Did “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Start the Civil War?

That’s the question asked in today’s NY Daily News by David Reynolds, distinguished professor at CUNY and author of the upcoming “Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America” and the editor of “Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Splendid Edition.”

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom and Little Eva

From Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin

This year marks both the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which created such a stir when it was published in 1852 that Abraham Lincoln reportedly called Stowe “the little lady who made this great war.”

But how can a single novel cause a war? Historians have evaded the issue, focusing on the political events behind the Civil War rather than on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But culture often shapes politics: Witness the revolutionary impact of Gandhi, Rosa Parks and the Twitter dissidents of the Middle East, all of whom upended their respective societies by working from the margins.

The Civil War, too, was largely the result of cultural shifts, many of them connected with Stowe’s historic novel.

The complete article — “Did a book start the Civil War? ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is a testament to he power of culture.” — is not very long and well worth the read. It goes on to point out that:

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Eliza Escapes Across the IceFor the first time, Northerners felt the horrors of slavery. Anti-slavery reformers, once disunited, jumped aboard the “Uncle Tom” juggernaut. So did politicians, which also ignited controversy in Congress, hailed by slavery’s opponents and blasted by its supporters.

In the South, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was answered by countless novels, speeches and tracts that presented slavery as a divine institution that introduced barbaric Africans to the blessings of white civilization.

By the late 1850s, Stowe’s novel had inflamed the debate so much that the North was prepared to elect the Illinois Railsplitter, who hated slavery, while Southerners were ready to die for an institution they now regarded as God-ordained.

Reynolds also has a piece in today’s Hartford Courant, tracing the impact of Connecticut on the roots of the Civil War, through its native daughter and son, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.

Stowe’s contribution to the conflict was her massively popular antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” When it was published in 1852, the novel broke sales records and became an international sensation. Its impact was amplified by plays and tie-in products.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” caused a sea change in public opinion with its searing portrait of the suffering of enslaved blacks. Millions of readers who had previously been indifferent about slavery were deeply moved by the novel’s two plots: the tragic story of the gentle, pious Uncle Tom, who is sold away from his family and taken to the Deep South, where he is whipped to death; and the thrilling escape to Canada of the fugitive slaves Eliza and George Harris.

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Little Eva Ascends to HeavenAs Reynolds points out, “Its impact was amplified by plays and tie-in products.” Though book sales were massive, by today’s standards let alone those of the mid-1800s, over time far more people saw the play versions than ever read the book. This truth lies at the heart of our DVD, which presents the George Aiken play version, one of the earliest and most true to the novel.

The impact of this story in all its versions was felt on an international scale. Even England, once a major transit point for the slave trade and an important commercial trading partner of the southern states, was swayed, when the time came, to side with the Union rather than support the Confederacy. So it is appropriate that we go for our last quote to London’s The Independent, and an article entitled “Incendiary Devices: Books as Bombs.” “Every so often, a book comes along that challenges our beliefs and shakes our world view. So what does it take for literature to make history?” it asks. With respect to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” it answers that:

. . . novels have moved mountains before: none more spectacularly than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which after 1852 became a battering-ram for the anti-slavery cause in America’s Civil War. The remark attributed to Abraham Lincoln on meeting Stowe in 1862 – “So this is the little lady who started this great war” – is most likely apocryphal. Yet it captures what contemporaries thought. Lord Palmerston, that hard-headed champion of British interests, did say that “I have not read a novel for thirty years; but I have read that book three times, not only for the story, but for the statesmanship of it.”

Uncle Tom's Cabin DVD - Auction SceneAs we mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, looking back at this tumultuous period in our nation’s history, we have much we can learn about ourselves, then and now, by studying its origins.