This Day in History – March 20th, 1852

According to Will Kaufman, American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Published on March, 20th, 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies in Great Britain. 

Harriet_Beecher_Stowe_by_Francis_Holl

Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14th, 1811 – July 1st, 1896)

In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.” The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that “The long-term durability of Lincoln’s greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals … to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.”

The book opens with a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby facing the loss of his farm because of debts. Even though he and his wife Emily Shelby believe that they have a benevolent relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise the needed funds by selling two of them—Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children, and Harry, the son of Emily Shelby’s maid Eliza—to a slave trader. Emily Shelby is averse to this idea because she had promised her maid that her child would never be sold; Emily’s son, George Shelby, hates to see Tom go because he sees the man as his friend and mentor. When Eliza overhears Mr. and Mrs. Shelby discussing plans to sell Tom and Harry, Eliza determines to run away with her son . . .

Stowe wrote more than 20 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters, but she will be forever remembered for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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