The author had for many years lived in Ohio on the confines of a slave State, and had thus been made familiar with facts and occurrences in relation to the institution of American slavery. Some of the most harrowing incidents related in the story had from time to time come to her knowledge in conversation with former slaves now free in Ohio. The cruel sale and separation of a married woman from her husband, narrated in Chapter XII, "Select Incident of Lawful Trade," had passed under her own eye while a passenger on a steamboat on the Ohio River. Her husband and brother had once been obliged to flee with a fugitive slave woman by night, as described in Chapter IX; and she herself had been called to write the letters for a former slave woman, servant in her own family, to a slave husband in Kentucky, who, trusted with unlimited liberty, free to come and go on business between Kentucky and Ohio, still refused to break his pledge of honor to his master, tho that master from year to year deferred the keeping of his promise of freedom to the slave. It was the simple honor and loyalty of this Christian black man, who remained in slavery rather than violate a trust, that first imprest her with the possibility of such a character as, years after, was delineated in Uncle Tom.
From time to time incidents were brought to her knowledge which deepened her horror of slavery. But it was not for many years that she felt any call to make use of the materials thus accumulating. In fact, it was a sort of general impression upon her mind, as upon that of many humane people in those days, that the subject was so dark and painful a one, so involved in difficulty and obscurity, so utterly beyond human hope or help, that it was of no use to read or think or distress one's self about it. There was a class of profest Abolitionists in Cincinnati and the neighboring regions, but they were unfashionable persons and few in number. Like all asserters of pure abstract right as applied to human affairs, they were regarded as a species of moral monomaniacs, who, in the consideration of one class of interests and wrongs, had lost sight of all proportion and all good judgment. Both in church and in State they were looked, upon as "those that troubled Israel."
It was a general saying among conservative and sagacious people that this subject was a dangerous one to investigate, and that nobody could begin to read and think upon it without becoming practically insane; moreover, that it was a subject of such delicacy that no discussion of it could be held in the free States without impinging upon the sensibilities of the slave States, to whom alone the management of the matter belonged.
So when Dr. Baileya wise, temperate, and just man, a model of courtesy in speech and writingcame to Cincinnati and set up an antislavery paper, proposing a fair discussion of the subject, there was an immediate excitement. On two occasions a mob led by slaveholders from Kentucky attacked his office, destroying his printing-press, and threw his types into the Ohio River. The most of the Cincinnati respectability, in Church and State, contented themselves on this occasion with reprobating the imprudence of Dr. Bailey in thus "arousing the passions of our fellow citizens of Kentucky." In these mobs and riots the free colored people were threatened, maltreated, abused, and often had to flee for their lives. Even the servants of good families were often chased to the very houses of their employers, who rescued them with difficulty; and the story was current in those days of a brave little woman who defended her black waiter, standing, pistol in hand, on her own doorstep, and telling the mob face to face that they should not enter except over her dead body.
Professor Stowe's2 house was more than once a refuge for frightened fugitives on whom the very terrors of death had fallen; and the inmates slept with arms in the house and a large bell ready to call the young men of the adjoining institution, in case the mob should come up to search the house. Nor was this a vain or improbable suggestion; for the mob, in their fury, had more than once threatened to go up and set fire to Lane Seminary, where a large body of students were known to be Abolitionists. Only the fact that the institution was two miles from the city, with a rough and muddy road up a long, high hill, proved its salvation. Cincinnati mud, far known for its depth and tenacity, had sometimes its advantages.
After many years' residence in Ohio, Mrs. Stowe returned to make her abode in New England, just in the height of the excitement produced by the Fugitive Slave Law. Settled in Brunswick, Me., she was in constant communication with friends in Boston, who wrote to her from day to day of the terror and despair which that law had occasioned to industrious, worthy colored people who had from time to time escaped to Boston, and were living in peace and security. She heard of families broken up and fleeing in the dead of winter to the frozen shores of Canada. But what seemed to her more inexplicable, more dreadful, was the apparent apathy of the Christian world of the free North to these proceedings. The pulpits that denounced them were exceptions, the voices raised to remonstrate few and far between.
In New England, as at the West, profest Abolitionists were a small, despised, unfashionable band, whose constant remonstrances, from year to year had been disregarded as the voices from impracticable fanatics. It seemed now as if the system once confined to the Southern States was rousing itself to new efforts to extend itself all over the North, and to overgrow the institutions of free society.
With astonishment and distress Mrs. Stowe heard on all sides, from humane and Christian people, that the slavery of the blacks was a guaranteed constitutional right, and that all opposition to it endangered the national Union. With this conviction she saw that even earnest and tender-hearted Christian people seemed to feel it a duty to close their eyes, ears, and hearts to the harrowing details of slavery, to put down all discussion of the subject, and even to assist slave-owners to recover fugitives in Northern States. She said to herself, These people can not know what slavery is: they do not see what they are defending; and hence arose a purpose to write some sketches which should show to the world slavery as she had herself seen it. Pondering this subject, she was one day turning over a little bound volume of an anti-slavery magazine, edited by Mrs. Dr. Bailey, of Washington, and there she read the account of the escape of a woman with her child on the ice of the Ohio River from Kentucky. The incident was given by an eye-witness, one who had helped the woman to the Ohio shore. This formed the first salient point of the story. She began to meditate. The faithful slave husband in Kentucky occurred to her as a pattern of Uncle Tom , and the scenes of the story began gradually to form themselves in her mind.
