If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Uncle Tom's Cabin - reception and significance

"Uncle Tom's Cabin," a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, sparked intense emotions about slavery in the 1850s, leading to the Civil War. The book, highlighting the horrors of slavery, became a global sensation, translated into over 60 languages. However, it also sparked controversy, with anti-Tom novels emerging in response.

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky ultimate style avatar for user J.A.R.V.I.S.
    Now that Uncle Tom's Cabin has been published on a mass scale and people have a better picture of what the book is about, why today is being called an "Uncle Tom" a bad thing? I read the book this summer, and, to be honest, he seems to be a hero who stands for what he believes, no matter the cost.
    (23 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user petesny38
    You don'the mention that Lincoln was a Republican and frame this as as "sectional issue" rather than a conservative vs liberal issue. It seems you are protecting Democrats from their unfavorable history. Why?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      I think it is more of a sectional issue than a conservative vs. liberal issue. Let me tell you why: Modern day liberalism emerged in the 1930s and the modern day conservative movement traces its history back to about 1960, so those concepts aren't relevant to the Civil War. Moreover, the idea of a Republican conservative party vs. a Democratic liberal party is also an invention of the 1960s. Before then, both the Republican party and the Democratic party had liberal and conservative wings. (Note that in the 1950s Southern Democrats were in favor of Jim Crow and states' rights for example, while Northern Democrats by and large favored civil rights and New Deal legislation). So in the election of 1860, for example, the Democratic party split into two camps, the Northern Democrats, who supported Stephen Douglas and favored keeping the union together, and the Southern Democrats, who supported John C. Breckenridge and favored seceding to protect the institution of slavery. So it was section, more than party, that determined one's stance in the 1850s, and one of the most important takeaways from Uncle Tom's Cabin and the 1850s is that sectionalism rather than political party began to dominate politics, leading to the split between North and South in the Civil War.

      Although these videos don't yet have a home on the Khan Academy website, I also encourage you to check out the recent histories of the Democratic and Republican parties that we uploaded onto our YouTube channel in honor of the political conventions, where we go into a lot more detail.
      (38 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Xeno Testy
    So basically the book started a war?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Joe Blow
    Can Karl Marx's Manifesto of the Communist Party be counted as a document that started WWII?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user briancsherman
      The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 and had more to do with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the start of the Soviet Union than it did with World War II. The Nazi Party in Germany destroyed both democracy and communism in Germany as it rose to power. It could be argued that the Nazi's would not have had the successes they had without communists in Germany to fight against, but the racism, nationalism, and fascism that fueled German expansion and led to World War II were not part of the Manifesto.
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user s110657
    I don't really understand how the book is relevant to starting a war.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user H.X.
    Does "Gone With the Wind" count as an anti-Tom novel?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers tree style avatar for user L. E.
      Possibly yes, there is a discussion in the book where Scarlett scoffs at a Yankee woman for thinking that all slave owners were as cruel as Simon Legree from Uncle Tom's Cabin. However, Mrs. Stowe herself acknowledges that is not the case with characters such as the Shelbys and Augustine St. Clare.

      If you mean in a larger sense is Gone With the Wind a racist or pro-slavery novel, that is another and much more complicated question.

      Gone With the Wind has been a rather hot topic since the film was removed and then returned to HBO a few years ago with a disclaimer addressing its racism, and I acknowledge that there are many problems with the book. However, I don't believe it deserves to be thrown completely into the category of "our narrow-minded past." It's also an insightful novel showing how a Southerner would have felt during and after the Civil War.

      Certainly, its depiction of slavery is severely flawed, though perhaps not as much as it is made out to be, given that the protagonist is a self-absorbed Southern belle. Since we see the world though Scarlett's racist-ingrained perspective alone, she likely would not notice (or care to notice) many of the injustices against black people, nor would they be very inclined to tell her. That is definitely not to say that the novel is correct in throwing racial slurs, encouraging stereotypes, and glorifying slavery. But, with a few well-edited scenes in which Scarlett is forced to confront the true face of slavery, this could have gone from, in some ways, a painfully dated book to an enduring classic.

