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People & Ideas: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Source: Library of Congress

Daughter of minister Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a noted abolitionist and author, best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The Beecher family valued education, and Harriet attended Hartford Female Seminary, run by her older sister Catharine. At the age of 21, she moved with her father to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became president of Lane Theological Seminary. At age 23, she published her first story in Western Monthly Magazine. In Cincinnati, she fell in love with Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor and ardent abolitionist. The two wed in 1836 and remained married for the next 50 years.

Located close to the border of the slave state Kentucky, the city of Cincinnati gave Stowe direct exposure to the institution of slavery. She visited Kentucky and witnessed slavery firsthand; she heard first-person accounts from former slaves who had escaped North on the Underground Railroad. Among the abolitionists she befriended was John Rankin, whose home was an important stop on the railroad. When Stowe and her husband discovered that their house servant, Zillah, was a former slave, the couple helped her to escape to Canada.

In 1850, the Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin had accepted a position at Bowdoin College. That same year, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which enabled slave owners to reclaim their runaway slaves who had escaped to Northern states. Stowe was outraged and soon began to write her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, drawing on freedom narratives, newspaper accounts, interviews with former slaves and conversations with participants in the Underground Railroad, both white and black. She also drew on her own personal experience as a mother. Her son Charlie had died in the summer of 1849. Four years after his death, she wrote to a friend:

I have been the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her. In those depths of sorrow, which seemed to be immeasurable, it was my only prayer to God that such anguish might not be suffered in vain. ... I allude to this here because I have often felt that much that is in that book had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrow of that summer.

Stowe wrote a searing indictment of slavery, a narrative with vivid characters that put a face on the institution. Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared in serial form in an abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, and was then published in book form in 1852. The book sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 1.5 million copies in one year. Translated into foreign languages, it sold around the world and was made into a popular play. In the United States, Stowe's work galvanized anti-slavery sentiment and aided the abolitionist cause.

Uncle Tom's Cabin turned Stowe into a celebrity. When she visited the White House, President Abraham Lincoln allegedly remarked, "So you are the little lady who started this big war." She and her husband moved to Andover, Mass., where Calvin accepted a position at Andover Theological Seminary. When he retired in 1864, the Stowes moved to Hartford, Conn., where Harriet Beecher Stowe built her dream house, Oakholm. She died in 1896; later that year, 16 volumes of her writings were published under the title The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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Published October 11, 2010

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