Uncle Tom’s Cabin


City University of New York

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History Department

HIS 1000: Themes in American History D. Y. Chang


Harriet Beech Stowe wrote this novel in reaction to Congress’ passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Using information that she got from her own visits to the South, accounts of run-away slaves and information in Southern publications, she created a fictional story about slaves and their owners that was based on fact. Her intent was to awaken her fellow Americans to the realities of slavery and its innate immorality. The novel was regarded as the book that started the Civil War, though it was only one of many factors that led to America’s greatest crisis in the 19th century. Yet, it was a controversial work in that it intensified the pre-existing tensions over the perpetuation of human bondage in the “land of the free” – tensions that went as far back as the drafting of the 1776 Declaration of Independence.


In a typewritten response regarding American slavery, answer the following questions, and base your answers upon Stowe’s novel and non-fictional sources. What you will do is to determine how accurately Stowe portrayed the conditions and problems of slavery. Pretend that you are an investigative journalist, who will use different sources to analyze America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery in “the land of the free”. (BTW: “Peculiar” means “unique” or “distinctive”, as well as “odd”.) Those for whom English is a second language, note that Stowe’s novel has been widely translated into many languages; check online to see if you can find an edition in your native language which will help you get through this long novel; but your references to the novel should be from an English language edition.

As for resources which you can use, start with your textbook:

(a) Look at the Table of Contents for the chapters on Slavery and read them. You can also look at the Index at the back of the textbook for information about various subjects or to zero in on a particular topic. (FYI: An index is a pre-Internet search engine which is limited only to the information in the book that it is part of.) Pay attention to items in the chapters that deal with varying viewpoints and/or contending voices for different opinions on an issue.

(b) Next, consult the Appendix (at the back of the book) for its suggested readings given under different chapters of the book. Be aware of two types of sources – primary source documents, which are works/records written by people in the past and are the raw materials for historians & other investigators to work with; and secondary sources which are materials written or produced using those primary sources. For example, Stowe’s novel is a primary source, while a study based in part on her book is a secondary source. Another example: A newspaper article is a primary source since it is contemporary with its time period and the current events it reports; but a journalistic or scholarly article utilizing the newspaper account is a secondary source. Use the suggested readings, especially the primary sources to help you answer the questions of this assignment; and you must use primary sources in addition to secondary ones. [Cont’d]

After utilizing your textbook, consult the library to get additional materials (library services are available during the pandemic; look at the College website for information on library services).

You can also use online sites, but reputable ones – not blogs. There is a lot of junk on the web, including fake histories and lunatic-fringe “facts”. One online site that you can consult is: http://college.hmco.com. You can also consult the history sites provided by reputable colleges & universities – e.g. CUNY, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, University of California, University of Chicago. Don’t use websites of institutions you’re unfamiliar with or have never heard of: Again, there is a lot of junk on the Internet – be careful!

You may also watch documentaries by PBS [i.e. Public Broadcasting System or Public TV],

e.g. THE ABOLITIONISTS – THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, which may be streamed on the PBS web-site (pbs.org) or on iTunes; it may also be available at the Baruch library.

Encyclopedias can be used; but use reputable ones, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica.


(1) ALL questions and sub-sections of a question on the prompt must be answered. Credit will be lost for omissions as well as errors.

(2) Writing will count, so problems with grammar, organization, word usage, etc. will also affect the grade. During the pandemic, there is free help available to students from the Writing Center. You can schedule an appointment on the Center’s website well in advance of the due date for your assignment; the website is writingcenter.baruch.cuny.edu (you should schedule such help sessions at least two weeks in advance, since you will need time to re-write the paper).

(3) PLAGIARISM WILL MEAN AN AUTOMATIC “F” – this means that you must:

(a) Use your own words.

(b) If you quote, put quotation marks around the quoted words if it’s a short quote; or put a longer quotation without quote marks in a separate single-spaced paragraph.

(c) Whether you quote or use your own words, always cite (i.e. identify) the source or material from which you’re getting your quotations and information. To cite something means telling the reader from what part(s)/pages of a book, article or source-material you’ve gotten your quotation or information (i.e. you must give the exact pages where the quote or information is found, such as p.31 of a book you’ve consulted). If you don’t cite your sources, but present other people’s ideas/words as your own, that is cheating or plagiarism. (Use an English manual on style or writing, if you don’t know how to do bibliographic and footnote citations; or ask the Writing Center for help with citations). Citations are required not only for quotations, but also for any information that you summarize or paraphrase (i.e. reword).

