Her words changed the world.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin was initially released in serial format in the National Era, a weekly newspaper, from June 5, 1851-April 1, 1852.

See HERE for the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as originally released in The National Era. You will find each chapter, followed by scholarly commentary, and links to Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and related materials.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's best known novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), changed forever how Americans viewed slavery, the system that treated people as property. It demanded that the United States deliver on the promise of freedom and equality, galvanized the abolition movement and contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. The book calls on us to confront the legacy of race relations in the U.S. as the title itself became a racial slur.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was a runaway best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. It resonates with an international audience as a protest novel and literary work.

Background: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Slavery

As a young wife and mother living in Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher Stowe met former and fugitive enslaved people. Cincinnati, then the western frontier of the United States, was an ethnically and culturally vibrant city. On the Ohio River across from Kentucky, a slave state, the city exposed Stowe to the public face of slavery.

Stowe knew about slavery before she moved to Ohio. Her own grandmother kept African American servants who had probably originally been enslaved, and her father had preached in favor of the colonization movement, supporting the creation of Liberia as a settling point for freed people. But in Ohio, Stowe heard first hand stories from former enslaved people; witnessed slavery while visiting Kentucky; and employed fugitives in her home. When Harriet and Calvin learned that their servant was actually a runaway in danger of being returned to slavery, Calvin and Harriet's brother Henry Ward Beecher helped her escape and reach Canada and legal freedom.

"...the enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves"

Stowe also learned that even the discussion of slavery could divide a community when students at her father's school, Lane Seminary, rioted after anti-slavery debates were forbidden.

Background: The Compromise of 1850
and the Fugitive Slave Act

On September 18, 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. Although intended to address the concerns of slave holding and free states, and thus preserve the Union, historians disagree whether the Compromise diffused or fortified sectional interests. There is no doubt, however, that it helped galvanize the abolition movement and clarify Stowe's personal stance on slavery.

Among the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 were the end of the slave trade, but not slavery, in Washington D.C., and the creation of a new, stricter, Fugitive Slave Law. Helping runaways had been illegal since 1793, but the 1850 law required that everyone, law enforcers and ordinary citizens, help catch fugitives. Those who refused to assist slave-catchers, or aided fugitives, could be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for six months.

It also eliminated what little legal protection fugitives once had. Before 1850, some northern states had required slave-catchers to appear before an elected judge and be tried by a jury which would determine the validity of a claim. After the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, anyone could be taken from the street, accused of being a fugitive from slavery, and taken before a federally appointed commissioner who received $5 for every fugitive released and $10 for every one sent south. Free blacks and anti-slavery groups argued the system bribed commissioners to send kidnapped people into slavery, and obliged citizens to participate in the slavery system.

Stowe was furious. She believed the country was requiring her complicity in a system she thought was unjust and immoral. Living in Brunswick, ME while Calvin Stowe taught at Bowdoin College, Stowe disobeyed the law by hiding runaways. When she shared her frustrations and feelings of powerlessness with her family, her sister-in-law Isabella Porter Beecher suggested she do more: "...if I could use a pen as you can, Hatty, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."
Moved by the letter, Stowe swore she would "if [she] lived."

The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin

The first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared on June 5, 1851 in the anti-slavery newspaper, The National Era. Stowe enlisted friends and family to send her information and scoured freedom narratives and anti-slavery newspapers for first hand accounts as she composed her story. In 1852 the serial was published as a two volume book. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a best seller in the United States, Britain, Europe and Asia, and was translated into over 60 languages

Synopsis of Uncle Tom's Cabin

"I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."

Uncle Tom's Cabin opens on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky as two enslaved people, Tom and 4-year old Harry, are sold to pay Shelby family debts. Developing two plot lines, the story focuses on Tom, a strong, religious man living with his wife and 3 young children, and Eliza, Harry's mother.

When the novel begins, Eliza's husband George Harris, unaware of Harry's danger, has already escaped, planning to later purchase his family's freedom. To protect her son, Eliza runs away, making a dramatic escape over the frozen Ohio River with Harry in her arms. Eventually the Harris family is reunited and journeys north to Canada.

Tom protects his family by choosing not to run away so the others may stay together. Sold south, he meets Topsy, a young, black girl whose mischievous behavior hides her pain; Eva, the angelic, young, white girl whose death moved Victorians to tears; charming, elegant but passive St. Clare; and finally, cruel, violent Simon Legree. Tom's deep faith gives him an inner strength that frustrates his enemies as he moves toward his fate in Louisiana.

The novel ends when both Tom and Eliza escape slavery: Eliza and her family reach Canada; but Tom's freedom comes with death. Simon Legree, Tom's third and final master, has Tom whipped to death for refusing to deny his faith or betray the hiding place of two fugitive women.