Harriet Beecher Stowe
(1814 – 1896)
When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, he exclaimed “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” He was referring to her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” where Harriet expressed her moral outrage at the institution of slavery in the United States and exposed its harmful effects on both whites and blacks.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811 in into one of America’s most notable religious families. The Beecher family was at the forefront of numerous reform movements of the 19th century. Born the seventh child of the well known Congregational minister Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote Beecher, she was their fourth daughter. Her father was a persuasive preacher, theologian, and founder of the American Bible Society, who also was active in the anti-slavery movement. Her mother was a woman of prayer, who asked the Lord to put the call of service on her children’s hearts. This prayer was eventually answered in a mighty way. All the Beecher children spent their lives living out their Christian faith.
While Harriet’s life was not without trials, she appears to have had a relatively good family life. When she was only four years old, her mother died, leaving her father to become the dominant adult influence upon the home. While it must have been difficult to both support the family financially as well emotionally, it appears he did a fine job raising his family. According to Harriet, he made the home a kind of “moral heaven”, discussing theology over family apple peelings and always keeping before them the haloed memory of their dear mother. Her father did remarry a few years after her mothers death, but Roxana children never quite took to their stepmother and continued to cling to their father for love and spiritual guidance. While Lyman struggled with mood swings and often felt like he couldn’t go on, the sincere way he lived his life inspired in all his children a quiet ambition for some large service. And Harriet was no exception.
Harriet was given a good education. At eight she began to attend the famed school of Miss Sarah Peirce in Litchfield, where she studied until she was thirteen when she left home to attend the female seminary recently opened by her sister Catharine in Hartford. Harriet was quite shy and kept to herself, but she loved to read and write. Among her favorite books were Scott’s “Ballads” and “Arabian Nights”, which no doubt had much to do with cultivating her imagination.
While home during the summer leave when she was thirteen years old, Harriet gave her life to Christ during one of her father’s sermons and felt the assurance of Christ’s saving love. Within the Beecher family, private conversion was intertwined with a public calling, and this decision to follow Christ would shape the rest of Harriet’s life.
At the age of fifteen she became an assistant to her sister Catharine in the female seminary and continued teaching there until 1832 when the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where Lyman felt called to “win the West for God”. Lyman became President of Lane Theological Seminary and Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church and Catharine founded the Western Female Institute. Harriet taught in Catherine’s school and wrote a children’s geography text, which was her first publication, though the first edition was issued under her sisters name.
It was here that, Harriet met Calvin Stowe, a professor and clergyman fervently opposed to slavery. In 1836, at the age of 25, Harriet married Professor Stowe, a widower, who was nine years her senior. They were to have seven children together and Harriet proved to be a fine homemaker as she lovingly cared for her children, which was her main priority. She saw motherhood as sacredly sacrificial and set out to follow her calling of raising children that loved and served God. But Calvin’s teaching position did not provide a sufficient wage, so in order to supplement Calvin’s meager teaching salary, Harriet wrote short stories dealing with domestic life for local and religious magazines and papers. Her royalties helped her hire household staff to assist with running the household and raising her children.
Calvin and Harriet were blessed with a loving marriage. Both encouraged and comforted each other during the trials and tribulations that came their way. During their lifetime they lost four of their seven children and had many financial setbacks. While they did not have a perfect marriage, their loving commitment grew solidly over the years. At one point Harriet wrote to her husband of many years, “If you were not already my dearly beloved husband, I should certainly fall in love with you.” Calvin encouraged Harriet to establish a writing career, and he served as her literary agent in both America and England. She in turn encouraged him to write himself and he, too, met with some success.
While they lived in Ohio, the work of the Underground Railroad deeply touched both Calvin and Harriet. Their house was one of the many “stations” for the fugitive slaves on their way to freedom in Canada. They sheltered runaway slaves in their home until they move to Maine when Calvin accepted a position at Bowdoin College in 1850.
Throughout Americas history, the slavery issue has been hotly debated. By the late 1840’s the abolitionist movement had expanded, roused by newspaper editors, lecturers, authors, and clergymen. For abolitionists, nothing justified slavery. It was in this environment that Mrs. Stowe wrote her famous novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. In this book, Harriet dispelled the myth that benevolent masters treated their slaves adequately. She showed that even kind-hearted slave owners would separate slave families and sell them “down the river” when they were desperate for cash. Harriet drew on her own personal experience with slavery in writing her book. She was familiar slavery, the anti-slavery movement, and the underground railroad because she spent many years living in Ohio, and Kentucky, a neighboring state across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, was a slave state.
It was soon after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that Harriet wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The Fugitive Slave Act granted Southerners the right to pursue fugitive slaves into free states and bring them back. This law aroused may abolitionists to action. When the South threatened to secede, Harriet determined that she would write a serial condemning the evils of slavery. First printed as a serial in an abolitionist paper, The National Era, it focused public interest on the issue of slavery, and was deeply controversial. In 1852 “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was printed in book form. It sold 3,000 copies on its first day, 300,000 its first year, and eventually sold more than 3,000,000 copies world wide.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the first major American novel to feature a Black hero. Harriet created memorable characters who portrayed the inhumanity of slavery making her readers understand that slaves were people who were being mistreated and made to suffer at the hands of their masters. Through her novel, Harriet insisted that slavery eroded the moral sensibility of whites who tolerated or profited from it. She wrote passionately to prick the consciences of fellow Americans to end their blind allegiance to slavery.
Many people of her day argued that her novel was merely fiction and not at all based on fact. To disprove these accusations and prove that her depiction of slavery was factual, in 1853, Harriet wrote “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which presented the original facts and documents upon which she based her novel.
The historical significance of Harriet’s abolitionists writing has veiled from view her other work and literary significance. Her writings were varied and in many different genre. She wrote both fiction and biography along with children’s books. Some feel that her best works are about New England life such as “The Ministers Wooing” and “Old Town Folks”, where her settings were accurately described in detail. Her portraits of local social life, particularly of minor characters, reflect and ability to communicate to others the culture in which she lived.