The Uncle Tom Episode transcript


The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Uncle Tom Episode
Series 2 (Michaelmas term 2020)
Published 19 November 2020

NB the text below was transcribed automatically by

Adam Smith  00:11
Hello, and welcome to the Last Best Hope, a podcast from Oxford University's Rothermere American Institute, in which we look at America from the outside in. I'm Adam Smith. In 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form, and the battle over the morality and politics of slavery was never the same again. The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was born into a prominent evangelical family, and her horror of slavery was rooted in her day to day familiarity with African Americans, some of whom had been enslaved, in Cincinnati, just the width of a river away from a slave state. Near the beginning of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mr. Shelby, a slaveholder, informs his wife that two of their slaves must be sold to pay their debts.

Reading  01:09
Mrs. Shelby stood like one stricken. Finally turning to her toilet, she rested her face in her hands, and gave a sort of groan. This is God's curse on slavery, a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing, a curse to the master, and a curse to the slave. I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours. I always felt it was. I always thought so when I was a girl. I thought so still more after I joined the church. But I thought I could guild it over. I thought by kindness and care and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom. Fool that I was.

Adam Smith  02:11
Uncle Tom's Cabin catapulted Harriet Beecher Stowe to fame. she toured England and was fêted by aristocratic anti-slavery campaigners, like the Duchess of Sutherland. Uncle Tom was turned into stage productions of varying fidelity to the original and spawned numerous imitators. Seemingly out of nowhere, publishers suddenly discovered the books about the injustice of slavery were commercial winners. Ten years after the book was published, the United States was engulfed in war. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House. According to Stowe family legend, when the tall President Lincoln greeted the diminutive Harriet Beecher Stowe in November 1862, he said to her, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” Lincoln may not really have said this, but it's just about plausible that he did. But if Uncle Tom's Cabin mattered, exactly how did it matter? What was the process by which a book or any kind of cultural production shifted public sentiment? One way of thinking about this is that there are certain moments when people are especially susceptible to new ideas. When the structures of knowledge, the ways of thinking that they previously used to make sense of their lives suddenly seem unstable. Anthropologists sometimes call these liminal moments, a term derived from the Latin word for doorway or threshold. A liminal moment is a period of disorientation, confusion, and heightened emotion that occurs when previously fixed assumptions, ways of being, structures of understanding give way, but new ones have not yet formed. A liminal state is when you're going through the doorway, but don't know what's on the other side, or whether it's better or worse than what you had before. It may be that we're living through one of those liminal moments right now. But there is much reason to believe that this condition of liminality existed in the northern states, the free states of the United States in the 1850s. To explore this idea, I talked to John Brooke, a historian at Ohio State University, who has recently published an intriguing book, which examines, in effect, how it might have been that Harriet Beecher Stowe and her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, made that big war. I began by asking john to describe the circumstances in which Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published.

John Brooke  04:57
When and where, is immediately following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in September of 1850, immediately a protest erupted. Harriet Beecher Stowe began to think about writing something and by April of the next year, so the act is passed in September, late September, by April of 1851 she's, the first instalment of her, many-chaptered book, eventually, comes out in The National Era, published in Washington. The book came out about 11 months later, after, after a writing frenzy, where, which he was really writing on deadline. And actually, the book came out just before the final instalment in the serial …

Adam Smith  05:49
Just tell us a little bit more about the connection between The Fugitive Slave Act and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s decision to start writing this book. What was the impact of the, what was the Fugitive Slave Act and and what impact did it have in the North?

John Brooke  06:05
Well, the Fugitive Slave Act, the backdrop here is that over the course of the 1830s and ’40s, Northern legislatures, Northern courts, began to essentially say anybody who comes into our state is free under our laws, and that broadly violated the the fugitive clause of the US Constitution. And the South demanded that…

Adam Smith  06:31
Which had said that free states needed to return all self-emancipated slaves on the grounds that it was it was a property that needed to be returned to its owners, albeit human beings.

