What did President Lincoln say about Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

President Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1862, is alleged to have said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an important literary and political tract that did influence popular perceptions of the institution of slavery, and Stowe’s novel did contribute to the anti-slavery cause that was reaching its zenith in the decade leading up to the Civil War.  While telling the story of slavery’s inhumane nature and its effect on families and society, Stowe also utilized her narrative to educate the reader on the practical aspects of slavery.  One of her most significant and enduring passages occurs early in the story, when her narrator describes the unique characteristics of institutionalized slavery in Kentucky, which leads into an indictment of the governing regime in its approach to human beings whose destinies are shaped solely on the basis of their ethnicity:

“Whoever visits some estates there, and witnesses the good-humored indulgence of some masters and mistresses, and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves, might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend of a patriarchal institution, and all that; but over and above the scene there broods a portentous shadow -- the shadow of law. So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master, -- so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil, -- so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.”

President Lincoln understood the cultural and structural obstacles he faced in attempting to compel Southern acquiesce to the abolition of a practice central to its way of life.  He was also sufficiently astute to recognize in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s narrative an ally in the struggle to end slavery.  Whether he actually greeted Stowe with the above comment is immaterial.  His moral conviction was established, and an encounter with the author of the most important novel to then address the issue of slavery marked a significant historical event.

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Uncle Tom's Cabin

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