The first part of the book ever committed to writing was the death of Uncle Tom. This scene presented itself almost as a tangible vision to her mind while sitting at the communion-table in the little church in Brunswick. She was perfectly overcome by it, and could scarcely restrain the convulsion of tears and sobbings that shook her frame. She hastened home, and wrote it; and, her husband being away, she read it to her two sons of ten and twelve years of age. The little fellows broke out into convulsions of weeping, one of them saying, through his sobs, "O mamma, slavery is the most curst thing in the world!"
From that time the story can less be said to have been composed by her than imposed upon her. Scenes, incidents, conversations, rushed upon her with a vividness and importunity that would not be denied. The book insisted upon getting itself into being, and would take no denial. After the first two or three chapters were written, she wrote to Dr. Bailey of the National Era that she was planning a story that might probably run through several numbers of the Era. In reply she received an instant application for it, and began immediately to send off weekly instalments. She was then in the midst of heavy domestic cares, with a young infant, with a party of pupils in her family, to whom she was imparting daily lessons with her own children, and with untrained servants requiring constant supervision; but the story was so much more intense a reality to her than any other earthly thing that the weekly instalment never failed. It was there in her mind day and night waiting to be written, and requiring but a few moments to bring it into visible characters. The weekly number was always read to the family circle before it was sent away, and all the household kept up an intense interest in the progress of the story.
As the narrative appeared in the Era, sympathetic words began to come to her from old workers who had long been struggling in the anti-slavery cause. She visited Boston, went to the Anti-slavery Rooms, and reenforced her repertoire of facts by such documents as Theodore D. Weld's "Slavery As It Is," the Lives of Josiah Henson and Lewis Clarke, particulars whose lives were inwoven with the story in the characters of Uncle Tom and George Harris.
In shaping her material, the author had but one purpose, to show the institution of slavery truly, just as it existed. She had visited in Kentucky, had formed the acquaintance of people who were just, upright, and generous, and yet slaveholders. She had heard their views, and appreciated their situation. She felt that justice required that their difficulties should be recognized and their virtues acknowledged. It was her object to show that the evils of slavery were the inherent evils of a bad system, and not always the fault of those who had become involved in it and were its actual administrators.
Then she was convinced that the presentation of slavery alone, in its most dreadful forms, would be a picture of such unrelieved horror and darkness as nobody could be induced to look at. Of set purpose, she sought to light up the darkness by humorous and grotesque episodes and presentation of the amusing phases of slavery, for which her recollection of the never-failing wit and drollery of her former colored friends in Ohio gave her abundant material.
As the story progrest, a young publisher, J. P. Jewett, of Boston, set his eye upon it, and made overtures for the publication of it in book form, to which she consented. After a while she had a letter from him expressing his fears that she was making the story too long for a one-volume publication. He reminded her that it was an unpopular subject, and that people would not willingly hear much about it: that one short volume might possibly sell, but, if it grew to two, it might prove a fatal obstacle to its success. Mrs. Stowe replied that she did not make the story, that the story made itself, and that she could not stop it till it was done. The feeling that pursued her increased in intensity to the last, till, with the death of Uncle Tom, it seemed as if the whole vital force had left her. A feeling of profound discouragement came over her. Would anybody read it? Would anybody listen? Would this appeal, into which she had put heart, soul, mind, and strength, which she had written with her heart's bloodwould it, too, go for nothing, as so many prayers and groans and entreaties of these poor suffering souls had gone?
It was when the last proof-sheet had been sent to the office that Mrs. Stowe, alone and thoughtful, sat reading Horace Mann's eloquent plea for those young men and women, then about to be consigned to the slave warehouse of Bruin & Hill in Alexandriaa plea eloquent, impassioned, but vain, as all other pleas on that side had ever proved in all courts hitherto. It seemed to her that there was no hope, that nobody would hear, nobody would read, nobody would pity; that this frightful system, which had already pursued its victims into the free States, might at last even threaten them in Canada.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published March 20, 1852. The despondency of the author as to the question whether anybody would read or attend to her appeal was soon dispelled. Ten thousand copies were sold in a few days, and over 300,000 within a year; and eight power-presses, running day and night, were barely able to keep pace with the demand for it. It was read everywhere, apparently, and by everybody; and she soon began to hear echoes of sympathy all over the land. The indignation, the pity, the distress that had long weighed upon her soul, seemed to pass off from her and into the readers of the book.
A more cheering result was in the testimony of many colored persons and fugitive slaves who said to her: " Since that book has come out, everybody is good to us: we find friends everywhere. It's wonderful how kind everybody is. "
In one respect, Mrs. Stowe's expectations were strikingly different from fact. She had painted slaveholders as amiable, generous, and just. She had shown examples among them of the noblest and most beautiful traits of character, had admitted fully their temptations, their perplexities, and their difficulties, so that a friend of hers who had many relatives in the South wrote to her in exultation, "Your book is going to be the great pacificator: it will unite both North and South." Her expectation was that the profest Abolitionists would denounce it as altogether too mild in its dealings with slaveholders. To her astonishment, it was the extreme Abolitionists who received it, and the entire South who rose up against it.
1 From Mrs. Stowe's Introduction to a new Edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." By permission of and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright, 1879.
2 Calvin E. Stowe, the author's husband.
THE OPENING OF THE CRYSTAL PALACE IN NEW YORK