by Elizabeth Grace Matthew
in America Magazine
Almost 170 years ago, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to propel many progressive, elite white women toward abolitionist sympathies.
When President Abraham Lincoln, as is alleged, greeted the novel’s author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as “the little lady that started this big war,” the description was mostly hyperbole. Nevertheless, it would be no exaggeration to say that Stowe’s novel, published in 1852, both epitomized and codified the 19th-century sentimentalist idea that progressive white women’s feelings should be the ultimate compass for American morality—on race and more generally.
In the “Concluding Remarks” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe urges her readers—mostly Northern white women whose ostensibly delicate sensibilities had been shielded by their men from real knowledge about the brutality of slavery—to “feel right” about abolition, and all would be well. Leave the politics—the thinking and the doing—to others. Just feel right.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe paints an enslaved woman, Eliza, as a Black Madonna figure trying desperately to save her innocent baby. She paints an enslaved man, Tom, as a Black Christ figure who is willing if not happy to be slaughtered for love of those who enslaved him. And, of course, it should go without saying that Northern white women “feeling right” by Stowe’s injunction—crying indignant tears at her portrayal of Tom’s death, for example—was indeed preferable to the grotesque alternative (cheering, say, at his demise).
Yet it is essential to recognize that for Stowe’s readers, this low bar of “feeling right” still obscured and excused more than it revealed or demanded. After all, it was relatively easy for many Northern white women, even in 1852, to feel shock, sympathy and righteous anger about the fact that through the brutality of race-based slavery, those bad people down there in the American South could crucify a Black Christ figure…