It is often said that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he greeted her as "the little lady who began the big war." The story may be apocryphal, but his point was that Stowe's book had done much to excite anti-slavery opinion in the Northern states, which was one of the factors that had contributed to sectional tension.
Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a law passed amid the bundle of compromises that resulted from the sectional crisis of that year. In short, the law forbade Northerners from providing any support to fugitive slaves. This outraged many in the North, including Stowe. Her book, published in 1852, attempted to describe slavery from the point of view of the slave, portraying the institution as brutal and inhuman.
The book was a runaway success, due to such dramatic scenes as Eliza crossing a river to escape from slavery, clutching her young child as she leapt from one ice floe to another:
The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake; stumbling--leaping--slipping-- springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone--her stockings cut from her feet--while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.
These scenes, combined with the pathos of Tom's sale from the plantation of his birth, the rough inhumanity of slave traders, and Tom's brutal beating death at the hands of the savage Simon Legree, were calculated to tug at the heart strings of Northern readers, and they had their desired effect. Historian David S. Reynolds has recently argued that "no book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom's Cabin," and that by arousing anti-slavery opinion, the book "was central to redefining American democracy on a more egalitarian basis." It brought slavery into the consciousness of millions of Americans, and caused many Northerners to imagine the "peculiar institution" as an evil that could not be tolerated.
Source: David S. Reynolds, Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011),xii.