.. remely lucrative. It was called “triangular” because the path of a trading ship, if traced on a map, describes a triangle over the Atlantic Ocean. The ships would take manufactured goods from England and Europe to trade in Africa for slaves. The slaves would be transported to the Indies or Americas (the notorious “middle passage”) and traded for staples like cotton, sugar, rum, molasses, and indigo which would then be carried to England and Europe and traded for manufactured goods. This procedure, repeated again and again from the time of the first slaves’ arrival in America in 1619 to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, made trades at each stop on the triangle very wealthy. The Founding Fathers agreed, with a clause in the Constitution, to end the slave trade, but this did nothing to end the slave system.
Slave owners simply continued to supply the slave market through “natural increase.” The loss of an external source of supply only made slaves more valuable. Nevertheless, by the 19th century most of the world had come to believe that slavery was wrong. Enlightenment ideals concerning the brotherhood of mankind had changed social perceptions, and slavery had been abolished almost everywhere in Europe and its colonies. It was very difficult for Americans to imagine ending slavery, however, because no one in the country had ever lived without it. In the seventy-five years since he foundation of the country, the North had gotten used to the idea that slaves were necessary to the South. Most of them believed that slave owners were kind to the slaves. They also believed that slaves were childlike and uneducable, and that if they were not kept as slaves they would not be able to take care of themselves.
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There was also the problem of what to do with the slaves if they were feed. No one, North or South, wanted to live with Negroes. Thus, for a long time, it was easier to live with slavery rather than to try to change it. As the U.S. expanded westward, however, slavery became a more pressing issue.
Each new state entering the union shifted the balance of political power in Congress between slaves states and free states. This, together with the rise of the Abolition Movement in the 1830s and the religions revival called the “Great Awakening,” which saw slavery as evidence of national sin, created an atmosphere of tension between North and South that had been postponed since the founding of the nation. Into this atmosphere came Stowe’s novel, which depicts the cruelties of slavery in a way that had never registered on the national consciousness before. Harriet Beecher (1811-1896), born in Litchfield, Connecticut, belonged to a family of famous clergymen. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a strict Congregationalist, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, became a famous preacher during an era when preachers were admired as much as film or television celebrities are admired today.
Harriet Beecher was a retiring woman, however, married to Calvin Stowe, a professor at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. For eighteen years, as she raised seven children, Stowe observed the effects of slavery in the slave state of Kentucky, just across the Ohio River to the free state of Ohio. Stowe supplemented her family income with freelance writing. She developed the idea of writing a novel about the horrors of slavery after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. Many Northerners were outraged by this law, which allowed slaves owners to pursue their runaway slaves into free states in order to recover their “property.” Stowe combined her religious backgrounds with her political beliefs by writing a book about a saintly slave who forgave his tormentors, just as Christ forgave His. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published it became an instant success, selling so many copies that it is considered today to be the first “best seller” in American publishing history.
It was banned in the South, however, and prompted dozens of answering novel, essays, and poems by proslavery writers. Southern writers believe that Stowe exaggerated the condition of slaves in the South, representing the exceptional cruel master (Simon Legree) as the norm, and representing the kind master (Mr. Shelby) as too weak not to sell slaves in times of economic necessity. For nine years, between the time Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and the start of the Civil War in 1861, a writer and Southern pro-slavery writer was waged. Though many anti-slavery works had been written before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, most notable the fugitive slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and others, it was the combination of sentimentality and religious feelings in Stowe’s novel that triggered the controversy that ended in Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s famous comment when he met Mrs. Stowe (“So you are the little lady who made this big war”) implies that Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused the war, but Stowe only articulated in a new way the deep-seated problem that had been present in America since the foundation of the colonies in the seventeenth century.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a work, which can stand alone as a self-contained entertainment. It requires an understanding on the part of the reader of the conditions that made the author write it and which made the nation respond to it so passionately. It is difficult, today, to imagine a work of literature so powerful that it can truly be said to have hastened the onset of a war and the resolution of a problem so intractable that neither the Founding Fathers nor nearly a hundred years of congresses could find a solution. The fact that Abraham Lincoln decided to emancipate the slaves in 1863 without addressing the related problems of South would be bankrupt, is a testament to the fact that intense public feeling, rather than logic and negotiation, had made it possible for Lincoln to act unilaterally. Uncle Tom’s Cabin contributed greatly -even primarily-to that change of feeling in the nation.
The first approach to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, therefore, must be the historical and biographical. In the century and a half since Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, many scholars have reflected on the various ways one can read and understanding this complex text, and how Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been interpreted differently over the years, both before and after the Civil War. Cultural studies, such as Thomas F. Gossett’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture and Moria Davison Reynolds’ “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States provide the historical frame of reference needed to understand the religious, political, and racial issues addressed in the novel. Though early biographies of Stowe focus on the dramatic irony of a shy housewife making a massive impact on American history, more recent biographies, such as Joan D. Hedrick’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: A life place the facts of her career in the framework of the century and give the reader a history of an era in addition to a history of a life.
Once the historical frame is understood, however, the most central avenue of approach to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that which address its primarily theme of sin and redemption. When the reader considers that Harriet Beecher Stowe was from a family of preachers, it becomes clear that she is a preacher in her novel as a minister in his pulpit. The character of Uncle Tom is unmistakably modeled on Jesus Christ, and everything that happens to him is designed to demonstrate how evil can be transformed into good by love. Little Eva is another model of saintly behavior, designed to prompt all who know her to change, like Topsy, from being bad to being good. Stowe intended the reader, including the southern slave owner, to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “turn from sin and be saved.” The theme of sin and redemption can be expressed in more general terms as the struggle between good and evil, with slavery as the metaphor for all that is evil in the world. This is the approach taken by Josephine Donovan in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love.
The full range of evil, from the heartless cruelty of Simon Legree, the subtle weakness of Mr. Shelby, and the humorous rascality of Topsy are all transformed by the power of Uncle Tom’s acceptance of his fate. It is for the reader to go into the actual world and transform it. Bibliography Works cited Donovan, Josephine. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. New York: Twane, 1991.
Gossett, Thomas F. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture.” Southern Methodist University Press 13 Feb. 1985: 1+. Hedrick, John D. “Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life.” Oxford University Press 9 Feb. 1994: A2+. Hughes, Langston.
Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe Ed. Elizabeth Ammonds. Boston: G.K. Hall 1980. 102-104. Lynn, Kynneth S.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: The Belknab Press of Harvard University Press, 1962. vii-xxiv. Reynolds, Moria D. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States.
Boston: McFarland, 1985. Stern, Madeleine B. “Harriet Beecher Stowe.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. 12th ed. 1982. 425-433.
Yarborough, Richard. New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
45-84. Book Reports.