April 1: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Takes America By Storm


On this day in 1852, the final installment of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in The National Era, a weekly abolitionist newspaper.  Written in the popular sentimental and melodramatic style of the mid-19th century, Stowe originally envisioned her story as a brief tale that would “paint a word picture of slavery” in a handful of serial installments, but as she began fleshing out the sympathetic characters of Eliza and Uncle Tom and the villainous slave master Simon Legree, the story seemed to take on a life of its own, filling a total of 43 weeks’ worth of installments before its conclusion.

Harriet Beecher Stowe by Alanson Fisher, circa 1853. (National Portrait Gallery)

Born in Litchfield in 1811 as the daughter of the famous minister Lyman Beecher, Harriet witnessed the dehumanizing spectacle of chattel slavery firsthand while living near the Ohio-Kentucky border for several years as a young woman.  Like many Americans with anti-slavery leanings, Stowe was outraged after Congress passed the the controversial Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which obliged all Americans, even those living in states where slavery was illegal, to return runaway slaves (or even alleged runaway slaves) to their Southern owners.  In response, Stowe was inspired to write a story about the moral evils and inhumanity of American slavery — a story that eventually became Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

After its inaugural run as a newspaper serial, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form later in 1852, and proceeded to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States over the next several months, catapulting the Connecticut-born Harriet Beecher Stowe to instant fame.  Over the course of the entire 19th century, the only book that outsold Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United States in terms of the number of volumes sold was the Bible.  Stowe’s tale of the trials and tribulations of an enslaved family bolstered Northern abolitionist and anti-slavery movements and was denounced as an outrageous slander by southern slave owners, fanning the flames of the slavery debate that threatened to tear the nation apart in the 1850s.  According to family tradition, when Harriet Beecher Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the President greeted her with an acknowledgement of the incredible influence of her famous story, saying “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”  One of the most significant American stories of the 19th century was first completed — today in Connecticut history.

An excerpt of the final installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as it appeared in The National Era, April 1, 1852.

Further Reading

Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Valerie Finholm, “Dusting off Uncle Tom’s Cabin,Hartford Courant