In writing my book Mightier than the Sword, which shows how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin fueled the passions behind the Civil War, I realized just how important cultural history is.
Lincoln brought attention to the power of culture when he declared, “Public sentiment is everything…He who moulds public sentiment is greater than he who makes statutes.” He was recognizing something that is all too often forgotten by today’s historians, for whom culture often plays a distant second-fiddle to politics. We can read book after book on Lincoln the politician, his team of rivals, and the era’s political parties – or on Civil War battles or generals or soldiers. Actually, though, throughout history, cultural outliers have usually led the way, and politics and wars have followed in their wake.
Sometimes the cultural outliers are forces for destruction – the prime recent example is Al Qaeda, a tiny cultural splinter group that has controlled much of Western politics for the last decade. But sometimes, cultural outliers have identifiably good results – one thinks, for example, of Gandhi or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King or others like them who have led directly to political change that can be called positive.
On the positive side, few cultural phenomena have swayed public opinion as powerfully as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was central to making America a more egalitarian nation by exposing the horrors of slavery with such vividness that Stowe became, as Lincoln reportedly said, “the little lady who made this great war.”
About the author: David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His works include the award-winning Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, Walt Whitman’s America, and John Brown, Abolitionist. He lives on Long Island.