The Emmy-nominated PBS series The Abolitionists, which focused on the biographies of five prominent abolitionists, should have replaced Harriet Beecher Stowe with another famous Harriet, Harriet Tubman. Not only should the series have included at least one black abolitionist woman but, unknown to most, Stowe’s stance on abolition and black rights also changed over the course of her long career. Stowe remained in the series because of the iconic status of her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On the 164th anniversary of its publication, one is forced to acknowledge the enormous impact her book had on the movement to abolish slavery
In the decade before the Civil War, slave narratives and antislavery fiction captured the public imagination. Writers like Stowe created a literature of protest that popularized antislavery and replaced newspapers and pamphlets as the most potent tools of abolitionist print culture. Written in response to the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published serially in the national organ of political antislavery, Gamaliel Bailey’s The National Era, and its enormous popularity led Stowe to publish it as a book in 1852.
Modeling her story and many of its characters on real life fugitives such as Josiah Henson, Lewis Clarke, and Henry Bibb, and on abolitionists and “conductors” in the underground railroad such as John Rankin, Levi and Catherine Coffin, and Thomas and Rachel Garrett, Stowe crafted a narrative with special resonance that was difficult for detractors to dismiss as just a work of fiction. Instead, Stowe’s book became a literary phenomenon that established its author as an international celebrity, and it no doubt contributed to the apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln greeting her in the 1860s as the “little woman” who had caused the “great war.”
Ironically, though, even as Uncle Tom’s Cabin met with a hostile reception in the South as abolitionist propaganda and southern authors responded to it with a wave of highly forgettable “anti-Tom novels,” Stowe’s politics were actually much closer to the colonizationist movement that true abolitionists saw as an appeasement of slavery. Ever since the founding of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816, antislavery gradualists and some slaveholders had advocated the repatriation of free blacks to Africa as a means of eliminating slavery from the United States. The radical interracial abolition movement, which championed immediate abolition and black rights at home, arose in reaction to it, but Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Reverend Lyman Beecher, and her sister, Catherine Beecher, remained colonizationists and were critical of the radicalism of interracial abolitionism and of the movement for women’s rights. Stowe’s husband, Reverend Calvin Stowe, opposed the abolitionist student rebels who organized where he taught at Lane Seminary. Stowe herself was not a member of any female antislavery society, and in her family only her brother Edward Beecher identified as an abolitionist prior to the 1850s.
Like many antislavery northerners, some of the Beechers moved closer to abolition in the crisis decade before the war. Stowe’s sister Isabella Beecher Hooker, for example, became a suffragist, and in 1851, her brother Charles Beecher published one of the most influential “higher law” tracts protesting the fugitive slave law, entitled The Duty of Disobedience to Wicked Laws. Still another of Stowe’s brothers, a famous minister named Henry Ward Beecher, attracted large crowds with fiery sermons and the theatrical auctioning off of fugitive slaves to raise money for their purchase. But Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to advocate an “intermediate society” between abolition and colonization, and the language and spirit of colonization clearly brackets Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the novel’s preface, for example, she calls for an “enlightened and Christianized community . . . on the shores of Africa, laws, language and literature drawn from us,” and the book ends with the escaped slave George Harris endorsing the colonizationist project and rejecting the independent black republic of Haiti as “worn-out” and “effeminate” in comparison to the ACS colony of Liberia.
In addition to supporting a program of colonization, Stowe’s novel reproduced sectional, racial, and gender stereotypes: the cruel Yankee slaveholder Simon Legree; the benevolent southern aristocrat Augustine St. Clare; and racialist descriptions of both black characters such as Topsy and white characters such as Eva. Stowe refers to Africans as an exotic race, and she feminizes Uncle Tom as a morally superior, Christ-like figure who is ennobled by his suffering. Tom is a resistance figure after his own fashion, of course, refusing to rat on his fellow slaves even as he knows it will mean his own death. But Stowe’s portrayal of Tom as a pious martyr was out of sync with abolitionist activism, making “Uncle Tom” an epithet down to the present.
Abolitionists certainly saw value in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The heroic enslaved women in the novel, like Eliza, were first and foremost devoted mothers, and in a largely forgotten essay black activist Mary Church Terrell appreciated the gendered solidarity Stowe expressed with enslaved women and empathized with Stowe’s own trials as a wife and mother. William Lloyd Garrison, meanwhile, hailed the novel as a tool for mass conversion, but he, like others, was alert to Stowe’s romantic racialism. “Is there one law of submission and non resistance for the black man,” he asked, “and another law of rebellion and conflict for the white man?” Black abolitionist William J. Wilson was concerned most about the cultural influence of the character of Uncle Tom, observing how quickly he had supplanted racially derogatory minstrel characters such as Zip Coon and Jim Crow.
Perhaps the most interesting debate over the meaning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin took place between Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, a proponent of black emigration. Where Douglass was a booster of Stowe from the start, Delany denounced her as a colonizationist. In a nineteenth century version of debates over successful white artists appropriating black art forms, Delany went on to accuse Stowe of stealing material from slave narratives, and even suggested that Henson ought to receive a portion of her royalties.
Indeed, the popularity of Stowe’s novel led to a revival of the slave narrative genre, with black authors responding explicitly to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Solomon Northup, for example, dedicated his Twelve Years a Slave (1853) to Stowe, but differentiated his factual account from her fictional one. Thomas Jones added to his narrative a novella entitled Wild Tom, in which Tom is a rebellious slave who is burned alive in the end.
Stowe heard the abolitionist critiques of her novel and responded as she thought best. She fashioned herself as a patron of black writers, writing prefaces for a new edition of Henson’s narrative and of Frank J. Webb’s novel The Garies and Their Friends (1857). She also wrote a follow-up work to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the much less famous Dred (1856), which showcases slave resistance with a main character who is the son of Denmark Vesey and modeled on Nat Turner. Like many fair-weather friends of abolition, however, Harriet Beecher Stowe (and, for that matter, her brother Henry Ward Beecher) reverted to a more conservative stance after the Civil War brought about emancipation. She wrote thirty more books, almost none of which had anything at all to do with the legacy of slavery or the problem of race.
But her landmark novel had forever linked her to the movement to abolish slavery.