Uncle Tom's Cabin was a key abolitionist text during the period leading up to the Civil War. Among the best-selling novels of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe's book is said to have been one of the contributing factors to the outbreak of the war in general. Incensed by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal for anyone to aid runaway slaves in their journey to freedom, Stowe endowed her writing with a religious passion that came through to her readers and got them thinking about the alleged morality of slavery as well.
Indeed, Stowe's novel attacked the institution of slavery with a fervor that enraged certain segments of her readership, as it made them out to be hypocrites. It was common for anti-abolitionists to use biblical reasoning to support slavery. However, Stowe argued that slavery was instead deeply anti-Christian and not to be tolerated even in cases where a master was "benevolent." Stowe dramatized certain elements of slavery, such as the way Black families were torn apart, the raping of enslaved women by their masters, and the physical abuse of slaves over even the most minor infractions. For those who argued that slavery was compatible with Christian ethics, such evidence was hard to argue against.
While Stowe's use of melodrama and didacticism has been criticized, critics such as Kenneth Lynn have observed that these qualities are what helped the novel make such an impact upon its Victorian-era audience: it "aroused emotions not for emotion's sake alone … but in order to facilitate the moral regeneration of an entire nation." While not everyone responded to Stowe's book positively (in fact, a genre of "anti-Tom literature," in which slavery was presented as beneficial to slaves, appeared after the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin), it did have the impact its author desired in awakening the consciences of many of its readers.