Uncle Tom's Cabin Essays and Criticism
by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Historical Context of Stowe's Novel

(Novels for Students)

When Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, it created an immediate controversy in a United States that was divided—both geographically and politically—by the issue of slavery. It is impossible to understand the content or the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin outside of the historical forces that prompted Harriet Beecher Stowe to write it.

The early settlers of the thirteen colonies were well aware of the problem that was developing for the young nation as more and more slaves were kidnapped in Africa and brought to America to supply agricultural labor for the underpopulated colonies. Due to a complex combination of economic need, political indecision, scientific ignorance, and prior custom, no action was taken to rid the country of slaves while there were still few enough of them to return to their homes in Africa. Thomas Jefferson said that America "had a tiger by the ears," meaning that the slaves were dangerous because, like a tiger in captivity, they would turn on the people who captured them if they were ever released. Jefferson concluded, as did most Americans in the eighteenth century, that the only way to control the "tiger" was to keep holding it tightly by the ears, as terrible as that dilemma was for both the slaves and the slave owners. Thus when Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that "all men are created equal," he did not include the African slaves.

Jefferson did, however, lay the problem of slavery at the feet of George III, saying in his first draft of the Declaration that King George "has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither." Jefferson was forced to delete this passage from the final version of the Declaration, however, because of the fierce disagreement it caused between delegates from slaveholding colonies in the South and delegates from colonies that had already outlawed slavery in the North. The argument between the northern and southern colonies threatened to precipitate secession and civil war just at the time when the thirteen colonies needed to be united in order to fight for independence against England. In effect, the Founding Fathers decided to leave the problem of slavery and civil war to their descendants. They believed that they were justified in doing this because freedom from the tyranny of England outweighed internal issues. They believed that when America was a nation in its own right it would have the peace and freedom to solve all of its domestic problems. What the Founding Fathers did not anticipate, however, was that the slave trade would become the source of economic security for an entire region, making it very difficult to abolish without bankrupting that region and seriously compromising the stability of the nation.

The "triangular trade" was extremely lucrative. It was called "triangular" because the path of a trading ship, if traced on a map, describes a triangle over the Atlantic ocean. The ships would take manufactured goods from England and Europe to trade in Africa for slaves. The slaves would then be transported to the Indies or the Americas (the notorious "middle passage") and traded for staples like cotton, sugar, rum, molasses, and indigo which would then be carried to England and Europe and traded for manufactured goods. This procedure, repeated again and again from the time of the first slaves' arrival in America in 1619 to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, made traders at each stop on the triangle very wealthy. The Founding Fathers agreed, with a clause in the Constitution, to end the slave trade, but this did nothing to end the slave system. Slave owners simply continued to supply the slave markets through "natural increase." The loss of an external source of supply only made slaves more valuable.

(The entire section is 4,918 words.)