(4) Don’t summarize the plot; this is not a book report.

(5) Answer the questions in Q&A (Question & Answer) format; remember to copy the question or sub-section of a question that you are answering. Treat your responses like a mini-essay with complete sentences and paragraphs. Remember that even with Q&A, organization and correct grammar are still needed. For freshmen or students for whom English is a 2nd language, pay attention to what you learn in your English prose composition classes. And note that the services of the Writing Center are still available during the pandemic (see the Center’s website address above in item 2).

(6) NOTE: The assignment is structured in such a way that you can do it in stages — this makes the paper more manageable. So, some questions or sub-sections of a question can be researched and answered independently of the novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.

(7) The paper is to be 15 typed, double-spaced & numbered pages (you may use additional pages as needed; but no more than 5 pages over the limit). If you don’t know how to put numbers on your pages, go to the tool bar of your Windows document: Click on “Insert”, and on its drop-down menu look for “Page Number” and click on it for options. (Mac-users may have a different way of numbering pages; so use the “Help” function to find the Mac method of pagination.) Get into the habit of numbering the pages of all your written work, as that is the standard practice with academic papers, as well as with non-academic reports and letters.

(8) Insert 1.5 inch-margins on all sides of each page (for my comments). Again, if you don’t know how to make margins, go to the tool bar of your Windows document, click on “Page Layout” and then click on “Margins” for options. For Mac users, consult the Help function on your devices to set margins.

(9) Don’t use any covers for the paper. Just staple the pages together and attach this prompt/question sheet to the assignment. In the upper left hand corner of your first page, give the following information: (i) Your name; (ii) Instructor’s name; (iii) HIS 1000/Sat. class; and (iv) date (this is standard practice for papers – get used to doing this).


F. Y. I. — Note the following points:

1. Stowe deals with American slavery in the 19th century (1800s) and NOT in the period of the 17th and 18th centuries (1600s and 1700s). So, don’t confuse the two historical periods.

a. In the 1600s to 1700s, most slaves were imported from Africa. But after 1808 when the US government banned the African slave-trade, Americans got their slaves by breeding them; consequently, the slaves in Stowe’s novel are American-born, even though the author dubs them “Africans”.

b. In the 1600s and 1700s, slavery existed in both the North and the South. But in the 1800s, slavery was abolished in the North by the state legislatures there; however, it continued in the South and only ended in that region after the Civil War. Therefore, 19th century slavery refers solely to Southern slavery. [Cont’d]

2. In the novel, the geographical term, “north”, has two meanings:

a. It may refer to the free or non-slave region above the borders of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri (see the map of US slavery after the Compromise of 1850 in your textbook).

b. It may also refer to the UPPER South (i.e. the slave states of Kentucky, Virginia,

Maryland and Delaware), as opposed to the DEEP South (i.e. the slave states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia). So, Kentucky is not a Northern free state but a Southern slave state, even though it’s sometimes called “up north” in the novel.

c. Note that Ohio is a free state, despite the fact that its Senator Bird votes for a

pro-slavery bill in the novel.

3. Indentured servants were a form of mostly white contractual labor bondage that existed in the 1600s and 1700s; but it was not prominent in the 1800s before the Civil War among whites. Also, under indentured servitude, the laborer had to be set free when his/her contracted term of work was over (usually after 4 to 7 years). This is what makes indentured servants different from slaves, not race or the kind of treatment they got (both could be abused). In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there are no such servants. So, don’t confuse the two forms of bondage.

4. Great Britain ended slavery in its empire long before the United States did (in the 1830s), so that British territories like Canada were the preferred destination for some American slaves, rather than the “free” Northern states of the US where they could still be captured.

5. Non-native English speakers should be aware of the difference between the following terms: “South America” only refers to Latin America or that part of the Western Hemisphere where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken; it does not mean the “American South” where slavery existed in this country in the 19th century before 1865.



1. What were the differences between 19th century American slavery, and slavery in other countries & time periods? Look at the systems and practices of slavery in ancient cultures and non-Western ones.

(a) How did one become a slave under the American and foreign systems during different time periods? Was slavery always permanent?

(b) In some societies, could slaves buy their way out of slavery? If so, how?

(c) Did American and non-American societies acknowledge/respect the marriages of slaves, and the family ties between slave parents and their children?

(d) Under different systems, what was the status of children born of slave parents; were such children also slaves? And what was the status of children born of a slave woman and her owner? [Cont’d]

(e) In different societies, were all slaves manual laborers? Could they be educated in other than vocational skills? Were there different sub-classes of slaves?

