Defending Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (& Breaking Down the Three Reasons It Swayed Hearts)

Hi, friends. Today’s post focuses on a classic novel that greatly influenced American thought on slavery on the cusp of the Civil War (1861-1865). I recently read the book and felt extremely compelled by it; however, its message has been distorted over time, and “Uncle Tom” is now a derogatory term. Thus, I’m writing this post to explain why and how the book was effective in swaying people against slavery and why, despite the flaws, we should acknowledge Stowe’s strategies and the novel’s impact.

The Novel’s Impact on History

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally published in serial format over a couple years and was published as a whole novel in 1852. Within a year, the book sold 300,000 copies in the US and one million copies in Great Britain. (According to Wikipedia)

The novel is credited for stirring up the abolitionist cause in the 1850’s. Former US President Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, met with Stowe and called her “the little lady who changed the war.”

Why This Book Changed Hearts

I’ve identified the three aspects of the novel that, in my opinion, drive its persuasive power–

  1. Convicting appeals to Christian morals
  2. Unabashed sentimentality in portraying characters (especially with families being torn apart)
  3. The character Uncle Tom

#1— Stowe weaves these appeals throughout the novel in two primary ways–conversations between characters and the narrator addressing the audience. In other words, she makes these appeals implicitly and explicitly.

An example of an implicit appeal is a conversation between a non-abusive slave owner and his devoutly Christian cousin from the North. The nice slave owner justifies his owning slaves with his gentleness and with that old, familiar argument, “everyone else is doing it, so I might as well, since my not doing it won’t make a difference.” His cousin argues against his flimsy reasoning; just because everyone’s doing something doesn’t make it morally right.

An example of an explicit appeal is after a mother and her child are separated at a slave auction, Stowe writes a paragraph where she/”the narrator” speaks directly to the reader about the love of a mother for her child, imploring whether the reader wouldn’t be heartbroken if they were in the same scenario.

These appeals underscore the novel, as Stowe’s intention with this book was to convince people of the evils of slavery. The appeals often incorporate Biblical concepts, such as “the first will be last” and “the Lord sees oppression and will carry out vengeance some day.” Verses of scripture appear throughout the novel.

#2Stowe uses great imagery in the novel, and she doesn’t shy away from painting gut-wrenching, tear-jerking scenes. Children ripped from the arms of mothers, people beaten mercilessly, men who feel pathetic and useless because they can’t protect their families, slaves promised freedom only to have their hope yanked from beneath them–Stowe runs the gamut of horrible circumstances enabled by slavery. Stowe also creates vivid, dynamic, lovable characters, making the tough moments that much tougher.

Her unapologetic sentimentality humanizes slaves while demonizing slavery.

#3— Uncle Tom, the book’s namesake, is an older slave with a heart of pure gold. His character is the novel’s most crucial point of persuasion against slavery because he mirrors Jesus Christ. He loves everyone from his fellow slaves to his masters–not “love” in a sappy, worldly sense, but HARD love, the love that doesn’t despise cruel men but wants them to repent and turn away from evil.

Tom loves God with his whole being and clings to his Bible, which he can barely read. He stirs the hearts of blacks and whites throughout the story as his genuine mercy and kindness affects their lives and worldviews. Tom’s unshakable faith through heart-wrenching trials is so inspiring that it’s flat-out stunning, YET he is not inhuman in his perseverance; there are especially hard times in the story where Tom feels forsaken and struggles with his faith. Those instances are reminiscent of Jesus crying out from the cross– “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know how one could read this book and not be laughing and crying with/rooting for Uncle Tom, and Stowe knew she would shake up society when she envisioned for the world a Christ-like black man. This was a genius idea in a Biblically-literate society.

The Biggest Flaw

The most offensive or “problematic” aspect of this book is the paternal attitude Stowe weaves into the story, mostly in the explicit addresses to the readers. She sincerely believes that whites are a harsh, technical, cold race, while blacks are a passionate, impressionable race.

Many abolitionists of the past took a similar stance: whites and blacks are physically/mentally different, but slavery is still wrong.

We call this “racism” now, but the abolitionists’ hearts were in the right place despite their ignorance. It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but we should ask ourselves…would I hide people, housing and feeding them, eventually helping them flee to another state/country, at the risk of getting thrown in prison or worse? Many abolitionists put their lives on the line doing just that.

Musing on Why “Uncle Tom” Became an Insult

“Uncle Tom” is now a slur for a black man who “kisses up” to a white man/white people. I can only assume that people who misinterpret his character misunderstand the teachings of Jesus Christ. Tom praying for his enemies, finding opportunities to evangelize to all peoples, maintaining his faith through the worst of trials, etc. is not equivalent to condoning slavery; Uncle Tom never wavers on his wish/mission throughout the story to return to his wife and children.

Tom’s behavior simply models the ideal Christian–finding joy in the Lord despite the circumstances, hoping that ALL find salvation. I think we can misinterpret Uncle Tom because we have faith the size of a mustard seed and simply can’t comprehend a faith that deep.


Thanks for reading! Have you read this book? Have I piqued your interest? What do you think of Stowe’s persuasion strategies? Let me know in the comments.

Religion! Is what you hear at church “religion?” Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, “religion?” Is that “religion” which is less scrupulous, less generous, less just, less considerate for man, than even my own ungodly, worldly, blinded nature? No! When I look for religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath.

19 comments

  1. I have not read this book, but now I definitely want to–and I love the way scripture is used in some of the ‘older’ literature, at a time of, as you said, a ‘biblically literate society’. I was struck by the example of ‘hard love’ that Tom showed. You describe this well. We still do not understand the concept of biblical love well, IMHO–one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes: ‘love is far more stern and splendid than mere kindness’.
    Excellent commentary and review–and great points made!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, love the Lewis quote! Uncle Tom definitely shows stern and splendid love that goes beyond mere kindness. I thought it was cool knowing that nearly everyone reading this book at the time would get the scriptural references; unfortunately, that persuasion strategy might fall flat in 2019. You’re right that even Christians struggle to comprehend the depths of hard, biblical love. I’ve heard that “love is action” rather than a feeling, and while that distinction moves us away from the worldly and towards the biblical, I think it might be even deeper and grittier yet grander than that.
      Thanks for your kind words, Salt! β™₯

      Liked by 1 person

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