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Uncle Tom's Cabin - plot and analysis

"Uncle Tom's Cabin," a 1850s book, stirred the Civil War with its powerful depiction of slavery. The story follows Eliza and her son escaping north, while Uncle Tom is sold south. The book highlights the clash between Christian faith and slavery, ending with Tom's martyrdom inspiring others to renounce slavery.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So Becca and I have been talking about Uncle Tom's Cabin which is this book from the 1850s that Abraham Lincoln actually said started the Civil War. So how did this book start a war? So in this video we'll tell you more about the plot. But in the previous video we kind of discussed what was going on in the country at the time and Harriet Beecher Stowe again was from this abolitionist family. She was really deeply effected by the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, and also by slave auctions. So this video will get a little bit more into the heart of the plot of the novel which does have to do with the family being torn apart. - [Voiceover] So what was Uncle Tom's Cabin actually about? Uncle Tom's Cabin was set on a plantation in Kentucky and it starts out with this kind of group of slaves that are about to be sold to other plantation owners. So Eliza and her son actually run away. They run up North, so Eliza goes up North and Uncle Toms is sold down the river. - [Voiceover] So, Eliza is trying to make sure that she and her son are not separated by being sold. So she decides that she is going to escape and take her son with her up to Canada. But Uncle Tom, he's not actually related, he is sold in the opposite direction. He's getting farther away from freedom by heading down the Mississippi. When you think about the geography of slavery it's a much more urban environment than some of the more coastal areas. So you might be in Charleston, or you might even be in Baltimore as an enslaved person. You might have a pretty high degree of freedom and also a possibility of escape either by crossing the border or by boat. When you're sold into the deep South area you are deep in plantation country and there might not be another soul that you could rely on to help you escape for 100, 200 miles. - [Voiceover] And I think this is really something that Harriet Beecher Stowe wants to help point out in the book, that there was this sense of doom for Uncle Tom. However, his Christian faith was the only thing that really kept him going. He bonded with this young white woman that he met, Eva, just about their Christian faith. And really, reading his Bible was the thing that got him up in the morning. So where were those feelings about religion coming from? - [Voiceover] You can definitely see that Harriet Beecher Stowe is influenced by her own family's faith which is influenced by the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening was this flowering of religious belief in the 1830s and 1840s. It was kind of a reaction against the Era of Enlightenment which was what had inspired the founders of the United States to think of a more humanist world, a more rational, scientific world. People start going to camp meetings, they have religious revivals. They experience religious conversions. And in this time period there's a shift in thinking about God in the United States. If you think back to the puritans they have this incredibly punitive sort of Old Testament destroyer God, right? One of the most famous early sermons in the United States is sinners in the hands of an angry God, that at any moment God might release you into the flames. Well there's a new emphasis on Christ-like love in the early 1830s, 1840s. New interpretation of God as being forgiving and gentle, family oriented, it's very Victorian. Where God was seen as this punisher who condemned most people to hell, in the Second Great Awakening there's a new emphasis on a forgiving, kind family-oriented Jesus who will save everyone. That's very incompatible with the ideas of slavery. - [Voiceover] Exactly, and I think that Uncle Tom's Cabin can really be considered a part of the Second Great Awakening because of the way that it points out these fundamental inconsistencies and contradictions between Christian faith and human bondage. How could a religion that says treat thy neighbor as thyself actually sanction slavery? - [Voiceover] So Uncle Tom is this martyr character, right? He is a devout believer in Christianity and the forgiveness of God right up until his very end. So how does Uncle Tom's Cabin actually end? - [Voiceover] Uncle Tom's Cabin ends with Uncle Tom is beaten by his overseers. He's sold through this chain of different slave families in the deep South and he ends up with just a terrible, terrible slave holder who requests his death, actually partially because he was reading all of this religious text. [Voiceover] And this slave owner was named Simon Legree. And this name, Simon Legree, has actually stuck with us in popular culture to mean a really evil, cruel, punitive master. - [Voiceover] The rest of the family actually meets back up. Eliza is reunited with a bunch of other people that were on the original plantation and they really think about Uncle Tom as this martyr, the hero's death. He's looked at as this sacrifice for the cause of freedom. - [Voiceover] Right, also Uncle Tom, he dies never having renounced his Christian faith. His example of martyrdom actually leads everyone who witnesses his death, including Simon Legree, to convert to Christianity and to vow never to hold slaves again. - [Voiceover] But I think the ending of the book really points out this main theme within a lot of Second Great Awakening texts which was that if you just paid attention to how you are falling away from your Christian commitments then you could get back on track and maybe bring people together by utilizing Christian faith in a productive and public way. - [Voiceover] The book is published in 1852, then what happens? How do people receive this book? - [Voiceover] We'll talk about this Tom-mania that ensues in the next video.