Originally appeared as the “Not to Be Forgotten” column in the May/June 2003 issue of PRISM Magazine.
In 1851 a 40 year-old mother of seven submitted a few chapters of her first novel to a small-circulation, abolitionist newspaper, hoping her work might find a sympathetic audience. Eleven years later President Abraham Lincoln greeted her, not entirely in jest: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” The book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and its impact upon the American conscience was unprecedented and phenomenal.
Its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was born in Litchfield, Conn., June 14, 1811, into one of the 19th century’s most illustrious families. Her father, the Rev. Lyman Beecher, was a prominent minister, reformer, evangelist, revivalist, and founder of the American Bible Society. An intellectual environment prevailed in the home, with Rev. Beecher leading his family in energetic discussions of social and political concerns. When public debate raged in 1820 over whether Missouri should be admitted to the union as slave state or free, he took up the issue with customary fervor and preached a series of fiery anti-slavery sermons.
While Harriet was to become the most enduringly famous and the one most linked with the abolitionist cause, all of the Beecher children were impacted by their father’s reformist zeal and made significant contributions to society. Harriet’s older sister, Catherine, founded schools for young women throughout the country, and her youngest sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Six of Harriet’s brothers became Congregational ministers, the most famous of whom was reformer, abolitionist, and lecturer Henry Ward Beecher.
Harriet was educated at Hartford Female Seminary, established by her sister Catherine, and later joined its faculty. In 1832 Lyman Beecher accepted the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio, and his family moved with him to what was then the western frontier of the United States. Soon after arriving in Cincinnati, Catherine Beecher founded Western Female Institute, where Harriet taught until she married Calvin E. Stowe, a widowed professor of biblical literature at Lane, in 1836.
The slave state of Kentucky lay just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, which gave Harriet a firsthand awareness of slavery’s evils and personalized the abolitionist views instilled by her father’s preaching. When a friend told Harriet of seeing a young black woman dart across the frozen river in the dark of night with her baby in her arms, the image stuck in Harriet’s mind and later became one of the most moving scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Harriet had done some writing in her teaching years and took it up again in earnest a few years after marriage. Participation in a local literary society sharpened her abilities and ambitions, and she was soon supplementing the family income by writing articles and stories for religious magazines and local periodicals.
Living in Cincinnati, Harriet observed many husbands, wives, and children being sold apart from each other, but it took the loss of her infant son Charlie to cholera in 1849 to translate her outrage into genuine empathy. It was at this time that she began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After its publication she wrote the following 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 … I felt I could never be consoled … unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some good to others. …
In 1850 Calvin Stowe joined the faculty of Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. The Stowes’ return to the Northeast coincided with a wave of public outrage over the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and Harriet felt compelled to complete her anti-slavery novel. Shortly after moving to Brunswick, she submitted her first few episodes to the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, and the editor paid $300 for 40 weekly installments, each with a cliffhanger ending.
The story of Uncle Tom, Topsy, Simon Legree, and Little Eva quickly became a national passion, and a Boston publisher brought Uncle Tom’s Cabin out in book form in March, 1852. Sales eventually topped 3 million worldwide, with translations into at least 22 languages, and Harriet made triumphant anti-slavery lecture tours in both America and Europe. As her book galvanized public attention, Southern critics attacked her book as “one-sided and inaccurate.” In response Harriet wrote A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), which documented the realities upon which her novel had been based. President Lincoln is said to have read it before writing the Emancipation Proclamation.
For the next 30 years Harriet kept up a steady stream of writing, publishing nearly a book a year and contributing regularly to literary and religious magazines. After her husband’s retirement from teaching in 1864, the Stowes began spending winters in Florida. There Harriet helped establish schools for newly freed African American children and helped develop an ecumenical church open to members of all denominations.
After Calvin Stowe’s death in 1886, Harriet’s mind began to fail and she spent her last 10 years in relative seclusion. She is buried next to her husband and son Henry at Andover Theological Seminary. Her most famous work, which was credited with starting a war and contributing to the end of slavery, lives on and was called by writer Leo Tolstoy a “great work of literature flowing from love of God and man.”