John Brooke  06:42
Human beings. And essentially, what we have is the beginning of the breakdown, of the refusal, of the refusal of Northerners to to abide by this clause. The Southerners demanded that of this be fixed and in part of the wider compromise that was supposed to settle all issues regarding slavery, including the territories to the west, and Texas state debt, and all sorts of all sorts of issues, were all wrapped up in a very messy compromise that was supposed to settle the issue of slavery forever and never to be discussed again. Including The Fugitive Slave Act, which would send basically posses, you know, Southern posses into Northern states, required Northern civil authorities to cooperate under threat of penalty fines, anybody, and any private citizen, who aided and abetted a fugitive would be subject to fines and imprisonment. So suddenly, the hand of slavery reached into the North, and it was slow to develop. Over the course of the summer ’52 people were beginning to understand what was happening. Anti-slavery people were petitioning in huge numbers. And then the Act passed and was signed and immediately, teachers are being arrested and a gigantic protest movement erupted. So, she over the course, she had moved from Cincinnati, her husband had gotten a job in Bowden, Maine, and Cincinnati, to move from Cincinnati, Ohio, which was right on the border of slavery, up to Maine and realise these Maine people don't know anything. Like literally, she'd have tea with these ladies, and like they knew nothing about what the realities of slavery were. And over the course of the fall of 1850, she starts, she's already a well-established writer, she was communicating with a moderate anti-slavery editor just established of, who she'd known before, was established in Washington, he urged her to write she began to put pen to paper in the winter of 1851. And then the chapters started emerging and being published in serial, very carefully orchestrated by the editor and his associates and, including some senators, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Adam Smith  08:58
So, context was that for, perhaps for the first time, many Northerners who had previously not thought of themselves as abolitionists, were forced to confront the brute power of the slaveholders and the American system who were using the federal government, and let's really emphasise this, you know, this is, we often, people often talk about the Civil War, sometimes think of it as being caused by kind of the Southerners wanting states’ rights. Actually, what they were doing here was using the central government, the federal government, to reclaim what they considered to be their property, and that was infringing on the rights of ordinary white Northerners who could, for the first time, be compelled to take part in a slave, in a posse, as you say, to recapture someone who a slave holder was accused of being a runaway slave. And this triggered, as you say, this huge reaction in the North. And it's in that context that Harriet Beecher Stowe who, coming from Cincinnati and therefore knowing something about slavery and fugitives, because it's right on the on the river border between slavery and freedom, is thinking you're saying, in New England move to New England far away, from enslavement, she's thinking these people may think of themselves as being anti-slavery, perhaps in an abstract sense, but they don't really know anything about what slavery was really like.

John Brooke  10:33
And they aren’t willing to act and that's that's the the reality, we should we think of Harriet Beecher Stowe as an abolitionist. Well, actually, she was a private abolitionist, a secret abolitionist. She had struggles within her own family, because of the gradient of abolitionism, she would, you know, all the way through the 1850s have these giant fights with William Lloyd Garrison, who is the leader of the radical wing of the of the anti-slavery movement, of the abolitionist movement. She was, you know, her father was a colonisationist which proposed, you know, freeing slaves and sending them to Liberia, or to Haiti or to Central America. There is a vast swath of conservative Northerners, mostly what we call from the Whig Party who, who were broadly anti-slavery but couldn't see themselves living with people of colour in freedom

Adam Smith  11:23
So it’s kind of a wishing away of the problem isn't it, colonization, it's just like closing your eyes and pretending it’s not there.

John Brooke  11:30
Yeah, it’s literally like closing your eyes and pushing away. And Lincoln, Lincoln was exactly of this description. And and every time I every time we look at this world, we see more and more of these people, who are these very moderate people who would not who would tut-tut against this against this against slavery, but then tut-tut against the against the abolitionists, they just, they weren't willing to take, go to extremes. And so Harriet Beecher Stowe actually is moving in this orbit and really understands these people. And that's what the power of the book was. She was aimed at that constituency, very broad constituency, of un-mobilised anti-slavery people, but who couldn't, couldn't bring themselves to to go across the line into active opposition.

Adam Smith  12:16
And what do we know, John, about how people experienced reading the book?

