculty of Bowdoin College, and the family moved to Maine. It was here that she completed Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the summer of 1852, Andover Theological Seminary offered Calvin Stowe a position on its faculty. The family lived on what is now the campus of Philips Academy for the next 12 years, while Beecher Stowe was at the peak of her career. Her home drew literary figures and scores of abolitionists.

"The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust." 

Stowe made her purpose for writing Uncle Tom's Cabin quite clear in her preface: "The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust." She based her somewhat disjointed story on her own observations of slavery in Kentucky and anecdotes told her by one Josiah Henson, who had escaped from bondage in Maryland in 1828. Stowe modeled her main character Tom on Henson.

The southern press was quick to criticize Stowe's limited knowledge of slavery. The Southern Literary Messenger said it had "no words to express [its] scorn" for Uncle Tom's Cabin and then proceeded to use thousands of words to do just that. The journal accused her (with some justice) of creating over-simplified characters and pointed out her poor grasp of the economics and legal system of southern slavery.

Abolitionist papers generally praised the book. Frederick Douglass's Paper noted how the "descriptions stir the blood, almost make it leap out of the heart!" But several reviewers objected that Uncle Tom was too submissive. For example, The Liberator asked, "Is there one law of submission and non-resistance for the black man, and another law of rebellion and conflict for the white man?"

Uncle Tom's Cabin, he continued, was "not an exaggerated account of the evils of slavery. The truth has never been half told; the story would be too horrible to hear."

Indeed, Stowe's black characters exhibit passivity in the face of violence, an unwillingness to leave their masters, or a desire to "return" to Africa. The abolitionist press found this last plot device — the dispatching of a talented, proud black man to Africa — especially objectionable. By the early twentieth century, "Uncle Tom" was being used as a pejorative term to describe a black man who kowtows to whites, betraying the strength and dignity of his race.

Stowe's novel spawned many dramatizations; in 1853 there were four different ones in New York City alone. After the Civil War, hundreds of "Tom Shows" traveled around the country, ostensibly providing some version of Stowe's book. One played at Boston's Globe Theater in 1877. The advertisements claimed that "100 Genuine Southern Colored People, who were slaves before the War, will participate in the great Plantation Scenes illustrating in a most realistic manner Life in the South Twenty Years Ago." As was the custom at the time, white actors portrayed all the main characters.

For all the flaws in Stowe's book — and the excesses of the "Tom Shows" — Uncle Tom's Cabin had an indisputable power. Josiah Henson, the escaped slave on whom Stowe based Uncle Tom, wrote in 1879 that he believed the book "was the beginning of the glorious end. It was a wedge that finally rent asunder that gigantic fabric with a fearful crash." Uncle Tom's Cabin, he continued, was "not an exaggerated account of the evils of slavery. The truth has never been half told; the story would be too horrible to hear."

If You Go

The house in which Harriet Beecher Stowe lived while her husband was teaching at Phillips Academy is located at 80 Bartlet Street. She is buried in Chapel Cemetery, adjacent to the Phillips Andover Campus.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Northeast region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Alfred A. Knopf edition, 1994).

Andover, Massachusetts: Historical Selections From Four Centuries, by Juliet Haines Mofford (Merrimack Valley Preservation Press, 2004).

American National Biography Vol. 20 (1999).

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