Explain the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin

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While Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is often viewed as a factor that pushed the United States toward a Civil War over the issue of slavery, the impact of the novel has carried on more than 150 years after the Civil War. Today, the phrase "Uncle Tom" is still used as a derogatory word for African Americans. It's often used to describe someone who betrays the African American community or someone who is too submissive to white people in a position of power.

The phrase is sometimes given to famous musicians, athletes, and other African Americans with a platform to speak on social issues who don't use that platform to shine a light on the systemic racism that still exists. Even Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks who went about things in a nonviolent fashion were given label of "Uncle Tom" because of their passive form of resistance of Jim Crow laws.

However, one could argue that the phrase "Uncle Tom" has been taken out of context from Stowe's novel. In the book, Stowe writes that Tom has a "grave and steady good sense" while giving him the physical description of "a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man." Moreover, he doesn't betray his fellow slaves in the novel. At one point, he endures a whipping from his master rather than give away the location of two slaves who fled.

The issue is that the play Uncle Tom's Cabin, which remained popular for decades following the Civil War, depicted the character as more submissive. That version of Tom became more sentimental than strong, leading to negative connotations being associated with the phrase "Uncle Tom."

Despite how the phrase "Uncle Tom" has changed connotations over the last 150 years, it remains part of the lasting legacy of Stowe's novel. One can't use the phrase "Uncle Tom" without knowing that it's a reference to one of the most important depictions of slavery ever written.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 29, 2020
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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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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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