John Brooke  12:22
That's the interesting angle. That's where you literally have people who wrote down their responses, and they range from they range from, you know, common labourers, who are fairly fairly literate to, you know, gentlemen, and their studies general and women in their studies, and they talk about it as this transformative, you know, wrenching experience that that literally is a break in their lives. It's a in the kind of Protestant framework, it's a conversion experience. And so the process of reading was a reading this book, and they literally went into hiding, they stayed up all night. They broke, they broke all sorts of rules of decorum and respectability. They avoided their friends, they stayed up all night. They, they, they wept, you know, oceans of tears. And they wrote letters talking about how this would transform the world. And it really, you know, really, my guess is about 100,000, people probably read if you multiply the, you know, the National Era put out about 19,000 copies. So we'll say, maybe, maybe one, five readers for every 19,000 copies, that's about 100,000 readers of the magazine series. And then the book itself published, within three year, two years, published 300,000 copies, 300,000 copies. Multiply that by five, which is a conservative, yes, for the readership for each copy. And you get at one and a half million people, which is one out of seven of everybody over the age of nine. I've done a little experiment by counting the number of people who are named Eva, who was one of the great was one of the great characters, the central character, one white girl character, a friend of Uncle Tom in New Orleans, and the number of little girls who are named Eva rockets up for between 1852 and 1858. A couple hundred, and it's clearly very few people in the South named their children, Eva, you know, two or three people kind of didn't get the message. But hundreds of people in New England, hundreds of people across the North. So we get this big burst of naming, which is, you know, not a terrible, yes.

Adam Smith  14:36
Yeah, naming practices are a really interesting indicator of the the cultural resonance of something. And and I and I think that's, that's a, that's a very, I mean, it's difficult to know what to do with that data point other than to say it's got to mean something, right? I mean, that's got to be as a rough as a rough indicator of impact that's got has got to mean something. So the book itself, the, first of all, the serialised story in the in the magazine, and then the book itself, was a publishing sensation. And then there were stage versions as well, weren't there. Can you talk a little bit about those? Did the stage versions reach a different audience from that which the book had reached?

John Brooke  15:20
I think they did. I think it's pretty clear that we're looking at a much wider audience, a theatre going audience which overlaps with the reading audience, but is not not a coterminous thing. The the theatre audience was a in particularly in the bigger cities was, you know, could include the, you know, the, the, the men of town, and the women they consorted with, and as well as the, you know, the labouring the labouring boys, and they would flock to these, they would go to the theatre, and their descriptions of them in New York and Philadelphia, of them sitting there in their skull, their fashionable skullcaps and their pants rolled up above their boots on a hot summer night watching Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And there's you know, descriptions by even by William Lloyd Garrison of ooh, things are really shifting fast. Took a while for the theatre productions to start, the big city productions started in 1852 and 1853. And by the late fall of 1853, they're they're out in the hinterlands, these travelling companies intersecting with all sorts of other things like circuses and mirror shows and panoramas, all sorts of entertainment venues that make you realise it is only 50 years till the movie industry begins. They are scrabbling on the edge of the film world. People are fascinated with with with, you know, depictions of the real on stage. This is out in the countryside in the small towns. And it's hitting the Midwest in particular, in the winter of 1853 to ’54. Just as the Kansas-Nebraska Act is being debated and so and just as there are a series of fugitive events, meaning a fugitive is being chased by by federal marshals, crowds assemble and liberate the fugitive and send them off to Canada. And there's a gigantic ruckus in the courts. These fugitive events intersected in all sorts of ways with the productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, New York and the Midwest. And they're reading about the progress of the great bill that will determine the West.

Adam Smith  17:42
So did the reading of the book or the watching of one of the stage productions inflect, influence the way in which people read the newspaper when they were reading about fugitive slave cases, when they were reading about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was this bill which could have opened some of the Western territories which had previously been, from which slavery had previously been banned, it could have opened those territories to slavery, seemed like yet another exercise of the power of the slaveholders the Slave Power in Washington. So did people read their newspapers in a different way having read Uncle Tom's Cabin or been to the stage play?

