Harriet Beecher Stowe penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851 amid mounting pressures between the Northern and Southern states that would eventually result in the Civil War. Compelled to speak out against the recently adopted Fugitive Slave Act, a component of the Compromise of 1850, in which citizens of all states, both free and slave holding, were legally bound to capture and return escaped slaves from the south. The Fugitive Slave Act made it illegal to assist escaped slaves by providing them passage, food or shelter and was punishable with six months in prison and $1000 fine to anyone known to assist escapees, as she and her husband had done. That the Act financially rewarded officers who actively pursued escaped slaves made it all the more heinous.
Based on an escaped slaves memoirs, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a fictionalized story that sought to bring to life the reality of slavery to the hearts and minds of those in the north. Initially it had been published as a once a week installment in the abolitionist National Era newspaper, but finding immediate success was published as a novel that following year. Stowe had struck a cord in a nation bitterly divided. Selling out of its first and second print runs, the novel quickly became a stage play and was stated to have been the most popular book of its time second only to the bible.
After the start of the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe had been invited to the White House where she met Abraham Lincoln. It is said that when the two met, Lincoln was quoted as saying “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The following year Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation and in 1865, the war was brought to an end. Stowe spent the rest of her life advocating for the rights of women, making comparisons to the treatment and legal status between women of the time and slaves.
Though the book had come under scrutiny in the modern era, it was credited by historians as having helped to ignite the war that brought an end to slavery in the United States. Ms. Stowe lived to see the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) which allowed persons of all color, race, creed or previous condition of servitude, the right to vote. Only narrowly, did she miss the passage of the Nineteenth which permitted women to vote. She died in 1896 at the age of 85.