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Uncle Tom's Cabin and Tension Over Slavery in the 1850s

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  • 0:05 Slavery in the 1850s
  • 3:01 Fugitive Slave Act
  • 4:37 Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Steven Shirley
Uncle Tom's Cabin captured the plight of slaves in the 1850s like no other book. The novel, coupled with the Missouri Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act, served to further strain the country, which was at a breaking point over the issue of slavery. This lesson details these events.

Slavery in the 1850s

The Missouri Compromise maintained a temporary balance of free and slave states
Missouri Compromise Map

By 1850, the conditions that existed in the United States were creating a tinderbox of political tension, one so volatile that any spark could ignite it. What is more, there was no shortage of men and women willing to provide that spark on both sides of the slavery issue.

In the South, slave owners were the political elite. They had the land, they had the money, and they had the resources. And they filled the state governments. They were also the ones elected to Congress. While in power, their primary purpose was to keep slavery a viable and legal institution. They also had to work to keep the balance of free and slave states or tip it in favor of the South. In the event they failed to do those things, the South was already preparing its next step - secession.

In the North, moderate abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, used the power of the pen to enlighten millions across the English-speaking world to the plight of slaves and the horrors of slavery. Other, more militant abolitionists, like John Brown, were more than willing to take the fight to the South through political maneuvering and overt violence, if necessary. Abolitionists felt their cause was just, moral, and right. If the South needed war to teach them that slavery was inhuman, then so be it. They were prepared for the ultimate sacrifice.

But more moderate politicians on both sides wanted to avert war at all costs and did what they could to appease southern slave owners. In 1820, one such moderate politician, Henry Clay, gave in to the South in what was to be known as the Missouri Compromise, which maintained the balance of free and slave states but did so by putting off the inevitable. Now, thirty years later, the matter surfaced again within the walls of Congress, and this time, the stakes were higher: nothing less than keeping the Union together.

In 1850, victory in a war with Mexico left the United States with a vast new territory in the west. Yet the acquisition of this land brought more than celebration to Washington; it also meant trouble. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had allowed slavery to continue in newer territories west of the Mississippi, but what of new states that would inevitably come out of this land taken as spoils of war? Would they be slave or free? Would the inhabitants be able to decide for themselves?

Map of U.S. territory following the Mexican War
US Territory Mexican War

The answer came quickly. The California territory petitioned to be admitted to the Union as a free state, and this threatened the balance between slave and free. Another compromise was needed.

Fugitive Slave Act

California would indeed be admitted as a free state, and other states would allow their citizens to vote on whether they would be free or slave, and finally, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It was controversial from the start, angering abolitionists in Congress and across the free states. But why? What did it do?

It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves, denied these slaves the right to a jury trial and put more of an impetus on the federal government to enforce existing slave laws.

For those slaves that had escaped and managed to start a new life in the north, the act meant that their former owners could hire slave catchers to track them down and bring them back to bondage. The act permitted grievous violations of human rights, causing thousands of former slaves and free blacks to flee the United States for Canada and Europe.

Free blacks across America now had something new to fear and abolitionists of all colors had further fuel for their ideological fires. They did not take it lightly. After the passage of the act, the Underground Railroad became more active, being one of the only institutions that could and would protect runaway slaves.

Map of the Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad Map

But in the end, the Compromise of 1850 accomplished what it set out to do - it kept the nation united - but it was a temporary solution. Over the next decade, the country's citizens became further divided over the issue of slavery and the rift would grow until it widened to war.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Among the firebrand abolitionists preaching an end to slavery were others that captured the hearts and minds of millions without ever raising their voice or turning to violence. One such voice was Harriet Elizabeth Beecher, who was born on June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her weapon of choice against the tyranny of slavery was the pen, but early in her life and career as a writer, she was an unlikely choice to become a champion of the abolitionists.

She published her first work at the age of 23, married at 25, and spent much of her young adult life raising an increasingly large family and publishing her works of fiction. By 1850, at the age of 39, Harriet, now with the added Beecher Stowe, became increasingly aware of the plight of slaves and those runaways who were living free in the North.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring average citizens to turn in runaway slaves, was a major catalyst for many like Harriet to become more involved and more active. Her involvement was to put pen to paper and write the seminal work of abolitionist literature and an American Classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The success of Uncle Tom's Cabin made Harriet a celebrity, and she toured the major cities in the North and Europe promoting her book as well as the cause of abolitionists.

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