The Fugitive Slave Law and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, 2ND EDITION

By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia

The Fugitive Slave Law poisoned sectional relations in the wake of the Compromise. The most influential reaction came not in the political sphere, but in the literary sphere, and it came from the pen of Harriett Beecher Stowe in the form of her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was the sister of the famous religious figure, Henry Ward Beecher.

hands in chains
The Fugitive Slave Law only served to fragment the society into sections and embitter their relations. (Image: Valery Sidelnykov/Shutterstock)

Slavery Depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Stowe called the Fugitive Slave Law an abomination, and in 1851–1852, she published a series of articles serially, in an abolitionist newspaper published in Washington, D.C., called The National Era. In 1852, she collected these pieces in book form as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

She said that God wrote this book through her, and it was a phenomenon. It sold 300,000 copies the first year; it sold a million within seven years of when it was published, and this is at a time when there were only about 25 million people living in the United States.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Was an Important Work

portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Stowe’s novel dealt a huge blow to the Fugitive Slave Law. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The book was the most important novel published in United States history in terms of its impact. It showed the brutality of slavery in a way that other writings had not. After all, Uncle Tom is killed at the end of the book, beaten to death.

It had an impact on people in the North in that it made them think about slavery in ways that they had not done before. It also made many people come to terms with the brutality of slavery in ways they hadn’t before.

The South’s Reaction to the Novel

Stowe’s family treasured a story and passed it along about her; we’re not sure whether it’s true or not, that when she met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he came up to her and said something like, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.”

The South reacted angrily to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and said that it was a direct assault on their institutions, their social system, and their way of life. A number of very clumsy counter-novels were published that portrayed slavery in a very benign, even positive form. They had nothing like the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but overall, there is no denying that this book was a phenomenon unlike any other literary phenomenon in United States history, with enormous implications.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Fugitive Slaves

About 1,000 of roughly three million slaves in the United States in 1850 escaped to freedom. Even though a very small number, it is symbolically very important because the slaveholding South believed the United States government should help retrieve slaves who managed to run away from their owners. Many in the North believed the government shouldn’t be doing that—that’s not something the United States government should be involved in.

In all of the 1850s, 332 slaves who’d managed to run away were returned to their owners through the efforts of the United States government, and there were almost four million slaves by 1860. Again, the importance of this phenomenon is all out of proportion to the numbers involved.

The Case of Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns was the most famous of the fugitive slave cases, though certainly not the only one; his was not the first, but the most famous. He escaped from Virginia to Boston in 1854. He was subsequently taken into custody there, and his owner sought to have the United States government help return Burns to Virginia. Democratic President Franklin Pierce said the government would “incur any expense to enforce the law”—the Fugitive Slave Law.

Abolitionists and many others in Boston fought his return to Virginia, but in the end—at the expense of more than $100,000, and the use of a federal revenue cutter, to take him back—Burns was removed from Boston and taken back to Virginia.

Thousands of people in the streets of Boston jeered as Burns was taken to be shipped back to Virginia. They hung American flags upside down, and otherwise expressed their displeasure with the use of the Fugitive Slave Law to return a man who had reached freedom.

State Law Versus National Law

Several northern states passed new personal liberty laws that sought to frustrate the Fugitive Slave Law; they sought to put state power in between the national law and the people it was intended to affect.

The state of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin’s personal liberty law was constitutional, and that the Fugitive Slave Law was not.

However, in the case of Ableman v. Booth, in 1859, the court ruled that the national Fugitive Slave Law was constitutional. It was a court presided over by a slaveholder from Maryland named Roger B. Taney, and this decision was given.

Ableman v. Booth gave great comfort to the slaveholding South. It upset antislavery people in the North, and it was ironic, in the sense that it was an example of the North trying to use states’ rights in the form of the personal liberty laws, and the South calling for greater central authority and power in asking the national government to make sure that the Fugitive Slave Law was pushed to its fullest extent. It’s a reversal of the usual clichés about the South being in favor of states’ rights.

Common Questions about the Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Q: Who wrote the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by Harriett Beecher Stowe, the sister of the famous religious figure, Henry Ward Beecher.

Q: What is the significance of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most important novel published in United States history in terms of its impact. It showed the brutality of slavery in a way that other writings had not. It had an impact on people in the North in that it made them think about slavery in ways that they had not done before.

Q: What did the northern states do to counter the Fugitive Slave Law?

Several northern states passed new personal liberty laws that sought to frustrate the Fugitive Slave Law; they sought to put state power in between the national law and the people it was intended to affect.

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