Uncle Tom

The release of a book by a New England woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe whipped both abolitionists and slaveholders alike into a frenzy. In 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, subtitled Life Among the Lowly, told the fictional tale that supposedly exposed the reality of slavery. The impact of this bestselling novel was felt all over the country, galvanizing abolitionists in the North and infuriating Southerners to the point that the book was banned.

Stowe was an outspoken abolitionist. In the book, the character, Uncle Tom, a slave, moves among the varying characters that portray life in the South. His owners fall on hard times and are forced to sell some of their slaves. One of the slaves, Eliza, flees to prevent being separated from her child. The slave hunter who pursues her is injured and nursed back to health by members of the Underground Railroad. Meanwhile, Uncle Tom is sold to a kind owner and joins a household where Little Eva, a white child, and Topsy, a slave child, do not seem to recognize the difference in their skin or their stations in life. After Little Eva dies, Tom is sold again and has the misfortune to become the property of a brutal man named Simon Legree (pictured below with Tom). Legree is determined to break Tom’s spirit. He decides to beat Tom into giving up Christianity and kills Tom when his efforts fail.

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Uncle Tom and Simon Legree

Some historians have suggested the book triggered the American Civil War. One story tells of a meeting between Lincoln and Stowe where the president greets the author with the words, ‘So, you are the little lady who started this great big war’. The book has also been blamed for forestalling the acceptance of African-Americans as equals in the United States because of the negative stereotypes its characters portray.

Whatever the rumours, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly exacerbated the tensions between the North and the South. As the United States continued to define itself as an independent nation, the changes brought in by government added to the discord between the two halves of the country. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, repealing the Missouri Compromise by giving each new state the right to decide the issue of slavery by right of sovereignty. The concept of states’ rights became a battle cry second only to abolition. It increased tension and became the cause of those who supported the South, but not slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act left the two new states with the decision to vote on which side to take, slavery or free soil. Supporters of both sides of the issue flocked to Kansas and four years of intermittent violence ensued. ‘Border ruffians’ from Missouri crossed into Kansas, attacking opponents of slavery before fleeing back to the safety of their own state. After such an assault on Lawrence, Kansas in 1856, abolitionist John Brown led his own series of attacks against slavery supporters and peacekeeping forces alike. Known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’, on 29 January 1861 it finally entered the Union as a free state.

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Dred Scott, painting by Louis Schultze

The next event in the sequence that led to American Civil War was the lawsuit filed by a Missouri slave named Dred Scott (pictured above). Scott was purchased by a US army major named John Emerson. During his time as a soldier, Emerson took Scott along on some of his postings, to places such as Fort Armstrong, Illinois and Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory. After Emerson’s death and a failed attempt to purchase freedom, Scott sued Emerson’s widow, claiming that by taking him into the free state of Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, Scott was entitled to emancipation.

There were several attempts to sue for Scott’s liberty. The first was dismissed while the second granted Scott his freedom, along with that of his family. Unwilling to lose four slaves, Emerson’s widow turned the matter over to her brother, John F. A. Sanford who appealed to the Federal court. The court found that Scott was property, not a citizen, and therefore could not sue. The decision also upheld the Fugitive Slave Law and the case inflamed abolitionists.

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