Slavery as an Attack on Domestic Life in Uncle Tom's Cabin
The Compromise of 1850 included The Fugitive Slave Law, a law forcing non-slave owners in the free Northern states to return escaped slaves to their Southern masters and participate in a system they did not believe in. Jehlen notes the reaction to this cruel governmental act by stating that "[t]he nation's growing guilt and apprehension is tangible in the overwhelming response to Uncle Tom's Cabin" (386). It seems hard to believe that people could find no wrong in making it a law to return humans as if they were property. In fact, Stowe wrote her most famous work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, at a most opportune time; indeed, she wrote it in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Knowing her audience would be primarily white women, Stowe played on their feelings of uneasiness and guilt over the treatment of slaves, especially those of the Northern white women who could help with the Abolitionist movement, by introducing her readers to seemingly real characters suffering from the injustice of slavery. This can be seen even in the style in which Uncle Tom's Cabin was written; Stowe directly addresses her readers, forcing them to consider slavery from the point of view of the enslaved. "Expressive of and responsible for the values of its time, it also belongs to a genre, the sentimental novel, whose chief characteristic is that it is written by, for, and about women" (Tompkins 124-25). Uncle Tom's Cabin is a sentimental novel; it was meant to appeal to the unsettled emotions that existed in the reader's mind, creating and sense of guilt and injustice, making them see how slavery destroys human lives and families. Through the introduction of these Southern families, Stowe demonstrates how slavery corrupts and ultimately eliminates domestic stability.
Like many other female writers during this time, Stowe emphasizes the two separate spheres created by the Cult of True Womanhood. The Cult of True Womanhood was a system of values, deeply ingrained into the minds of 19th century Americans, much like the idea of slavery, that established the proper codes of conduct every respectable woman should follow. A major component of the Cult of True Womanhood was the Cult of Domesticity, the belief that a woman's place was in the home where she could cook, clean, and care for her family. Nina Baym states that "[d]omesticity is set forth as a value scheme for ordering all of life, in competition with the ethos of money and exploitation that is perceived to prevail in American society" (27). A woman supposedly had no business worrying with events occurring outside the home, in the public sphere or marketplace where decisions like the Fugitive Slave Law were made and the cruel patriarchal institution of slavery thrived; she belonged strictly in the domestic sphere. Davidson comments that writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, having no voice in the public,...