Explain the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As the answer above well expresses, Uncle Tom's Cabin's most direct importance was its contribution to the Civil War. The book was a sensation in this country, a runaway bestseller that led to cries for the immediate abolition of slavery. Abraham Lincoln supposedly said that Stowe was the "little lady" who started a great war. That was an exaggeration, but her novel's contribution to an increased clamor for abolition is not disputed.

Before the novel, many sympathetic whites had supported the gradual withering away of slavery over time, thinking its demise inevitable. Most whites didn't engage imaginatively enough with the institution of slavery to put themselves in the place of a slave. Part of Stowe's genius, however, was to show how cruel the system could be even under well-intentioned masters. Only gradually does her novel arrive at the barbarism of Simon Legree. Stowe, therefore, was so successful at depicting slavery's inherent inhumanity that any delay in ending it began to feel intolerable. This contributed to the polarization that led to war.

Less well known is the book's impact in Europe. According to David S. Reynolds in Mightier Than the Sword, not only was Uncle Tom's Cabin the most influential novel ever published in America, it was also the best-selling novel across Europe during the nineteenth century. Initially it was banned in Russia out of fear it would inflame passions about serfdom, although French and German translations were smuggled in. Later, according to Reynolds, it contributed to the Tsar's decision to free the serfs.

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin was important because it helped to bring on the Civil War.  President Lincoln is supposed to have said (though this is probably apocryphal) to Harriet Beecher Stowe “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”  Even if this is not true, it shows how people believed that Stowe’s book helped to cause the Civil War.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin increased opposition to slavery in the North.  Most Northerners were not all that concerned about the plight of slaves before the book.  It is true that most Northerners wanted to keep slavery confined to the South, but most of them were not interested in abolishing slavery.  They looked at slavery more in terms of its effect on whites in the North.

With Stowe’s book, however, this changed.  Her book encouraged white people to think of slaves as real human beings and to look at the impact that the system of slavery had on them.  It encouraged them to think about whether slavery was really moral.  As people in the North came to question the morality of slavery more strongly, they became more inclined to fight to end the practice.

At the same time, the book helped make the South angrier at the North.  They felt that the book was a distortion of the truth. They felt that people who believed in the book could not possibly treat them (the Southerners) fairly.  This helped increase sectional discord and helped to cause the Civil War.

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