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Revolting Women: Harriet Beecher Stowe

2011 September 15

This post is part of a series on the theme of women and protest. The full series is collected under the tag “Revolting Women”. Welcome back to guest blogger Libby from TreasuryIslands.

victorian black and white photograph of Harriet, a plainly-dressed white woman leaning on her elbow at a table. She is pale and serious looking with a severe parting and ringlets.Women have played their part in revolution since time immemorial. The Trung Sisters rebelled against Han-Dynasty rule in China, 40AD; Boudicca led the Iceni tribe in uprising against occupying Roman forces in 60AD; Queen Margaret of Anjou fought for the crown, successfully, at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471; Lorenza Avemanay led the Ecuadorian revolt against the Spanish in 1803. Women have proven themselves to be worthy opponents on the battlefield and in the halls of power. Harriet Beecher Stowe, though, did none of these things: she wasn’t possessed of great oratory skills, or handy with a sword, and she didn’t lead a great army, nor overthrow an oppressor. She wrote a book.

One of thirteen children, Stowe grew up in a deeply Christian family. Her father and seven brothers were all ministers, and when she married in 1836, she chose as her husband a scholar and theologian who was much respected by his peers. From the beginning of their marriage the Stowes were ardent critics of slavery. Their first home became a part of the Underground Railroad, temporarily housing numerous runaway slaves on their journey to asylum in Canada. Stowe began to write articles addressing the problem of slavery and making a name for herself as an abolitionist who didn’t run with the pack.

This might have been the extent of Stowe’s abolitionist activities had it not been for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Is it true that they have been passing a law forbidding people to give meat and drink to those poor colored folks that come along? I heard they were talking of some such law, but I didn’t think any Christian legislature would pass it!

– Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ch. 9

The act underlined the illegality of harbouring fugitive slaves and ensured that anyone who did not aid in the capture of fugitive slaves was criminalised too. For Stowe, this was entirely at odds with the teachings of Christianity. The law may punish those who work against the slave trade, but Christian law was above that; “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour,” said the Bible, “therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Stowe’s abolitionist philosophy is one of the natural rights of individuals – it is the philosophy of Hobbes, of Locke and of the founding fathers and a philosophy written into the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It was clear to Stowe that slavery denied huge numbers of people these rights. She wrote in a letter to Lord Denman in 1853,

[A]s a woman, as a mother I was oppressed and broken-hearted, with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity — because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath. It is no merit in the sorrowful that they weep, or
to the oppressed and smothering that they gasp and struggle, not to me, that I must speak for the oppressed — who cannot speak for themselves.

As a woman, Stowe could not effect change by voting or being elected to public office. But she could write. When Gamaliel Bailey, editor of abolitionist newspaper the National Era, offered Stowe $100 to pen a special antislavery piece, she already had a story in mind. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published serially in the National Era beginning in May 1851. When she began writing, Stowe could not have anticipated the impact it would have.

Reading the book today, the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin contains troubling racist stereotyping in itself – I re-read it in its entirity recently and blogged the experience in more depth here on my own blog; this post forms a sort of companion piece.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin centres around the lives of a group of slaves working on an Kentucky plantation. The book opens with a discussion between owners Shelby and Haley over the sale of two slaves. Though Shelby’s wife is not happy, the sale nevertheless goes ahead.

The slaves in question are the eponymous Uncle Tom, a good man and devout Christian, and young Harry, the only surviving son of house slave Eliza. The narrative follows them as they leave Kentucky, Tom on a ship bound for Ohio, and Eliza and her son as escapees pursued by professional slave catchers. Throughout their journeys Tom and Eliza witness the cruelties and indignities of slavery: Eliza is refused help for fear of repercussions; Tom witnesses a suicide and hears of slave babies bred to be sold. When he is sold to a particularly cruel master Tom finds violence not only from owners, but among the slaves themselves, an indignity that suggests that those who are oppressed by the system lose both self-respect and any perspective of right or wrong.

While revealing the brutalities visited upon slaves from inhumane masters, the novel also relentlessly mocks the hypocrisies of so-called ‘benign’ slave holders, represented by Shelby, who, though they are not violent and cruel themselves, support those slave holders who are less kindly and keep the system running. Slaves were, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and in life, under constant physical and psychological assault.

Stowe made sure, too, to implicate the world at large in the horrors of the slave trade. She directs the story to her readers, referring to ‘us’ and things ‘we’ think. Readers were therefore in cahoots with Stowe from the very beginning, so when she asks of her readers, ‘But sir, who makes the Trader?’ (ch. 12) readers would be bound into guilt, and with good reason. Not just in America but elsewhere too, households profited from the exploitation of slaves; they bought sugar, they milled cotton. Stowe could not have used better means to galvanise support among white American moderates.

The novel was released as a two volume book in 1852. The original print run of 5000 was woefully inadequate: in the first year, 300,000 copies were sold in the US, more than 1 million in the UK. Opinion was divided. According to Richard Yarborough, quoted in this paper by RS Levin, freed slaves viewed the novel as “a godsend destined to mobilize white sentiment against slavery just when resistance to the southern forces was urgently needed”, while for abolitionists it was a vindication. Readers south of the Mason-Dixon Line were more likely to find the novel sensationalist and unjust – slavery was a much bigger part of their way of life.

Following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin support for the abolition movement grew. Minstrel shows and stage plays based on the book – ‘Tom Shows’ as they came to be known – became popular, bringing Stowe’s message to a wider audience, and transcending barriers of class and literacy. Inevitably, some Tom Shows took on a pro-slavery stance, but this does not seem to have diluted the effect of the work on the populace. The now famous author began speaking tours, even visiting the UK in her attempt to bring abolitionism to a wider and wider audience.

The abolitionist movement continued to grow. When Abraham Lincoln won his Presidency in 1860 it was on a platform of antislavery, so when eleven pro-slavery states seceded to form the Confederacy in 1861 war seemed suddenly inevitable. Of course, slavery was not the sole cause of the American Civil War; there was a significant difference in culture, economy and industry between Northern and Southern states and disagreements over federal rule versus state autonomy too. Despite these factors, when the fighting began it became clear: this was a battle between pro- and anti-slavery states. When Stowe visited Lincoln in 1862 he is reputed to have said to her, “So, you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Slavery was finally abolished in the United States in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment, which put an end to all involuntary servitude save for those convicted of a crime and freed 40,000 or so slaves that had not been granted their freedom in previous state-by-state laws.

In later years images from Margaret Mitchell’s adapted Gone With the Wind (1936) would supersede those of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the popular imagination as the picture of the antebellum South. No doubt both have some degree of accuracy, but it is Uncle Tom’s Cabin that changed the opinion of a nation.

  • Libby earned her feminist stripes interning for the Fawcett Society where she was horrified by most of the stories she heard. An accidental activist, she is a regular contributor to BCN, the UK’s only 100% bisexual publication. Her latest project, TreasuryIslands, is the home of her other passion – children’s literature. Libby is very proud of her bad reputation.
2 Responses leave one →
  1. September 16, 2011

    What? Nary a mention of her expose of Lord Byron’s incest and abuse of his wife? Uncle Tom’s Cabin made her career, but Lady Byron Vindicated nearly undid it. One thing to take on Southern crackers… another to address domestic violence among the white, the rich, and the famous. In many ways, her Lady Byron book was more radical. Interestingly, it’s all but written out of history. She took a huge hit for it. I’ve written a dramatic adaptation of it…

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