Uncle Tom's Cabin and the American Civil War

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  • 0:06 Introduction
  • 1:29 Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • 2:31 Characters and Context
  • 3:08 Plot
  • 7:17 Reaction & the Civil War
  • 8:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

In this lesson, we will explore the context, characters and plot of one of the country's most influential novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Then, find out how it inched America closer to the Civil War.

Anti-Slavery Literature

Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was one of the most politically and socially influential works of fiction ever published. A story that many consider to be a protest novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin chronicles the families of two slaves as they discover they are about to be sold and separated from each other. Motivated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (which protected the rights of the slave owner, while diminishing the legal protection of the slaves), Beecher felt the need not only to express her outrage, but to attempt to gain support in a mass abolitionist effort to end slavery. Beecher took her emotion and turned to her pen to create literature that was instrumental in inspiring the anti-slavery movement that ultimately led to the outbreak of the Civil War.

This was a first; never before had a work of literature had such an influence on national events, and many took note. Just imagine, a work of fiction having the power to change a nation. As the story goes (which some think has been embellished), even Abraham Lincoln acknowledged this upon first meeting Stowe. He is reputed to have said, 'So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.' The book, when published in 1852, flew off bookstore shelves, selling 10,000 copies in its first week and over 300,000 in its first year. In Great Britain, even more copies were sold. In all kinds of ways then, this Uncle Tom's Cabin made history.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Connecticut to a devout mother and reverend father. Ultimately one of 13 children, Harriet was like her siblings - extremely intellectually curious and aware of her need to change the world in a positive way (which she knew, at an early age, would involve writing). At the age of 21, she moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, which became important for one very crucial reason: the city exposed her to the true slavery divide in the United States. While the city itself was metropolitan and diverse (with freed and fugitive slaves), across the river was Kentucky, a slave state. Her experience there only solidified what she already believed - that injustice and inequality were at the very heart of the slave system. While in Cincinnati, she met her husband, Calvin Stowe, with whom she would have seven children. Sadly, one of her children would die of cholera, which, she expressed, became a motivating force in her choice to include the mother's perspective (and sense of loss) in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe saw the division on the slavery issue while living in Cincinnati.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Cincinnati

Characters and Context

The story starts on the farm of Arthur and Emily Shelby. They, along with their son, George Shelby, are generally good people with sympathetic hearts, although there is no denying that their lifestyle does perpetuate the slave system. Uncle Tom is their slave, well-liked and devoted to his faith. Eliza Harris is also owned by the Shelbys, along with her son Harry.

It is quickly revealed that the Shelbys have fallen into a difficult financial situation. Arthur is discussing the possibility of selling Uncle Tom and Harry to a slave trader to alleviate some of their financial burden.


Arthur Shelby agrees, unbeknownst to his wife, to sell Tom and Harry to alleviate his debt. When Emily finds out, she is incredibly upset and expresses her disdain for the entire system of slavery. She knows what it will be like for her maid Eliza to be separated from her son. Throughout the novel, Stowe's characters often get to a point where they comment on the immorality of the system.

As Arthur and Emily discuss the situation privately, Eliza overhears. She discusses the situation with Tom, who says he will not run away; however, they both agree that it would be best for Eliza to leave. She leaves with Harry, intending to go north to Canada where she will meet up with her husband, George Harris, who has also escaped from another master.

Eliza, scared of what's to come, travels frantically with Harry until she gets to the Ohio River. This is a hugely important point in their escape because the river separates the North and the South, and she knows that she must get across. With the slave broker hot on her heels, Eliza has no choice but to cross the icy Ohio River herself. She dramatically reaches the other side and finds help with locals sympathetic of her situation. She and Harry soon make it to a Quaker settlement, where her husband George reunites with them.

Soon thereafter, Eliza and George find out that Tom Loker - the slave hunter - is after them, so they hide in a rocky area near a cliff. When Loker and his men arrive, a fight ensues, the slave hunters back off and Loker falls unconscious down a cliff. Rather than leaving him there, Eliza convinces them to get medical treatment for Loker. After he is healed, Loker vows to change his ways. Eliza, George, and Harry travel north and are eventually able to cross into Canada and gain their freedom.

Back at the Shelby farm, Tom is taken by the slave trader. This is difficult for George Shelby to see since they have always been friends. Tom's honesty and goodness were admired by all. George promises to buy his freedom someday. Tom is sent with other slaves down the Mississippi River into the South where they will be bought for plantation work. While on board, Tom befriends a sweet, young girl named Eva St. Clare. When Tom saves Eva after she has fallen overboard, her father Augustine shows his appreciation by buying Tom.

While with the St. Clares, Tom's bond with little Eva grows; they become close because of their common faith in God. After two years, Eva becomes sick and dies. Her father vows to free Tom as Eva had wished. Unfortunately, and quite suddenly, Augustine dies. All of their slaves, including Tom, are sent off to be sold once more.

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