Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) grew up in a family who cared deeply about social issues, including the abolition of slavery. Stowe chose to use the power of words to bring to light the injustice of slavery. She wrote: “…the enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Family
The family lived in Litchfield, Connecticut, and they were notable for their high level of education and their dedication to public service.
Her mother died when Harriet was young, but her father, Reverend Lyman Beecher, devoted much time to the moral upbringing of his family. Of the 11 children, all seven sons became ministers (the most effective way to influence society in that day). Oldest daughter Catharine started and ran a school for women; youngest daughter Isabella was a founder of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and Harriet believed her calling came via the power of words.
All the children attended schools, and Harriet was sent to a female academy and later pursued her education at the seminary that sister Catharine founded. In addition, Lyman Beecher always saw to it that there was a lively conversation around the dinner table. He took boarders from a local law school, and these students joined the dinner time discussions. This further honed the Beecher children’s abilities to present their opinions.
Family Move to Ohio
In 1832 the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, when Lyman Beecher became President of the Lane Theological Seminary. While the family had had black servants (not slaves) who worked for them in Connecticut, the entire family was exposed to a new world in Cincinnati. Kentucky, a slave state, was right across the river, so while Ohio did not support slavery, Cincinnati’s businesses considered wealthy Kentuckians and their business trade to be an important segment of their market for products, services, and shipping. The Ohioans were not out to offend by taking a strong stand against slavery.
New Atmosphere in Cincinnati
When abolitionist James Birney moved some of his presses to Cincinnati and began publishing the Cincinnati Weekly and Abolitionist (1836), this led to major rioting in the town.
Stowe, now married and a frequently-published writer of essays and stories, felt strongly about slavery, not only because of her family’s sentiment but also because her travels had taken her past slave auctions where families were being divided and sold. To her, this was particularly heartbreaking and inhumane.
The Stowes ultimately had seven children, but one had died in 1849 at 18 months. This illustrated to Harriet Stowe what a mother’s loss of her children would feel like.
In 1850, the Beechers and Stowes were additionally angered by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. This law provided that everyone, law enforcers as well as regular citizens, were legally bound to help catch fugitive slaves. Those who refused or aided runaways could be fined up to $1000 or jailed for six months.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Moved to Action
A confluence events—the Fugitive Slave Act, learning that one of the Stowe’s own staff members was a runaway (whom one of the Beechers helped escape to Canada), and hearing the stories of formerly enslaved people and what they had lived through—all spoke loudly to Harriet Stowe.
When she was approached by the publisher of the National Era newspaper about providing him with a fictional story that would paint a picture about slavery, Stowe was very interested in taking on the challenge.
The result was Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly. When publisher and writer planned it, the story was to be published in three or four installments, but as she wrote, Stowe continued to research. She requested that people bring her stories and documents from the enslaved, and as she read or heard the experiences, the story became longer and longer, eventually netting out at more than 40 installments.
What Uncle Tom’s Cabin is About
The fictional story focuses on two slaves, Tom, an adult slave, and four-year-old Harry, who are both sold by the Shelby family so the family can settle their debts. From here, Stowe pursues two plot lines—-Harry’s mother runs away with Harry to keep him from being taken, and eventually she meets up with her husband who has also escaped and they make it to Canada.
Tom protects his family by being sold and his plot follows him as he encounters many characters through his being bought and sold several times. Finally we meet Simon Legree, the violent overseer, who has Tom whipped to death for two reasons: Tom refuses to deny his faith, and he maintains his silence as to the hiding place of two fugitive women whom Legree is hunting.
Readers today view it as overly sentimental and highly melodramatic but at the time it was quite effective at stirring emotions. The North saw it as revealing all the evils of slavery, and the South saw it as agitating against their lifestyle. It heightened the sectional crisis and brought emotions of the nation to the surface.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Success
The newspaper circulation benefited from the serialization of the story, which was first published in the June 5, 1851 issue of the newspaper. After serialization, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published as a two-volume book. Sales were solid. The book sold 300,000 copies in its first year.
Though the story is probably apocryphal, President Lincoln was reported to have said upon meeting Stowe: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Stowe became internationally famous for the book. She undertook two speaking tours, one along the east coast and another in the west. She also continued to write many additional works.
Her husband retired from his service as a professor of theology at Andover in 1864. They left Andover, Massachusetts, relocating to Hartford, Connecticut. They lived in two different homes there, one of which is now a museum, The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
The Beechers and Stowes also took advantage of the newly built railroad to Florida. After a visit there, the Stowes purchased a property in Mandarin, along St. John’s River in northern Florida. The Beechers and Stowes loved the weather but also believed the building racial equality required education. Stowe’s brother, Charles, established a school in the area and wanted Harriet and Calvin Stowe to join him. As a result, the Stowes spent part of each year in Florida.
Harriet also saw the business possibilities of the citrus trees, and she purchased an orange grove for her son to manage.
While Harriet Beecher Stowe worked tireless to bring about social change, one of the other areas where she had an effect was on bringing an influx of people to Florida. Her book, Palmetto Leaves, described the weather, the beauty, and the advantages of living in the state.
Harriet Beecher Stowe died in in Hartford in 1896 at the age of 85.
In addition to her home in Hartford, the Stowe House in Brunswick, Maine, where Stowe lived when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin is also open as a museum. It is now supported by Bowdoin College.