In Praise of Harriet Beecher Stowe

Unless you live in a cave, you have heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and know that an “Uncle Tom” is a bootlicking wankstain who makes a patriarchal bargain and sells out the rest of the black community in exchange for being “in” with the white power structure. It’s a handy-dandy term, and I think women need to come up for a phrase like it to describe the Phyllis Schlafly’s of the world. Unfortunately, the Uncle Tom in the book was NOTHING like an “Uncle Tom”, and it really sucks that the character is remembered that way.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character was written to represent an ideal Christian, and to show that slave owners had far more in common with the Roman Empire than with Jesus. At the end of the book, Uncle Tom dies to protect two escaped slaves. This denunciation of the evils of slavery was incendiary at the time. Just how provocative was it? Well, she pretty much started the Civil War.

Don’t believe me? Well grab a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by historian James W. Loewen and read Chapter 5 (preview available on Google books). In fact, read the whole damn book. I wish I had written that book. It’s greatness is breathtaking.  It’s well-cited and brilliant and I want to love and kiss it and stroke it’s pretty cover and call it George.

But I digress.

In Chapter 5 Loewen explodes all the bullshit about the Civil war being about anything other than slavery by using the dynamite of proof. Proof is something other historians had ignored, probably in order to not “offend” the Southern school boards who would be picking out text-books. Loewen wasn’t playing that game. He pointed out that it is was a damn lie that the South succeeded over the issue of State’s Rights. In fact, the South was vehemently opposed to State’s Rights. The federal government had passed a law called the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 to keep the asshats who owned slaves happy. It meant that people in free states had to, by law, return escaped slaves back to the jackholes who “owned” them. A lot of Northerners disliked this intensely, and circumvented (or ignored) the law, much to the slaveholder’s frustration. Even better, many people in the South were anti-slave too, so the slave-owning power structure had it’s hands full trying to suppress both the slaves and the anti-slave movement in their own back yard. Anyway, the South wanted the Northern states to be denied the right to pass laws countermanding the Fugitive Slave Act. So the South was anything in this world but in favor of State’s Rights.

Northerners were unhappy about the Fugitive Slave Act, but most people were apathetic and didn’t want to get involved with abolitions because that was something radical troublemakers did. Then Stowe’s little book hit the market in 1852. It sold like hotcakes, and soon abolition was being considered not only the right thing to do, but also kind of cool. This meant Northerners, and many Southerners, wanted to end slavery ASAP. The Fugitive Slave Act was actively disobeyed by all decent people.  The slave owners had a hissy-fit. They banned the book in the South. Hell, they threw you in jail for ten years if you were caught with a copy.

But the book had stirred people up. The South (at least it’s powerful slave-owners) started bitching that if a Republican (the GOP was a pack of liberal abolitionists back then. God, WTF happened??) became president they would leave the union rather than give up their slaves. Well, Stowe’s book had given people incentive to vote Republican. Thus, Lincoln was elected and the South succeeded. Uncle Tom’s Cabin started the dominoes falling toward the abolition of slavery, and should be held up as a Great Book for that reason if for nothing else.

Moreover, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was critical for winning the war. Not only did it generate so much sympathy for salves that abolition became the rallying cry of the North, anti-slave whites aided and abetted the Union troops at every opportunity. When Sherman marched thru Georgia, thousands of white troops joined him and 2/3  of the rebel troops disserted the Confederate Army (p. 195). The popularity of Stowe’s book in England made a big difference too. The English had economic ties with the South, so why didn’t they help them? Because of strong anti-slavery feelings in England, that’s why. And what got those feelings churning? Why, it was Uncle Tom’s Cabin!

Harriet Beecher Stowe, a little Gemini homemaker from New England, is proof that, in the end, the pen is mightier than the sword.

About Betty Fokker

I'm a stay-at-home feminist mom.
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4 Responses to In Praise of Harriet Beecher Stowe

  1. Diva says:

    My college history prof was a southerner whose family had been abolitionists–fascinating brilliant guy. He maintained that wars are fought for economic reasons and the south seceded because they had predicated their agrarian economic structure on the need for forced labor while the north based their more industrial model on child labor and indentured servitude and thus northerners could recognize that slavery was wrong/evil/vile because it didn’t impact their economy.

    I loved that class.

  2. Skye says:

    Now I need to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I remember seeing part of a movie based on the book when I was very little and of course I had no idea why people were so mean to Uncle Tom and the two little children who hung out with him (no idea if this is part of the book).

    Thank you for telling us about this Fokker. You rock, as usual.

  3. lunarmom says:

    Which gives even more validation to my Great Hope that the blog (namely yours) is mightier than the asshats.

  4. ca says:

    There is the Harriet Beecher Stowe house here in Cincinnati. If you would visit, I could take you there.

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