Igniting the War: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Antislavery Politics, and the Rise of Lincoln


American Antiquarian Society
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United States

Lincoln reportedly called Harriet Beecher Stowe "the little woman who made this great war." Although Stowe's mammoth best-seller Uncle Tom's Cabin is vaguely associated in many people's minds with the Civil War, several modern commentators have tried to argue that it actually had only a minimal influence on the political decisions that led to the war. One historian maintains that "its political effect" was "negligible." Another asks, "In what sense does a novel have the power to move a nation to battle?" Such remarks ignore the tremendous power of public opinion in America, which Tocqueville regarded as stronger than the government—an idea Lincoln echoed when he declared, "Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government."

No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom's Cabin. Based on his new book, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, David S. Reynolds will describe how Stowe's novel shaped the political scene by making the North, formerly largely hostile to the antislavery reform, far more open to it than it had been. The novel and its dissemination in plays, essays, reviews, and the tie-in merchandise directly paved the way for the public's openness to an antislavery candidate like Lincoln. Simultaneously, it stiffened the South's resolve to defend slavery and demonize the North. Uncle Tom's Cabin thus ratcheted up the political tensions that led to the war that ended slavery.


David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His works include the award-winning Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, Walt Whitman's America, Beneath the American Renaissance, and John Brown, Abolitionist.