John Brooke  18:29
I think that's what the evidence says. I'm not physically there, I can't interview them. But the evidence certainly strongly suggests that there is a broad sea change in the way people viewed public policy. And so a cultural event, we have a constitutional crisis, starting with The Fugitive Slave Act being passed, that leads into a cultural event spread widely by the, really a modern media, modern media platforms, telegraph, printing, and the railroad. There really is a fundamental acceleration of modern technologies that we found antiquated to us but they are cutting edge to them, that are driving, you know, driving this into the public arena. And there was an advertisement on American TV for many years called, for a battery, the Energizer battery, and there was this rabbit, there was the Energizer Bunny would come out banging cymbals. And it was like Uncle Tom's Cabin was the Energizer Bunny, everybody knew about it. Everybody knew about it, they couldn't get it out of their head, they were sick and tired of it. But they they were they knew the whole story, or they knew parts of the story, and they were talking about it.

Adam Smith  19:47
And what was it about the story? Was it the humanity of the enslaved people? That was described by Harriet Beecher Stowe?

John Brooke  19:57
I think that's, you know, that's a big part of what, what happened was that, you know, she wrote narratives that had people of colour in slavery with names and personalities and life stories. So people are, people, it's something fundamentally new.

Reading  20:20
It was late at night, and Tom lay groaning and bleeding alone, in an old forsaken room of the gin house, among pieces of broken machinery, piles of damaged cotton, and other rubbish which had there accumulated. The night was damp and close, and the thick air swarmed with myriads of mosquitoes, which would increase the restless torture of his wounds. Whilst a burning thirst, a torture beyond all others, filled up the uttermost measure of physical anguish.

John Brooke  20:58
This was really the first big modern media event deeply entangled with a fundamental political issue that had deep moral consequences. And it moved, you know, moved enough people just far enough to draw the line against slavery.

Adam Smith  21:19
You use the concept of liminality in your book. Now, can you explain as simply as you can, what the advantage is of using that concept of liminality. What you're conveying there, I think, is that there is some special condition that pertained in the early 1850s, which meant that the readers of this book, who were also reading newspapers and reading stories about actual real live enslaved people who were making a bid for freedom, that people who are going to see these plays, that there was a special condition, which meant that that they were all for the first time questioning assumptions that had structured their understanding of the world up until then. They didn't yet, hadn't yet, got to a position where they knew how to think about the world in a different way. But they were destabilised. So can you talk about that concept of liminality, and how it helps to understand this particular situation in the early 1850s?

John Brooke  22:28
Well, deep back up for a brief second here. But the the concept of liminality emerged in anthropology in the turn of the twentieth or the early twentieth century. And it was focused on small-scale, pre-modern societies and ritual events. How do you pass through status, through the open space that happens during a ritual that is actually managed by by ritual figures, but but you're allowed to do things inside that ritual space that are different and they're freer, and then you emerge into a new status, a new structure. So it's really fairly simple. And we we experienced this, huge numbers of people experienced this, except that now we live under COVID. But until recently, this was a weekly or multi weekly and people were obsessed about it, which was sports. Every sporting event involves liminality. You read the stats, you talk about, you debate where the state where the where the state of play is, and then you watch the game. And is this a game that is an event? If it's an, if it's if it's indeterminate, you don’t know, the teams are matched. You have no, you do not know what the outcome is going to be. And therein lies the excitement, the open-ended possibilities of where you're going to go. And then, boom, whistle blows into the fourth quarter, game is over. And you have a new structure. There's a new, you check the check the stats and you see what's happening to the other teams and you know what, oh, here are those standings, is where we stand until the next event. So you know, liminality is that open-ended space, where things are many things are possible. Now, unfortunately, we have been living through a series of liminal events on both sides of the Atlantic. We have lived through four years of indeterminacy on both sides of the Atlantic and the English speaking world. You had your Brexit, your Brexit, are we going to do it or not? We have had our Trump problem, you know, are we destroying the, are we destroying, we elected a clown trickster who is going to undermine our constitutional structures. Are we you know, have we have we, you know, what is the future going to be? Then we layer on top of that in, across the world, coronavirus. The coronavirus experience that is exhausting. The liminality of, you know, of the experience where we don't know what the future is going to be. And this has been a, you know, a fundamentally, it's a fundamental rupture. We again, we don't know when it's going to be over, when our normal structures of some kind are going to return. Are they going to be something like we saw before? So we all are living in the midst of something like these people were living in, in the in the 1850s. And we don't have a, you know, I'm not sure a cultural moment, we'll, you know, we'll look back in the not so distant future and see if something, something, it's something there was a moment that you had to make a shift.

