You Risked Jail for Reading This Book! by Juliet Haines Mofford

Following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly in the spring of 1852, threats against its author became common. Hate mail arrived daily at the Stowe’s house in Andover, Massachusetts.  One morning the mailman rang the doorbell with a small package. When Harriet Beecher Stowe opened the box, she was horrified to find a human ear sent her from the owner of a southern cotton plantation who had cut it off one of his slaves.

It was the Fugitive Slave Act that fired this professor’s wife and mother of six to write a book that shook the nation. Passed by Congress in 1850, this law empowered the federal government to prosecute any person, black or white, who aided runaway slaves. Punishment for doing so usually meant prison and a $1000 fine. It legally gave every white citizen the right to challenge any black person not in the company of a white man or woman.  Federal agents could now pursue slaves into free states and apprehend suspected fugitives, even if they had been living free for years.  Former slaves who had earned enough money to buy their freedom, as well as their children born free, were in peril of being captured and sold south.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her blockbuster in Brunswick, Maine where the family had recently moved from Ohio. Harriet’s husband, a professor of theology and the Bible, had obtained a position at Bowdoin College, his alma mater.  She described Calvin as “rich in Greek and Hebrew, Latin and Arabic, and alas! rich in nothing else.” He also vowed not to shave his beard until every slave was free.

Harriet was glad to leave Cincinnati since she’d lost her 18-month-old son to cholera there. She credited her grief as one of the inspirations used in her novel. “It was at Samuel’s dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn from her and sold.”

It had been a long, hard trip by train and ferry to mid-coast Maine, especially traveling with children and expecting another baby soon. Now settled in the drafty house on Federal Street, Harriet was homeschooling her youngsters, as well as selling original sketches to make ends meet.

“I always felt I had no particular call to meddle in politics,” she wrote a friend, “but after the Bloodhound Bill, I feel the time has come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak.”

Harriet’s brothers, all ministers, were passionately committed to the anti-slavery cause.  “If only I could use a pen as you can, Hattie, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is,” one sister-in-law urged. Stowe believed she could bring about positive political and social change using the power of her pen. And hadn’t Calvin always encouraged her gift of writing?

“This horror, this nightmare abomination! Can it be in my country? It lies like lead on my heart; it shadows my life with sorrow,” Harriet said. “I am obliged to write as one who is forced by some awful oath to disclose in court some family disgrace.  The time has come when the nation has a right to demand and the President of the United States, a right to decree their freedom.”

Stowe would later deny actually writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, convinced she had been “an instrument of God to stop the national sin of slavery…I the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?  No, indeed! The Lord Himself wrote it. I was but the humblest of instruments in His hand.”

Harriet had stayed on a Kentucky plantation and spoken with slaves there.  She’d interviewed fugitives who’d crossed the treacherous Ohio River and hidden in homes belonging to her family. Stowe’s character, Eliza, who fled Kentucky to the free state of Ohio on ice floes, carrying her baby, had been inspired by one runaway she met. And she’d listened to her brother’s descriptions of slave auctions he’d observed in New Orleans.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life Among the Lowly was first published in installments between June 5, 1851 and April 1, 1852 in The National Era, an anti-slavery newspaper.  Harriet claimed each chapter was written with her “heart’s blood” and that many times she thought her “health would fail utterly.”  She was putting out sixteen to twenty pages daily.

“As long as baby sleeps with me nights, I can’t do much at anything, but I shall write this thing!” Some sections were written at the kitchen table on paper bags while “chowder bubbled on the wood stove and the baby slept by my feet in a basket.” She read sections out loud to her children. After hearing one chapter, nine-year-old Freddy burst into tears, crying “Oh Mamma, what a wicked thing slavery is!”

Harriet’s husband was napping when she wrote Uncle Tom’s death scene, which she insisted appeared to her in church as a vision during a Sunday service. She’d completed nine pages, pausing only to dip her pen, when Calvin awoke and she read it to him.  Afterward, she asked him if it would do.
“Do?”  His sobs shook the bed he lay upon. “I should think it would do!” He insisted she send it to the publisher immediately without revision.

It was published in book form by John P. Jewett in March of 1852. Of the five thousand copies printed, three thousand were sold the first day. Stowe’s novel became an international phenomenon and the single best-selling book in the world at that time. It was eventually translated into fifty-eight languages from Hindu to Hungarian.  A missionary sent the Stowe family a Japanese translation.  Three hundred mothers in Boston named their baby girls “Eva” after the character in Stowe’s novel. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner shared the book with his Southern colleagues in Congress.

