Life Among the Lowly

“So you are the little woman who made this great war,” is how President Abraham Lincoln reportedly greeted Harriett Beecher Stowe when, in November of 1862, she visited the White House in hopes of convincing the president to emancipate the slaves.

Lincoln was referring, of course, to the not-so-little book that Mrs. Stowe had somehow found the time to write between chasing after her seven young children and keeping house in Brunswick, Maine.  The book, which was first serialized in an abolitionist paper, the National Era (to universal disinterest), eventually stretched into 45 chapters and had almost that many characters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly, as the book was titled, was published this week (March 20) in 1852, and it quickly became the publishing phenomenon of the century.  A year after its publication it had sold more than 300,000 copies, and in the United States alone that number grew to a half-million by 1856.  Translated into 20 different languages, the book also became a worldwide bestseller.

But it was in America that the book’s appeal and resonance was the most profound, especially since the story revolved around an issue that had been dividing the country since its creation — slavery.  Stowe’s book is a heart-wrenching look at the institution of slavery and a brutal indictment of the slave-holding South. The main character, Uncle Tom, is sold to three different masters, including the demonic plantation owner, Simon Legree, who beats Tom mercilessly when Tom, who has a deep and abiding Christian faith, refuses to whip a fellow slave.  Later, when Tom won’t reveal the location of two fellow slaves who have escaped Legree’s plantation, Legree orders Tom beaten to death. The book is also populated with other slaves — most notably Eliza, Cassy and Emmeline — who suffer unspeakable cruelties at the hands of their white masters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North in a way that no other book, pamphlet, political party or movement ever had before.  In many ways it also galvanized the South, especially the book’s final chapter, which claims that the book is not really fiction since there are so many documented instances of slaves being treated just as her characters were treated.  Stowe even called for the South to pay reparations to the slaves.

In the book’s wake, public opinion about slavery in the North and South hardened noticeably, with northern newspapers and abolitionist groups increasingly calling for its end, and southerners increasingly threatening to break away and form their own nation.

Which is why (assuming he actually said it) Lincoln was not far off the mark when he remarked that this “little woman” was a catalyst for the Civil War.