Uncle Tom's Cabin

The road towards abolition was paved with the efforts of countless men and women. Some risked life and limb to assist runaways, some lobbied, some were activists and some attempted to influence public opinion through pamphlets, books and plays. In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Toms Cabin a attempt at humanizing slaves and exposing the brutality of the institution of slavery. This book proved quite groundbreaking and influential. It became popular in both America and England and was responsible for changing the way in which slavery was perceived by many people.

The story

Slavery existed in America for hundreds of years. It was seen as a necessity for sustaining the plantation economy. Brutality was seen as a means for maintaining order and ensuring productivity. The main character,Tom was born into slavery and was sold multiple times. He endured cruel treatment at the hands of his master but found solace in Christianity and the promise of heaven. He was a likable character, mild mannered and obedient which challenged the existing stereotype of slaves as being surly or lazy. Stowe also attempted to address the rampant yet taboo subject of the sexual exploitation of enslaved women. While she addresses the subject with subtlety her meaning was not lost. The character of Eliza was the embodiment of this issue.

The impact

Uncle Toms Cabin changed the way that many southerners looked at slavery and slaves. Many southerners had been taught that had it not been for slavery blacks would be living in the jungle and worshiping the devil and as such they had a moral responsibility to civilize them. The reality was far more grim slaves were overworked under harsh conditions, they had no rights over their own bodies and were subject to beatings and torture at the discretion of their masters. Rape was common and many women would rather kill their infants than see them endure the hardships that they had grown accustomed to. Stowe shone a light on the barbaric nature of slavery and opened the eyes of many people.

The legacy

Stowe's work became required reading among abolitionist circles. It became a play and was eventually brought to the silver screen. While it can be argued that the story is rife with stereotypes it was groundbreaking for its time and was a powerful instrument for the spread of abolitionist ideology which was an essential ingredient in stating the Civil War.

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