Harriet Beecher Stowe & "Uncle Tom's Cabin": Changing History with a Best-Seller

Today in 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Katherine Kane, Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, explores how the novel helped change the course of American history and catapulted Stowe to worldwide fame.
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Today in 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Katherine Kane, Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, explores how the novel helped change the course of American history and catapulted Stowe to worldwide fame.

The massive crowd in Liverpool, England had been lined up at the dock for hours to get a glimpse of the famous American author. Luckily, the sky was clear after nearly a week with rain and gale winds as several hundred waited patiently that Sunday morning in early April 1853. Excitement mounted as the tender approached from the steamship Canada. A petite woman in her early forties, barely five feet tall, stepped off the small boat and made her way down the wharf to a carriage as admirers pushed and shoved to get a look. Some bowed their heads as she passed. 

Her name was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and she was internationally famous for her antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in March 1852. A complex work exploring family and home, religion and justice, Uncle Tom’s Cabin exposed the immorality of slavery and cried for its demise. Stowe’s book, originally run as a 45-part series in an abolitionist newspaper from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852, was a runaway success, selling 10,000 copies in a week and over 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year, despite being widely banned in the South. It became the best-selling book of the 19th century, second only to the Bible, and galvanized the abolition movement, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War. It changed public opinion, created characters still talked about, influenced ideas about equity, and fomented revolution from Russia to Cuba.

A souvenir print of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1861. (Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut)

A souvenir print of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1861. (Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut)

Stowe’s goal was to “write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” Her book told stories of people treated as property, personalizing slavery in a way never done before. Readers learned about Tom, so valuable that his sale redeemed his owner’s gambling debts but cost Tom dearly as he was sent south away from his wife and children; and Eliza, who escaped from bondage to protect her four-year-old, Harry, from sale. One going north, one south; one enslaved and one risking all for her and her son’s freedom, Stowe’s characters seized the public imagination and fueled consciences stirred by the growing controversy about slavery. Everyone wanted to see the woman who had written this great book.

In Great Britain and other European countries, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was widely read—by poor farmers and the working middle class, by wealthy landowners and nobility. The easy accessibility of Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped drive sales—and Stowe’s popularity—to unprecedented levels. The book inspired songs, ceramics, scarves, soap, and games. And there was theater. When Stowe landed in Liverpool, 10 versions of her book were on stage in London.

But Stowe was unprepared for the adulation that greeted her on the Liverpool dock that spring day. As far as the eye could see, men and women from all walks of life strained to get a look at her. Her brother Charles Beecher’s diary detailed their arrival: “A line forms and marches past her window. Decent, respectful, each, as he goes by, assumes an unconscious air. . .Others less particular stand and have a good stare. . .One little fellow [who] climbed on the cab wheel and got a peep through the window. . .seemed too impetuous and was seized by the shoulder by the police and pitched out. ‘I say I will see Mrs. Stowe!’ he shouted, and back he came and dove headfirst into the crowd.” 

A daguerrotype of Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1850. (Photo: Southworth & Hawes (The Metropolitian Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A daguerrotype of Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1850. (Photo: Southworth & Hawes (The Metropolitian Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

This was just the beginning of a tumultuous visit rivaling a 21st-century celebrity’s concert tour. In Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, throngs shouted, cheered, pushed and shoved at every train station. Boys tried to jump on her moving carriage to peek in the window. Public gatherings held in her honor were standing room only. She received hundreds of invitations and dined with prominent citizens. 

Stowe had been invited by British abolition groups. She also had business reasons to make the trip: Because there were no international copyright laws protecting an American work from foreign publication, by December 1852 a dozen different editions of Stowe’s book had been printed in Great Britain—for which she received no royalties. Sampson Law, a London bookseller and commenter, wrote that “fine art-illustrated editions” were available for 15 shillings and “cheap popular editions” for as little as several pennies. “…Any one was at liberty to reprint the book, and the initiative was thus given to a new era in cheap literature, founded on American reprints.”  

Uncle Tom's Cabin Photo

Title page of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut)

By July the book was flying off shelves at 1,000 copies a week and 18 London printers were working to keep up with what one publisher called “the great demand that had set in.” By the fall of 1852, more than 150,000 copies had been sold throughout Britain “and still the returns of sales show no decline” according to Clark & Company. In just a year, 1.5 million British copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were sold. London’s Morning Chronicle called it “the book of the day,” citing its circulation in Europe as “a thing unparalleled in bookselling annals,” and The Eclectic Review, a London literary magazine, agreed: “Its sale has vastly exceeded that of any other work in any other age or country.” 

