The Book That Started a War

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an unquestionable cultural impact that changed the course of history, and it was created strategically and intentionally. And yet it was “just” a fiction book. A story. Would the message have been as powerful as a sermon or a speech? How might we “write for change” in a contextually appropriate way today?

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Harriet was a teacher; she lived in a world of ideas and theories, but what she saw outside of the neatly ordered lines on her chalkboard infuriated her.

She was determined to do something tangible.

Something that would make a difference.

However, she was learning that it was one thing to talk about change; it was quite another to jump into the fray and create something for public consumption that could be either praised or criticized.

In the past she had gone to rallies, demonstrated at campaigns, and made sure her voice was heard, but lately she had taken a step back, assessing her talents and giftings to see where she could make the biggest difference. Harriet wasn’t especially big and didn’t have a large booming voice like some at the demonstrations; when she held a sign at the rally, she felt like she could be swallowed up by the crowd and no one would even notice.

But one thing she could do was write.

So, she did.

The World-Changing Power of Nouns

She didn’t keep her writing to herself though. This couldn’t be just a journal to vent her emotions. This needed to be a book for others to read if it was going to make an impact. It would be hard, but it needed to be birthed from the world of ideas into the world of tangible, living things.

A noun is a person, place, or thing. This is something we learn in school as children, and probably one of the few grammar lessons that sticks with all of us into adulthood, long after we’ve forgotten how to diagram a sentence or know a gerund from a geranium. And if we are to create for change, then there’s no getting around the world-changing power of ideas brought to life in the form of books, businesses, Bible studies, board members, babies, bills, buildings, budgets, and bosses.

The catch though, is this: we must create something that exists in real life, not just in our minds. Ideas don’t count. Our ideas must come to life in order to change the world. And often, “that world-changing power resides much more in cultural goods themselves than in the people who created those goods. For the very nature of cultural goods is to go beyond the reach of their creators.” [1] In one sense, art isn’t art until it’s experienced by another. [2]

Nouns are vast, almost all-encompassing things, filling many different categories of “stuff”. So vast as to reflect the polychromatic life our Creator has given us, allowing each of His unique human masterpieces the freedom to image Him in countless ways by impacting the world with the things they bring into existence. For you, and for me, all across the spectrum of Creative Types, the things we are called to create are not one and the same.

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For Harriet, it was clear what she had to do.

She needed to write a book.

Little did she know her book would start the deadliest war in American history.

Writing for Change

“So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

Reportedly, these were the opening words author Harriet Beecher Stowe heard upon meeting President Abraham Lincoln.

The book, of course, is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and though historians disagree on whether President Lincoln’s comment contained some measure of exaggeration, there is no denying the cultural impact of the book in the Antebellum Era of the United States, leading up to the deadliest war in American history. The book, a fictional portrayal of life as an African American slave, was created strategically and intentionally to change public opinion on the then-current and widespread Southern practice of human chattel slavery.

Published in 1852, nine years before the Civil War began in 1861, the book sold 300,000 copies in the North alone within the first year of publication and one million copies in Great Britain. [1] By comparison, and after adjusting for population changes, that would be equivalent to selling almost fourteen times as many copies of Harry Potter within the first year. In the South, the effect was even more explosive. The book’s runaway popularity was said to be an insult to the South’s collective honor [2] and to have “helped to lay the groundwork for the Civil War.” [3] Within three years of publication, it was called “the most popular novel of our day,” [4] and was a driving force behind the growing abolitionist cause. [5]

Art as Legislative Rebuttal

It is worth exploring the precipitating event behind Harriet Beecher Stowe’s decision to write the anti-slavery novel. In 1850, Stowe was working as a teacher in Connecticut at the Hartford Female Seminary and already an active abolitionist. That year, a controversial law was passed, The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring the cooperation of Free State Northerners to aid in the tracking down of escaped slaves and returning them to their Southern masters. Northern Abolitionists pejoratively labeled this law the Bloodhound Law after the dogs that were loosed upon runaways and aided in tracking these escaped slaves. [6]

In many ways, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 itself stirred up on-the-fence Northerners to choose a side. Previously, some Northerners could claim little to no direct knowledge or participation with slavery, but now, this act made them and their institutions directly responsible for enforcing and supporting the abominable practice. Many Northerners disobeyed the law, refusing to acquiesce. There are many stories of Northern religious groups, particularly Quaker communities, living in open defiance and continuing to assist runaway slaves, helping some to escape to Canada.

