In 1862, Abraham Lincoln had a meeting in the White House with Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war,” Lincoln said to her.
Lincoln wasn’t kidding. As noted Civil War historian James McPherson writes: “When first published in weekly installments in the antislavery newspaper National Era from the summer of 1851 to the spring of 1852, the story attracted little attention outside antislavery circles. But when it appeared between hard covers in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin suddenly became the publishing phenomenon of all time. With little advance notice and no reviews, it sold three thousand copies the first day, twenty thousand in the first three weeks. Then sales really took off. Three mills ran full tilt just to supply paper for the book. Within a year it had sold three hundred thousand copies in the United States and three million the world over. By the time Lincoln met Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been translated into over twenty languages and had sold two million copies in the United States alone. This is equivalent to almost 25 million in the more populous America of today.”
What can we learn from this?
Stowe focused mainly on one aspect of slavery, the way it tore families apart. She put the plight of the slave family to the rest of the country: How would you feel if this happened to you?
Stowe was a devout Christian. She said that the vision of the book came to her during Communion one Sunday and that she rushed home to begin writing it. In fact, Stowe said she didn’t actually write the book, that she was merely God’s instrument. The point here isn’t religious belief. The point is that Stowe spoke to the American people in a language they already understood, the language and lessons of the Bible. That hasn’t changed much, other than the fact that right-wing evangelists dominate the conversation about what the Bible means. But what does the Bible, the primary cultural touchstone in our country, say about, for instance, foreclosures?
“If you have nothing with which to pay, why should your bed be taken from under you?”—Proverbs 23:27
The American people are ready to hear a different message than the one presented by the mass media. Let’s give it to them. With books, songs, poems, photographs, articles, paintings, films, and more. Maybe one of us will write a book that sells 25 million copies. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. Our potential collective cultural power is infinitely greater than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s.
We won the Civil War. If we heed the lessons it has passed down to us, we will win the wars currently being fought over poverty, the environment, and immigration too.