The Real Uncle Tom and the Unknown South He Helped Create
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When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, during the Civil War, he reportedly said: “So you’re the little lady who started this great war.” There was some truth to his words. The book played a huge role in persuading northerners to view southerners as cruel, corrupt and insatiably greedy.
Neither Lincoln nor the book’s hundreds of thousands of readers had any idea that there was a real Uncle Tom and a real South that was very different from the portrait painted by Stowe and other anti-slavery critics such as her brother, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Like Mrs. Stowe, most of these critics believed that God had inspired them to demand the immediate abolition of slavery — and condemn slave owners as contemptible. The vast majority of modern readers are equally unaware of the real Tom and the South he lived in.
The article originally appeared in Financial History magazine and is adapted from A Disease in the Public Mind by Thomas Fleming (Da Capo Press, 2013)