There is arguably no work of fiction more consequential to United States history, and therefore to world history, than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it’s a trailblazing book, not just because it tackled a controversial subject matter at a fraught time, but in its deliberate approach to changing hearts and minds about slavery.
The groundbreaking novel follows the story of a group of slaves, including Uncle Tom, who endure suffering at the hands of slave owners. Throughout their journeys, including being bought and sold, beaten and abused, it becomes impossible for a reader not to internalize the plight of the protagonists. Thus, Stowe’s genius shows through.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed history by creating empathy for the plight of the slave. Stowe makes sure the reader feels the pain, suffering, and heartbreak of the characters—characters the likes of whom had not been given such a voice before her work.
Empathy is critical to the book and the key to its impact. It is defined as the quality of “vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present.” Its use to connect readers to characters might not seem groundbreaking to us because today’s novels and films consistently build characters and narratives by creating empathy. In reality, however, the word empathy didn’t even enter the English language until 1909.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was among the first works of literature to emotionally connect readers to characters using empathy. In the decades prior to the book, reasoned arguments and legal theories had moved only small segments of the population on the issue of slavery. The book brought to readers the slaves’ humanity at a time when many Americans did not see them as equal human beings, or at the very least were unwilling to plunge the nation into a bloody war to secure their freedom.
Seeing the slaves’ human perspective changed hearts and minds among a stunning number of Americans and people around the world—the book sold more copies than the Bible within one year of being published, and it was translated into 37 languages within two years.
The growing popular sentiment in favor of abolition led to a new political party two years after the novel’s publication, the Republican Party, and triggered the rise of its new president, Abraham Lincoln. This change of hearts and minds put wind in the sails of the abolitionist cause, which had been mostly relegated to the radical wing of the Republican Party. Mainstream opposition to slavery gave Lincoln and Republicans the political impetus they needed to embrace total emancipation and eventually declare an end to slavery once and for all.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the reasons public opinion changed so rapidly before and during the Civil War, and appealing to empathy—the human heart—was how it did it.
Tragically, slavery’s legacy lived on in many forms following the Civil War, the ripple effects of which are still present in 2020 America. The work of Stowe and her contemporaries are all the more important in our modern discussions about racial disparities—a topic that we are all too familiar with in Wisconsin, particularly when it comes to education.
Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass made clear that not being able to read was itself its own form of slavery. In his autobiography, he recounts overhearing the “man of the house” telling his wife to cease teaching Frederick to read because “there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass then writes, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Douglass was essentially articulating the old saying that “knowledge is power.” The pathway to empowerment and self-sufficiency is a quality education, and the key to education is literacy.
If Douglass were alive today, I have little doubt he would be a fierce champion of literacy and that he would be dismayed at the state of education in our country, particularly the education being provided in largely minority areas and the low reading proficiency scores of so many urban schools.
The failure of facts and legal arguments alone to seriously move public opinion on the issue of slavery, and the success of empathy, is relevant to today’s public policy debates like fixing education.
The party of Lincoln should approach the current unrest from the perspective of empathy and keep an understanding of the issues facing minority communities. We can acknowledge that Black children are more likely to be trapped in failing schools—therefore we support school choice. We can acknowledge redlining and other federal housing policies have been discriminatory—therefore we should have less government involvement in housing and allow more flexibility with zoning and building regulations.
Unfortunately, there is far too little empathy on all sides in today’s debate. Perhaps that’s because books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin are hardly taught in America’s classrooms these days, even as issues of race have become more and more a topic of curriculum and the national conversation. That has led to this great work of historical fiction being largely misunderstood and reduced to an out-of-context insult. That’s very unfortunate for a society like ours that can only survive with knowledge about and wisdom drawn from the past.
Why has Uncle Tom’s Cabin disappeared from school reading lists? Perhaps it’s because empathy is out of style. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s roots in the Gospel. After all, Uncle Tom is portrayed as a Christ-like figure who turns the other cheek through years of torment by his vicious white captors. Perhaps it’s because readers today prefer a more aggressive protagonist.
Stowe’s approach, even a century and a half after slavery’s abolition, remains relevant to us today as we grapple with our generation’s litany of moral and societal evils. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she offers a fundamentally democratic approach to solving national problems: we must first change hearts if we want to change laws.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.