The Role of Slavery in Inciting
The Role of Slavery in Inciting the American Civil War: An Analysis Utilizing Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Through the years of 1861 to 1865, the area currently considered as the United States was engulfed in a country-wide war that left the nation in shambles. Even those unfamiliar with history as a whole would be able to tell you of the United States Civil War; the only one that had torn the country apart. However, far fewer people would be able to tell you exactly how this war was able to take place, past that of the simplest of explanations. The North and the South fought the Civil War for many reasons, but one stood above all. This essay will address the topic of the United States Civil War in order to describe how slavery, as an institution, was able to divide the country through economic, social and political means, using the text known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The American Civil War was an explosion; a powerful and destructive conflagration of this type had never been seen before at the time it occurred. Yet, this explosion did not occur spontaneously and the soldiers on either side were not fighting this war for pointless or inconsequential reasons. No, as argued by Michael Woods, Professor of American History at Marshall University, the Civil War was not exactly that simple, requiring a deeper understanding of the increasingly divided nation. Truly, the causes for the Civil War were many and myriad, each one serving as another spark or another bit of dry tinder waiting to be set to flame (Woods, 2012). However, if these various causes could be described as simple sparks or pieces of tinder, the topic of slavery could be considered an entire gallon of kerosene and the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that of a roaring flame.
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Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and one rightfully termed as one of the most influential novels in American history (Wellington, 2006). At the time of the book’s publishing, the debate over slavery had been raging for decades, a topic that never seemed to meet its solution as the South continued to churn forward with their use of slaves as nothing more than work animals and many in the North continued to protest such treatment.
It was this slave-based state of life which held the South together, a form of living which was only functional and allowed to continue because of a class-based system directly above it, e.g. rich land-owners with the means to own slaves. Nearly all the Southern states were agricultural states, meaning that farming, cotton picking and other similar jobs were effectively the only work that could be found. Hence, the plantation system was the primary basis that the Southern economy rested on, and the backs of slaves used to support even that.
Thus, it was in the interests of these wealthy landowners to keep slavery a system in which they could benefit from and with that, they had grown complacent on the use of slaves as a lifetime source of free labor. Professor Woods also compares these landowners to oil titans of a later age, foolishly believing their product was indispensable to life. It was this same arrogant faith that gave them the confidence to secede when the North threatened to make it harder for the South to utilize slavery as an economic tool (Woods, 2012).
The North, on the other hand, forbid the use of slaves and were able to maintain a functional state of living due to the heavy industrialization that most Northern states had quickly adapted to. Due to the simple fact that most people in the North made their living from factory work or other forms of labor that didn’t exist in the South, the class-based system that the South thrived upon could not and did not exist in the North. With the North’s focus on industrializing and rapid growth as opposed to placidly accepting their current system, like the South did with plantations and slavery, the North was constantly outpacing the South in terms of economic growth. With such differing value systems, it would come as no surprise that tensions between the North and South were constantly on the rise (Woods, 2012).
To the South, slavery had become inextricably entwined with state rights, otherwise termed as the South’s way of life’, as mentioned above, many arguing then and even today that slavery was not the primary reason for the war itself (Finkelman, 2011). Interestingly enough, though, not a single free state seceded from the Union. The four slave states that didn’t secede, ironically, were the least enslaved states in the South (The New York Times Archives, 1861). It seems almost impossible that the secession would just have happened coincidentally as a result of political positions entirely divorced from slavery.
Without the inglorious institution of slavery, the economic power and influence of the wealthy Southern plantation owners and their affluent families would have been seriously threatened and those many individuals who worked for those families would find their livelihoods in the same boat (Woods, 2012). The majority of the South would be plunged into destitution with slaves to carry the economy and the Southern states were well aware of the economic tightrope they walked, and the threat posed to them by the North and their progressively liberal stance on slavery. There were Northern states who had reason to consider their local autonomy trampled in the dirt, yet none of them left the Union (Finkelman, 2011). With all this in mind, it could only really be said that the South’s political opinions did not develop independent from or unrelated to slavery but instead were a direct result of it. Hence, many in the South saw their very way of life’ as being under direct and imminent threat.
