Uncle Tom’s Cabin, American Revolution, and Millenarianism

This posting is a draft. I hope that I can use the blog to help uncork some stifled ideas on the relationship between Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the ideology of American revolution, and millenarianism, a subject which in earlier form I considered for the most ambitious claim of my dissertation, that a reconsideration of American Revolution transformed National Era‘s antislavery ideology during the serialization of Stowe’s work. I am working through a similar claim for an article that I am revising. I try to deal here with the claim of Eric Sundquist’s monumental To Wake The Nations–a work which I tackled after my dissertation. Enough of the throat clearing, and on to Sundquist’s claim for his work.

The renaissance of American literature occurred in an era in which the authority of the Revolution had become the subject of anxious meditation and in which the national crisis over slavery’s limits everywhere compelled a return to the fraternally divisive energies of the revolutionary generation. That cultural rebirth of many kinds should issue from a historical moment as rife with ideological tensions as with democratic opportunities, as much with violence as with concord, is no surprise. What has not been realized, however, is the degree to which writing about the problem of slavery–in particular, writing about slavery by African Americans–can be seen to have animated that rebirth, not because it was central to every major literary text of the period but because it defined the overarching ideology of liberty which left the nation in a state of unresolved crisis while at the same time authorizing its cultural independence, territorial expansion, and rise to world power. When the major issues are oriented only this slightly, not New England and New York but rather the South and the Caribbean become the significant geography, the social and political soil on which a cultural renaissance could occur.” (30)

According to Sundquist, the moral urgency that antebellum African American writers like Douglass, Brown, Garnet, and Jacobs provided–a reading of the Declaration of Independence that would eventually overcome the Constitution’s support of slavery–expressed the “clarified will of the founders” (36), to which Lincoln and the northern Republicans would subscribe even as they hesitated to undo the Constitution’s protection of slavery. One witnesses the continuing struggle between the founders’ will (as expressed in the Declaration) and Constitutional Law in the often forgotten legal nicety of the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery only in rebellious states. Slavery remained legal in those states not yet having declared themselves in rebellion: legal slavery is not abolished in Federal Law until the Thirteenth Amendment is adopted during Reconstruction.

Two factors of the decade preceding the Civil War must be borne in mind. While sectional conflict was an imaginary possibility, before Lincoln’s election war was not inevitable, though pressure ratcheted up over the course of the decade with Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), Dred Scott (1856), and Harpers Ferry (1859). In the early part of the decade, that Civil War would be the result of the ongoing conflict over the slavery could not be predicted. In the longer antebellum period–four decades or so (this is a draft, remember)–the ideological conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery thinkers was generally a struggle over the Revolutionary inheritance, with emphasis on America’s Revolution but with attention also to Caribbean and European history. A major area of conflict was the definition of Revolution, and writers could pick from competing traditions, a secular sense of revolution as social upheaval (threatening to Americans for its association with the French Revolution and–especially for southerners–the Haitian Revolution) and a providential sense of Revolution as the Protestant expression of the rise of republicanism against aristocratic despotism (associated often with Louis XIV and the Catholic Popes), the forward march of human progress and the will of God.

Sacvan Bercovitch offers a most compelling expression of these contradictory antebellum impulses in the matter of interpreting the 1776 Revolution. In The American Jeremiad, he distinguishes between secular radicals, who believed that they “might found a new paradise of reason by throwing off the institutions of the past” (133), and the religious conservatives, who would claim that “revolution was an issue of this world [with] little or no bearing upon the course of sacred history” (133). American Puritans, again according to Bercovitch, redefined the 1776 Revolution to serve both purposes. Rather than an internal revolution against the state, America’s Revolution would be understood in terms of a crucial Old World/New World distinction: “Revolution in America was the vehicle of providence. It took the form of a mighty, spontaneous turning forward, both regenerative and organic, confirming the prophecies of Scripture as well the laws of nature and history” (134). Given the antebellum distinction between rebellion and revolution, one perceives readily why the conflict that the 20th Century has called the “Civil War” to Pro-Union northerners would be known as “War of the Rebellion.”

From secular radicals at one end of an ideological spectrum and religious conservatives at the other, one encounters a broad range of religious ideologies, and Ernest Lee Tuveson in Redeemer Nation clarifies two strands of religious thought that express providential views of history. The term “millenarian” refers to an expectation that the millenium of Christ’s reign will begin with his actual physical return, whereas “millenial” refers to the belief that historical progress, under divine guidance, will bring about the holy utopia. The attitude of the latter is progressivist, the former antiprogressivist,” but it is the latter that “has been predominant among English-speaking Protestants since the later seventeenth century” while millenialism has remained a minority view (31, 34; ctd. in Sundquist 75, n. *).

Bercovitch in The Rites of Assent on the basis of George Harris’s Canada choice emphasizes UTC as a case similar to The Scarlet Letter, in which “injustice is to be removed by some `divine operation,’ which, however, has not yet done its office” (226). Bercovitch’s reading of Stowe’s work, like Hawthorne’s a “representation of contradiction as an ambiguity” (226), emphasizes Harris’s choice as a “happy ending” (227). But one senses Bercovitch’s disengagement with Stowe’s novel when he offers it as epitomizing the “victimized orphans and weaver-girls of sentimental fiction” (296). While Stowe has come to epitomize social criticism, the conventional stock characters of Bercovitch’s are at best tangential to Stowe’s novel. I contrast his discussion of Stowe’s novel on pg. 370, which is quite different and seems like a reading of Stowe’s work rather than a reading of of Ann Douglas’s re-reading.

I would propose that a reading of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is inadequate if it (like Bercovitch) places Stowe among what Tuveson characterizes as “millenarian” (Christ’s actual return) instead of “millenial” (historical progess under divine guidance). Rather, her work is alternately pulled between millenarian and millenial phases, a tension that I see most apparent when one studies her periodical text as an alternate version of her work.

The reader will please accept my apology for the frequent citations and unresolved tensions (in my citation of others’ thoughts as well as my own) in the last three paragraphs.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

—. The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations : Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.

Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Redeemer Nation; the Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

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