Grades 7 – 10: Stowe and the Civil War
2011 marks not only Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 200th birthday, but also the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the start of the Civil War. Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is credited with fueling support for the abolition movement that led to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Published a decade before the war began, Uncle Tom’s Cabin personalized the political and economic arguments about slavery with stories told in a conversational style. Stowe’s writing changed thew way many Americans viewed slavery, inspiring opposition to slavery and support for abolition and emancipation. Stowe’s story was more convincing and compelling than political speeches and newspapers.
The issue of slavery (the system that treated some people as property of others) was a major point of contention in the 19th century United States. The division between “free” states (where slavery had been legally outlawed) and “slave” states (where slavery was allowed) caused friction. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise balanced admission of new states between “free” and sslave” states. No territories north of the southern border of Missouri could be admitted as “slave” states.
The Civil War was caused by regional economic conflicts between North and South and humanitarian opposition to enslaving people. Antislavery sentiment was growing and by the 1850s the numbers of people escaping slavery increased. Those who were owners of enslaved people demanded legal recourse for the economic loss of this property. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring everyone to catch escaping enslaved people, was adopted to appease the South, against strong opposition by the North. Tensions grew, Southern states threatened to secede from the U.S. and form a separate nation. Abrahamm Lincoln, elected President in 1861, did not want the Union to disintegrate. The Civil War erupted in 1861 with the secession of South Carolina. The four year war divided the nation and almost destroyed the United States.
Stowe’s words in Uncle Tom’s Cabin were not universally appreciated. The most liberal abolitionists felt it did not call strong enough for slavery’s immediate end. Pro-slavery advocates accused Stowe of fabricating untrue and one-sided depictions of slavery and claimed it was sanctioned in the Bible. Moderate anti-slavery advocates and reformers praised it for putting a human face on the institution.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe illustrated slavery’s effect on families and helped readers to empathize with enslaved people. Stowe’s characters debated the causes of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act, what could be done, and the future of freed people.
When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” The remark captures the significance of Stowe’s novel and its impact on the United States. Stowe implored the president to sign the Emancipation Proclamation freeing people living in the Confederate States. On January 1, 1863, he did.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin called on readers to confront the institution of slavery. Stowe’s words changed the world and continue to be provocative and controversial today.
This article corresponds with Let Your Words Change the Word: A Bicentennial Celebration of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Unit 4 curriculum for grades 7 – 10. Lessons are published weekly in the Hartford Courant from January 26 – February 16. To sign up or to find out more information, please contact Julia Baldini, Program Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org