The May 13, 1853 Hull Packet and East Riding Times (of Hull, England) reported, “Mrs. Stowe’s name is in every mouth. She is the lioness of fashionable circles. She sits with the Duchess of Sutherland on her right hand and the Duchess of Argyll on her left, to receive the homage of England’s nobility. Everybody has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and everybody knows who wrote it.”

Traveling with Stowe were her husband, Calvin Stowe, a clergyman and biblical scholar; Charles Beecher, her younger brother, also a clergyman; Sarah Buckingham Beecher, her sister-in-law; George, Sarah’s 12-year-old son; and William Buckingham, Sarah’s brother. Since a respectable woman would not speak to a crowd containing men, Charles Beecher and Calvin Stowe spoke on her behalf at meetings and large public gatherings. Although many of the events Stowe attended were in her honor, she had to sit quietly—sometimes in a side room—while her husband or brother read her words or presented their own ideas to an audience that had come to see her. 

Still, Stowe was pleased by her reception. She recorded her first impressions of that extraordinary Liverpool welcome in Sunny Memories: “Much to my astonishment, I found quite a crowd on the wharf, and we walked up to our carriage through a long lane of people, bowing, and looking very glad to see us. When I came to get into the hack [carriage] it was surrounded by more faces than I could count. They stood very quietly, and looked very kindly, though evidently much determined to look.” Stowe’s account was more modest than Charles’s, who described “a great rushing and pushing” and being “chased by a crowd, men, women, and boys” as her carriage moved away. 

Stowe created a sensation wherever she went. Antislavery groups organized public events featuring her as the main attraction. In Glasgow, 2,000 people gathered for seven hours to sing hymns, listen to speeches, and see what the famed American author actually looked like. When Stowe arrived, the crowd went wild. “When they welcomed her,” Charles wrote, “they first clapped and stomped, then shouted, then waved their hands and handkerchiefs, then stood up—and to look down from above, it looked like waves rising and the foam dashing up in spray. It seemed as though the next moment they would rise bodily and fly up.”  

Antislavery groups showered her with money and gifts for herself and the cause, beautiful items: an ornate silver basket, an engraved gold purse, a silver inkstand with figures representing Stowe holding the Bible and a man knocking the shackles from another’s feet. The Duchess of Sutherland gave her a chain-link bracelet symbolizing slavery’s shackles inscribed with the date of Britain’s abolition of slavery. Stowe later had it inscribed with the date of abolition in the U.S: January 1, 1863.

But it was the gift presented on May 7 that impressed Stowe. “An Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America” contained 562,848 signatures of women filling 26 volumes, expressing their support for the abolitionist cause. Barred from voting in either the Britain or the United States, women used petitions to bring political pressure. Stowe considered it “a personal honor” to receive this gift and displayed the entire set in her home. In Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994) Joan Hedrick said, “It is still a moving experience to read the individual names and the occupations of these women, from every walk of life, who read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and united with Stowe in her woman’s outrage against the treatment of the lowly.” The text of the “Address” was widely published and the volumes exhibited at the Boston Antislavery Fair. Today, they are in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center library, 

Title page of “An Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America,” which contained 562,848 signatures of women supporting Stowe’s efforts to raise awareness of the horrors of slavery. (Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut)

Title page of “An Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America,” which contained 562,848 signatures of women supporting Stowe’s efforts to raise awareness of the horrors of slavery. (Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut)

Address to Harriet Beecher Stowe Photo

Select signature page from “An Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America.” (Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut)

The physical and political bravery of the “little woman who started this great war,” as Abraham Lincoln is rumored to have said about Stowe’s role stoking the American Civil War, set examples for contemporary Americans. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center uses Stowe’s story and impact to inspire social justice and positive change. In 2011, the bicentennial of Stowe’s birth, the Center introduced the Harriet Beecher Stowe Prize for Writing Advancing Social Justice, presented to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn for Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide; in 2013, to Michelle Alexander for The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; and in 2015, to Ta-Nahisi Coates, The Atlantic’s national correspondent, for his work including the June 2014 Atlantic cover, The Case for Reparations.

Katherine Kane is Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.  Visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on Facebook and Twitter and learn more about Stowe Center’s Salons at Stowe program series, now in its 8th year.

Stowe House Photo

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center is a 21st century museum, program center and research library in Hartford, CT. The Center uses the story of Stowe’s life and impact to inspire social justice and positive change, connecting the issues she addressed in the 19th century to the contemporary face of those same issues: race, class and gender. (Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut)

(This article is adapted from a feature published in Connecticut Explored magazine, Summer 2011. (Volume 9, No. 3)