Harriet Beecher Stowe’s inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made aiding or assisting runaway slaves a crime in free states. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was first published in 1852, is thus a deliberate and carefully written anti-slavery argument. Sure, it’s a novel, but don’t forget that it’s also a sermon intended to convince a Christian audience that slavery is an evil institution and must be destroyed. And by sermon, we do mean sermon. Stowe’s weapon of choice for destroying the institution of slavery was Christian love.
Controversial from the start, Uncle Tom’s Cabin relies on racial stereotypes to get Stowe’s point across. But Stowe's novel had a profound effect on the American public by exacerbating the tensions between the North and South that led to the Civil War. In a much repeated legend, President Abraham Lincoln is rumored to have said, "So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war," when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel was a bestseller in the 19th century, selling over 300,000 copies in its first year, and has been translated into over 60 languages.
What does it mean for a human being to be free? Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one woman’s attempt to answer this question. Harriet Beecher Stowe, like others before and after her, points out that human freedom is not purely a question of emancipation. Maybe nobody owns you, but that does not make you free – though it is a necessary starting point.
Looking at the history of African-Americans and other people of color in the United States, it is possible to see a series of "emancipatory" moments intending to promote freedom, beginning with the abolition of slavery and continuing with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of skin color. Yet, despite laws against slavery and certain guarantees against discrimination, and despite the fact that we do now have a democracy where all members of society can vote, has the United States "arrived" in terms of freedom? At what point can we say we are "free"? Is anybody ever "free"?
It is unlikely that we will ever have a single answer to the question, "What does it mean to be free?" We can pretty much promise that the nation will continue to struggle over these issues. Nevertheless, we do make progress every once in awhile, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an example of that.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin played an extraordinary role in transforming race relations in the United States. It fed currents of change that were already flowing throughout the country and crystallized the sense that something was wrong with American society. The book's popularity in the North and unpopularity in the South meant that people everywhere were talking about the ideas found in it: that slavery was an institution that corrupted those who participated in it (voluntarily or involuntarily), that the abolitionist North still had to deal with its racial prejudice, and that "emancipation" was not just a question of freeing slaves, but also of integrating them into society.
These are ideas still discussed today. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin was most effective and popular at the time it was published, it still plays a role in American life and culture today, reminding us not only of the price of freedom, but the necessity that all humans must be free (morally, economically, and racially).