Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abolitionist and Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
A highlight in young Charles Stowe’s life was when he accompanied his mother Harriet Beecher Stowe to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln in November 1862. According to Charles, Abraham Lincoln said to his mother, “So this is the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war.” The book President Lincoln was referring to is Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the war was the American Civil War which broke out in 1861 between pro slavery Southern states and antislavery Northern states and lasted until 1865. Though Beecher Stowe was a prolific writer, penning about 30 novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was her most widely acclaimed book.
Name: Harriet Beecher Stowe
Birth Date: June 1811 – July 1896
Job Functions: Author
Known For: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the seventh of 13 children. While she was growing up, she enjoyed reading, and one of her favourite books was Magnolia by Cotton Mather. When she was almost 12 years old, she wrote an essay, “Can the Immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature,” which was read aloud. A big topic for a preteen.
Her father, Lyman Beecher, a Puritan minister, was an abolitionist and always told his children that slavery was a sin. The Beecher family moved to Cincinnati in 1832 because Lyman Beecher accepted a position as president of Lane Theological Seminary. While living in Cincinnati, Beecher Stowe got the opportunity to visit a plantation in Kentucky to observe first hand how the slave system operated there.
Stowe had several children with her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor of literature. Her husband and sister knew her capabilities as a writer, so they encouraged her to write to supplement the family’s meager income, and not just write to become a better writer. At the time, Beecher Stowe was a published writer, with pieces appearing in Western Monthly Magazine, Harper’s and The Boston Miscellany. Her husband was quite impressed with The Mayflower, which was a collection of short pieces published in Harper’s.
In 1850, the US Congress drafted the Compromise of 1850, which came out of discussions on the issues of slavery. One concession to the southern whites was an enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act designed to make it easier to recapture slaves who had run away. The passing of the Fugitive Slave Act angered many Northerners. Isabella Jones Beecher, Beecher Stowe’s sister-in-law was very indignant and incensed by the Compromise, which prompted her to write Harriet.
“Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something to make the whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”
Harriet responded, “I will write something. I will if I live.”
And this was the genesis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared serialized in the anti-slavery journal National Era, a publication edited by Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, which came out of Washington D.C. Beecher Stowe was contracted to write 40 instalments which ran from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852. The instalments were so well-received that publisher John P. Jewett agreed to publish the serial in book form. Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out in two volumes shortly before the final instalment of the series was published, and Beecher Stowe was promised 10 percent royalty on all sales.
The first printing of 5,000 copies of the book was sold out in two days. In the first year, 300,000 copies were sold in the US and another 200,000 in Britain. There were several dramatizations of the story which aided in the sale of the book. In four months, Beecher Stowe received $10,000 in royalty, a respectable sum in 1852. And during the first 5 years of its publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold half a million copies in America and two million copies in ten years.
In Books That Changed the World, author Andrew Taylor wrote, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly gives an uncompromising insight into the appalling cruelty of slavery in the mid-19th Century, through the intertwining stories of several African American slaves in the South who are bought, sold, beaten and killed.”
Beecher Stowe became world famous in the blink of an eye. Literary giants such as Henry W. Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier congratulated Beecher Stowe. In 1856, she and her husband visited England, where they got the opportunity to meet Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, Lord Palmerston, George Eliot and Oliver Wendell Holmes. While in England, she also met Lady Byron (1792 – 1860) and Lord Byron (1788 – 1824), who were separated, and the parents of Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852), the first computer programmer. Lady Byron was committed to the abolition of slavery, and prior to her death, she shared her story about Lord Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.
Not everyone was delighted with Stowe’s Uncle Tom Cabin. The Southerners did not like the way they were portrayed. And some believed that Stowe was too critical of the Christian Church. Beecher Stowe responded to the criticisms by writing A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin which documented the facts of her novel. And in 1856, Beecher Stowe wrote a slave novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.
Uncle Tom Cabin made Beecher Stowe a wealthy woman, and for the most part it didn’t change her. In 1864, she and her husband built an expensive house in Hartford, which they sold in 1873. They bought a smaller house next door to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).
In 1869, Beecher Stowe published “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life,” in the Atlantic Monthly, which was in response to Lord Byron’s last mistress Countess Guiccioli’s book, which ostracized Lady Byron. Of course Beecher Stowe’s article created a furor in England, and she followed up with Lady Byron Vindicated, which was published in 1870. Lord Byron had been loved deeply in England, so Beecher Stowe alienated some of her followers when she made public what Lady Byron had told her.
Beecher Stowe penned just over 30 books, but even though many of them did quite well, none reached the critical acclaim that Uncle Tom’s Cabin experienced. In 1889, she helped her son Charles Edward Stowe to collect her papers to publish her biography, The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. In my opinion, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a wise woman and someone that we can all learn from.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Steps to Success
- Harriet Beecher Stowe loved to read and was an excellent student.
- Though she had seven children, Stowe made time to write. She often wrote at nights after her children had gone to bed.
- Looked at what had been done before. Prior to writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she read American Slavery as It Is by abolitionist, Theodore Dwight Weld, and she also corresponded with former slave and abolition leader Frederick Douglass.
- Built on her success instead of slowing down and taking it easy.
Why Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Contribution Matters
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave people in the North the inspiration they needed to join the fight against slavery.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the first books to demonstrate that black characters were similar to white characters – they had the same hopes, dreams strengths and weaknesses.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin raised people’s awareness of the terrible injustice of slavery.
- In the late 1860s, Stowe and her husband spent the winter months in Florida, where one of their sons ran a farm. She opened a school and taught former slaves how to read and write.
Lessons from Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Anyone can use what they are good at to make a difference in the world.
Some of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Books
- An Elementary Geography (1835)
- The Mayflower: or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters of the Descendants of the Pilgrims (1843). The title was subsequently changed to Let Every Man Mind His Own Business.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life Among the Lowly (1852)
- Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856)
- The Minister’s Wooing (1859)
- Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862)
- House and Home Papers (1865)
- Little Foxes (1866)
- The Chimney-Corner (1868)
- Lady Byron Vindicated (1870)
Sources Cited/ References
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Books That Changed the World, Andrew Taylor
Women in World History, Volume Fourteen
The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia
American Civil War Reference
American Women Writers
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