The Story of Josiah Henson, the Real Inspiration for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

(Left) Young Josiah Henson; (Right) Josiah Henson, age 87, photographed in Boston on June 17, 1876

Source: Smithsonian

From its very first moments in print on March 20, 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a smashing success. It sold 3,000 copies on its first day, and Frederick Douglass reported that 5,000 copies—the entire first print run—were purchased within four days. By May 3, the Boston Morning Post declared that “everybody has read it, is reading, or is about to read it.”

According to reports at the time, it took 17 printing presses running around the clock to keep up with demand. By the end of its first year in print, the book had sold over 300,000 copies in the United States alone, going on to become the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

In Canada, a former enslaved laborer and aging Methodist minister named Josiah Henson—whose life story bore uncanny resemblances to Stowe’s titular character—immediately understood its importance.

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