This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was widely influential when it was published in 1852, even inspiring the apocryphal story about Abraham Lincoln, on meeting Stowe, saying : “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The Library’s “Sources and Strategies” article in the May 2014 issue of Social Education, the journal of NCSS, discusses the influence of the novel. Perhaps just as important as its effect, however, was Stowe’s original impetus for writing.
Shortly before Stowe began writing the novel, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. The Act was a portion of the Compromise of 1850 and caused consternation among abolitionists around the nation. This law meant that slave hunters could enter free states to retrieve people whom they believed to have escaped from enslavement. This had a number of effects, such as defiance of the law, an increase in the number of runaways moving into Canada, and kidnapping of free African Americans.
This Boston broadside offers an example of open defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. Ask students to look closely at the broadside and consider:
- Besides the population of “colored people of Boston,” to whom else might the creator of this broadside be sending a message? What evidence in the poster supports that?
- In what way is the publication and posting of this broadside a protest against the Fugitive Slave Act?
Offer students these two reviews of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both of which specifically reference the Fugitive Slave Act and its relationship to Stowe’s novel. Note: It is important to remember that newspapers of the time may have used language readers today would consider offensive. Identifying these terms and noting them will help frame the context of such language.
Consider presenting the pieces without bibliographic information, challenging students to identify the source of each piece based on a primary source analysis. Invite students to compare the reviews. Identify the writer’s tone, or attitude toward the subject in each. Provide evidence from the reviews.
- Who was the audience for each piece? What makes you say that?
- What is the significance of the location of the publication?
- What is the historical context of 1852-53 in the United States?
- What connection does each review make between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Fugitive Slave Act.
Viewed together, these show some of the widely varied—and sometimes even contradictory—ways in which Stowe’s work influenced public discussion. To extend this activity, encourage students to explore Chronicling America on their own to locate additional articles related to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to share with the class. Also search the Library of Congress collections for other abolitionist items.
Let us know in the comments below if you try this or the ideas in the “Sources and Strategies” article.