The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin created strong emotional reactions throughout the United States, and can be understood as contributing to the growing tensions between North and South over the issue of slavery.
In the North, the book was celebrated. It was championed by abolitionists for its condemnation of slavery as a moral abomination. It was a spectacular best-selling novel in the nineteenth century, widely read and discussed. In this, it impacted the national discourse of slavery and the perceptions that Northerners and Southerners had of one another.
Long before the crisis of the 1850s began, the North had been the center of abolitionist activity in the United States, and this book further drew attention and support to the abolitionist cause. At the same time, among Southerners it drew outrage. Southerners became more entrenched in their defense of slavery, crafting a counter-narrative with Uncle Tom's Cabin in mind. If you look at Southern discourse from this era concerning slavery and Southern defenses of it, you will actually find Southerners often depicting it in idyllic terms, and contrasting it to the conditions of the industrializing north. Thus, Southerners, when reading Harriet Beecher Stowe's brutal depiction of slavery, only became more entrenched in their defense of it. They even went so far as to claim a moral superiority over their Northern critics.
As expected, the vast majority of Southerners did not approve of the book. Uncle Tom's Cabin examines the very dark reality of slavery, and most didn't agree with the book's portrayal of slavery, slaveowners, the values slave owners had, or the idea that slavery was an inhumane practice. The book did more than simply condemn slavery as a practice—it condemned Southern society.
One Southerner, Martha Haines Butt, went so far as to publish a book of her own about slavery. In her book, Antifanaticism: A Tale of the South,
Butt portrayed slavery as a benevolent, Christianizing institution. She repeatedly emphasized that slaves were better off than servants in the North and that they did not want freedom.
In the North, the book put a face on the issue of slavery and made it much more personal than many people had experienced before. It also added more fuel to the Abolitionist fire, as more and more people used the book as a rallying cry for the end of the institution. It sold more than 300,000 copies in the North, a hugely significant accomplishment for Stowe, but also a very powerful message to the U.S. Government and President Lincoln that slavery was untenable.
Rumor has it that, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who started this great big war.” Although this rumor has lately been proven false, the point still stands: Uncle Tom’s Cabin transformed America. During its time, and particularly in the north, Stowe’s work inspired a series of theatrical productions, known as “Uncle Tom Shows;” it elicited various “Anti-Uncle Tom” novels; later, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted for film with productions such as Tom (1902). Southerners responded quite differently. The majority of southern slave owners criticized the book. Many wrote responses in the form of books, pamphlets, and articles to prove that Stowe's interpretation was incorrect.
What made Stowe’s work so inspirational during its time and continues to inspire us today? In large part, Stowe reveals the possibilities for future reform.
Fueled by political anger, especially in connection to the Fugitive Slave Act and the Compromise of 1850, Stowe embarked on a campaign of serialized antislavery agitation that developed into the runaway best seller of 1852. Her work reveals, for better or for worse, the possibilities for America’s future. The utopic call to action we see at the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a timeless appeal. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” Speech. In a similar vein, King pulls back the curtain to reveal the horrors of segregation while simultaneously forwarding a utopic vision of equality. Fast-forward 43 years to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans: “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can.” Inside these slogans is the vision of change. Like Stowe, these men connect history to lived reality, allowing audiences to connect the past, present and future. It is for this reason that Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to inspire audiences today.
Both reacted powerfully, but they reacted quite differently. The South criticized the book, especially supporters of slavery. Many people wrote letters, and some even wrote entire books answering the novel. (It is said that one person sent Stowe a slave's ear.)
In the North, the response was more varied. Many people read the work, and it dominated the stage for some time (decades—long after the Civil War). For some readers, it crystallized their politics and their opposition to slavery. Others managed to treat it as a tearjerker without getting politically active.