Harriet had hoped her book would make enough money to buy a new dress, but to her amazement, the first royalty check amounted to as much her husband had earned in a decade. With ten thousand dollars in the first three months of sales, the Stowes were suddenly wealthy.

Stowe’s story focused readers’ attention on the evils of slavery in a way as never before.  Previously most Northerners had simply accepted slavery as economic necessity sanctioned by the Bible and a property right guaranteed by the Constitution. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” either inspired or infuriated Americans in a manner that political pamphlets, newspaper accounts, and slave narratives never had before.

John Greenleaf Whittier claimed that, “The heaviest blow which slavery has received for the last half-century has just been struck by a woman.”

Popular anti-slavery poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Stowe to say, “I congratulate you most cordially upon the immense success and influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It is one of the greatest triumphs recorded in literary history, to say nothing of the higher triumph of its moral effect.”

From France, author George Sand wrote, “The book is in all hands. People devour it.  They cover it with tears.”

Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader, deemed it “a work of marvelous depth and power, whose effects are amazing, instantaneous, and universal.”

However, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the wrath of Southern slaveholders and supporters of slave labor, down upon the author who was labeled “a meddling woman who knew nothing about slavery.” Many regarded it as so destructive to slavery it would cause slave insurrections.  Punishment was possible for possessing this “filthy negro novel.”  In some southern towns, one could be arrested and jailed for buying the book, having it on your person, or just lying around your home.

Little girls jumped rope to the chant: “Go! Go! Go! Old Harriet Beecher Stowe!  We don’t want you here in Virginny! So Go!” The Alabama Planter newspaper said in print that “the woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin must be either a very bad or a very fanatical person.” A Tennesse pastor called Harriet “as ugly as original sin.”  A cousin, then a Georgia resident told her that “prejudice against my name is so strong there she dares not have it appear on the outside of letters to me.”

William Lloyd Garrison endowed the book with high praise in his radical newspaper, The Liberator.  “I estimate the value of anti-slavery writing by the abuse it brings.” He told its author. “Now all the defenders of slavery have let me alone and are abusing you!”

Because pro-slavery advocates accused her of publishing “a tissue of falsehoods,” Stowe put all other writing aside to document her sources in detail.
“I am now very much driven,” she explained. “I am preparing a key to unlock Uncle Tom’s Cabin…It is made up of facts which my eyes have looked upon and documents my hands have handled…  I write “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with the anguish of my soul and tears and prayers, with sleepless nights and weary days.”

Playwright George Aiken adapted Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the stage. The three daily performances in New York were always sold out with actors remaining in costume from noon until midnight. By the late 1850s, versions were playing in sixteen different theater companies simultaneously across the country.  At the time, it was the most successful play ever produced in the American theater. It ran for two hundred and fifty performances in Boston, one of which Harriet attended. She was reluctant to go because her father, conservative preacher Lyman Beecher, disapproved of theater and Harriet’s husband was then Professor of Sacred Literature at Calvinistic Andover Theological Seminary.

“I’ve never been to a theater in my life,” Harriet said, “but I have such curiosity to see how my characters can go from page to stage; to see in flesh and blood the creations of my imagination.”

It was these theatricals that turned the character of Uncle Tom into a “step-‘n-fetch-it” buffoon never intended by Stowe. Her black hero became a character of ridicule. It was this image of the spineless slave that so angered African-American author, James Baldwin, a century later. Harriet’s Uncle Tom was not the meek yes-man depicted in stage adaptations. Since Stowe neglected to have her work copyrighted, she had no say over such changes nor did she ever receive any profits from the productions.

Spinoff souvenirs, posters, and publications, including sheet music, known as “Tomitudes” were for sale everywhere.  A variety of board games, dolls and nick-nacks were manufactured in multitudes.

W. E. B. Du Bois, the renown African-American scholar said, “To a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose we Americans, both black and white, owe our gratitude for the freedom and the union that exist today in these United States.”


1 thought on “You Risked Jail for Reading This Book! by Juliet Haines Mofford

  1. As I read this short bio, I was struck by how much of it relates to today’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. When I read Harriet’s words:
    “This horror, this nightmare abomination! Can it be in my country? It lies like lead on my heart; it shadows my life with sorrow,” I felt that many of us could be expressing this same sentiment today after learning of the forced separation of parents and children at our borders – some of whom have still not been reunited. And when I read the accusation that her story was “a tissue of lies”, it took no major effort to see that in today’s climate, it would be called “fake news”, even though she took care to document her sources. And finally, I now understand how the term “Uncle Tom” became such a negative term – as sometimes happens when a book is translated into a different medium, the spirit of the book is easily distorted. Kudos to Ms Mofford for pointing out some little known aspects of how Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to us from the pen of Harriet Beecher Stowe!

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