Brown Biographer Writes; His Latest is on Uncle Tom's Cabin
|David S. Reynolds|
Connecticut the cradle of the Civil War? The idea goes against common wisdom. We learned in grade school that when the antislavery Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the South saw no choice but to secede from the Union, and war broke out.
What we forget is that Lincoln would never have been elected without a previous surge of antislavery sentiment in the North. That surge was created, in large part, by two people from Connecticut: John Brown, born in Torrington in 1800, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in Litchfield in 1811.
Stowe's contribution to the conflict was her massively popular antislavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." When it was published in 1852, the novel broke sales records and became an international sensation. Its impact was amplified by plays and tie-in products.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" caused a sea change in public opinion with its searing portrait of the suffering of enslaved blacks. Millions of readers who had previously been indifferent about slavery were deeply moved by the novel's two plots: the tragic story of the gentle, pious Uncle Tom, who is sold away from his family and taken to the Deep South, where he is whipped to death; and the thrilling escape to Canada of the fugitive slaves Eliza and George Harris.
In the North, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" generated a whole new body of antislavery literature. It also resonated in the halls of Congress, where politicians cited it in speeches.
At the same time, the novel provoked outrage in the South. Nearly 30 proslavery novels and scores of other writings appeared in response to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They presented slavery as a wonderful institution that gave shelter, food and religious instruction to ignorant barbarians brought from Africa.
As feelings on both sides of the slavery divide intensified, it became clear that the mild, nonresistant approach represented by Stowe's Uncle Tom was not going to end slavery. The antislavery warrior John Brown, who in 1859 raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in a heroic, doomed effort to liberate slaves, correctly predicted that slavery would fall only after "very much bloodshed."
Harriet Beecher Stowe and other former pacifists, notably Henry David Thoreau, were inspired by the martyred Brown, whom they compared with Jesus Christ and the Founding Fathers. Stowe hailed Brown as "the man who has done more than any man yet for the honor of the American name."
Stowe hailed Brown as "the man who has done more than any man yet for the honor of the American name."
Soon enough, Brown was widely viewed as a hero in the North and as a demon in the South. Brown created such political turmoil that Lincoln won the 1860 presidential race, with just 40 percent of the popular vote, because his opponents were divided among three parties.
As a Southerner of the time declared, Harriet Beecher Stowe had spread the antislavery kindling that John Brown lit with the torch of violence.
What was it about Connecticut that produced such powerful antislavery figures as Stowe and Brown? In a word, religion. Connecticut was home to a special brand of evangelical Christianity that equated doing good with reforming the world and reaching out to all people, regardless of color. Stowe, whose father was the Litchfield pastor Lyman Beecher and whose siblings included the minister Henry Ward Beecher and the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, was so devoted to the antislavery cause that she insisted that God, not she, wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Connecticut-bred religion also drove John Brown, who believed that God had chosen him to wipe out slavery. Small wonder that as the Union troops tramped South they sang the rhythmic words, "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on," which became the basis of Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hyman of the Republic."
After the Civil War, the author Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem describing the ghosts of Uncle Tom and John Brown having marched through the war, spreading their influence everywhere. Holmes was paying tribute to Stowe's heart-rending novel and Brown's bold actions, which, taken together, did more than anything else to fuel the passions behind the war the ended the most egregious injustice in American history.
Source: David S. Reynolds, “John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Potent Cause.” The Hartford Courant [Hartford, Conn.], 10 April 2011.
David S. Reynolds is a distinguished professor of English and American studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of "John Brown, Abolitionist." His new books, "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America" and "Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Splendid Edition," will appear in June.