Adam Smith  25:44
There's no question that living through this time, is, as a historian is, is helpful in thinking about the period that we've been discussing in this in this conversation, of the early 1850s. If only because it, it can help to bring us closer, I think, to the, levels of anxiety and emotional intensity, which, you know, you described. You've described, people's reactions to reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. Part of that was because it was something that was completely new. Part of that was because the wider political context made what was being described in Uncle Tom's Cabin seem intensely important and relevant, and in ways that were potentially completely disruptive. You know, what were the implications, even if you were taken by Uncle Tom's Cabin to the position that okay, slavery is really bad, I feel intensely sorry for people who are enslaved. What then? What do you do? And how do you resolve this? I mean, we now know, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, that the way it was resolved, was through an extraordinarily bloody civil war. And that, if people had known that in the early 1850s, that probably would have made them feel worse, right. I mean, that was about the worst case resolution that they possibly could have imagined.

John Brooke  27:09
And I think they knew it. I think people knew it. People talked about it, people wrote about it. John Quincy Adams wrote about in his diary in the 18, no turn, around 1820. People were worrying about this, after the Revolution, and they suppressed it. So there is this undercurrent of, and every now and then it pops up of, of the threat of bloody civil war. Southern representatives in Congress in 1790, when petitions against slavery were put to Congress saying, maybe we should start the process of bringing slavery to an end, they just simply tore off their masks and said, there will be bloody civil war if you even address this, and everybody got very quiet and never talked about slavery for a generation. So you know, it erupted, it's a background. The scale of it, they have no idea what's going to, you know, that it will be anything like it will be. And but I think that that is what is terrifying a lot of people and leaving them desperately hanging on to the structures during the 1850s. And that was that will include, you know, large swaths of the political public in the the late 1850s, who are hanging on to to unionism at all costs. And we could get deep in the weeds on the on who they are, but, but there are there are players who are desperately trying to hang on to the old order, so that they can avert what they know is coming, you know, then we have the first modern war.

Adam Smith  28:45
John, thank you very much indeed. They're really uncomfortable resonances between the period we’ve been talking about in this conversation and that and the present day. I don't know if we're, I don't have quite the same sense that we're heading towards cataclysmic civil war, but the point is, we don't know, do we? We have no idea what lies in store in the next few weeks or months. And it is, and it is unsettling. And I think that that dimension of of trying to find some way of categorising people's emotional responses as differential, depending on the broader political circumstances, I think this is just a very helpful way of thinking about politics as a whole. John, thank you very much indeed for this conversation. Really enjoyed it. Thank you.

John Brooke  29:33
Well good. Thank you, Adam.

Adam Smith  29:34
John Brooke, whose book about how the anti-slavery movement transformed the free states is called There Is A North. At the end of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe addresses the reader directly. As revolutions roil Europe, with empires tottering and old orders under siege, she speaks to a people conscious of living in a liminal moment. And like a preacher, she warns that Judgement Day is coming for America.

Reading  30:09
This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and unredressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion. For what is this mighty influence thus rousing in all nations and languages those groanings that cannot be uttered, for man’s freedom and equality? Oh Church of Christ, read the signs of the times. Is not this power the spirit of him whose kingdom is yet to come, and whose will be done on earth as it is in heaven?

Adam Smith  30:58
For Stowe, that judgement came when the Civil War destroyed slavery. It turned out that even an institution as deeply embedded as was slavery in the American South, even an economic system in which hundreds of millions of dollars were invested, and which had a whole political and cultural structure to defend it, could come crashing down, once it became a threat to other even more powerful interests. That was what happened in America. Slavery, long tolerated by Northerners, became intolerable. The enslaved had more routes to freedom. And in the end, the power of the American state, with a million-strong army made up in part of formerly enslaved African American men, was deployed against it. In that dramatic story, this one novel written in a tearing hurry by Mrs. Stowe played an outsized part. You've been listening to the Last Best Hope, I'm Adam Smith, and the reader in this episode was the actor Olivia Stakem. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and like us on whatever podcast platform you use to help other listeners find us. And to find out more about the RAI and what we do, follow us on Twitter @RAIOxford, or visit our website. Goodbye.