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The True Story Behind 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' the Book that Rocked Pre-Civil War America 


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When Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, the anti-slavery novel flew off the shelves. Seventeen printing presses ran 24-hours a day to keep up with demand, making it the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

"The book struck at our emotions, as a nation," Norfolk State University's Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander explains. "And it made us see ourselves. It was our emotional mirror. And it prompted some individuals to decide to rethink how they thought of slavery."

Uncle Tom's Cabin has been cited as a factor leading to the Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln later met author Harriet Beecher Stowe, he allegedly said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

Immediate Backlash

In 1852, the backlash was immediate and powerful.

"In the South, the book was banned. And if you were caught selling the book, you were either going to be killed or thrown in prison," says Dr. Newby-Alexander. "There was tremendous fear that this book would make a difference." It did by portraying Uncle Tom as a dignified, intelligent, God-fearing man. In the South, however, traveling "Tom" shows became popular by depicting him as a submissive buffoon, happy in his enslaved condition – a stereotype that remains today.

The Real Life Inspiration for "Uncle Tom"

There were also attempts to discredit Harriet Beecher Stowe. The author countered with A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, an exhaustive bibliography of the real people behind her fictional characters. It included her primary inspiration for Uncle Tom: Josiah Henson.

"Josiah Henson was an individual who I think demonstrated extraordinary courage," says Dr. Newby-Alexander. "He tried to help other people, especially whites in this country, to understand the reality of slavery, the horror of slavery, the price of slavery."

Josiah Henson's story begins in Rockville, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. What was once a 570-acre plantation is now a suburban neighborhood. The Josiah Henson Park sits on the remaining property, including the original house where the owner lived, a man named Isaac Riley.

Josiah Henson's Life as a Slave

"In this time period, masters wanted to present themselves to be very benevolent, these patriarchs who cared about their people that were enslaved," explains Jamie Kuhns, Senior Historian for Montgomery County Parks. "But the presentation that Henson gives us was that didn't happen for Isaac Riley." 

"I faithfully served Riley for many years," Henson later wrote. "He was coarse and vulgar in his habits, and unprincipled and cruel in his general deportment."

Henson's autobiography provides many examples of Riley's cruelty, like the day he discovered a book on grammar hidden in nine-year-old Josiah's cap. "When Riley saw the book, of course, he was outraged, because it was unheard of that his enslaved people would learn to read and write," explains Kuhns. "'Pick up that book,' he cried, using an awful oath," Henson writes. "At last, I was obliged to do it, when he beat me across the head and back till my eyes were swollen and I became unconscious."

"For Every Man": Josiah Comes to Faith in Christ

Despite the harsh treatment, Henson proved to be trustworthy. Eventually elevated to overseeing the plantation, Henson eased the harsh conditions faced by his fellow slaves. Riley even allowed 18-year old Josiah to attend a revival meeting. Although not allowed to enter the church, he heard a life-changing message from preacher John McKenny.

"He said, 'Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tasted death for every man,'" Henson wrote. "It touched my heart, and I cried out: 'I wonder if Jesus Christ died for me.' Again and again, did the preacher reiterate the words 'for every man.' Oh, the blessedness and sweetness of feeling that I was LOVED!"

"That meant a lot to him because he knew that God would always be on his side," says Kuhns. "He would deliver him, and He would decide his plan in life."

The plan included moving his family and 18 others to Isaac Riley's brother's home in Kentucky. When they got to Cincinnati, Henson found his faithfulness tested. Although Ohio was a free state, and many free black men encouraged them to stay, he stood firm.

"He felt like he had been tasked with this duty, and he was going to fulfill it," explains Kuhns. "He had taken care of them and they felt like, 'If he wants us to carry along we'll go with him.'"

"One Absorbing Purpose": To Gain Freedom

Henson came to regret this decision. Three years after their arrival in Kentucky, those who followed him were put up for auction. "Husbands and wives, parents and children, were to be separated forever," wrote Henson. "From that hour I saw through, hated, and cursed the whole system of slavery. One absorbing purpose occupied my soul – to gain freedom, self-assertion, and deliverance from the cruel caprices and fortunes of dissolute tyrants."

Setting His Sights on Canada

Because of Henson's management skills, he and his family were initially allowed to stay together. Two years later, however, his time had come. The only option: escape. A major obstacle was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which meant he and his family could be captured even in a free state. So he set his sights on Canada.

It was a 600-mile journey that he would have to make on foot with his wife and four children, traveling by night, sleeping by day, super dangerous," explains Jared Brock, author of the Henson biography The Road to Dawn. "But he knows he's got to go to Canada; it's the only place that he can truly be a free man."

Josiah's wife made a sling for him to carry the two youngest children on his back. With only the North Star as their guide, the family began their journey. After forty grueling days, they arrived at Lake Erie, just across the water from Canada. A sympathetic ship captain offered to take them the rest of the way.

"He put his hand on my head and said, 'Be a good fellow, won't you?'" writes Henson. "I felt streams of emotion running down in electric courses from head to foot. 'Yes,' said I; 'I'll use my freedom well; I'll give my soul to God.'"

Henson helped start a black settlement in Ontario, including a multi-racial school, almost unheard of at the time. To raise money and awareness, he traveled through the United States and England, where he was granted a private audience with Queen Victoria. During those years, he risked his life to help a total of 118 slaves reach freedom in Canada.

"He's an inspiration for me personally, and I hope for many people as they hear this story, to use our freedom well," says Brock. "To use our resources, our time, our money, our energy, our voice, our influence. To use it on behalf of those with less than us."

Seeing God's Hand in Painful Experiences

Near the end of his life, Josiah Henson visited the plantation he once managed. Although many of his experiences here were unimaginably painful, Josiah could see God's hand in them, writing, "Sharp flashes of lightning come from black clouds." 

**Originally published February 7, 2019

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