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Analysis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
“The book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is thought of as a fantastic, even fanatic, representation of Southern life, most memorable for its emotional oversimplification of the complexities of the slave system,” says Gossett (4). Harriet Beecher Stowe describes her own experiences or ones that she has witnessed in the past through the text in her novel. She grew up in Cincinnati where she had a very close look at slavery. Located on the Ohio River across from the slave state of Kentucky, the city was filled with former slaves and slaveholders. In conversation with black women who worked as servants in her home, Stowe heard many stories of slave life that found their way into the book. Some of the novel was based on her reading of abolitionist books and pamphlets, the rest came straight from her own observations of black Cincinnatians with personal experience of slavery. She uses the characters to represent popular ideas of her time, a time when slavery was the biggest issue that people were dealing with. Uncle Tom's Cabin was an unexpected factor in the dispute between the North and South. The book sold more than 300,000 copies during the first year of publication, taking thousands of people by surprise.
Mr. Shelby is a Kentucky plantation owner who is forced by debt to sell two of his slaves to a trader named Haley. Uncle Tom, the manager of the plantation, understands why he must be sold. The other slave marked for sale is Harry, a four-year-old. His mother, Mrs. Shelby's servant, Eliza, overhears the news and runs away with the little boy. She makes her way up to the Ohio River, the boundary with the free state of Ohio. In Ohio, Eliza is sheltered by a series of kind people. At a Quaker settlement, she is reunited with her husband, George Harris. George's master abused him even though George was intelligent and hard-working, and he had decided to escape. The couple is not safe even in the North, though. They are followed by Marks and Loker, slave-catchers in partnership with the trader, Haley. They make there way up to Sandusky, so that they can catch a ferry for Canada, where slavery is forbidden and American laws do not apply. Meanwhile, Uncle Tom is headed down the river, deeper into slavery. On the boat, he makes friends with Eva St. Clare, a beautiful and religious white child. After Tom rescues Eva from near drowning, Eva's father, Augustine St. Clare, buys him. Life in the household is carefree. Another person living in the house is Ophelia, St. Clare's cousin from Vermont who just moved to New Orleans. She and Augustine argue long and hard about slavery, he defending it, and she opposing it. Augustine buys Topsy for Ophelia to raise, in order to test her theories about education. Topsy is bright and energetic, but has no sense of right and wong. Ophelia is almost ready to give up on her when little Eva shows her how to reach Topsy. Tom and Eva study the Bible together and share a belief in a loving God. But Eva becomes ill and dies. Her death, and her example, transforms the lives of many of the people around her. Even her father becomes more religious.
Unfortunately he is accidentally killed before he can fulfill his promise to Eva to free Tom, and Tom is sold again. This time Tom is not so lucky. He is bought by Simon Legree, the owner of an isolated plantation on the Red River. Legree is cruel, and his plantation is a living hell for his
slaves. They are worked so hard that they have no time to think or feel, and Legree sets them against each other. Tom almost loses his faith in God, but recovers it and continues his work among the other slaves. He becomes friends with Cassy, a good but despairing woman who has been Legree's mistress. Cassy arranges for her and Emmeline, the girl who has been chosen as Legree's next mistress, to escape, and she urges Tom to join them. He will not, but he allows himself to be brutally beaten by Legree rather than reveal what he knows about the women's whereabouts. The Shelby's son, George, arrives at Legree's plantation to rescue Tom, but it is too late. Tom is dying. He buries Tom, and swears on his grave that he will do everything he can to end slavery. On his way back to Kentucky, George meets Madame de Thoux, who turns out to be George Harris' sister. It is also discovered that Cassy, who is on the same boat, is Eliza's mother.
George Shelby goes home and frees his slaves, telling them they owe their freedom to Uncle Tom. Madame de Thoux, Cassy, and Emmeline continue on to Montreal, where George Harris and Eliza are now living with Harry and their baby daughter. The reunited family moves to France, where George attends the university, and then to Africa, where he believes he can do the most good for his people.
This story had a great impact on it's readers and it went on to play a sizeable role in our nation's politics. On the 29th of June, 1852, Henry Clay died. In that month the two great political parties, in their national conventions, had accepted as a finality all the compromise measures of 1850, and the last hours of the Kentucky statesman were brightened by the thought that his efforts had secured the perpetuity of the Union. But on the 20th of March, 1852, there had been an event, the significance of which was not taken into account by the political conventions or by Henry Clay, which was to test the conscience of the nation. This was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. “Was this only an “event,” the advent of a new force in politics; was the book merely an abolition pamphlet, or was it a novel, one of the few great masterpieces of fiction that the world has produced?”(Wilson 24).
The compromise of 1850 satisfied neither the North nor the South. The admission of California as a free state was regarded by Calhoun as fatal to the balance between the free and the slave states, and thereafter a fierce agitation sprang up for the recovery of this loss of balance, and ultimately for Southern preponderance, which resulted in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska war, and the civil war. The fugitive slave law was hateful to the North not only because it was cruel and degrading, but because it was seen to be a move formed for nationalizing slavery. It was unsatisfactory to the South because it was deemed inadequate in its provisions, and because the South did not believe the North would execute it in good faith. So unstable did the compromise seem that in less than a year after the passage of all its measures, Henry Clay and forty-four Senators and Representatives united in a manifesto declaring that they would support no man for office who was not known to be opposed to any disturbance of the settlements of the compromise. When, in February, 1851, “the recaptured fugitive slave, Burns, was rescued from the United States officers in Boston, Clay urged the investment of the President with extraordinary power to enforce the law,”(Wilson 186).
Henry Clay was a patriot, a typical American. The republic and its preservation were the passions of his life. Like Lincoln, who was born in the State of his adoption, he was willing to make almost any sacrifice for the maintenance of the Union. He had no sympathy with the system of slavery. There is no doubt that he would have been happy in the belief that it was in the way of gradual and peaceful extinction. With him, it was always the Union before state rights and before slavery. Unlike Lincoln, he did not have the clear vision to see that the republic could not endure half slave and half free. He believed that the South, appealing to the compromises of the Constitution, would sacrifice the Union before it would give up slavery, and in fear of this menace he begged the North to conquer its prejudices. History will no doubt say that it was largely due to him that the war on the Union was postponed to a date when its success was impossible. “It was the fugitive slave law that brought the North face to face with slavery nationalized, and it was the fugitive slave law that produced Uncle Tom's Cabin,”(Gossett 138). The effect of this story was immediate and severe. It went to the hearts of tens of thousands of people who had never before considered such an ideal.
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