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Anti-Slavery Fought Through Literary Works

Updated on August 28, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

While the written word was used for political reasons, economic argument, scientific and religious debate on the slavery topic in 1800s America, it was the work of novels, both fiction and non-fiction works, that stayed within the view of Americans over a hundred and fifty years after the outbreak of the Civil War. Through the work of literary masterpieces, the argument of slavery exploded across the nation with the ripple effects still being felt in today’s world. Authors took a heated topic and fought their own sides through fictional stories.

The Sources Were True

All those fiction stories had a beginning in fact. It all began with the stories told straight from the mouths of escaped slaves. It was one thing to hear of the benefits or evils of slavery from politicians and preachers, but it was when it came from those who lived it that slavery came alive and more than just another debate topic for sides to get heated over. These were not far-fetched tales. They were based on facts.

Josiah Henson published his autobiography in 1881. Though written after the war ended, his original story is known as the inspiration to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel where she used him as her ‘Uncle Tom'. She took the true story and created one of fiction that was an earthquake across the nation. In his own narrative, Mr. Henson explains in the first few pages of one of his earliest memories of ‘the appearance one day of my father with his head bloody and his back lacerated. He was beside himself with mingled rage and suffering. The overseer had brutally assaulted my mother, when my father sprang upon him like a tiger. In a moment the overseer was down, and, mastered by rage, my father would have killed him but for the entreaties of my mother, and the overseer’s own promise that nothing should ever be said of the matter. The promise was kept ‘like most promises of the cowardly and debased’ as long as the danger lasted.

His Story Continues

‘The authorities were soon in pursuit of my father. The penalty was one hundred lashes on the bare back, and to have the right ear nailed to the whipping-post, and then severed from the body. For a time my father kept out of the way, hiding in the woods, and at night venturing into some cabin in search of food.

‘The day for the execution of the penalty was appointed. The negroes from the neighbouring plantations were summoned to witness the scene. A powerful blacksmith named Hewes laid on the stripes. Fifty were given, during which the cries of my father might be heard a mile, and then a paused ensued. True, he had struck a white man, but as valuable property he must not be damaged.’

Henson opened up in his book with the reality of family life. It was not how white free men lived. Slaves could not defend their loved ones without paying a heavy price. Even the most valuable of slaves had to pay though they were treated less harshly than if they were a common slave without the assets needed by the owner. Henson's opening emotionally revealed the truth of family life for a slave. It was harsh. It was brutal. It wasn't a bed of roses.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

You have heard the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. That is why so many fiction stories are based off of fact. Most people do not have the imagination to come up with such wild things that actually happen. The fact that most of the anti-slavery fiction books were based on true stories gave the literary weapons more power. When reading these books, readers would not so easily toss the topic aside as fantasy. It was much more real than that. These fiction books, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, helped to fight against the institution of slavery. They created dramatic events that had readers questioning the institution. If the author got people talking about it, they were successful in their part of the war.

Other Anti-Slavery Fiction Works

If you are curious about other books that helped fight the war against slavery, check out Antislavery Literature site. Ms. Stowe's book is far from being the only one though it is by far the most popular. Open up your knowledge base and check these other works out.


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