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March 20 1852 – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Published

by Vishul Malik

Throughout human history, the arts have been an effective means to reflect on or protest against the ills of society. When it comes to American literature, there can be little…

March 20 1852 - Harriet Beecher Stowe's Novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is Published

Throughout human history, the arts have been an effective means to reflect on or protest against the ills of society. When it comes to American literature, there can be little argument the most effective work in terms of creating change was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A window into the lives of slaves, the novel — published as a book for the first time on March 20, 1852 — did much to sway the opinion of citizens in the northern United States at a crucial time in the fight for freedom. Despite the occasional court case, the question of slavery’s legality in the US was essentially settled by the Three-fifths Compromise in 1787. By including a clause in the Constitution that allowed for counting three of every five slaves as part of a state’s population for the purposes of representation, the founding American document made owning people as property legal nationwide. Some states saw it differently: six years before, court cases in Massachusetts declared individual slaves free based on the phrase stating “all men are born equal and free” in the state constitution. During the Massachusetts Supreme Court session of 1783, Justice William Cushing asserted the issue was closed — the practice of slavery had been ruled illegal by previous precedent. From a national perspective, the issue remained somewhat under the radar until Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood in 1819. At the time, the number of free states exceeded slaveholding states and, in order to keep from facing a greater majority, representatives from the South blocked entry until the Missouri Compromise could be negotiated the following year. From then on, the 36th parallel would roughly serve as the northern boundary for pro-slavery regions. Over the next three decades, the debate gradually heated up as three more free states — Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin — were admitted alongside the slave-owning states of Arkansas, Florida and Texas. Unintentionally, however, the line proposed by Henry Clay for 1820’s compromise created a new problem: hundreds of slaves escaping to the North through the Underground Railroad and other freedom efforts. In response to protests from the South, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to supersede state laws which ignored previous federal legislation on the matter. Unfortunately, the new statute led to the arrest of free blacks who had no legal protection by corrupt marshals more concerned with claiming reward money than enacting justice. Into the fray stepped a small woman with big opinions about the evil of slavery. Standing just 4-foot-11, Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up in Connecticut as part of a deeply religious family and stood firmly on the side of abolishing the practice of slave ownership throughout the US. As the Fugitive Slave Law worked its way through the legislature, Stowe found herself growing more and more furious. Having personally housed runaway slaves while living in Cincinnati with her husband, she felt as though her experience might somehow shape popular opinion. Working from her home in Brunswick, Maine, she researched the conditions African-Americans faced extensively, reading slave narratives like The Life of Josiah Henson, discussing problems with her housekeeping staff and corresponding with escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Inspired, she described the complex, often brutal lives of those under the yoke of slavery and the few able to break free from their masters only to be hunted down by unscrupulous men. (The themes were personal: Stowe continued to hide slaves on her Maine property in defiance of the law.) Printed in 40 installments by the National Era, an anti-slavery magazine, beginning in June 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not really take hold of the country until published as a two-volume book on March 20, 1852. Within a year, more than 300,000 copies had been sold in the US and some 200,000 in Britain — numbers unheard of in the printing industry at the time. Opinion about the book was instantly divided. On the one hand, Southerners found the novel repulsive and considered Stowe’s accusations offensive. Angry letters streamed in from slave-holding states decrying her work, insulting her personally and, in one case, including the severed ear of a slave. In an attempt to counteract the anti-slavery tone of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a variety of authors created opposing visions favoring the practice to tell “the real story.” In the North, the book served as a rallying point for the abolitionist cause. For perhaps the first time in the long argument against slavery, people could reference a specific — and, most importantly, widely-read — description of the conditions faced by those held against their will. As a result, new energy poured into the fight for freedom from sea to shining sea, galvanizing people in all walks of life to take the cause seriously. America quickly became more divided, thanks in part to literature for and against slavery driven by Stowe’s writing. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin would arrive in 1853 to provide a factual basis for the prose of the novel, acting as an even more forceful “attack on slavery in the South than the novel itself had.” The die was cast. During the rest of the decade, citizens on both sides became more aggressive in their opposition. By late December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and the nation would soon be mired in a bloody Civil War. Ten years after writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the diminutive author met Abraham Lincoln. According to Stowe’s son, the tall and lanky President said wryly, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” Now available in more than 60 languages, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of the best-known works of American fiction in history. Also On This Day: 43 BCE – Roman poet Ovid is born in modern Sulmona, Italy 1616 – Sir Walter Raleigh is freed from the Tower of London after 13 years in prison 1815 – Napoleon Bonaparte enters Paris as the head of more than 340,000 men after his escape from Elba 1916 – Albert Einstein publishes his general theory of relativity 1987 – The United States Food and Drug Administration approves AZT, the first anti-AIDS medication You may also like : March 20, 1854 – Republican Party was founded

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