Clemson English professor discovers slave who may have inspired ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’
By Crystal Boyles
After months and months of sifting though archives and endlessly sitting at her desk reading, Clemson English professor Susanna Ashton has found the previously unnamed slave who she believes helped inspire Harriet Beecher Stowe to pen Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
His name is John Andrew Jackson, and in 1850 he was fleeing the recently passed Fugitive Slave Act. After arriving in Maine, he was directed to Stowe’s home where she took him in for the night, hiding him in her home’s “waste room.”
“When I realized that Jackson’s account was corroborated by unpublished letters written by Stowe, I ran upstairs ‘crazed’ and banged on the doors of a couple of colleagues. I didn’t want to make a facile claim,” said Ashton, who is an American literature professor. “After all, if he hid with Stowe in 1850, it changes the history of one of the most important works of American literature.”
Her colleagues ran through her findings with her and confirmed that she indeed had something big on her hands. A few months later, Ashton published her findings on the web journal Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, fueled the abolitionist movement and helped set the nation on the path to abolishing slavery. Some even claimed it helped start the Civil War.
So who is John Andrew Jackson?
Jackson was born in 1825 on a mid-size plantation in what we now know as Lee County, S.C. He had a wife and daughter who were sold and sent to Georgia. Shortly after, Jackson made his escape.
“That was it for him. In fury and despair he got a horse and escaped to Charleston,” Ashton said. After some time lurking around the Charleston docks, he hid himself among bales of cotton on a vessel that was headed north.
In “missing” ads his master placed in local papers, Jackson was said to “speak plausibly,” which Ashton says means that he was being accused of being a liar; the master feared Jackson could talk his way out of recapture.
Jackson ended up in Massachusetts and was attempting to raise money to buy his wife and daughter’s freedom when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. He left there and made his way to Canada by way of Maine, where he was directed to the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In a letter to her sister, Stowe acknowledged that a “genuine article from the ‘Ole Carling State’ ” spent one night in her waste room, though she never directly names Jackson.
It was while reading this letter that Ashton realized it was written about seven weeks before Stowe penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“I think that encounter created two books — Stowe’s and later Jackson’s. Hiding a fugitive slave in your house would certainly make the truths of slavery more real to Stowe. It certainly helped her be inspired to write this book,” Ashton said.
Jackson later learned to read and write and published his own book, The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina, in which he writes, “(Stowe) took me in and fed me, and gave me some clothes and five dollars. She also inspected my back, which is covered with scars which I shall carry with me to the grave. She listened with great interest to my story.”
For someone who has been considered nothing in the sight of the law, having an encounter of this nature would be empowering, Ashton said.
“I believe this encounter with Stowe helped him be empowered to write his own truth, tell his own story,” Aston said.
When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was released in 1852, Stowe received a lot of pushback because she wasn’t from the South and didn’t have what people considered firsthand knowledge of slavery in the South.
In her article on Common-place.org, Ashton argues, “So, if Jackson had taught Stowe anything about slavery, why wasn’t he mentioned in her exposition of facts… Her illegal harboring of Jackson not only couldn’t have been publicly mentioned in 1853 under penalty of prosecution. But it also would have been, almost by definition, undocumentable… It might even have served to reveal crucial details of the Underground Railroad network in Maine, something she would have scrupulously avoided.”
Today, Ashton is still looking into whether Jackson ever reconnected with the wife and daughter whose departure began this saga. She thinks perhaps they did, but she hasn’t found definitive proof yet.
“I want to say they reconnected, but I just can’t — yet.”
As for Ashton, she’s still sitting in her chair, reading, searching, researching.