“The family lived on words, spoken and written.”
One of my goals for this year was to become a more thoughtful reader. I want to know more about what I am reading and why it is important in the grand scheme of things. I do not need every book to change my life but I do believe there is a purpose for every piece of writing. Entertainment, learning, or just evaluating different styles of writing is important for me to grow as a reader and writer. I like to do some background work before I tackle any classical literature or books that are set in the past. I have been doing quite a bit of research on the Underground Railroad and I just completed three more books that will be reviewed in the upcoming months on the blog. Before I begin reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I wanted to know more about Harriet Beecher Stowe and her motivation behind writing the classic piece of literature that President Lincoln believes helped spark the Civil War.
Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in a male dominated century. She was declared a genius in her youth, but her father famously stated that it was of no use unless she was a boy. She lived under the direction of her stern older sister after the age of 12 and later married Calvin Stowe. Her family and religious beliefs were a strong influence in her writing, and helped spur many of her characters and stories. She wrote about things she was most passionate about and after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 she turned her passive opposition to slavery into a determination to see the practice ended. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a plea to end slavery. It is a Victorian novel based on the life of Josiah Henson. Stowe knew a great deal about slavery from her family and time in Cincinnati. She also read slave literature including Theodore Weld’s American Slavery As it is. After the release of the book she faced several attacks on her character as well as her writing. She ended up writing an entire follow up book to defend herself and her research. The book was excellent publicity for the North and their crusade against slavery. Stowe published over 30 books, but is most well-known for Uncle Tom’s Cabin because of its inspiring subjects.
I found myself interested in the Fugitive Slave Act that spurred her reaction and led her to write. The original Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1793 and authorized local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners and imposed penalties for aiding their flight. If this was already in place where was the outrage when this passed? Was the sentiment against slavery not as strong? The 1850 Act added further provisions making the crimes a civil and criminal matter with harsher punishments for interfering in runaway slave capture. This occurred under President Fillmore’s watch during the peak of the Underground Railroad movement. To ensure that the 1850 law was enforced the control of individual cases were placed in the hands of the federal commissioners. Data shows that the law remained largely unenforced, but the fact remains that this law led to major outrage and was a factor in the growing tension between the north and south. I would be interested in researching other laws that were passed during this time and the effects it had on the outbreak of war.
I have an admiration of Stowe for the courage it must have taken to speak out about the injustices of slavery. She was at a disadvantage as a woman in a male word, but stood her ground when attacked for her beliefs. Slavery is a huge part of our American history and she earned her place in the fight against it. She is proof that we can use our words to change the world.
“Although runaways were free once they stepped on free soil, they could still lose their liberty.”
I have been continuing my research on the Underground Railroad and wanted to read some accounts of people who successfully escaped their circumstances into freedom. The Craft couple are one of the most well-known cases of escape. Ellen and William Craft had spent their entire lives as slaves being passed around from family to family. After they were married they began to discuss their mutual concerns for starting a family. They did not want their unborn child to be property that could be sold without their consent so they began to discuss plans for running away. The plan evolved into Ellen dressing as a Southern white gentleman heading to Philadelphia to consult a physician with her husband William assisting her along the way as her slave. They had the forethought to ask for passes for the Christmas holiday so they would not be immediately missed. Their plan was quite advanced and shows their true determination to escape.
The first step was boarding a train to Savannah where a neighbor sat right next to Ellen out of pure coincidence. She was able to fool her neighbor and continued to their second stop: boarding a Steamboat to Charleston. There was yet another scare on this leg of the journey that was thankfully quelled by an army officer who vouched for the couple after sharing a few meals together. Next they boarded a steamboat up the Carolina coast, followed by a train to Richmond, a steamboat up the Potomac, and then another train to Baltimore. At this point they had been traveling for nearly four days. They barely slept, ate, and the worry was constant that they would be found and returned to their owner to face harsh punishment if not death. On the final stop in the journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia the couple is stopped by an official. It was against the rules to allow any person out of Baltimore into Philadelphia without the proper approval/paperwork. They only managed to clear this checkpoint due to Ellen’s apparent illness that she concocted with her disguise. There were so many stops along this journey that I honestly can’t believe they made it. Even with their careful planning this was nothing short of a miracle. Many slaves didn’t even make it past their plantation, let alone several states over. I had heard this story on a Podcast before reading and remember almost biting my nails with worry at each stop. I felt certain they would never make it.
The Crafts became involved with several abolitionist groups and lectured across the country and eventually across England. They organized speaking tours and opened up schools in London and Georgia after the Civil War. No matter how hard or overwhelming the obstacle they never gave up. They believed in the cause of ending slavery and did their part to save and help those they could. There are tens of thousands of slaves that escaped throughout the years, but the Crafts had the courage to speak out at the time even with fear of capture once the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. Their story was printed in newspapers, circulations, and spread from plantation to plantation. They were hunted but still remained free from the moment they set foot in Philadelphia.
I can understand the appeal of this story, especially amongst slaves. They are heroes in their own right as they gave hope to those that needed it most. Slavery is gruesome, and the details of their past and what they bared witness to would shock and horrify even the most hardened person. I have found several other interesting slave escapes and if you are interested in a few then I would urge you to look at this concise list: http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/5-daring-slave-escapes
I utilized 5,000 Miles to Freedom: Ellen and William Craft’s Flight from Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin for this post. I recommend it to those who want more detail! Stay tuned for a few more posts about all things Underground Railroad. I have thoroughly enjoyed researching this topic, even though it makes you question the cruelty of humanity. There are a lot of lessons to be learned.