Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is a compelling indictment of slavery. Describing the many trials of Uncle Tom, its long-suffering enslaved protagonist, the story reveals the horrors of America’s “peculiar institution” while showing how Christian love can triumph over evil. It played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery and remains one of the most important American novels ever written.
Introduction: A bite-size American classic on the injustice of slavery
Table of Contents
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an instant sensation when it was published in early 1852. Hailed as the first Great American Novel, it was an artistic triumph – and a moral tour de force. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work galvanized public opinion against slavery to the point that, when she met Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the president supposedly addressed her as “the little lady who started this great war.”
Raised in Calvinist New England, Stowe was steeped in Christian abolitionism. Her argument was theological as well as moral. In God’s eyes, all individuals are equal. The laws supporting slavery denied that equality – and were thus a blasphemous defiance of God’s will.
As long as humans were held in bondage, Stowe believed, every American was compromised. That argument took on new urgency in 1850 with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required runaway enslaved people to be returned to their owners wherever they were apprehended – including the North. For Stowe, the Act, which effectively criminalized Christian charity, showed that the sin of slavery was contagious and not a matter for the South alone.
When Stowe took up her pen in 1851, such views were shared by a small minority. By the end of that decade, they belonged to mainstream American life.
Evil begets evil
Our story opens in the comfortably furnished parlor of a Kentucky farmhouse. The building and acres of surrounding land belong to a kindly gentleman called Mr. Shelby, who has a guest – Mr. Haley.
The two men talk over cigars and brandy. The conversation is polite, but it’s clear that Shelby doesn’t like Haley. We soon learn why. Shelby has speculated largely and loosely. He’s in danger of losing everything, and his debts have come into Haley’s hands.
Shelby is genteel and easy-going; Haley is coarse and irritable. For all their differences, though, they have something in common: their participation in the slave trade.
Shelby is a mild master. His enslaved people never lack physical comforts, and their workload is light. He and his wife regard them as part of the family and share in their joys and sorrows. There is genuine affection as well as indulgence and protection.
Haley is a slave trader. He has little affection for the men and women he buys and sells. Enslaved people are for him what they are for the law: property. He’s not especially cruel – unlike some, he takes no pleasure in handling a whip – but he dislikes sentimentalism. If he can get a good deal, he’ll sell a man “down the river,” which usually means being worked to death on a Louisiana plantation. Business is business, and his business is perfectly legal.
It’s business that brings him to Kentucky. Shelby owns the kind of slaves that fetch the best prices at auctions – strong, well-fed, hardworking men who don’t cause trouble or run away. Men like Tom, who just about single-handedly runs the Shelby plantation. He’s been known to travel 50 miles with $500 in his pocket to settle some matter on Shelby’s behalf – and return. It’s a sin to betray a man’s trust, Tom says, even if he does own you.
Shelby doesn’t want to separate Tom from his family. But Haley insists. Fearing his own ruin, Shelby agrees. The papers are signed, and our tale is set in motion.
In her preface, Stowe promises to show readers the true horror of a sinful institution which trades human souls like yards of linen and tons of lumber.
Yet Mr. Shelby, the first slaveholder we meet, isn’t the Devil incarnate. Instead, we’re given a flattering portrait of a “kindly” man who has to be strong-armed into harming his slaves.
Why does Stowe start here? Well, before showing us the horror, she sets out to demolish the arguments justifying it. Slavery’s defenders often depicted it as a benevolent institution. In their telling, owners were enlightened patriarchs ruling over the childlike “African race.” Just as children profit from the firm hand of guardians, they said, enslaved people were elevated by their masters’ guidance and instruction. Shelby’s character is designed to undercut this racist argument.
Stowe admits that some slaveholders are true Christians – but she does so to show that evil flourishes in any form of slavery. The misfortune of the kindest owner, as Shelby’s situation demonstrates, can lead to the people in his possession exchanging a “life of protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil.” As long as that possibility exists, even the best-regulated forms of slavery result in the worst horrors.
Tom is a tall, powerful man getting on in years – that’s why people call him “Uncle,” which is what respected older men are called in the South. He has a frank face that’s kind and full of good sense. He’s a diligent worker, and there’s hardly a job he can’t turn his hand to.
Tom lives in a log cabin covered by scarlet begonias and wild roses. Outside is a neat garden full of thriving strawberries, squashes, and other fruits and vegetables – evidence of Tom’s diligent weeding, watering, and hoeing.
