Speaking from a 21st century perspective, it is difficult to see how a novel could be as important as the political and economic tensions that led to the Civil War. Those are easier to note, and more quantifiable. However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was such a novel. Most significantly, the novel roused both anti-slavery and pro-slavery public sentiment high enough that war was not heavily objected to.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Birth of a Novel
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part and parcel of the Compromise of 1850 (the Kansas-Nebraska Act). It stated that any escaped slaves found in any state, whether or slave or free, could be caught and returned to their owners. All the catcher or owner had to do was declare, orally, that the slave was a runaway. It also placed penalties on anyone who aided a runaway slave.
Harriet Beecher Stowe acted upon her sister-in-law’s suggestion, to write a novel about the personal side of slavery. Her protagonist, Uncle Tom, is sold and re-sold to different kinds of slave-owners, both kind and sadistic. Multiple side stories describe separations of families, and the helplessness of slaves whose masters had died.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Popularity, and Public Sentiment
Abolitionists could easily be dismissed as extremists, with the easy phrase, “surely it’s not really that bad.” In other words, slavery and the realities of slavery had no hold over the public, both in the Northern and the Southern states. Stowe’s novel bypassed the prejudices against extremism, and brought slavery to the eyes, and more importantly the emotions, of the public.
In its first year, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in 1852. By the time of the Civil War, it had already sold over 2 million copies, both in the United States and abroad. Throughout the 1850s, the book became a staple of the family library in the free states. It also provoked proslavery writings and arguments from the slave-holding South.
This heightening of public emotion and sentiment served to split the emotional divide between the North and the South more clearly. The North now had more of a reason to abolish slavery; the South now had more of a complaint of their unfair treatment by the north. Public sentiment, as Lincoln admitted, was crucial to carrying out a war that needed the sanction of an elected Congress.
In other words, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was indeed crucial to the Civil War. It gave the war legitimacy in the public’s eyes, allowing the conflict to continue as long as it did. It also gave the Union the moral high ground both nationally and internationally.