      Other aspects of the book, however, are accurate and insightful to the period, such as the hypocrisy of the Northerners regarding the freed slaves and the loss of Southern dignity and self-respect during the Reconstruction. There is a scene in which Scarlett, returning to her ruined neighborhood in which most of the boys she'd grown up with are maimed or dead, cries, "Oh, the Yankees could have all the darkies if only we could have our boys back." And yes, that is, unfortunately, the racist-ingrained terminology of the book, but it's the only terminology Scarlett, or most Southerners at the time, would have known. The novel displays the heart-wrenching devastation of the South during and after the Civil War. Their entire way of life was lost-- for the better, maybe, but there were also honorable parts, left behind forever.

      Gone With the Wind is a beneficial read if you recognize its perspective of a narrow-minded, selfish Southern belle, in the context of the knowledge of Uncle Tom's Cabin and one of the most instructive novels to the journey Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington.
      I'm not saying you'll enjoy it; I'm not saying you'll agree with it, but it is an insightful novel to how a Southerner would have perceived the Civil War and the upheaval of Reconstruction that followed in its wake.
      (9 votes)
  • duskpin seed style avatar for user johnmiali4
    What was the significance of Uncle Tom's Cabin
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user edgewaterah
      Uncle Tom's Cabin was a book written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, as you probably know. It was a revolutionary book because so many people in the North read it, and it portrayed the reality of slavery. The book probably also made more people increasingly aware of the wrongs of slavery and drew attention to the abolitionists.
      (6 votes)
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Lochlan Stevenson
    " I'm trying to think of another book that started a war..."
    my brother in Christ... the bible.
    or the Quran.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Lucas Thompson
    what was a few of the books main reasons that started the war
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Elveda clark
    How does Uncle Tom’s Cabin help start the Civil War?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hey Kim. - [Kim] Hey, Becca. So, we've been talking about Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and said to have been one of the main causes of the American Civil War. So, remind me again of what Uncle Tom's Cabin was actually about. - [Becca] So Uncle Tom's Cabin was about the horrors of slavery in the deep south and also appealed to a lot of American's Christian values and tried to point out these fundamental contradictions between Christian faith and slavery. - [Kim] So, it was published in 1852. How did people receive this book? - [Becca] So there was a lot of mixed reactions. But, it was the most read book of the 19th century, so there were a lot of reactions. (laughing) In the north, mostly, people were reading this all the time, no matter if you were an intellectual or just kind of a 17 year old picking up a book off a shelf, you were going to read Uncle Tom's Cabin. And a lot of the people that actually read the book were young men that would later fight in the Civil War. - [Kim] How interesting. Okay, so, like this would be our book club book of the month except everybody was, this was like the Oprah's book club choice of 1852. - [Becca] Exactly. - [Kim] Everybody was reading it. - [Becca] Yeah, there's really almost nothing like it. Not even Harry Potter. But it did have the same international scope that Harry Potter does today. - [Kim] So, it was popular in the northern United States, and elsewhere in the world. So, where else was it popular? - [Becca] Mostly in Europe. But it was translated into over 60 languages. - [Kim] Wow. - [Becca] And, this also kind of put the spotlight on American slavery. So, there was all this international attention. What is going on in America, and what's going to happen? - [Kim] That's so interesting. It reminds me of The King and I. If you've seen that she, the woman goes to Siam, and shows people the book Uncle Tom's Cabin and they put on a version of a play based on Uncle Tom's Cabin in what would be Thailand. - [Becca] So yeah, so this makes it this kind of international spectacle. The fate of slavery had to be somehow figured out, and everyone was watching. - [Kim] That's so interesting. So, I'm imagining that white southerners were not big fans of this book. - [Becca] So, white southerners were definitely not a fan of Uncle Tom's Cabin. And in response, there was this movement of these things called anti-Tom