Chloe, Tom’s wife, is the master of the interior – an oasis of cleanliness and order. She’s the best cook in the whole county, folks say, and it’s her famously good food you smell upon entering. On the table, there’s a spread of cornbread and a pork-knuckle stew that’s been simmered long and slow. While Chloe tends to the cooking and children, Tom sits in his armchair, a leather-bound Bible in his lap. He reads aloud, slowly spelling out the words as he’s been taught by Master George, Shelby’s 13-year-old son.
On one of these contented evenings, there’s a knock on the door. It’s Eliza, Mrs. Shelby’s maidservant, who comes bearing terrible news.
Eliza overheard Shelby and Haley concluding their deal. She knows that Tom and several other enslaved people, including her four-year-old boy, have been sold and will be taken away the next day. Eliza is going to run away with her son and make a bid for freedom in distant Canada. She urges Tom to do the same. His wife agrees with Eliza. But Tom says he’s staying put.
Haley will make sure to get his money’s worth one way or another. If his most valuable acquisition runs away, he’ll ruin Shelby out of spite – and take every enslaved person on his plantation. So Tom wishes Eliza well, closes the door, returns to his armchair, and waits for Haley’s arrival.
Critics of Stowe’s novel often focus on Tom’s passive nature – a trait which, for many, denies him the agency of a true hero. For others, Stowe’s portrayal of the character is simply racist: Tom, they assert, is little more than a bundle of stereotypes about Black passivity. This is an influential reading – so influential, in fact, that the very phrase “Uncle Tom” became a derogatory term for a Black man who is submissive to white people.
Stowe’s personal prejudice undoubtedly flows into her portrayal of Tom, but Tom’s motives aren’t usually best explained by ancestry – it’s his faith that’s key. Tom’s refusal to act in this scene isn’t a question of loyalty to a white master – it’s a question of protecting his fellow oppressed people, his wife and children among them. Not for the last time, Tom assumes a Christ-like role of sacrificing himself to save others.
The river trade
Tom leaves the Shelby estate in Haley’s carriage. The last friendly face he sees is George’s. As the carriage pulls off, the boy runs alongside and promises to find Tom and bring him back.
Haley loads his new acquisitions onto a paddle steamer. The boat will follow the Ohio River west into the Mississippi, and then wind its way south into the port of New Orleans.
The men and women destined for sale are quartered below. Haley’s cabin is up top along with other white people making this trip.
Haley stands at the edge of a crowd gathered around a clergyman who’s discussing what Scripture has to say about the human cargo down below. Providence, he says, intended the African race to be servants. “Cursed by Canaan,” he quotes from the Old Testament, “a servant of servants shall he be.” Asked to explain the meaning of the passage, he replies that God doomed this race to bondage long ago, and it’s white people’s duty as Christians to support the divinely ordained institution of slavery.
Let’s leave the learned clergyman to his misguided musings and cast a glance below deck.
Perched on a bale of cotton, Tom is thinking about home. He can read, but writing is another matter, so there’s no question of sending word to Chloe and the children. With each mile he travels, the gulf of separation becomes more absolute. Tom dries his tears and turns to the Bible in his lap. “Let not your heart be troubled,” he haltingly reads aloud. “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.
Back on deck, Haley is attending to business. A farmer who’s getting off at the next stop has taken a liking to a young boy in Haley’s possession. The offer is good; the deal stands.
Just before docking, Haley slips the child out of his sleeping mother’s arms and hands him over. The boat is already a dozen miles downriver when she wakes. A look of wild despair flashes in her eyes when she realizes what’s happened – but she says nothing.
Later that night, Tom hears a loud splash. Then silence. Haley records the woman’s death in his account book the next morning with the frown of a man who has suffered an irritating, though not especially large, loss on an investment.
Educated, “civilized” white men like the clergyman and Mr. Haley take what Stowe calls an “enlarged” view of slavery. The sale of a child and the suicide of its mother may be unfortunate, but such is the trade. These men style themselves as hard-headed pragmatists. There’s no use going against Providence, says one. Such transactions are the basis of the nation’s prosperity – and economics, after all, is an unsentimental science, adds the second.
For Stowe, these lofty arguments obscure what should be plain – that it’s an unconscionable evil to take a child from its mother and sell it. This is a self-evident truth. As often happens in her novel, however, only a simple soul like “poor, ignorant” Tom can grasp it. He feels more than he thinks – and penetrates to the heart of the matter. Civilized commercial society, Stowe implies, has blinded its members to obvious evils.
Tom passes the time carving wooden toys with a penknife. A little white girl, Eva, watches him work. Gradually, the two become friends.
Eva is the daughter of Augustine St. Clare, a clever, rich, and broken-hearted gentleman from New Orleans. Years earlier, he lost the love of his life to a calculating father who took his daughter north to wed an even wealthier suitor. St. Clare stayed in Louisiana, got married, and tried to be a good husband – but that old wound never healed. His wife, Marie, sensed as much; she became bitter and they grew apart. This left him one unblemished joy: Eva, the child of their unhappy union.
