When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in 1852, no one-least of all its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe-expected the book to become a sensation, but this antislavery novel took the world by storm. It was to become the second best-selling book in the world during the 19th century, second only to the Bible, and it touched off a flurry of criticism and praise. Stowe had written the novel as an angry response to the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which punished those who aided runaway slaves and diminished the rights of fugitive as well as freed slaves. Hoping to move her fellow Americans to protest this law and slavery in general, Stowe attempted to portray “the institution of slavery just as it existed.” Indeed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was nearly unique at the time in its presentation of the slaves’ point of view.
Stowe’s novel tells the stories of three slaves-Tom, Eliza, and George-who start out together in Kentucky, but whose lives take different turns. Eliza and George, who are married to each other but owned by different masters, manage to escape to free territory with their little boy, Harry. Tom is not so lucky. He is taken away from his wife and children. Tom is sold first to a kind master, Augustine St. Clare, and then to the fiendish Simon Legree, at whose hands he meets his death. Stowe relied upon images of domesticity, motherhood, and Christianity to capture her 19th century audience’s hearts and imaginations. In spite of the critical controversy surrounding the book, the Characters of Uncle Tom, Little Eva, and Simon Legree have all achieved legendary status in American culture. Often called sentimental and melodramatic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin nevertheless endures as a powerful example of moral outrage over man’s inhumanity to man.