Greatly to the chagrin of the southerners, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act energized the abolitionist movement in the North. Most northerners opposed the institution of slavery, but many had taken no active steps against it. Two of the most famous works in American literature appeared at this time; they too addressed the question of slavery and fueled the spirit of abolition. The first was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, appearing in 1845. The second was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, appearing in 1852.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a slave narrative—an autobiography describing the brutal repressions from which slaves like Douglass had been skillful and lucky enough to escape. In the years following the publication of the Narrative, Douglass became famous as a public speaker, most frequently on the issue of abolition. Those who read his book or saw his imposing presence on a speaker’s platform were deeply impressed.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s epic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin shocked the reading public with its portrayal of an entire society corrupted by slavery—male and female, free and enslaved, enlightened and bigoted, young and old, educated and ignorant, northern and southern, black and white. The novel reveals the evil effects of the slave system on everyone it touches: it corrupts people who are good and noble in other respects into the belief that slaves are not fully human. Stowe’s novel outsold every book in the United States except the Bible in the years leading up to the Civil War. It was translated into several languages and made her an international celebrity. It opened the eyes of many northerners to the realities of slavery as portrayed in its pages, and it reinforced the abolitionist beliefs of many more. The novel was banned in the South; southerners who read it dismissed it as the ravings of a crazy woman.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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