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September 4, 2013

Slave living in Salem may have inspired 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A Clemson University professor is convinced that Harriet Beecher Stowe might not have written “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” if it were not for a fugitive South Carolina slave she harbored for a night before starting the history-making novel.

The book, which fueled the abolitionist cause and helped put the nation on the path toward the Civil War, was published in 1852 after being serialized the previous year. It became a best-selling book of the 19th century, second only to the Bible.

Stowe mentions harboring the slave in her Maine home in a late 1850 letter to her sister. She writes that “he was a genuine article from the ‘Ole Carling State.’” While it is well-known to historians that Stowe harbored a slave, neither her letter nor her later writings mention his name.

Susanna Ashton, a professor of American literature at Clemson, says her research has convinced her that the slave Stowe harbored was John Andrew Jackson. He was born a slave on a Sumter County, S.C., plantation and escaped in 1847, fleeing to Charleston and then stowing away between bales of cotton on a ship heading north.

Ashton’s conclusions appear in this summer’s edition of “Common-Place,” the journal of the Massachusetts-based American Antiquarian Society.

After fleeing, Jackson settled in Salem, where he worked as a leather tanner and sawmill worker. When he mailed a letter from Boston to his former master, trying to purchase members of his family, a slave agent was sent to find him. Jackson avoided capture. But when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 by Congress — meaning even slaves who had escaped from the South could be returned to their owners — Jackson headed north through Maine to Canada.

Jackson later learned to read and write, went to Europe and wrote a book, “The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina,” which was published in England in 1862. After the Civil War, Jackson made a living as a writer and lecturer.

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