Stowe and the Civil War

Did you know that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin while she lived in Brunswick, Maine? The Harriet Beecher Stowe at 200: Home, Nation, and Place in the 21st Century Conference took place in Brunswick, on the campus of Bowdoin College, June 23-June 26, 2011.

Connections have been made between Stowe’s work in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War. Tess Chakkalakal, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and English at Bowdoin College, has written an article on that connection. Enjoy!

Stowe and the Civil War

June marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When Stowe scholars from around the world descend upon Bowdoin College this week to discuss the life and work of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they will also be assessing the role she is said to have played in the Civil War. President Lincoln may have called Stowe “the little woman” whose novel “made this big war,” but Uncle Tom’s Cabin, like her subsequent antislavery novel Dred, made no such call to arms. And that was not all it did not do. Although it inveighed against particular laws—especially the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—the book did not point to any particular law or policy to put an end to the greater evil it identified.

Stowe’s fiction has been read, and should be read, as an inspiration of antislavery sentiment in the years before and during the Civil War. But it should also be read as evidence of the difficulty that most Americans, including Stowe herself, had in deciding how to extinguish slavery. There was some truth in Lincoln’s remark that Stowe’s novel caused the war, but it would have been truer to say that the novel reflected the war’s cause.

At Bowdoin College and its environs, where Stowe found the inspiration for her most famous novel, opinions were divided between the same shades of ambivalence found elsewhere in the country. The U.S. congressional election of 1850—the same year in which Stowe decided to write the novel—was contested in her district by two Bowdoin alumni embodying the ambivalence. William Pitt Fessenden, class of 1823 and later to be Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, was a Whig; John Appleton, class of 1834 and lately in the Departments of the Navy and State under President Polk, was a Democrat. Both avowed their opposition to slavery. To Fessenden, that implied forbidding the extension of slavery in any territories that might be acquired, and abolishing it in just one place, namely, the District of Columbia. To Appleton (who, notably, was the narrow victor), it implied flexibility and compromise in the extension of slavery while awaiting its gradual demise.

Neither candidate, not even the more fervently antislavery Fessenden, sought the political abolition of slavery where it already existed outside of the nation’s capital. In fact Fessenden, not to mention Appleton, positively disclaimed such a step. And so did Stowe: although she concluded Uncle Tom’s Cabin by admonishing those “sons of the free states” who “connived at the extension of slavery, in our national body,” she shared her eminent and pious father’s decided aversion to abolitionism. How to get from opposing slavery to actually ending it (by means other than African Colonization) was a seemingly intractable problem in the realm of politics. All the more reason to turn to literature.

In that turn, Stowe blazed what became a well-trodden trail. Following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, writers, in the South as well as the North, black as well as white, undertook to write slave fiction. Few would match Stowe’s eloquence or popularity. But each would offer a new perspective on slavery, based, like Stowe’s novel, on the particular experiences and opinions of its author. How was Stowe able to transform such an ugly thing as slavery into the stuff of literature?

[Continue reading the full text of Tess Chakkalakal’s article here.]

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