The best selling novel of the 19th Century was published 156 years ago today. In its first year, Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 305,000 copies in the United States alone, while some 2.5 million copies were sold worldwide.
But we don’t remember the book because it was simply a commercial success. The book was a social phenomenon as well. It brought the realities of slavery into homes far removed from the American South. Long-suffering Uncle Tom, courageous Eliza, and young Harry put individual faces to previously unknown slaves, while the despicable slave owner finally got a name in Simon Legree.
Surprisingly, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a simple anti-slavery novel. Stowe does not hold the Southern states solely responsible for perpetuating slavery. In fact, the book takes great pains to show how the North was complicit as well. After all, Simon Legree might be the stereotypical evil slave owner, but he was not a Southerner by birth—he was a Yankee.
Nevertheless, the novel had a significant impact on the abolitionist movement, both in the United States and abroad. During the Civil War, Stowe visited the White House. Supposedly, Lincoln greeted her with the unforgettable line, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”