The Most Famous Forgotten Figure in Black History
The real-life inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin is making his long-overdue resurgence
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s debut novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an immediate and smashing success. It sold out its 5,000-copy print run in just four days in 1852, with one newspaper declaring that “everybody has read it, is reading, or is about to read it.”
Soon, seventeen printing presses were running around the clock to keep up with demand. By the end of its first year in print, the book had sold more than 300,000 copies in the US alone, and another million in Great Britain. It went on to become the bestselling novel of the 19th Century.
The backlash against the novel was immediate and fierce. Newspaper editors went wild. Politicians raged in the legislatures. Anti-Tom novels soon hit the press. Critics insisted that slavery was a venerable Southern tradition and that Stowe had fabricated an unrealistic, one-dimensional picture of slavery in the South. She was slammed as a socialist, anti-Christian, and downright ugly.
Stowe decided to fight fake news with hard facts, and published a follow-up book entitled A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A giant annotated bibliography of her sources, the book pointed to hundreds of documented cases of real-life incidents that were similar or identical to those portrayed in her story.
She named names.
Who was Arthur Shelby, the morally-conflicted Kentucky farmer who faces the loss of his plantation due to his debts?
Who was Simon Legree, the horrible and cruel slave owner?
Who was Eliza, the kindly maid and young mother hellbent on escape?
Above all, the question on everyone’s mind was: Who is the real Uncle Tom?
Fact Stranger Than Fiction
“The character of Uncle Tom has been objected to as improbable; and yet the writer has received more confirmations of that character, and from a great variety of sources, than of any other in the book.” — Harriet Beecher Stowe
Who was the man who inspired the character of Uncle Tom?
Laying out the inspiration for various scenes in Uncle Tom’s story, Stowe repeated one name eight times and declared: “A last instance parallel with that of Uncle Tom is to be found in the published memoirs of the venerable Josiah Henson… now pastor of the missionary settlement at Dawn, in Canada.”
Within weeks, a former enslaved laborer, now an aging Methodist minister, catapulted to international fame.
Josiah Henson was born near Port Tobacco, Maryland, around 1789. His first memories were witnessing his father’s punishment; he was whipped, his ear cut off, and he was sold south — all as punishment for striking a white man who had attempted to rape his wife. Henson never saw his father again.
Henson was soon separated from his mother and sold to a child trafficker but quickly fell deathly ill. The slave trader offered the boy to Henson’s mother’s owner, an alcoholic gambler named Isaac Riley, for a bargain: free of charge if the young Henson died, a barter of some horseshoeing work if he survived.
Henson survived, and spent more than forty years in slavery, enduring countless beatings and lifelong partial-paralysis in his arms after an overseer shattered his shoulders with a fence post.
After several failed attempts to purchase his freedom, Henson hatched a plan to escape to Canada with his wife, Charlotte, and four sons. He traveled 600 miles — with the youngest two in a knapsack on his shattered shoulders — several years before the Underground Railroad was even established.
Upon arriving in Canada, Henson didn’t settle into a white-picket-fence lifestyle despite his prodigious natural talents, but instead chose to — in his words — “steward [his] freedom well.”
- He started a sawmill and won a medal at the first World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
- The British Prime Minister Lord John Russell threw him a surprise banquet.
- The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church, wept after hearing his story.
- Henson was entertained at both Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria’s home, and the White House.
- Henson rescued 118 enslaved people, including his own brother
- He helped build a 500-person freeman settlement, called Dawn, that was known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad.
Inspired by his dictated memoir, he became the leading inspiration for the character of Uncle Tom, the titular character in the novel that Lincoln apocryphally said “started the Civil War.”
The Abraham Lincoln Connection
Whether or not Abraham Lincoln actually uttered that famous quote is almost besides the point. Henson’s story played a major role in Lincoln’s election. His Republican party distributed 100,000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the presidential campaign of 1860, as a way to stir up anti-slavery support.
Without the abolitionist press and Stowe’s book, it’s possible that Lincoln would not have garnered enough support to win. As fellow Republican US Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) declared: “Had there been no Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there would have been no Lincoln in the White House.”
Moreover, according to the Library of Congress’s circulation records, Lincoln borrowed A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin on June 16th, 1862, and returned it 43 days later, on July 29th. The dates correspond exactly to the time during which he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation.
We may never know the degree to which Stowe influenced Lincoln, but it is clear that during the critical time, he had Josiah Henson’s story near at hand.
How a Legend Was Lost
When one thinks of the pantheon of the great black abolitionists, several names spring to mind: Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman. Solomon Northup. But there is a fourth leader who once belonged to that hallowed group: Josiah Henson.
Yet somehow, Josiah Henson has been largely lost to history. The gap in modern popularity is staggering:
- Every month, nearly 1.4 million people Google Abraham Lincoln
- Over 1,000,000 people Google Frederick Douglass
- 550,000 search for Harriet Tubman
- Over 300,000 search for Solomon Northup and his memoir, 12 Years a Slave.
- 228,000 look up Frederick Douglass
- 135,000 search for Confederate general Robert E Lee
But only 3,400 seek out Josiah Henson.
So what happened?
How did a man so clearly deserving of admittance in the abolitionist pantheon somehow slip from the history books?
How did my wife and I — Canadians raised just 130 miles from Josiah’s home at Dawn — never hear about him in school or popular culture?
Despite the fact that Henson played a pivotal role in world history, entrenched values are not easily uprooted. After Stowe published the Key and identified Henson, his supporters rebranded him “the real Uncle Tom.” It was a good thing, at the time.
Today “Uncle Tom” has a very derogatory meaning, due to its bastardization at the hands of racist blackface playwrights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The man who sacrificed himself to win freedom for others was turned into a subservient and cowardly slave who curries favour with the white man. In a cruel disfigurement of a fictional hero, humility became baboonery, martyrdom became traitorhood.
For more than 40 years after his death, blackface Tom shows played within a half-mile of Henson’s grave. Within a generation, his story was nearly lost.
Within this context, it’s understandable to see why such an ugly connotation would perhaps guide history to cast Josiah aside. He’s deemed less heroic because of how we view Uncle Tom. But as modern readers discover the history of this horrible literary bastardization, I hope we reject its inherent racism and return to Stowe’s original intention — a fictional character that reflected the transcendent values of real people like Josiah Henson.
Without our constant care, the garden of history becomes the ultimate mystery. We must do our best to preserve its greatest fruits in order to protect and promote stories that point us in the direction of redemption.
Gratefully, our global family is starting to realize the profound importance of preserving history and, hopefully, learning its lessons. There is great cause for celebration when beautiful museums like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, open their doors to the public.
In Henson’s case, Mongomery County in Maryland has been working tirelessly for more than a decade to acquire and restore Josiah Henson’s master’s plantation into a destination that honors the property’s most-remarkable slave. In fact, the Josiah Henson Museum & Park opens in just a few short weeks.
Josiah Henson is, of course, not just a “black history” figure. He’s a hero of American history, Canadian history, British history, and to some extent, global history. His story has impacted all of our lives, even if we’re only now hearing it for the first time. And if we steward our freedom well, perhaps the future will say the same of us.