Suddenly, to St. Clare’s horror, Eva falls overboard. But Tom follows her into the water and brings her back out. When Eva later says she wants to take Tom to New Orleans so she can make him happy, St. Clare agrees.
So as Haley stands on deck, clutching his check and congratulating himself on the splendid deal he’s just made, we head into New Orleans.
Marie thinks St. Clare is a negligent master. He’s the kind of man who hands dollar bills to servants without glancing at them and pockets the change without counting it. Capable, honest Tom is a godsend. Soon enough, he’s running the household.
Tom counts his blessings. He’s well-treated and likes his surroundings well enough; he has the comfort of faith and the friendship of Eva. And so the weeks, months, and years go by. Which brings us to a hot and humid summer in the twelfth year of Eva’s life.
She spends her days with a cousin called Henrique. One afternoon, while out riding, Henrique’s groom, Dodo, annoys his master. Eva watches in horror as her cousin whips him and begs Henrique to stop. An odd reaction, Henrique thinks – he hasn’t done anything any self-respecting young gentleman wouldn’t do. He sees the anguish in his cousin’s face, though, and leaves his groom alone. Desperate to calm Eva, he even agrees to a very strange idea: that he’ll try to be kind and love Dodo as a brother.
Eva falls gravely ill that evening and becomes bedbound. In autumn, her illness worsens, and she makes her father promise to free his enslaved people. At midnight, she enters a trancelike state. What do you see? St. Clare asks. With her dying breath, Eva replies: “O! Love! Joy! Peace!”
St. Clare never fulfills his pledge. When he tries to stop a fight between two men outside a café the following year, he’s stabbed and dies. The legal proceedings to emancipate his slaves are still in progress, so it falls to Marie to execute her husband’s will. She refuses, and instead decides to sell all her property – the house, furniture, and enslaved people – and move in with her parents. Tom is taken to an auction the very next day.
St. Clare’s death reinforces a recurring theme: the corruption of slavery, which transforms even a “man of humanity,” as Stowe calls St. Clare, into a tool for evil.
St. Clare has many virtues – he’s generous, kind, and indulgent. But his virtues don’t protect Tom, who is about to be sold to the worst master imaginable.
Stowe is emphasizing a point that Haley, whose self-serving cynicism often contains a grain of truth, made earlier in the novel. Everyone who owns slaves, he said, is on the same moral footing – whatever they think or say. Haley says it in self-defense; Stowe uses his words to attack slavery’s defenders. For all his humanity, St. Clare is no better than Haley: his participation in the trade sells Tom downriver just as surely as Haley’s profit-seeking.
In a bustling slave market in New Orleans, a man runs his appraising hands over the body of a young woman up for sale – his first purchase of the day. Tom is his second.
Simon Legree, as he’s called, prides himself on his economical treatment of slaves. It’s cheaper, he brags, to work a man to death and buy a new one than it is to keep him well-fed and supplied with medicine.
Legree’s cotton plantation sits on evil-looking swampland. His mansion is a tumble-down wreck surrounded by rotting, snake-infested vegetation. Meanwhile, his slaves live in barrack-like huts with nothing to sleep on but the mud floor and ragged blankets.
They rise at dawn and don’t return from the fields until midnight. For dinner, there’s dry corn which they grind, mix, and bake themselves. Then it’s back to the huts and straight to sleep.
Tom’s picking partner is a woman called Cassy – Legree’s former concubine. When Legree tired of her, he put her in the fields and found a replacement: Emmeline, the woman Legree just bought alongside Tom. Cassy warns Tom not to defy Legree. No one who crosses him, she says, lives to tell the tale.
But Tom does defy Legree. When a woman returns from the cotton fields with a light bag, Legree orders Tom to flog her. He refuses. Legree owns his body, he says, but not his soul. No master can make him do what he knows is wrong. For that, Tom receives the first of many savage beatings.
Weak, battered, and hungry, Tom wonders why God has forgotten him. Prayer brings no comfort; it feels like speaking into a great void.
Hope, though, is restored one night as Tom lies shivering under his flea-infested blanket. A vision of Christ appears before him and reassures him of his place in Heaven. Tom’s epiphany will give him the strength for one final act of heroic defiance.
