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"Baltimore and Uncle Tom's Cabin: Crisis of Identity"
Mark Parker

The incredible success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, both as the original novel and as a theatrical production, makes it one of the most important works of art of the nineteenth century and of all American history. The success of Uncle Tom's Cabin comes from its controversial content and contemporary societal relevance as well as its artistic merit. Stowe's religious and moral melodrama attracted numerous supporters but also critics, from both the abolitionist and pro-slavery camps. Due to the novel's enormous popularity and the lack of significant copyright laws, stage versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin were produced all over the country, beginning even before its 1852 final publication. Each adaptation no longer represents the true intent of Stowe's novel but represents the intent of the adaptor and the prejudices and values of the audience and community for whom they were writing. Due to its unique position as the northernmost bastion of the Southern economy and culture and the southernmost bastion of Northern industry, the City of Baltimore represents the divisions present in communities all across the United States better so than most other cities of the time, and specifically from 1852-1855. The different stage productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Baltimore from 1852 to 1855, and their role in Baltimore society, reveal the deep political and moral divisions present in Baltimore over the slavery issue and reflect the divisions present across the United States.

The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the appearance of stage versions in Baltimore coincided with a period of increased sectional tension and political instability across the United States. The Compromise of 1850 helped resolve the sectional crisis regarding the slavery issue in territory gained from Mexico in the Mexican War, but also included a new, stronger Fugitive Slave Law.1 The practical application of the law did not have a significant effect upon the number of slaves recaptured, but several high profile fugitive cases, especially in Boston, Massachusetts, created a strong public sentiment in the North against the Fugitive Slave Law.2 Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin based on her personal feelings of disgust toward the Fugitive Slave Law, and runaway slaves feature prominently in the novel. The period was also one of political turmoil. The Whig party had fallen apart following the election of 1852, and the purely Northern Republican Party formed in 1854, at the same time as the Kansas-Nebraska Act was being debated in Congress, exacerbating sectional tensions at the national level. Baltimore was


1 The Compromise of 1850 is generally seen as a victory for the North. California was admitted as a free state, disputed Texas territory was given to New Mexico, and the slave trade was abolished in the nation's capital. The New Mexico and Utah Territories were open to popular sovereignty, Texas received compensation for the land, and a new Fugitive Slave Law was passed.
2 The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was harshly opposed in the North. Captured blacks could not testify on their own behalf and were denied a jury trial; judges in such cases received more money if the black was found to be a runaway; Northern law enforcement officials were required to aid slave catchers, and penalties for whites who helped runaways were increased.
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