And that was ultimately true. The Southern way of life was ultimately threatened, and it became even more at risk when the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exposed the North to the reality of slave life, shedding a light on what it truly meant to be owned by another human being. Previously to the release of Stowe’s novel, the North as a whole could be considered rather apathetic to the concept of slavery. How could they not be, one might ask, when they had very little image of it and information was not nearly as widespread as it would be just one hundred years later? Their own society limited the North’s exposure to the concept of slavery as a system, so the fault did not lie with them (Finkelman, 2011).
Nevertheless, Stowe took it upon herself to correct that mistake, exposing the horrors of slavery and, as expected, many in the North were shocked, of course, likely not even being aware of what was happening in their own country. Yet, just that shock was enough to further fuel a growing conflagration of activism as abolitionists began to campaign for slavery to be made illegal nationwide. The president of the time, Abraham Lincoln, even addressed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influence on the current state of the country by asking her upon their meeting, Is this the little woman whose book made such a great war? (Vollaro, 2009).
All this simply shows how Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a text, worked to imprint the idea of slavery being evil in the minds of all its readers, specifically through this aforementioned idea of even kind slavery being a disservice to all humanity. This idea was expanded on in the depiction of both of Tom’s masters, used to represent Southerners serving to drive this idea home by delving into the cruelty that is the reality of slavery.
Where the slavery debate had been mainly political for quite a long time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin added the spiritual view of good versus evil, forcibly ascending the North’s actions as a moral good and at the same time, demonizing any action the South took in a way that still resonates to this very day when we consider any discussion, representation or arguments relating to the South during the Civil War.
It was in her own masterful way that Stowe stressed to the people in the North that slavery is always cruel, in and of itself, regardless of those who involve themselves in the system with greatest of intentions. The writings in her book struck deep with many quotes like, Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse! (Stowe, 1852, p. 263). forcing many to come to terms with their own beliefs and what they stood for if they allowed slavery to continue. There had been Southerners who considered themselves as simply parents to their slaves, despite violently beating them in order to control them and keep them in line, yet Stowe showed that even kind’ slave masters were still slave masters.
None of the arguments that abolitionists in the Northern states had made to people had ever struck with as much impact or inflicted such emotional shock as Stowe’s book. Exposed to the deeds of vicious slaveowners like Legree and inspirational characters like Tom, people in the North were forced to speak out. Readers also could ultimately empathize with the loss of children by the slaves depicted in the novel due to the fact that child mortality was at a startlingly high rate during that time, with many people losing several children, one after the other.
This act of humanizing slaves in literary form on Stowe’s part was undoubtedly influential, showing all the readers of her book that simply because an individual was a slave, it did not mean they were little more than animals meant for nothing but working at the command of another.
The experiences of Tom himself and his perfect representation of wholesome Christian values forced people who would never have bothered to give the matter a thought to accept that slaves could be, and ultimately were, humans just like them and deserving of just treatment. An example of this humanization utilizing emotional appeal on the part of Stowe was clearly seen in Chapter 40, during Tom’s final scene, which reads, Tom opened his eyes and looked upon his master. “Ye poor miserable critter!” he said, “there ain’t no more ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul!” and he fainted entirely away. (Stowe, 1852, p. 445). This line is given further poignance upon remembrance of a quote from Chapter 11 where it is stated by Tom that All men are free and equal, in the grave. (Stowe, 1852, p. 128).
It was on the ninth of May in 1865, that the American Civil War finally ended, roughly thirteen years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published back in 1852. All throughout this time, slavery was the most important issue in the United States, a topic that through Stowe’s work, somehow managed to transcend that of social, economic and political differences to galvanize all the Northern states together and unified in purpose against the South, which depended on slaves almost entirely to keep their own economy afloat by all means (Finkelman, 2011).
Understanding why the South was so dead-set on using slaves even when it ended forcing what was once the Confederacy into a brutal war that left their lands decimated and their economy ruined can be hard for some, especially with the benefit of hindsight and our modern sensibilities. Slavery did allow the South to thrive, but it was far from necessary (Finkelman, 2011). Plantation owners would have, in the long run, suffered very little by abolishing slavery and simply paying their workers a minimal but acceptable wage. The North had no interest in crippling the South’s economy, but the South continued on their path and stayed firm with their decision to secede. A decision which ultimately proved inimical to their own ability to function, but one they futilely attempted to hold on to nonetheless (Woods, 2012). Perhaps, the south should have used Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a learning tool instead of the Civil War.