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).
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1987)
The most recent film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this 1987 Showtime production, directed by Stan Lathan, stars Avery Brooks and Phylicia Rashad, which might be a little bit distracting if you’ve seen Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or The Cosby Show. Still, it’s the only contemporary version available and makes a solid attempt to "reclaim" the novel for modern viewers – mostly by making Uncle Tom less submissive. Make sure you watch it after you read the book; otherwise it’ll be somewhat misleading.
Onkel Toms Hütte (1965)
This German version of Stowe’s novel, titled Onkel Toms Hütte, won an award for Best Cinematography at the 1965 German film awards. It’s available on VHS in the United States, and it’s interesting to watch it and think about why a German filmmaker was interested in making an adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1960s. Remember, there were no American film versions of it between 1927 and 1987.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)
There are many different silent film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not all of which are still available, but this 1927 production, directed by Harry A. Pollard, is the classic. More expensive than almost any other silent film, it was advertised as "The $2,000,000 Motion Picture," and its magnificent scale is still impressive today. It focuses more on the Eliza-George strand of the plot than on Uncle Tom himself, and all the characters except Uncle Tom are played by whites wearing blackface makeup.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903)
The earliest film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and one of the first long silent films (although it’s not all that long – only 13 minutes), this adaptation uses white actors wearing blackface makeup to portray many of the main characters. (There were actually two different films of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made in 1903, but only this one, directed by Edwin S. Porter, still survives.)
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
An excerpt from the new documentary New England: A Tribute, this three-minute video explains the two main reasons Stowe was motivated to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Abraham Lincoln and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
A brief excerpt from a documentary clarifying the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on pre-Civil War America.
Short Clip from 1903 Silent Film
This brief clip will give you a sense of what the first film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin looked like. Check out Abraham Lincoln’s "cameo" appearance (in an image of the Emancipation Memorial).
Harriet Beecher Stowe Tribute
Even today, Stowe’s work inspires awe and gratitude for her humanitarian vision, despite its limitations.
In this 1933 cartoon, Mickey Mouse and his friends put on a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Note: this cartoon depicts the use of blackface makeup and contains offensive racial stereotypes. It’s best watched to give you an idea of the widespread culture of "Tom shows" that developed out of Stowe’s novel. (P.S. Get it – "Mellerdrammer" as in "melodrama"?)
Free Audiobook from LibriVox
The complete audiobook of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, free and downloadable from the folks at LibriVox.
Photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe
This is the classic portrait photograph of Stowe that you’ll see on most book jackets; it’s from sometime in the 1870s or 1880s.
Portrait of Young Stowe
A sketch of Stowe in her youth, based on a drawing by George Richmond.
1886 Posters for a Stage Adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Tom
Nineteenth century stage productions based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin were common after the book’s first publication run; these posters show how four of the main characters would have been depicted. Notice Tom’s cringing posture – it makes us cringe a bit to look at it.
1886 Posters for a Stage Adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Eliza
Notice how white Eliza looks. Nineteenth century racist attitudes meant that audiences were more likely to sympathize with her if she had paler skin.
1886 Posters for a Stage Adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Topsy
This is the classic way in which Topsy is depicted; many earlier and later images adopt the motif of the dress that’s shorter in the front.
1886 Posters for a Stage Adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Legree
Even though he’s obviously the villain, notice that this image of Simon Legree makes him look noble anyway, because he’s the only one of the four characters on the 1886 stage adaptation posters who is standing tall and straight.
Title Page of First British Edition
This 1852 title page from the first British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin includes a drawing from famous illustrator George Cruikshank.
Full Text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the University of Virginia
Read the novel online, complete and unabridged, for free – or download it to your computer.
Full Text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Project Gutenberg
Another site that offers the complete text of the novel for free.
Full Text of A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin
After Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, some white southern slave owners tried to claim that she had exaggerated or invented the evils of slavery. In response, Stowe compiled A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book of facts, documents, and testimony that showed real-life parallels to each of her characters. It was published in 1854, two years after the novel.
"Is Uncle Tom’s Cabin Any Good?"
This 2005 article by Stephen Metcalf, written for Slate.com’s History Week, reconsiders Stowe’s novel from the perspective of a twenty-first-century reader.
New York Times Review of 1987 TV Movie
This review of the only contemporary English-language film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin really gets at the heart of the issues at stake, pointing out that the Showtime movie is "a black man’s interpretation of a white woman’s interpretation of black reality." We recommend that you read this before deciding whether to rent the 1987 production.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture: A Multimedia Archive
This online archive hosted by the University of Virginia is an excellent place to begin your research on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its historical context.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves Stowe’s home and associated library materials and archives.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site
This site is dedicated to memorializing the life and work of Reverend Josiah Henson, a man who was born a slave in Maryland in 1830, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, became a leader among other fugitive slaves in Canada, and wrote his memoirs. Stowe used Henson’s memoirs as one source for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.