Did Uncle Tom's Cabin Help to Start the Civil War?

By Influencing Public Opinion, a Novel Changed America

Engraved portrait of author Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Getty Images

When the author of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House in December 1862, Lincoln reportedly greeted her by saying, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?"

It's possible Lincoln never actually uttered that line. Yet it has often been quoted to demonstrate the importance of Stowe's enormously popular novel as a cause of the Civil War.

Was a novel with political and moral overtones actually responsible for the outbreak of war?

The publication of the novel was, of course, one of many events in the decade of the 1850s that put the country on the road to Civil War. And its publication in 1852 could not have been a direct cause of the war. Yet, the famous work of fiction certainly changed attitudes in society about the enslavement of Black Americans.

Those changes in popular opinion, which began to spread in the early 1850s, helped bring abolitionist ideas into the mainstream of American life. The new Republican Party was formed in the mid-1850s to oppose the spread of the institution of slavery to new states and territories. And it soon gained many supporters.

After the election of Lincoln in 1860 on the Republican ticket, a number of pro-slavery states seceded from the Union, and the deepening secession crisis triggered the Civil War. The growing attitudes against the enslavement of Black people in the North, which had been reinforced by the content of Uncle Tom's Cabin, no doubt helped to secure Lincoln's victory.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular novel directly caused the Civil War. Yet there's little doubt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by greatly influencing public opinion in the 1850s, was indeed a factor leading to the war.

A Novel With a Definite Purpose

In writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe had a deliberate goal: she wanted to portray the evils of enslavement in a way that would make a large part of the American public relate to the issue. There had been an abolitionist press operating in the United States for decades, publishing passionate works advocating the elimination of slavery. But abolition activists were often stigmatized as extremists operating on the fringe of society.

For example, the abolitionist pamphlet campaign of 1835 tried to influence attitudes about enslavement by mailing anti-slavery literature to people in the South. The campaign, which was funded by the Tappan Brothers, prominent New York businessmen and abolition activists, was met with ferocious resistance. The pamphlets were seized and burned in bonfires in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina.

One of the most prominent abolition activists, William Lloyd Garrison, had publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Garrison believed that the Constitution itself was tainted as it allowed for the institution of slavery to survive in the new United States.

To committed abolitionists, strident acts by people like Garrison made sense. But to the general public, such demonstrations were seen as dangerous acts by fringe players. The vast majority of Americans were not going to be recruited into the ranks of the abolitionists by extreme demonstrations.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was involved in the abolitionist movement, began to see that a dramatic portrayal of how the enslavement of human beings corrupted society could deliver a moral message without alienating potential allies.

And by crafting a work of fiction that general readers could relate to, and populating it with characters both sympathetic and villainous, Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to deliver an extremely powerful message. Better yet, by creating a story containing suspense and drama, Stowe was able to keep readers engaged.

Her characters, white and Black, in the North and in the South, all grapple with the institution of slavery. There are portrayals of how enslaved people are treated by their enslavers, some of whom are kind and some of whom are sadistic.

And the plot of Stowe’s novel portrays how slavery operated as a business. The buying and selling of humans provide major turns in the plot, and there is a particular focus on how the traffic of enslaved persons separated families.

The action in the book begins with a plantation owner mired in debt making arrangements to sell enslaved people. As the story unfolds, some freedom seekers risk their lives trying to get to Canada. And Uncle Tom, a noble character in the novel, is sold repeatedly, eventually falling into the hands of Simon Legree, a notorious alcoholic and sadist.

While the plot of the book kept readers in the 1850s turning pages, Stowe was delivering some very forthright political ideas. For instance, Stowe was appalled by the Fugitive Slave Act which had been passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. And in the novel, it is made clear that all Americans, not just those in the South, are thereby responsible for the evil of slavery.

Enormous Controversy

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in installments in a magazine. When it appeared as a book in 1852, it sold 300,000 copies in the first year of publication. It continued to sell throughout the 1850s, and its fame extended to other countries. Editions in Britain and in Europe spread the story.

In America in the 1850s, it was common for a family to gather at night in the parlor and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud. For many people, the reading of the novel became a communal act, and the twists and turns and emotional impacts of the story would have led to discussions within families.

Yet in some quarters the book was considered highly controversial.

In the South, as might be expected, it was bitterly denounced, and in some states it was actually illegal to possess a copy of the book. In Southern newspapers, Harriet Beecher Stowe was regularly portrayed as a liar and a villain, and feelings about her book no doubt helped to harden feelings against the North.

In a strange turn, novelists in the South began turning out novels that were essentially answers to Uncle Tom's Cabin. They followed a pattern of portraying enslavers as benevolent figures and enslaved people as beings who could not fend for themselves in society. The attitudes in the "anti-Tom" novels tended to be standard pro-slavery arguments, and the plots, as might be expected, portrayed abolitionists as malicious characters intent on destroying peaceful Southern society.

The Factual Basis of Uncle Tom's Cabin

One reason why Uncle Tom's Cabin resonated so deeply with Americans is because characters and incidents in the book seemed real. There was a reason for that.

Harriet Beecher Stowe had lived in southern Ohio in the 1830s and 1840s, and had come into contact with abolitionists and formerly enslaved people. There, she heard a number of stories about life in enslavement as well as some harrowing escape stories.

Stowe always claimed that the main characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin were not based on specific people, yet she did document that many incidents in the book were based in fact. While it’s not widely remembered today, Stowe published a closely related book, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1853, a year after the novel's publication, to showcase some of the factual background behind her fictional narrative. The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin is itself a fascinating book, as Stowe compiled the testimony of enslaved people who had managed to escape.

The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided copious excerpts from published enslavement narratives as well as stories that Stowe had personally heard. While she was obviously careful not to reveal everything she might have known about people who were still actively helping freedom seekers to escape, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin did amount to a 500-page indictment of American slavery.

The Impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Was Enormous

As Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the most discussed work of fiction in the United States, there’s no doubt that the novel influenced feelings about the institution of slavery. With readers relating very deeply to the characters, enslavement was transformed from an abstract concern to something very personal and emotional.

There is little doubt that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel helped to move anti-slavery feelings in the North beyond the relatively small circle of abolitionists to a more general audience. And that helped to create the political climate for the election of 1860, and the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose anti-slavery views had been publicized in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and also in his address at Cooper Union in New York City.

So, while it would be a simplification to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel caused the Civil War, her writing definitely delivered the political impact she intended.

Incidentally, on January 1, 1863, Stowe attended a concert in Boston held to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln would sign that night. The crowd, which contained notable abolition activists, chanted her name, and she waved to them from the balcony. The crowd that night in Boston firmly believed that Harriet Beecher Stowe had played a major role in the battle to end slavery in America.

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McNamara, Robert. "Did Uncle Tom's Cabin Help to Start the Civil War?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/uncle-toms-cabin-help-start-civil-war-1773717. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Did Uncle Tom's Cabin Help to Start the Civil War? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/uncle-toms-cabin-help-start-civil-war-1773717 McNamara, Robert. "Did Uncle Tom's Cabin Help to Start the Civil War?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/uncle-toms-cabin-help-start-civil-war-1773717 (accessed June 5, 2023).