In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This required citizens in all states – not just those where slavery was legal – to assist law enforcement in capturing runaway slaves. It was now a crime to help a person escape from slavery. People who tracked down captured slaves to return them to their masters would actually receive a reward for their efforts. Under the new law, the Stowes' assistance of their servant in Ohio would have been illegal. The Stowes were appalled by the law. The only reason anyone could not be against slavery, Harriet believed, was being ignorant of how abhorrent the practice was. She began to envision a novel that would open the eyes of Americans who had never been exposed to the horrors of slavery.
On 2 March 1851, the Stowes were sitting in church listening to an anti-slavery sermon by Rev. George E. Adams. When Adams quoted the New Testament phrase, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me," Beecher Stowe was gripped with a vision that would eventually become a pivotal scene in her still-unwritten book: the death of a slave named Uncle Tom. As soon as church was over, she wrote down all she had imagined of this emotional moment. "My heart was bursting with the anguish excited by the cruelty and injustice our nation was showing to the slave, and praying God to let me do a little and to cause my cry for them to be heard," she later wrote of the experience.7 She always said that she felt like God wrote the novel; she just transcribed it to the page.
Beecher Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, the editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, about the possibility of serializing her book. "My vocation is simply that of a painter," she wrote, "and my object will be to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible slavery, its reverses, changes, and the negro character, which I have had ample opportunities for studying. There is no arguing with pictures, and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not."8 The serial version of Uncle Tom's Cabin ran for almost a year in The National Era. It attracted considerable attention. But when it was published in book form in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin really exploded into the public's consciousness.
The plot of the novel focused on two slaves, a middle-aged man named "Uncle" Tom and a young woman named Eliza. When Eliza's son Harry and Uncle Tom are both sold by their owner, an anguished Eliza steals her own baby and tries to escape rather than accepting a forced separation from her child. Eliza reaches freedom; Tom is eventually sold to a cruel master named Simon Legree, who is later responsible for his death. Perhaps a bit naively, Beecher Stowe thought that the novel's sympathetic portrayal of Southerners and heart-breaking depictions of slavery would inspire some slave owners to voluntarily free their slaves. She believed that hardcore abolitionists would likely consider the book too soft for their tastes. But that's not how things played out.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was wildly successful. It sold two million copies in its first five years of publication, moving some 300,000 copies in its first year alone. In Stowe's lifetime, the book was translated into 37 languages. (Only the Bible had more translations.) Stowe traveled to Europe three times in six years to speak to audiences there about the book. In the United States, Uncle Tom's Cabin became a rallying call for abolitionists, who used it to buttress the urgency of their calls. People who had not been active in the anti-slavery movement before now got behind it in record numbers. In the South, people were outraged by what they deemed an inaccurate and propagandistic portrayal of slavery. Stowe responded in 1853 with a follow-up book called A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which offered factual sources to support the novel's claims. Beecher Stowe maintained that, if anything, the true experience of slavery was far worse than she had depicted it. Read with a modern eye, Uncle Tom's Cabin contains uncomfortable racial stereotypes and language that condescends as it tries to prove its point. But it spoke to its audience and achieved a greater impact than Beecher Stowe could have imagined.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852. The Civil War did not begin the day after it hit bookshelves. The novel was just one of many forces that led to the increasing tension between North and South, and a series of other incidents were required to move the North and South into armed conflict. By the end of 1860, though, Southern states began trying to leave the United States. On 20 December, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Seven other states soon followed. President-elect Abraham Lincoln vowed to keep the Union together, and over the next four years, hundreds of thousands of Americans died while fighting other Americans. After the bloodiest war in the country's history, Lincoln achieved his goal. The Civil War officially ended on 18 April 1865, with the North formally achieving victory just four days after Lincoln's assassination. On 6 December 1865, Congress adopted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States.