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1856 - Uncle Tom's Cabin

Illustrated News
(August 1856)

Can a "mere" woman living in the middle of the 19th century start the bloodiest war ever fought on the North American continent? And even do it using nothing more than words? According to legend, when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 he said, So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War! (Harriet's younger brother, Minister Henry Ward Beecher himself used words that funded firearms sent to Bleeding Kansas of the late 1850's, the so-called Beecher's Bibles.)

Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel by American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in which slavery is a central theme, was a best seller in the United States, England, Europe, Asia, and was translated into over 60 languages. It turned its author into an acclaimed international celebrity.

Published as a two-volume book four years before 1856, as an angry response to the 1850 passage of the (second) Fugitive Slave Act, in 1872 a biographer of abolitionist Horace Greeley would argue the book was the chief force in developing support for the Republican Party in the 1850s.

Below appears the first page of an 1856 letter of reference by Stowe, which introduces her friends, a free, married African-American couple, to people in Britain. The wife is lauded for her dramatic readings of the famed novel. The image is linked to a full copy of the letter, and is followed by a transcript of its entirety.

Click on image above to see entire letter of May 24, 1856

Boston May 24 '56

Lady Hatherton

Dear Madam

This will introduce to all my friends, Mr. & Mrs. Webb, in whose success in your country I am greatly interested.

Mrs. Webb is the daughter of a fugitive slave who secured her liberty by heroic effort before her birth. She was born in New Bedford, New England, and was subsequently sent to Cuba, where she passed the earlier years of her life in a convent. Having been endowed with an extraordinary genius for education she was induced to try the profession of a dramatic Reader and her success in this line is attested by hundreds of notices written by some of the most competent critics in this country. Her success has been so great that even Pro-Slavery Lyceums have broken through the prejudices of colour so far as to solicit her assistance in their courses. The season for readings having terminated in this country, she is induced to try success in England. Her reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin -- which I dramatized expressly for her -- has been pronounced unequaled.

Mr. Webb also is a gentleman of talent and cultivation, and any assistance in kindness you may render them will be well bestowed as her success will benefit the Antislavery Cause by showing the talent which lies concealed in the race which she represents. And I take the greatest interest in their success both from personal friendship and for this reason. I feel the deepest interest in her success.

Every new development of a talent or a prowess in this much depressed people is a new argument for us & helps the struggle in the right direction.

From my knowledge of your interest in every good work I feel a confidence that you will if possible extend your patronage to these people, and I am sure that you cannot but be both surprised and gratified should you hear her.

Very truly yours,

H. B. Stowe

Mr. Longfellow has been much pleased with Mrs. Webb's reading of his new poem -- Hiawatha.

Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia
(Illutrated London News, September 27, 1856)

James Hopkinson's Plantation - Group going to field
Photographed by Henry P. Moore some 6 to 7 years after 1856, Federal troops having seized Edisto Island in South Carolina. How has posing for an expensive photo changed what the camera might have recorded on a typical work day?

Contemporary primers on slavery in the United States

University of Houston

PBS TV series Slavery and the Making of America companion Website