Abolitionism in America

Uncle Tom's Cabin
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In 1850, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, which permitted slave owners to apprehend and recover their “property” from free states without process of law. Abolitionists fought the law, which angered even moderate Northerners. In response, Harriet Beecher Stowe began work on what would become one of the best-known, most hotly-debated, and most enduring pieces of fiction in American history. Stowe’s highly sentimental and melodramatic tale, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was first published in forty serial issues of the abolitionist weekly the National Era beginning in June of 1851. It was published as a two-volume book by John Punchard Jewett in March of 1852. The story’s scathing indictment of slavery’s cruelty evoked horror in the North, and outrage in the South over what Southerners perceived as an unfair condemnation of their “peculiar institution.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most contested novels of its time. Initially, the novel was criticized by whites who thought Stowe’s portrayal of black characters was too positive, and, later, by black critics who believed these same characters were oversimplified and stereotypical. Uncle Tom’s Cabin also gave birth to the racial epithet “Uncle Tom,” which is still an insult today.

Despite the criticisms and controversies surrounding the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin transcended its fictional genre, and brought the urgent issue of slavery’s brutality into the homes of white Americans. It galvanized many into becoming abolitionist sympathizers, if not activists themselves.

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Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections Cornell University Library