Cassy has lost all hope of justice in this life or any other. Taking matters into her hands, she drugs Legree’s brandy. The plantation owner passes out, but Cassy is too weak to do what she wanted to do: bury an ax in her master’s body. Tom refuses to help – he won’t give that Devil the satisfaction of tempting him into wrongdoing. Instead, he tells Cassy to take Emmeline and hide in Legree’s attic. Legree will assume they’ve run away and send out a search party. When it returns empty-handed, the coast will be clear for Cassy and Emmeline to make a bid for freedom in Canada.
Legree soon regains consciousness and learns of his concubine’ escape, and Tom is tortured for two days – but refuses to speak. The only words he utters? “I forgive you.” Legree leaves Tom to die in a squalid hut.
That’s where Master George finds his old friend. George, who’s inherited the Shelby plantation, kept his word: he never stopped looking for Tom. Now that he’s here, he says, he can finally take Tom home to Kentucky. It’s too late for that, Master George, Tom replies – and, anyway, the Lord is taking me someplace better. Before he passes, Tom asks George to tell his wife and children that he died peacefully.
Back on the Shelby estate, George gives the enslaved people he inherited from his father certificates of freedom, and asks them to remember Tom. It was at that man’s deathbed, he says, that he pledged to never own another human being.
Is Tom a hero? For many critics, the answer is no. A heroic protagonist, they argue, would fight back.
But Tom shares his author’s Christian theology. A Devil-in-disguise like Legree is a trap. His evil tempts others to respond in kind; his sinfulness breeds sin. That’s why Tom doesn’t fight back. To him, a man like Legree is just the legal owner of an enslaved person’s body, not his soul. If Tom killed Legree, he would be allowing evil to force him to do something evil – and thereby give up his everlasting soul to the Devil.
Few novels can claim to have changed more minds on a fundamental moral question than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Critics have rightly problematized Stowe’s portrayal of Black characters, but her novel remains one of the most compelling treatments of slavery to have ever been written.
About the Author
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Society, Culture
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that delves into the complexities of slavery and its inhumane treatment of human beings. The book, published in 1852, was a pioneering work that shed light on the brutal realities of slavery, which was still legal in the United States at the time. The novel’s impact was immense, sparking a national conversation about slavery and contributing to the eventual abolition of the practice. This review will examine the themes, characters, and historical context of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” providing an in-depth analysis of its enduring significance.
The primary theme of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is the dehumanizing effect of slavery on both the enslaved and the slave owners. Stowe skillfully portrays the ways in which the institution of slavery corrodes the moral fabric of society, turning even well-meaning individuals into complicit participants in the oppression of their fellow human beings. The novel highlights the inherent cruelty of slavery, depicting the physical, emotional, and sexual violence inflicted upon enslaved people.
Another significant theme is the role of Christianity in perpetuating and challenging slavery. Stowe critiques the hypocrisy of those who use religion to justify slavery, while also showcasing the potential of Christianity to inspire compassion, empathy, and resistance to oppression. The novel’s portrayal of the Underground Railroad and its network of abolitionists, both black and white, highlights the power of faith in fueling the fight for freedom and equality.
The characters in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are richly developed and serve to illustrate the complexities of slavery’s impact on individuals and communities. The protagonist, Uncle Tom, is a devout Christian slave who is torn between his faith and his desire for freedom. His character embodies the moral dilemmas faced by enslaved people, who were often forced to choose between their own survival and their desire to resist their oppressors.
Eliza, a enslaved woman who escapes to freedom, represents the resilience and determination of those who fought against the institution of slavery. Her character serves as a powerful counterpoint to the stereotype of the “contented slave,” challenging readers to confront the harsh realities of slavery and the human cost of its brutal system.
Similarly, the character of George Harris, a enslaved man who is torn from his family and sold to a plantation owner, exemplifies the devastating consequences of slavery on families and communities. His story underscores the fact that slavery was not only a violation of individual rights but also a tool for breaking the spirits of enslaved people and their loved ones.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published during a time of heightened tension and debate surrounding slavery in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to assist escaped slaves, had sparked outrage among abolitionists and fueled the growing tide of anti-slavery sentiment. Stowe’s novel was a direct response to this political climate, with the author seeking to galvanize public opinion against slavery.
The novel’s impact was significant, with many historians crediting it as a key factor in the eventual abolition of slavery. The book’s popularity was unprecedented, selling over 300,000 copies in the United States alone within its first year of publication. It was translated into numerous languages and became an international bestseller, shaping public opinion and fueling the abolitionist movement.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a masterful work that continues to resonate with readers today. The novel’s unflinching portrayal of slavery and its inhumane treatment of human beings is a powerful reminder of the need to confront the darkest aspects of our history. Through its richly developed characters and thought-provoking themes, the book challenges readers to consider the enduring impact of slavery and its ongoing legacy in contemporary society.