IHAS: Poet
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
IHAS header
Return to Profiles Menu
Previous Next


"So this is the little lady who caused the great war."

These are the words legend attributes to Abraham Lincoln when he was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, shortly before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves for whom Mrs. Stowe had been such a passionate advocate. By the time Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House, over a decade had passed since the publication of her best-selling novel. UNCLE TOM'S CABIN had given an incendiary voice to the Abolition Movement, rocked the complacency of North and South alike, and forced a nation to look within their souls at not only the socio-political horrors of the institution of slavery, but also at its moral corrosiveness to the very fiber of the nation.

Born in Litchfield, CT, on June 14, 1811, Harriet Beecher came of a family of ministers. Her father Lyman Beecher was a famous preacher and the Founder of Lane Theological Seminary; her brother, the fiery orator Henry Ward Beecher, used his Brooklyn pulpit to affect social reform, and her husband, Calvin Stowe, who had been a disciple of her father, was a noted Biblical scholar. It is not surprising then that Harriet Beecher's faith in social progress was inextricably linked to her belief in Christianity, and it is in this context that her writing--especially UNCLE TOM'S Cabin-- needs to be viewed.

Go Next Uncle Tom's

From 1824-1831 Harriet first studied and then taught at the Hartford Female Seminary, which her older sister Catharine had founded, before the family moved to Ohio, where Lyman's new ministry beckoned. Relocated, Catharine established Western Female Institute, where Harriet continued to teach. Together the sisters also collaborated in writing several tracts on domestic science and children's educational texts. Following her marriage in 1836, she devoted her energies to childbearing and homemaking; seven babies were born to the Stowes between 1836 and 1850--(though one son died in infancy), and the couple made their home first in Cincinnati, then in Brunswick, ME (where Calvin Stowe became a professor at Bowdoin College), and later in Andover, MA, where Stowe took a post at Andover Theological Seminary.

In 1851-52 THE NATIONAL ERA serialized UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, which Harriet, now styling herself "Mrs. Stowe," had subtitled LIFE AMONG THE LOWLY. An overnight sensation, the novel which appeared in book form later in 1852, stirred up great public feeling and became the rallying cry for the Anti-Slavery Movement. In her melodrama, Mrs. Stowe recounted the sufferings of slaves and made a passionate plea not only for emancipation and abolition, but also for the rights of African-Americans to be treated with the dignity and equality that should be accorded to all human beings in God's universe. Her arguments, born of a lifelong conviction and commitment, were based primarily on the fundamental inhumanity of subjugating one race to another and on the immorality of tearing families asunder. Though she was not above passages of purple prose, at her best Mrs.Stowe was the master of sharply etched characterizations, suspensefully spun narrative, and moving dialogue. While later generations would cast Mrs. Stowe's work in a negative light--as naive, patronizing, and overly sentimental--and would use the term Uncle Tom as a pejorative for a white image of the virtuous black man, the impact of the novel on ante-bellum politics and social thought cannot be underestimated.

The success of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN propelled Mrs. Stowe to carry her message abroad to England and the Continent in 1853, 1856, and 1859. She was honored by Queen Victoria and fêted throughout Europe. Sharp attacks on the credibility of her thesis in the novel led her to publish in 1853 A KEY TO UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, in which she revealed the sources of her tale and substantiated with fact the evils she had protested in her fiction. Until the close of the Civil War, she and her family remained outspoken and tireless crusaders for the Abolitionist and then the Union cause.

Go Next Literary Lady

Established as a formidable "literary lady," whose income from writing was essential to the support of her large family, Mrs. Stowe published some two dozen more volumes of prose and poetry after UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. Although the majority of these, heavy with Victorian ethos, are forgotten today, THE MINISTER'S WOOING (1859) with its protest against Calvinism, and POGANUC PEOPLE (1878), with its realistically described scenes of New England domestic life, bear revisiting. Less fortuitous in an historical sense was her LADY BYRON VINDICATED (1870), in which she defended Lady Byron's shrill separation from her husband by charging that the poet had had an incestuous affair with his half-sister.

Afforded a comfortable existence from Mrs. Stowe's literary endeavors, the family maintained for some time a plantation in Florida as well as a house in Hartford, CT, where her next-door neighbors were the Samuel Clemenses. She died in Hartford on July 1, 1896, and was buried at the Andover Chapel Cemetery beside her husband, who had died a decade before.

(Chapter 17, George Harris and his wife Eliza, as they contemplate their escape to freedom in Canada):

"Yes, Eliza, so long as we have each other and our boy. O Eliza! if these people only knew what a blessing it is for a man to feel that his wife and child belong to him! I've often wondered to see men that call their wives and children their own fretting and worrying about anything else. Why, I feel rich and strong, though we have nothing but our bare hands. I feel as if I could scarcely ask God for any more. Yes, though I've worked hard every day, till I am twenty-five years old and have not a cent of money nor a roof to cover me, nor a spot of land to call my own, yet if they will only let me alone now, I will be satisfied -- thankful; I will work, and send back money for you and my boy. As to my old master, he has been paid five times over for all he ever spent for me. I don't owe him anything."
"But we are not quite out of danger," said Eliza; "we are not yet in Canada."
"True," said George, "but it seems as if I smelt the free air, and it makes me strong."

Return Home Top of the page
[ Home | Profiles | Timeline ]

[ wNetStation ]       [ PBS Online ]

tml"> PBS Online ]       [ wNetStation ]