“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” President Abraham Lincoln famously said upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1862.
Of course, we cannot know for certain if these were Lincoln’s exact words to Stowe, but the quote endures, even if it is folklore, because it expresses a fundamental truth about the popularity and the persuasiveness of Stowe’s book, which, at that point, was more than a decade old.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a phenomenally successful book. In its first year, it sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States, the equivalent of around 4.1 million copies today (though if you adjust the number to account for the proportion of the population who could legally purchase a book in 1852, it’d be at Harry Potter levels).
Its influence and its lasting legacy are impossible to overstate. A…