The seventh child born into a family of advocates, agitators and dissidents, Harriet Beecher Stowe was no stranger to controversy. Although she had long been active in anti-slavery circles – she and her husband Calvin even supported the Underground Railroad – her greatest impact can be measured in book sales. In 1852, Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a sentimental tale condemning the institution of slavery by demonstrating the manner in which it tore apart families apart, from the slave families sold away from each other in the interstate slave trade to the slave-owning families corrupted by their own system. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more than 300,000 copies in less than a year, an unprecedented amount for the time. An even greater audience was introduced to the story through stage adaptations. According to one apocryphal legend, when Abraham Lincoln met with Stowe in November 1862, he allegedly greeted her with flip comment: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Though the book’s political impact is debatable, Stowe undoubtedly contributed to the hardening of anti-Southern sentiment. Even if readers weren’t inspired to become abolitionists, many were swayed by her human portrayal of slavery.
At a national conference on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln at the Union League of Philadelphia and Villanova University on February 12-13, 2009 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, one symposium focused on the use of sentiment (and what one scholar terms “the jurisprudence of sentiment”) by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe in order to make anti-slavery arguments that went beyond legal rationales:
For scholars looking for a deeper understanding of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Cyrus Patell, a Professor of English at NYU investigates sentimental fiction, anti-slavery narratives, and domestic slavery. Although Patell is not a historian, his lectures are indispensable for understanding the novel in the context of antebellum society.
This 1987 presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be viewed below. The quality isn’t great, but if you are the movie-rather-than-the-book type, it’s worth a look, even if only to view an 80s-era Samuel L. Jackson.