Uncle Tom's Cabin | Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin | Context

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Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up in an era of great social reform. People joined together in organized ways to protest against slavery and alcohol, to advocate for women's rights and protection for the mentally ill, and to insist on school and prison reform, among other issues. Many differences of opinion on these key issues were accentuated by the regionalism of the United States. Fervent belief systems ultimately boiled over in the form of the Civil War. Slavery was at the core of it, and Harriet Beecher Stowe was in the forefront with the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. As President Abraham Lincoln commented upon meeting her in 1862: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War."

The Beginnings of Slavery in the United States

Shortly after the time European explorers first reached the New World, enslaved people were part of the settlements. At the beginning of the 1500s Spanish and Portuguese people brought slaves from Africa to the island areas. By the late 1500s slave trading had become very profitable, with a triangular route placing Great Britain at the center of the trade. From British ports finished goods such as textiles were shipped to Africa and traded for human cargo. In horrible conditions on ships, traders transported the now shackled, enslaved Africans to American ports in a nightmarish trip known as the Middle Passage. The slaves were sold to labor on the plantations producing the sugar, tobacco, and cotton that traders then took to Europe. The more enslaved people a plantation had working on it, the more goods of these types it could produce. The system was fueled by greed for more and more profit. By the mid-1600s the colonists legalized slavery, and shortly thereafter some colonies declared that children of enslaved women were to remain enslaved for life. Bacon's Rebellion, a revolt against the seated government in Jamestown in 1676, showed how strongly enslaved people could bond together with poor whites to fight against institutions. (The leader of the rebellion, Nathaniel Bacon, promised freedom to enslaved people and indentured servants who joined the cause.) Fearing that future rebellions might bring an end to such a lucrative system, wealthy white planters kept increasing the harsh laws designed to keep enslaved people down and unable to change their situation.

The Rise of Abolitionist Groups

By the mid-1700s, as conditions for enslaved people grew worse and the general public started to become aware of the abuses, the tide began to turn against slavery as an acceptable institution. Leading the antislavery cause from the beginning were the Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends who came to America from England. As early as 1688 Quakers in Pennsylvania passed an antislavery resolution, and Quaker leaders spoke out against slavery for the next 200 years in both the United States and Britain. Quakers believe that people are inspired by a divine inner light rather than being dependent on ministers or other elements of traditional organized religion to guide them. This might be one reason why other influential religious bodies were not quick to stand beside the Quakers in protesting slavery.

The first organized abolitionist group was also located in Pennsylvania. Founded in 1775 the society still exists today and continues to work for social justice. Pennsylvania is also where the Underground Railroad began. This system, beginning in 1804, set up transportation and housing for slaves trying to escape bondage, with the network extending from the slave states all the way to Canada. In 1831 Bostonian and global crusader against slavery William Lloyd Garrison provided a forum for abolitionists with the publication of a widely distributed weekly newspaper called The Liberator. In 1847 African American Frederick Douglass also began publishing a newspaper, called The North Star.

Not all northerners supported abolition, however. Tension over the issue of slavery led to riots. Even among abolitionists opinions were divided, with one major split occurring when some abolitionists tried to combine women's rights with antislavery sentiments.

Fugitive Slave Law

The Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, making it illegal for anyone in the United States to assist or harbor runaway slaves. Abolitionists were outraged by this law and spoke out vehemently against it. Under the law even free African Americans could be "returned" to the South if someone claimed they were runaway slaves. Claimants' affidavits (sworn statements) did not have to be backed by proof, and accused slaves were not allowed a trial by jury and could not testify on their own behalf.

The law also was controversial because it appeared to incorporate bribery. Those accused as runaways had to appear in front of a special commissioner. If a supposed fugitive was returned to slavery the commissioner received $10. If the person was declared free the commissioner received only $5.

Those who refused to help capture fugitives were faced with heavy fines and threats of imprisonment. However, such threats only hardened abolitionists' resolve. The Fugitive Slave Law gave Stowe the impetus to focus her writing on the antislavery cause.

The Civil War

Slavery was the divisive issue that led to the destructive Civil War in which 625,000 people died. Yet slavery alone does not totally account for the war. A second fundamental issue was federal power versus the power of individual states and territories. States that embraced slavery—that felt their livelihood depended on the institution—did not believe the federal government should have the right to interfere. So the Civil War was fought to answer two questions: 1) Is the United States an indivisible nation with a sovereign federal government? 2) In a country in which all humans are declared as created equal and with the right to liberty, how can slavery exist?

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 without the support of Southern states and with the promise to eliminate slavery from territories created by expansion, seven slave states seceded. They formed their own country called the Confederate States of America. In April 1861 this new nation took control of a United States fort in Charleston, South Carolina. Calling this action an "insurrection," President Lincoln took military action to suppress it. Four more states seceded in response. By the end of the year a million men faced each other along a line separating what were now two nations. Fighting began in earnest in 1862 and would not end until May 10, 1865.

At the end of the war the two questions driving the Civil War were answered. Yes, the United States is indivisible. And slavery cannot exist in the country founded on the principle of freedom for all. However, the hard work of rebuilding a unified country and achieving equal rights for all people was just beginning.

Dialect

Stowe wanted people to understand the harsh realities of slavery. She based most of her stories on the accounts of enslaved people and witnesses to slavery. She was exposed to African American vernacular (nonstandard language of a region or culture) when she and her husband sheltered fugitive slaves in Ohio and when she visited plantations to see the conditions enslaved people endured. Stowe used dialect for the sake of realism. Modern scholars have studied this dialect and found it fairly accurately reflects the period.

However, not all readers appreciate Stowe's use of dialect. Some mistakenly equate the use of dialect with a lack of intelligence; many find it makes the novel hard to read. But Stowe considered it more important to portray reality than to heed critics. If Stowe's use of dialect can be criticized, it is in the fact that she did not standardize its use: "verbs agree with their nouns on one page and disagree on the next; present participles end in –in in one paragraph and –ing in another; jest becomes just, yer becomes you, and the like."

Racial Classifications

One legacy of slavery was the creation of new racial classifications representing generations of interracial offspring. When white owners had children with their African American slaves, these children were classified according to their percentages of white and African blood. The "whiter" a child the more privileges he or she tended to have, even when enslaved. It was also easier for people with very little African blood to pass as white and escape enslavement.

These classifications appear throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin as part of character descriptions; they help readers comprehend why certain behaviors are accepted in some characters but not others. Perhaps the classifications' clearest explanation comes from the instructions given to census workers in 1850: "Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word 'black' should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; 'mulatto,' those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; 'quadroon,' those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and 'octoroon,' those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood."

Modern readers might find such labeling offensive and racist, but today's census forms still attempt to classify race. For Stowe it was realistic to use such terms as a means to reveal how different categories of enslaved people were treated.

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