How does the story of Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin better help the reader understand the condition of slaves in 19th century America?

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lynnebh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Eliza Harris is a slave woman owned by the Shelby family. She is Mrs. Shelby’s slave. Her husband, George Harris, is a slave on another plantation. It was very common for slave families to be separated in this way. Slave owners did not care about separating families – if one family needed a domestic slave, they would purchase a wife, and if her husband were a strong field hand that was needed on another plantation, no big deal, it was all about the slaveholders’ needs. Slaves were property and it was about business. Often, they were traded and resold. Families were broken up all the time. When Eliza learns that her little son Harry has been sold to the slave trader Haley because Harry is not needed on the plantation, she runs away, risking everything to keep her son and to protect him.

Many slaves knew that if they could escape North, especially to Ohio, they could be free. Eliza escapes and there is a famous scene in the novel where she crosses the Ohio River in the winter when the water is frozen. She has no shoes on and she jumps onto the ice in her bare feet. Eliza is assisted in her escape by Senator and Mrs. Bird, as well as a Quaker community. These people were part of what was known as “The Underground Railroad” – a network of people that assisted slaves to escape to freedom in the North.

Eliza is also very religious. Faith was an important part of the slaves’ lives. They believed that their eternal life would be so much better than the present life. Eliza believed that the Lord was with her in everything she did.

Stowe's novel made a huge impact on the Abolitionist movement in America when it was published in 1852. There is an anecdotal story that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he replied, "So this is the  little lady who made this big war." Scholars have refuted this story, however.