Backlash and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe, depicted in 1852 by Francis Holt

Harriet Beecher Stowe, depicted in 1852 by Francis Holt

Only 332 slaves returned to bondage through the Fugitive Slave Law’s offices. Slave catchers seized eleven more who proved their freedom. Of those 332, slave catchers took eighty-four in the first fifteen months of the law’s operation. Five of the eleven later found free came in the same period. After the first rush of dramatic captures and rescues, things settled down. In 1852, only one-third of the previous year’s number of slaves ended up back in the South.

Some degree of conservative backlash certainly played a role here, as Democrats and conservative Whigs championed the Fugitive Slave Law and the finality of the Armistice. After the initial shock, antislavery politics receded back into the fringes where decent, self-respecting white people ought not venture if they cared about their reputations. That backlash included Indiana and Iowa passing laws barring any black person from their territory in 1851, followed by Illinois in 1853. At least on paper, those laws closed a sizable portion of the border between slave and free states. In the parts of those states that bordered on slave states, the laws enjoyed considerable popularity. The white locals there often came from slave states originally or had close ties to them at present and so inclined more to helping slave catchers than fugitives.

But not every Yankee took part in the reaction consciously, of course. Many found the prospect of legions of Catholic immigrants simply a greater horror and thus directed their energies toward opposing the tide arriving after the Potato Famine and the European revolutions of 1848. Antislavery sentiment probably swelled to new heights right after the Fugitive Slave Law came into force, but just as the sky did not fall in the South over the Armistice, nor did it fall in the North. After a first rush of captures and rescues, life returned to something resembling the status quo. If the South could live under the Armistice, thanks in part to rising cotton prices, the North could live under it too and direct its energies to other concerns.

Harriet Beecher Stowe did not settle contentedly back into the status quo. She grew up antislavery and lived for a time in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio from slavery. She probably hid some fugitives in her home. But she credited her god and James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act as the inspiration for her serialized novel, written by candlelight after her six children found their beds.

I have never read it. I suppose I will eventually, but my tolerance for her sort of Victorian sentimentality and melodrama does not extend far and I have many other things I want to read first. Among them, I suspect I can get as much out of Frederick Douglass’s narrative as I would from Stowe. But my tastes in reading aside, Uncle Tom’s Cabin fairly blew the doors off Northern printers. Starting on June 5, 1851, white America read a story by a white woman depicting all the horrors of slavery. (Narratives by former slaves themselves often got passed off as written in secret by white abolitionists and in an era of deep racism must have carried a whiff of self-serving advocacy that a work openly written by a white woman could not.) The collected edition came out on March 20, 1852 and sold 300,000 copies within a year. It sold well in Britain, winning the admiration of a future Prime Minister, and saw several translations. Writers adapted it for the stage.

Stowe wrote for an audience that does not include me, but did include vast numbers of white Americans. To judge by sales alone, she struck a deep chord in their consciences. The South knew it and hated it. But Stowe hit some of them in the same place. They shared a common religious culture, if one increasingly at war with itself. Charleston devoured the book so fast that sellers could not keep the it in stock despite attempts to ban it as inflammatory abolitionist propaganda. Her Southern popularity probably had to do with how carefully Stowe implicated the entire nation in slavery, making her greatest villain a transplanted Yankee and focusing on the human effects of slavery on the slaves themselves, rather than on the customary aspersions the abolitionist press heaped upon the slaveholder. Books about terrible things you do go down easier than books about the terrible thing you are in any era.

That kind of success, especially one hitting so close to home, provoked a vehement defense. The next two years saw no less than fifteen novels inverting the story and showing just how wonderful slaves had it down South compared to the cold, inhospitable North. They even insisted black slaves in the South had happier lives than white industrial workers. Charleston’s William Gilmore Simms had one in print almost as fast as Stowe wrote. His book, Woodcraft, came out after Stowe’s but their serialized chapters came out almost together. Simms’s slave characters, naturally, refuse freedom whenever one dared offer it.

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