Historical Background

Uncle Tom's Cabin

To great acclaim, Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the period of fervor which led to the Civil War.

On March 20, 1852, John J. Jewett & Co. published the first one-volume edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and sold 5,000 copies in two days. By the following March, 300,000 copies were sold. Written to condemn racism, this novel remains the world’s second most translated book, after the Bible.

Still a worldwide bestseller and widely published and studied in schools today, it was dramatized by George Aiken in 1852 and became the “World’s Greatest Hit” – certainly the most important play ever produced in the United States, running almost continuously until 1921. It is believed that more people saw the play than ever read the novel.

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Little Eva Ascends to HeavenWhen Aiken dramatized the novel, he humanized the issues while preserving the novel’s highly religious tone. Slavery is clearly defined as a sin and Eva’s and Tom’s deaths and reappearance in an angelic afterlife exemplify the power of love and Christianity to salvage the fallen world. Christians flocked to the play, and many people were converted to the cause of abolition through seeing it. Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted Mrs. Stowe with “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started the Great War.”

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Topsy

Ironically, the play’s huge success (and the lack of copyright laws), led to its defilement.

Farcical elements were introduced and emphasized. Later versions cheapened it into “Tom Shows.” For example, beginning in the mid-1890s and lasting until World War I, one of the more successful “Tom Shows” was AL. W. Martin’s. It advertised itself as a “$25,000 investment” that featured “3 magnificent brass bands, 60 people on stage, and 25 ponies, mules, oxen and horses.” In such distorted circumstances, Uncle Tom unfortunately became the stereotype for a servile colored man who would not fight his oppression. The urchin, Topsy, became the fore-runner of the comic “shiftless” darky. What a perversion of the original!

By the 20th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen by many as derogatory to blacks.

Today, few would deny that some unintended racist elements exist in Stowe’s writing, yet many critics have ignored the significant proactive characters in the novel and play, like the characters of George, who runs away from his unjust master, saying “What right does he have to me?”, Phineas, who helps Eliza escape, and little Eva who begs her father to free all his slaves for her sake. Critics brought their own contexts to the work. The Black Panther movement was scathing in its condemnation of Uncle Tomism. Literary critics differed. James Baldwin wrote a devastating critique of the novel while Elizabeth Ammons detailed its importance as a feminist icon. In 2006, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of African-American Studies at Harvard, refuted Baldwin’s views in his Norton annotated edition of the novel.
Uncle Tom and Simon Legree face off in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

By now, the false notion that “an Uncle Tom” is a spineless victim who cannot stand up for his rights should be dispelled.

Both in the novel and in George Aiken’s dramatization, Uncle Tom exemplifies Christian forbearance, moral strength, dignity, and defiance of evil white authority.

For example, when he is told that he is to be sold to save his white master’s plantation, he replies: “If I must be sold, or all the people on the place and everything go to rack, why, let me be sold. I s’pose I can bear it as well as anyone.” When ordered to whip another slave, he refuses, even though he himself then suffers the beating. When asked to betray other slaves or be killed, he elects to die, saying to Legree, “My troubles will be over soon, but if you don’t repent, yours won’t never end.”

Tom’s heroism is embodied through his strong Christian beliefs: beliefs held by most Americans at the time, beliefs which led to the successful prosecution of the Civil War.