But, for Harriet Beecher Stowe, the new law stirred her up to write a book detailing the plight of her fellow man because far too many Northerners, even after the passage of the new law, were still content to take an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to the controversial issue of slavery. If one could live in their sheltered Northern enclave, far from the abuses taking place in Southern states, then it would be possible to go on about their daily lives, relegating the problem of slavery to merely a theoretical exercise.

Today, when injustices like abortion and human trafficking are commonplace, why is the primary response of concerned believers to hastily campaign for more legislation rather than appealing directly to the court of public opinion in a winsome and compelling way?

Overturning Roe v. Wade is certainly a noble cause, but is that all we are to aim for? And, if the American public is still on the fence about the issue of abortion, then don’t we have other work to do as well?

Where is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the modern American pro-life movement?

Who is telling the stories about the plight of the immigrant girl trapped in a sex-trafficking ring?

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a teacher, not a politician. She was not especially influential, nor was she politically connected. She was obviously a woman with all of the accompanying prejudices of her time, but she knew what she could do, what she must do, was write.

Written for Purpose, On Purpose

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was no accidental agent of cultural change. A full two years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, Stowe wrote to the editor of the anti-slavery journal The National Era, detailing her plan in advance: I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak. … I hope every woman who can write will not be silent. [7]

Stowe set out strategically and intentionally to write an anti-slavery novel with the express purpose of changing the hearts and minds of the American public. She felt bound by her conscience after losing her eighteen-month-old son, Samuel Charles Stowe, to communicate the horrors of wrenching families apart in slave auctions, even going so far as to say, “Having experienced losing someone so close to me, I can sympathize with all the poor, powerless slaves at the unjust auctions. You will always be in my heart, Samuel Charles Stowe.” [8]

The Power of Relevant, Contextualized Story

The book itself was written in the style common to the nineteenth century, that of the melodramatic and sentimental genre, sometimes called women’s fiction, though read by both men and women. She wrote in the popular tone of the day, using the cultural vehicle that was most suited for wide appeal and to affect the hearts and minds of the most people.

It’s well worth pointing out that she was determined to change people’s hearts as well as their minds.

How might history have played out differently if she had been so determined to write a scholarly treatise or to outline a religious sermon? Academic and religious works certainly have their place, but it’s a limited toolbox that only makes use of those two instruments.

When we aim for cultural change in our own contexts, why is it that we turn so quickly to sermons and speeches rather than stories?

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[1] Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “The Cousins’ War: review of Amanda Foreman, ‘A World on Fire'”, New York Times Book Review, July 3, 2011, p. 1

[2] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s–1880s (2000).

[3] Will Kaufman (2006). The Civil War in American Culture. Edinburgh University Press. p. 18

[4] Ernest Everon “Some Thoughts Anent Dickens and Novel Writing” The Ladies’ Companion and Monthly Magazine London, 1855 Volume VII Second Series:259.

[5] Ellen J. Goldner “Arguing with Pictures: Race, Class and the Formation of Popular Abolitionism Through Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 2001 24(1–2): 71–84

[6] Allan Nevins (1947). Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847–1852. 1. Collier Books

[7] Joan D. Hedrick (1994). Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. page 208. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 30 Jun 2011

[8] Noel Gershon (1976). Harriet Beecher Stowe: Biography. Henry Holt and Co, New York, NY

[1] Andy Crouch. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, IVP Books, 2013. pg. 198

[2] Walt Wangerin Jr. quoted by Andrew Peterson Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making B&H Books, October 2019 p. 20

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Joel Ohman

Joel Ohman is a serial tech entrepreneur, author, and the chief creator at Created for Change. You can connect with Joel at or via LinkedIn.