Uncle Tom is a pejorative term for a black person who is perceived by others as behaving in a subservient manner to white authority figures, or as seeking ingratiation with them by way of unnecessary accommodation. The term comes from the title character of American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Critical and popular views of both the character and the novel have shifted over time, leading to the shift in the term's use.
In the novel the Uncle Tom character is a brother Christian martyr, morally superior to his white owners in an antebellum fiction whose subtext was an argument that the institution of slavery was immoral. Numerous adaptations altered the depiction substantially, often rendering him feeble, servile, or a race traitor. These adaptations, along with critical distaste for the original character's passivity, contributed to the strongly negative connotations of the name in modern popular use.
At the time of the novel's initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel shows; Stowe's melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for white audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two fugitive female slaves. Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom's feminine virtues of patient suffering against three light-skinned African American women who escape from slavery through masculine daring. To Francis Colborn Adams, writing two years after the novel's publication, Uncle Tom demonstrates great moral strength and his characterization constitutes a compelling rebuttal to then-current Southern arguments that defended slavery on the grounds that slavery enforces Christianity upon slaves: Uncle Tom, and actual men like him, are better Christians than the white slaveowners depicted.
The novel was very influential and commercially successful, first published in serial form in 1851-1852 and in book version from 1852 onward. An estimated 500,000 copies of the novel itself had sold in the United States and internationally by 1853, including unauthorized reprints. Senator Charles Sumner credited Uncle Tom's Cabin for the election of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln himself reportedly quipped that Stowe had triggered the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass praised the novel as "a flash to light a million camp fires in front of the embattled hosts of slavery". Despite Douglass's enthusiasm, an anonymous 1852 reviewer for William Lloyd Garrison's publication The Liberator suspected a racial double standard in the moral ideal of Uncle Tom:
In 1949 American writer James Baldwin vehemently rejected the emasculation of the title character "robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex" as the price of spiritual salvation for a dark-skinned man in a fiction whose African-American characters, in Baldwin's view, were invariably either two dimensional stereotypes or light-skinned enough to pass for white. To Baldwin, Stowe was closer to a pamphleteer than a novelist and her artistic vision was fatally marred by polemics and racism that manifested especially in her handling of the title character. Stowe had stated that her sons had wept when she first read them the scene of Uncle Tom's death, but after Baldwin's essay it ceased being respectable to accept the melodrama of the Uncle Tom story. Uncle Tom became what critic Linda Williams describes as "an epithet of servility" and the novel's reputation plummeted until feminist critics led by Jane Thompson reassessed the tale's female characters. According to Debra J. Rosenthal in an introduction to a collection of critical appraisals for the Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, overall reactions have been mixed with some critics praising the novel for affirming the humanity of the African American characters and for the risks Stowe assumed in taking a very public stand against slavery before abolitionism had become a socially acceptable cause, and others damning the very limited terms upon which those characters' humanity was affirmed and the artistic shortcomings of political melodrama.
A specific impetus for the novel was the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which imposed heavy fines upon law enforcement personnel in Northern states if they refused to assist the return of escaped slaves. The new law also stripped African Americans of the right to request a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf, even if they were legally free, whenever a single claimant presented a sworn affidavit of ownership. The same law authorized a $1000 fine and six months imprisonment for anyone who knowingly harbored or assisted a fugitive slave. These terms infuriated Stowe, so the novel was written, read, and debated as a political abolitionist tract.
Stowe drew inspiration for the Uncle Tom character from several sources. The best-known of these was Josiah Henson, whose autobiography was originally published in 1849 and later republished in extensively revised editions after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Henson was born a slave in 1789. He became a Christian at age eighteen and took up preaching. Henson attempted to purchase his freedom for $450, but after selling his personal assets to raise $350 and signing a promissory note for the remainder Henson's owner raised the price to $1000; Henson was unable to prove that the original agreement had been for a lesser amount. Shortly afterward Henson was ordered on a trip south to New Orleans, and when he learned that he was to be sold there he obtained a weapon and contemplated murdering his white companions, but decided against violence because his Christian morals forbade it. A sudden illness in one of his companions forced their return to Kentucky, and shortly afterward Henson escaped north with his family, settling in Canada where he became a civic leader.
Stowe read the first edition of Henson's narrative and later confirmed that she had incorporated elements from it into Uncle Tom's Cabin. Kentucky and New Orleans figure in both Henson's narrative and the novel's settings, and some other story elements are similar. Stowe also drew from accounts by Angelina Grimké Weld, a white woman from South Carolina who had left the South and become a prominent abolitionist. In 1878 Stowe attributed the principal inspiration for Uncle Tom to a former slave woman who had worked in the Stowe household and whose husband had remained in slavery in Kentucky. After coming to an understanding of the faithful absent husband by writing letters on behalf of the illiterate woman, Stowe patterned the Uncle Tom character after him.
In the public imagination, however, Henson became synonymous with Uncle Tom. After Stowe's death her son and grandson claimed she and Henson had met before Uncle Tom's Cabin was written, but the chronology does not hold up to scrutiny and she probably drew material only from his published autobiography. Stowe herself never equated Henson with the fictional character, and not until the end of Henson's life when he suffered from senility did he make the claim.
Both the novel and its title character inspired numerous derivative works during the decade after its release, some of which lampooned and distorted the portrayal of the title character with politically loaded overtones. American copyright law before 1856 did not give novel authors any control over derivative stage adaptations, so Stowe neither approved the adaptations nor profited from them. Minstrel show retellings in particular, usually performed by white men in blackface, tended to be derisive and pro-slavery, transforming Uncle Tom from Christian martyr to a fool or an apologist for slavery.
Adapted theatrical performances of the novel remained in continual production in the United States for at least eighty years. These representations had a lasting cultural impact and influenced the pejorative nature of the term Uncle Tom in later popular use.
Although not all minstrel depictions of Uncle Tom were negative, the dominant version developed into a stock character very different from Stowe's hero. Stowe's Uncle Tom was a muscular and virile man who refused to obey when ordered to beat other slaves; the stock character of minstrel shows became a shuffling asexual individual with a receding hairline and graying hair. To Jo-Ann Morgan, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin as Visual Culture, these shifting representations undermined the subversive layers of Stowe's original characterization by redefining Uncle Tom until he fit within prevailing racist norms. Particularly after the Civil War, as the political thrust of the novel which had arguably helped to precipitate that war became obsolete to actual political discourse, popular depictions of the title character recast him within the apologetics of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The virile father of the abolitionist serial and first book edition degenerated into a decrepit old man, and with that transformation the character lost the capacity for resistance that had originally given meaning to his choices. Stowe never meant Uncle Tom to be a derided name, but the term as a pejorative has developed based on how later versions of the character, stripped of his strength, were depicted on stage.
Or as Claire Parfait, author of The Publishing History of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852-2002 opines, the many alterations in retellings of the Uncle Tom story demonstrate an impulse to correct the retellers' perceptions of its flaws and "the capacity of the novel to irritate and rankle, even a century and a half after its first publication."