novels. Here's an anti-Tom novel right next to us, right over here, Aunt Phillis's Cabin. (Kim laughing) - [Kim] Creative name. - [Becca] Aunt Phillis' Cabin, yes (laughing), very creative name. These anti-Tom novels aimed to point out that maybe Harriet Beecher Stowe didn't know what she was actually talking about. They also accused Harriet Beecher Stowe of not actually even living in the deep south, so she didn't even know what slavery was like. They wanted to paint southern slave society in this really positive light. They wanted to show all the ways that it actually maintains social order, and promoted economic welfare, so this was kind of this response from the south, also in novel form. - [Kim] So, it's this big kind of cultural battle over the interpretation of slavery. You have people on one hand saying slavery is destructive to families, slavery is incompatible with Christianity. And then, responses from the white south, saying, oh no, actually slavery is great, it helps everybody. - [Becca] Right, so there was this kind of battle within the literary community about the peculiar institution of slavery. Which one was it? - [Kim] So what if, I'm illiterate, right. I mean, not everybody in 19th century America was a New England intellectual who was reading Christian novels. How would I have heard about Uncle Tom's Cabin? - [Becca] That's a really good point, Kim. So, Tom Shows were depictions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in theaters around the world. And so, they were often times put on by abolitionist people trying to point out the issues with slavery today and end slavery immediately. - [Kim] So, this is before there's copyright law, right, so you can just put on a show of anybody's novel if you feel like it. - [Becca] Exactly, but often times, they really misconstrued the novel. And actually, now are remembered as contributing to the problem of racism in America. - [Kim] Racial stereotypes, too, I would imagine, because we still have this phrase Uncle Tom kind of to mean an African-American who is a martyr to the status quo as opposed to someone who might fight against racism. It seems like they might have borrowed a lot of these stereotypes from minstrel shows which were also very popular in this time period. - [Becca] And some of the characters within these minstrel shows turned into the character that was remembered as Jim Crow, which became the dominating racial order after the Civil War. So, in the Civil Rights era in the mid-1950's, lots of activists actually wanted to completely reject the progress that Uncle Tom's Cabin and these Tom Shows had made because they actually reduced African Americans to this terrible stereotype. And so, later on, this kind of idea that someone was an Uncle Tom became a racial slur, really, and they then rejected Uncle Tom's Cabin as being a tool towards racial equality and more saw it as a part of the problem. - [Kim] So, I think, the most important thing about Uncle Tom's Cabin is that it's this catalyst of really intense emotions about slavery which in the 1850's will lead eventually to the Civil War. And, following the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, you'll see more and more violence on both sides of this issue. For example, John Brown, this famous abolitionist actually goes out to Kansas and murders people. - [Becca] And I think that Lincoln was very astute in pointing out that Uncle Tom's Cabin really catalyzed a lot of this violence. And he even met with Harriet Beecher Stowe, so she earned herself a little meeting with Abraham Lincoln. (Kim laughing) - [Kim] And he said, "So you're the little lady that started this great war." I'm trying to think of another book that has started a war. - [Becca] I think we would probably remember that. But I do think Lincoln was really astute in pointing out just how impactful this cultural phenomenon, this Tom-mania was on the question of slavery and on the fate of the American people. And really, it just begged the question in a new way, in this kind of public setting. I mean, I just think that the book itself, the way that the book could just travel all around the United States and so many different kinds of people were able to read it and get their hands on it. This really was just this movement of people just thinking a lot about slavery, reading a lot about slavery. - [Kim] Yeah, well, I think after Uncle Tom's Cabin, I don't think there was a way to not have an opinion on the slavery issue. Either you were for it, or you were against it. And that divisiveness would lead to the Civil War. - [Becca] And again, there's this international focus. There's a deeper, sectional divide between the north and the south, and there was this kind of sorting over the slavery question that Uncle Tom's Cabin really promoted.