Study Guide

Uncle Tom's Cabin

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written during the crisis of the 1850’s, when the nation was divided over the question of slavery—an institution that had become so ingrained in the nation’s (particularly the South’s) economy that it would lead the country into civil war. The inhumanity of slavery had been legitimated in 1789 with the ratification of the Constitution and its “three-fifths” clause (Article I, section 2, paragraph 3), which gave slaveholding states disproportionate power within the federal government. The clause, later superseded by the Fourteenth Amendment, embodied an earlier compromise over the formula used for collecting taxes and apportioning representation in Congress. The passage of the Compromise of 1850 became a powerful weapon in the antislavery discourse of Christians and abolitionists because it gave slavery extraterritoriality and made slavery a national institution in states where slavery had been abolished. The “compromise” of the Fugitive Slave Act required Northern citizens to enforce the slave laws of the South as a constitutional obligation. Thus, Northern citizens were forced to choose between obeying the law, which required them to remand fugitive slaves, and transgressing it.

Stowe charges each scene of her novel with abolitionist and religious rhetoric that describes slavery as un-Christian and immoral. In chapter 45, Stowe, speaking of the Fugitive Slave Act, says that for many years she avoided the subject of slavery but could not continue to be silent on the subject once she witnessed “Christian . . . people actually recommending the remanding of escaped fugitives into slavery, as a duty binding on good citizens.” She describes the legalization of slavery as a system that makes the slave owner an irresponsible despot corrupted with absolute power. She chides Christians for their complicity with slavery by asserting that “the people of the free states” are “guilty . . . before God” for their complicity with slavery because “they have not the apology of education or custom.” Speaking of slaves, she writes, “how much more they [slaves] might do, if the Christian church would act toward them in the spirit of her Lord!” Stowe recommends that the Christian church lift up the slaves by educating them before helping them leave the country for Liberia or Canada. Stowe’s jeremiad warns Americans and the “Church of Christ” to recognize the “signs of the times” and refuse to perpetuate the injustice of the status quo. The self-proclaimed prophetess, who asserted later in life that as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she was but a humble instrument of God’s words, begs her Christian readers to repent of their injustice and accept God’s grace. She asks them: “[C]an you forget that prophecy associates, in dread fellowship, the day of vengeance with the year of his redeemed?”

Writing to a Protestant audience, Stowe dramatizes the opposition between the institution of slavery and the ideologies supporting it against Christian ethics and values. She asserts, in the final chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (“Concluding Remarks”), that no Christian who understands the horrors of slavery should be able to tolerate it. For Stowe, Christianity and Christian sentiment rests on a principle of universal love, or agape—redemptive goodwill toward all people. This form of love surpasses eros and philia because it asks for nothing in return. Agape has the power to call out to consciences and call people to responsibility. Thus Stowe points the way to social transformation through a story that represents the power of Christian love.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Themes

Human Rights
Slavery took many rights away from the enslaved. The loss of the basic right to have an intact family was perhaps...

(The entire section is 1285 words.)