"So this is the little lady who made this big war." These are the words rumored to be said from President Abraham Lincoln's upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, had a huge impact on our nation and contributed to the tension over slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a woman who was involved in religious and feminist causes. Stowe's influence on the northern states was remarkable. Her fictional novel about slave life of her current time has been thought to be one of the main things that led up to the Civil War. The purpose of writing it, as is often said, was to expose the evils of slavery to the North where many were unaware of just what went on in the rest of the country. There is no doubt among most historians that Stowe's book affected many people's views on slavery; but one question that is being asked today is whether the book was historically accurate.
Some think believe it recorded exactly the sort of things that went on among slaves and their owners while other people say that Stowe made an elaborate exaggeration of the evils of slavery just so she could prove her point. Was Uncle Tom's Cabin close to the truth? An examination of current work on the history of the U.S. should reveal the merits of Stowe's writing.
The general consensus among historical accounts of slavery is that southern slave owners mostly considered slaves as less of a person than they themselves were. They still viewed slaves as people, but not on the same level as them. Irwin Unger describes the system of slavery like many slaves have who have since written about it. Unger says that slaves were in a "system that denied them their humanity" (Unger 309). Slave owners were racist, he says. They were viewed as inferior. He writes, "It was [this] mark of inferiority that affected all black men and women and did not disappear even when black people secured their freedom" (Unger 309). According to Unger, "it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write" (Unger 309). Owners saw it as unnecessary for them and did not want slaves to become more equal with the free people. A conversation between Eva and her mother in Stowe's book reveals this view of slaves as inferior along with slaves not being taught to read. Eva's mother tells her, "It is no use for them to read. It don't help them to work any better, and they are not made for anything else" (Stowe 286). So Stowe was accurate in portraying Eva's mother as thinking slaves did not need to read and also accurate in her view of slaves in general. She viewed slaves as inferior when she said slaves were "not made for anything else" but for work (Stowe 286). This is an example of one theme in Stowe's novel that is right in line with current historical research.
Many times Stowe writes of slaves being unjustly punished for no good reason. At one point in the novel George, a slave, is describing his experiences in hearing is sister unjustly whipped. He felt helpless, knowing he could do nothing to stop it. George says, "I have stood at the door and heard her whipped, when it seemed as if every blow cut into my naked heart, and I couldn't do anything to help her; and she was whipped, sir, for wanting to live a decent Christian life" (Stowe 123). The use of the whip is consistent with one of Jack Larkin's essays he wrote in 1988. He records, "The whip remained the essential instrument of punishment and discipline" (Larkin 136). Larkin says that the whip was used often and sometimes for no clear reason. When slaves heard it, he says, they "knew that they were never more than a white man's or woman's whim away from a beating" (Larkin 133).
The sexual abuse of slave women was fairly common according to historical accounts and Stowe's story. Plantation owners would often buy slave girls for the main purpose of satisfying their sexual desires. Almost no female slave was completely safe. Larkin reveals, "Slave women had little protection from whatever sexual demands masters or overseers might make, so that rapes, short liaisons, and long-term 'concubinage' all were part of plantation life" (Larkin 138). Unger agrees and says, "Some slave owners and white overseers had virtual harems. Less sensational, but more telling, the 1860 census records that 10 percent of the slave population had partly white ancestry" (Unger 308). This point is made in Uncle Tom's Cabin when Emmeline is told to curl her hair to look more attractive to white males who might buy her. Simon Legree buys her and tells her that they will have "fine times" together. He may have bought her to replace his previous slave girl, Cassy, who has grown older.
Slaves were seriously damaged by the harsh treatment they received, abusive behavior of owners, and overall situation they were in as slaves. "Planters usually perceived that generosity was a more effective means to encourage hard work than force, and acted accordingly" (Unger 305). This is true throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin. George Harris' owner stops letting him work at the factory and starts forcing him to do less important jobs and beats him. That is when George decides to run away. This also goes along with what Unger writes about skilled workers. Unger says, "Because skilled workers were often hired out in towns and were sometimes allowed to negotiate their own terms of hire, these slaves were unusually free - for slaves" (p. 305). As soon as George's ability to work in the factory was taken away, George ran away. He went from relatively more freedom and better circumstance to being beat and worked to no end. He went from more freedom to less freedom and just could not take it; most humans would have felt the same as George.
Others slaves, however, were in better circumstances. Unger states, "The one out of four slaves living on farms or small plantations no doubt had closer contact with the white owner and his family" (Unger 306). This is how life was for slaves on the Shelby's farm. The slaves there may have been under more scrutiny, as Unger says they often are, but Shelby's slaves were not treated too horribly. A problem that the Shelbys did run into, however, was similar to what Unger describes. Unger says, "Small farmers were more likely to run into financial problems and be forced to sell their slaves. Blacks then faced the grim prospect that their families would be broken up" (Unger 306). This is what happened to Uncle Tom. He had to be sold and separated from his wife along with Eliza's son being sold away from her also.
Tom dealed with this tragedy well though. He did not have any hard feelings toward his master who sold him away. Later, after meeting Eva, Tom started having faith in God and reading the Bible. This was a valuable source of comfort and fuel to keep him going. This is what John B. Boles describes in his essay. He says, "With salvation came the promise of a better life after the earthly travail was finished, but just as important, the Christian faith provided a moral purpose for day-by-day living. As children of God, black men and women felt that their lives were not meaningless or of little worth" (Boles 166-7). The singing of songs that occurred near the beginning of Stowe's book when Uncle Tom and his fellow salves were in his cabin is another way slaves were known to respond to their situation. Unger writes, "Slaves sang about God and salvation, about their work, about love and passion, and about their daily lives. They composed humorous songs, bitter songs, and even rebellious songs that explicitly called for freedom" (Unger 307).
All in all, Stowe's novel should be considered a fairly accurate account of what really went on under slavery. Everyone must remember that this is fiction and note that Stowe created her own unique characters in hopes of proving her point that slavery should be ended. She created a dramatic story that ended well with some slave families and friends reuniting in the end, however unrealistic this might be. Stowe exaggerated to some extent; but for everything that she described, one can be sure that some similar event really did happen in the South.
As for the South being justified in seeing the book as "an attack on white Southerners or Southern society as the root cause of the evils of slavery," it seems that they were not justified. Overall, Stowe was attacking the institution of slavery and not the South per se. It is no surprise that the South would feel like Stowe was attacking them, though. The South is where the harshest slave conditions were. Their whole agricultural set up depended on slavery for survival. But Stowe was not attacking Southerners, only the slavery that they were permitting.
Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, for centuries to come will be seen as a huge contributing factor to the occurrence of the U.S. Civil War when it happened. As people's views change about things over long periods of time, what people believe about the moral rightness of the institution called slavery may also change. It is possible that slavery could one day be counted by the majority as proper. Uncle Tom's Cabin could find itself on center stage in importance again in a debate over slavery. Until then, it is safe to say that its impact on society was massive in its time and will now be studied as a great contribution to our history.