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The Civil War: 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' changed the course of history

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is shown.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is shown. (SUBMITTED PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

The previous few columns have discussed slavery as an institution and that it was, in my evaluation, the main cause of the Civil War. Yes, there were other causes and I noted that territorial acquisition was high on the list as were westward expansion and the still dominant, and still unsettled, matter of state power in relation to federal power.

Strangely, not listed as one of the causes of the Civil War was the indomitable will of new President Abraham Lincoln that he turn over to his successor a nation as whole as the nation he swore to defend. This writer considers that the concept of the new president to preserve the nation at least as complete as it was when he assumed the presidency to be the sine qua non of the entire era. Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the right president for the United States in 1940, Abraham Lincoln was the right president for the country in 1860.

Included in the columns were comments about a book that literally changed history. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe appeared in bookstores on March 20, 1852, and was a best-seller both in the United States and internationally. The book sold more than 300,000 copies in the first three months in the United States and was just as popular in Charleston, South Carolina, as it was in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Over a million copies were sold in Great Britain and one of them was purchased by Lord Henry John Temple Palmerston, who later was British Prime Minister during our Civil War. His decision not to intervene on the side of the Confederacy may well have cost the South victory in the Civil War.

I also wrote that, in my opinion, all matters except slavery could have been settled by the normal give-and-take of American politics and compromises. In fact, by 1860, compromise had become part our national DNA: we had compromised on the issue of slavery in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise. Thirty years later, the Compromise of 1850 didn't settle the matter but allowed us to again kick the slavery discussion down the road; and this time only four years elapsed before the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act said that the federal government would neither establish or prohibit slavery, but would allow the free citizens in a territory to decide for themselves if they would enter the Union as a free or a slave state.

At that period in our history, the territory of Kansas was about ready for statehood, and the result was that both pro-slavery and anti-slavery "free citizens" flocked to Kansas and battled each other in what became known as "bloody Kansas". The result of all this chaos (after only four years) was the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, a compromise which organized the two territories in accordance with the doctrine of "popular sovereignty."

This allowed self-determination on the slavery issue - people in the territory could decide for themselves "free" or "slave" - but in 1854 a new political party arose: the Republican Party had as its members former whigs, democrats and free-soilers. They chose to call themselves Republicans in order to recall the Jeffersonian Republicans whose goal had been the dominance of national interests over sectional interests and states rights. Its main goal: opposition to the expansion of slavery in any United States territory. And in 1854, this meant that the the South would eventually lose its choke-hold "balance-of-power" in the Congress and the anti-slavery states would eventually be in the majority.

In the middle of all the national furor and ill-will, on March 18, 1852, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published. The book put the slavery issue in human and family terms that every American could appreciate. And it hit its mark: a century and a half ago we Americans were as family-oriented as we are are today.

Comments about the book ranged from complete approval to just as complete vilification. Abolitionists felt that the book did not paint a dark enough picture of slavery and that the Uncle Tom character was not strong enough - dismissing entirely the fact that Tom was a slave who had no rights under the laws then in effect.

Generally, Americans responded positively to the book. For many, it showed a slave to be a human being, with feelings and hopes not really that different from those of the average 19th century American. Of course, pro-slavery advocates denounced the book with claims that slavery was condoned in the Bible - and that slavery was not as bad as shown in the book.

Stowe replied to these negative comments with another book, "The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," a complete accounting of her research. This book so reinforced her anti-slavery feelings that in 1856 she wrote a second novel, "Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp." This book called for the immediate end to slavery, and four years later the Civil War began.

Part of the lore of both Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Civil War is an 1862 meeting between her and President Lincoln. The president is reputed to have greeted Stowe by saying, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Even if this story is apocryphal, it shows the connection between "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Civil War.

A recently published book on the subject is titled "Mightier Than The Sword: 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and the Battle for America." The brief review in the New York Times notes that the new book is an "account of the writing, reception and modern reputation of the novel [and] celebrates the author as a writer who mobilized public opinion against slavery, widening the rift that led to the Civil War." An excellent appraisal of the place "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has in American lore.

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