Stowe’s Global Impact

Her Words

Changed the World



“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”


Harriet Beecher Stowe’s courage as she picked up her pen inspires us to believe in our own ability to make positive change. Uncle Tom’s Cabin challenges us to confront America’s complicated past and connect it with today’s issues.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Slavery, and the Civil War

Stowe’s vivid characters and portrayal of their struggles opened reader’s eyes to the realities of slavery and the humanity of enslaved people. Stowe hoped the novel would build empathy for the characters and, in turn, for enslaved individuals.

Stowe’s candor on the controversial subject of slavery encouraged others to speak out, further eroding the already precarious relations between northern and southern states and advancing the nation’s march toward Civil War.

By the war’s beginning in 1861, North-South tensions had been on the rise for decades. With the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the crisis came to a head as some Southern states seceded from the Union. Many white Southerners feared that slavery, “the peculiar institution” upon which their economy depended, would be eradicated. The brutal four-year war that followed almost destroyed the United States.

When Stowe visited President Lincoln at the White House in 1862, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” This statement, regardless of its truth, testifies to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s impact.

“The most cussed and discussed book of its time.”


Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a runaway hit, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. The novel sold even more copies abroad than it did in the United States — 1.5 million in a year in Great Britain.

When Stowe visited Great Britain in 1853, invited by anti-slavery groups, she was rushed by excited crowds. During her five-month stay, she traveled the country. She attended numerous anti-slavery rallies and was presented with the Stafford House Address, a 26-volume leather bound petition signed by more than 563,000 British women asking their American sisters to work to abolish slavery.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first major U.S. novel with a Black main character, and the first to use regional accents. It has been translated to over 70 languages.

Public response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not all positive. Moderates praised the book for exposing slavery’s harsh realities, but abolitionists felt it was not forceful enough. Others called out some of Stowe’s characters as stereotypes. Pro-slavery advocates argued that Stowe had written an unrealistic, one-sided image of slavery. These pro-slavery responses prompted at least 29 “Anti-Tom” or proslavery books before the Civil War.

Stowe responded to her critics by writing The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an annotated bibliography of her sources. In The Key, Stowe pointed out people who inspired her characters and events. She hoped that identifying these sources would demonstrate that her novel was based on fact.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was part of a large body of anti-slavery writing. Stowe borrowed from books by enslaved people including Josiah Henson, Lewis Clarke, and Solomon Northup. As a white woman, Stowe was seen as less threatening to white readers than Black abolitionists, helping her novel reach more readers. Some thought the book’s success was a tool they could use, while others said Stowe was taking stories that were not hers.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture

Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s reach went right off the page. It inspired products including wallpaper, board games, silverware, song sheets, ceramics, and handkerchiefs.

It was so popular it immediately became a play, with scenes taken word for word from Stowe’s novel. People flocked to see it and competing New York City shows made going to the theater respectable. Theater companies small and large travelled the country, using their own versions, without anti-slavery messages, and adding spectacle to draw crowds. Because her strict Congregationalist upbringing forbade going to the theater, Stowe was not comfortable collaborating on stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unfortunately, 1852 copyright laws did not protect fictional works from being adapted into plays without the author’s permission. These products, plays, and spin-offs were created without Stowe’s consent and copied the racial attitudes of their time from 1852 through the Civil War, Jim Crow Era, and as late as the 1950’s.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became the longest running play in U.S. history.

Dramatization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s for the stage meant shortening and simplifying a complicated story. These unauthorized productions, known as “Tom Shows,” were loosely based on Stowe’s story. “Tom Shows” were produced in theaters and traveling shows across the country, often with extravagant special effects and comedic dialogue.

Racial stereotypes were highlighted with actors in blackface and simplified plots. Eliza’s escape across the ice added bloodhounds. Topsy became a slapstick figure. Strong, young Tom aged to a submissive, shuffling old man.

Discussions of racism, slavery’s impact on families, and reparations vanished, and after the Civil War, so did most references to slavery. Professional “Tom Shows” toured annually for nearly 90 years, and versions were later filmed for movies and cartoons.

“Tom-Shows” were not the only way others profited from Stowe’s ideas. A wide range of Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired products, or “Tomitudes,” flooded the market. Some of these items reflect racial attitudes of the day, making uneasy viewing in the 21st century. Although Stowe neither endorsed nor profited from the plays or memorabilia, public perception of her work was altered.

In 2018, writers around the globe selected Uncle Tom’s Cabin as #2 of 100 stories that shaped the world! Read more about it.