Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beacher Stowe, was published in 1852 in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. As the best selling book of the 19th century behind only the Bible, it played a pivotal role in catalyzing the Civil War. The novel epitomizes the core human qualities of perseverance, determination, and love, and makes it evident that these qualities, along with faith in Christianity, have the ability to transcend the superficial boundaries of slavery, oppression, and inequality. Written from the perspective of a southern Christian ex-slave owner, the novel's sentimentality had far-reaching effects on the collective psyche of 19th century America, swaying the views of many Northerners against the notion of slavery. Upon meeting Stowe for the first time, Abraham Lincoln described her as "The little lady who started this great war." Her phenomenal work has indeed had lasting effects.


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Before publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Fugitive Slave Act was ratified in 1850. This law mandated the immediate return of runaway slaves from the south that escaped to the North. As a result slaves could only become free if they were able to escape to Canada. The Fugitive Slave Act was one of the many laws that were passed during the Compromise of 1850. In exchange for deeming California a Free State and prohibiting slave trade in the District of Columbia, the Fugitive Slave Act was ratified. This act outraged many people in the North, and was the driving force behind the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


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The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fostered the ratification of the Massachusetts Personal Liberty
Act of 1855. This act promoted freedom, by allowing people who were imprisoned or restrained to be entitled to their rights, including slaves. As a result, not a single slave that found refuge in Massachusetts was returned to the South. Furthermore, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the many factors that influenced the outbreak of the Civil War.

General Plot Summary

Uncle Tom's Cabin begins at Arthur Shelby's debt-ridden farm in Kentucky, a farm different from the vast majority of 19th century American farms in that its slaves are treated with much care and affection. This affection is evidenced by a promise that Shelby's wife makes to her maid Eliza, the promise that she would not allow her husband to sell her son Harry to another slave owner. The burdens of his debt, however, outweigh the obligation to his wife's promise, and in a frantic effort to raise money Shelby sells two of his slaves, Uncle Tom and Harry, to the less compassionate and more callous slave trader, Mr. Haley. Eliza hears of this malicious trade-off before it can be executed, and immediately alerts her son and Uncle Tom. Harry and Eliza flee for the North, in hopes of reaching Canada and reuniting with Eliza's husband George. Haley sends a man named Loker and his men to pursue them, while Uncle Tom is taken into custody and placed on a vessel on the Mississippi River to be shipped to the salve market.

While on the vessel, Uncle Tom befriends a young girl by the name of Eva St. Clare, and when she falls overboard he leaps into the water to save her. His efforts prove successful, and Eva's father rewards him for this feat by agreeing to buy him from Haley. An so, Uncle Tom is taken to the St. Clare establishment in New Orleans, where he proves to be a valuable asset as his relationship with the St. Clares, especially Eva, burgeons.Their common faith in Christianity only serves to strengthen their relationship.

Meanwhile, Loker and his men continue to pursue Eliza, Harry and George in the North. George shoots Loker, severely wounding him and causing his men to flee. George then takes Loker to a hospital in a nearby village to receive treatment, a treatment from which he arises a new man with new morals and new perspectives towards American society. Loker feels compassion towards George, and the superficial boundaries between African Americans and whites begin to breach. In New Orleans, St. Clare reveals that he does not harbor any prejudice against African Americans but simply feels that he lacks the ability to abolish slavery. He also buys his cousin Ophelia a slave named Topsy, a young girl with a tough past, to nurture and educate, in an attempt to help her overcome her prejudice.

After Tom has lived in New Orleans for two years Eva falls ill and dies whilst envisioning heaven. Not only does her death spark widespread sentiment, but it also carries moral significance; the prejudice of all of those who knew her dissipates and St. Clare makes the daring decision to let Uncle Tom free, a decision rarely made in 19th century America and one that is fostered by pure love and mutual acceptance. Shortly before his plan to free Uncle Tom can be executed, however, St. Clare is killed, and Uncle Tom ends up in the hands of Simon Legree, a cruel plantation owner in rural Louisiana. Here he develops a strong relationship with Emmeline, Legree's sex slave. Uncle Tom undergoes a series of traumatic experiences in Louisiana; he is asked to whip two slaves and is severely beaten after refusing to do so, he is manipulated, mistreated, and looked down upon, and he nearly resolves to lose his faith in God. His faith is reinvigorated by two visions of Christ and Eva that give him the spiritual strength to persevere and endure the hardships forced upon him by Legree. He eventually loses his ability to withstand the torments that Emmeline and her friend face under Legree, and motivates them to escape from his malevolent grasp. Legree questions Uncle Tom about their escape, and when he refuses to reveal any information concerning the matter he receives a beating of unimaginable brutality, resulting in his tragic death shortly before Shelby arrives with a bag of money in hopes of buying him back and thus saving his life.

Emmeline and her friend Cassy escape to Canada, where Cassy discovers that Eliza is her long-lost sister. As a family they move to Liberia. Meanwhile, Shelby returns to his Kentucky farm and frees all his slaves as a tribute to Uncle Tom, under the condition that they live devout Christian lives and never let his legacy escape from their memories.

Purpose of the Novel

The story displayed many different significant messages. It focused on Christian Faith, which emphasizes equality among all people. Harriet Beacher Stowe was able to portray this by concentrating on three major human qualities, love, determination, and perseverance. By showing how relevant these qualities were among her characters, more so in Uncle Tom and Eva St. Clare, she was able to prove that even African Americans and Females were equal to white males.


1. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/uncletom/
2. http://blowthetrumpet.org/MASSACHUSETTSPERSONALLIBERTYACT.htm
3. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h137.html
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom%27s_Cabin