(f) Did slaves have freedom of movement? What kinds of restrictions were imposed on slaves under the American and foreign systems?

(g) Did slaves have some protection against extreme abuse by their owners or overseers? How were slaves treated if they resisted mistreatment and oppression, or tried to escape? If slaves were brought into a law court for some case, how were their testimonies treated and how were they questioned?

2. In both the novel and in real life, there were huge debates over the pro & cons of slavery. In Stowe’s book, the justifications and condemnations of the “peculiar institution” are expressed by members of the St. Clare (St. Claire) family – i.e. Augustine, his wife Marie, and his twin brother Alfred. (a) What are they? (Note: the views of the St. Clare family members are expressed in different parts of the novel; so look for them – don’t just rely on one view for each of them.)

(b) Compare and contrast their views with real-life defenders and opponents of slavery.

3. Defenders of slavery insisted that it was a form of paternalism toward an “inferior” people, who were “better off” as slaves than as free workers. (a) How were slaves treated, according to Stowe’s novel? Look at the way slaves live on the Shelby, St. Clare (St.Claire) and Legree estates. Is kindness ever sufficient protection for slaves, in Stowe’s book? What would give slaves real security from abusive masters, in the author’s view? (b) In history, how were American slaves actually treated? Give the views of both real-life defenders and their adversaries.

4. Stowe describes what slave trading was like. (a) How were trades conducted in both the novel and in real life? (b) What American social classes were involved, and which of them did Stowe blame the most for this trafficking in human beings? Was she correct, according to real-life supporters and opponents of slavery? (c) In both the novel and in reality, what were American slave-warehouses like, and how were slaves treated by the traders & by the customers?

(d) What aspect(s) of the slave trade did Stowe find the most appalling? What did real-life opponents consider to be the worse/worst aspect(s) of the trade in whatever form it took?

5. Contrary to stereotypes, both history and the novel reveal that not all Southerners or slave-owners supported slavery. (a) Which Southern historical figures were against slavery and why? What did they do about this system of bondage? (b) In the novel, how does Augustine explain the existence of slavery in the first place? (Look at his “Quashy” speech, chapter 19). And how does he explain the perpetuation or continuation of slavery? (c) Besides Augustine St. Clare, which other slave-owners in the novel are opposed to slavery? Why doesn’t Augustine and others like him in the novel do anything about slavery, when they know how inhumane it is? What is Stowe’s view of such individuals?

6. Northern states at different times had abolished slavery on their own initiative (i.e. independently of the national government), and well before the Civil War which finally ended the peculiar institution in the United States. (a) In history, what reason(s) did Northern whites have for wanting to end slavery? Was their opposition solely on moral grounds, as Stowe’s was? And was opposition to slavery the same as supporting racial equality? Why or why not?

(b) In the novel, what does Stowe point out about Northern whites through the character of Ophelia and through Augustine’s view of his northern cousin & others like her? (c) How were free blacks in the North actually treated in real life; and why? How did blacks feel about their treatment? (d) What was the “colonization scheme”? How did blacks in real life and in the novel feel about it? (For the novel, look at the character of black George Harris, not to be confused with his white master of the same name.)

7. In spite of the hardships, exploitation and abuse experienced by slaves, most did not rebel against or run away from their masters. Why? (a) What does the novel suggest as to the factors that kept slaves disunited or discouraged from running or disinterested in defying their masters? Look at Augustine’s household slaves, and those on the Shelby and Legree estates. (b) In real-life, what did the laws in southern states (slave codes) allow owners & overseers to do to slaves in terms of restrictions and of punishment? Be specific. (c) In what ways did slave rebellions influence the slave codes (e.g. the uprisings of the Haitian Revolution, and of Denmark Vesey & Nat Turner – explain why these rebellions were so frightening to whites)?

8. Historically, there were also laws at the federal (i.e. national) level that upheld white supremacy and protected slavery. (a) How was the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act different from earlier federal fugitive acts? What made it so controversial? (b) Why did Northern politicians, like Illinois’ Senator Stephen Douglas (Lincoln’s opponent in both the 1858 senatorial race and the1860 presidential election), support the interests of the slave-holding South? Which character in the novel is like Douglas, and why does that character initially support slave-owners?

9. It has been said that slavery in America was a democratic expression of popular will (or the will of the majority). (a) Does Stowe agree with that? Which region of the country does she blame the most for slavery’s continued existence? (See chapter 45 in the novel; read this carefully.) (b) Historically, would that statement be true? If it isn’t true, how could slavery persist in “the land of the free” after America became independent of Britain?


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