Culture  /  Book Review

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Art of Persuasion

Stowe’s novel shifted public opinion about slavery so dramatically that it has often been credited with fuelling the war that destroyed the institution.

Stowe took pains not to demonize all Southerners, or beatify all Northerners. In her view, no one was corrupt by nature; the system of slavery spoiled everything and everyone it touched. But her story was effective because it directly assaulted Southern pretensions. Pro-slavery Southerners had been propagating a narrative of their own: slavery was a benevolent institution in which mentally inferior slaves were watched over by owners who treated them as part of their family. The Romans had had slaves, they argued, and the South was a new Rome. (Never mind the absence of the ancient civilization’s great architectural, artistic, engineering, legal, and literary achievements.)

Stowe’s novel exploded this myth of the South as a land of paternalistic slaveholders. Her description of Tom’s sale down the river to the Deep South was an expression of slavery’s core reality. The historian Steven Deyle has estimated that more than a million slaves were shipped from the Upper South to the Lower South between 1790 and 1860. “During this period, slave sales occurred in every southern city and village, and ‘coffles’ of slaves (gangs held together in chains) could be found on every southern highway, waterway, and railroad,” Deyle writes. Without this domestic trade, the institution of slavery would have collapsed. More slaves were sold south than arrived on the North American continent via the infamous Middle Passage. They did not suffer the horrors of a transatlantic ocean voyage packed tight in a ship. But they did suffer the anguish of lost mothers, fathers, children, siblings, husbands, and wives. In what “family,” Stowe’s book asked, were members treated this way, sold off like cattle by their supposed “kin”?

The sexual mistreatment of enslaved women was a staple of abolitionist literature, and Stowe depicted it with particular force. The modesty of the age, however, allowed slavery’s apologists to cast any who raised the subject as tasteless and crude.

Stowe’s narrative was persuasive, however, because it fit with what many Americans were able to glean from their travels and knew from their experience of human nature. (What was the likely result of giving males control over the bodies of women who cannot say no to them?) Meanwhile, the Fugitive Slave Law made Northerners—by requiring them to return escaped slaves—an active part of slavery. It was harder to avoid the moral consequences of a system that all Americans were now being asked to allow to spread into the western part of the continent. In effect, Stowe raised with fellow-citizens the question she had asked herself: “This horror, this nightmare abomination! Can it be in my country?” In the decade following the novel’s publication, a growing segment of the population decided that it could not, even if it meant going to war.