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

President Lincoln allegedly said about Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin that it was "the book that started this great war." It's unlikely he ever said these words, but there's an element of truth to them all the same, for Uncle Tom's Cabin was hugely influential in strengthening the cause of abolitionism. In detailing the horrors of slavery, Stowe helped to convince many Americans that there could be no compromise with the South over the institution's continued existence.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Up until Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, abolitionism was very much a minority pursuit. Even those personally repulsed by slavery and everything that it stood for found abolitionism a tad extreme, the preserve of sour-faced Puritans and religious fanatics.

To a large extent, such attitudes were the product of ignorance. Those who were anti-slavery but not particularly enamored of abolitionists tended to hate slavery in the abstract. They assumed, quite rightly, that slavery was an evil and that life for those unfortunate enough to be slaves was sheer hell. But they never seriously acquainted themselves with slavery as it was experienced by actual slaves themselves.

That's why Uncle Tom's Cabin was so important. Though a work of fiction, it was based on real-life experiences of slavery. And so in reading the book, millions of Americans, for the very first time, became acquainted with the daily horrors endured by millions of people. Although it's a gross exaggeration to say that Uncle Tom's Cabin started the Civil War, it certainly stiffened the resolve of those opposed to any kind of political compromise with the South over the issue of slavery.

Prior to the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was possible for Americans to stay out of the slavery debate. But after the book was published and became a national and international best-seller, that became much harder. Many of those Americans who read the book felt that they now had to take a firm stand, on one side or the other. Inevitably, this deepened the already deep divisions in American society, which helped to create the conditions for the outbreak of the Civil War.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to tradition, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, Abraham Lincoln exclaimed, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"

While there is little to substantiate this claim, it does underpin the importance of Stowe's work prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Her novel earnestly explores the harsh reality of being a black slave in the pre-abolition society of America. Uncle Tom's Cabin is regarded as a great piece of abolitionist writing even though, unlike the other abolition pieces of the day, it was not a biographical account. While Lincoln may have never actually said those words to Stowe that day, the message is the same, and it connects these two revolutionary figures and solidifies Stowe's importance in the abolitionist movement as well as aggrandizes Lincoln's involvement in the emancipation of African Americans.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial