So How Did Slavery Finally Come to an End?

I’ve been studying slavery lately, American slavery that is, nastier then most other forms of slavery because it destroyed families in a way that slavery in other countries, and even in the ancient world, did not.

I believe American slavery should be studied because of the perspective it provides on the greatness of America. (I guess we weren’t always so great, and if we are great now, which is definitely open to question, it’s only because we can look at our faults and correct them.)

But if you ask how American slavery finally came to an end, people generally think of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln himself said it was the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the little lady who started this great big war.”

William Lloyd Garrison was right all along, but he burned the constitution, and some say his work was so divisive it hurt the cause. Cyrus Lawrence advocated relocating slaves to Africa, and compensating slave owners, but later, as times grew grim, bought a howitzer for John Brown to use in Kansas.

Theodore Parker, another Boston abolitionist, inspired Lincoln’s thinking and his oratory, largely because of Lincoln’s law partner Will Herndon, but it was Uncle Tom’s Cabin that turned people all over the world against American slavery.

How? Not by propaganda, depicting slave owners as monsters, but by depicting them as human beings in an inhuman system. Stowe was the niece of five preachers and the sister of four more. It was the very fact that she showed no malice toward slave owners that her work gained such power.

How powerful was this work of fiction? It sold more copies worldwide than any book except the Bible, more than any publisher thought a book could ever sell. It’s a lot like Peyton Place, exposing child sexual abuse, also written by a housewife on her kitchen table — a previously unimaginable publishing success.

I’m reading a book that anyone else in the world might find some difficulty laying hands on. It’s called Without Divine Intervention” Three Novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe Herself by Sarah D. Hartshorne (my mom), BA vassar College, 1948, MA Boston College, 1978, submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English at Brown University.

I don’t know why I’ve never read it before. Maybe because I couldn’t understand it. The title is from an unsympathetic critic who said that God had helped write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but Stowe’s other works were written “without divine intervention.”

Sarah D. Hartshorne argues, if I may paraphrase, that such people are full of balloon juice, and Stowe deserves more critical appreciation for works like Dred and The Minister’s Wooing.

So, more than any other person, even Lincoln, she helped bring American slavery to an end. Now she should also be acknowledged as a good writer.

The “Uncle Tom” sterotype is one that African Americans want to leave behind, and that’s just as it should be. That’s a triumph of America: no one has to act like Uncle Tom ever again.

But in the book Uncle Tom was beaten to death because he refused to betray fugitive slaves, so to me he’s a hero. And Stowe’s other works are great too if you want to understand the times.

I still remember my mother’s inspiring words to me just as, clad in her ceremonial garments, she ascended the dais to receive her PhD at Brown: “Big waste of time and effort.”