Harriet Beecher Stowe

"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. Indeed, her best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had given an incendiary voice to the Abolition Movement.

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Photo: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital IDcph 3a13608

By the time Harriet Beecher Stowe made that visit to the White House, over a decade had passed since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book had rocked the complacency of North and South alike. It forced Americans to look within their souls at the socio-political horrors of the institution of slavery, and at slavery’s moral corrosiveness to the very fiber of the nation.

Born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811, Harriet Beecher came of a family of ministers. Her father Lyman Beecher was a famous preacher and the president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati; her brother, the fiery orator Henry Ward Beecher, used his Brooklyn pulpit to effect 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.

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

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 . 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, her family maintained for some time a plantation in Florida as well as a house in Hartford, Connecticut, 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 earlier. Her house in Hartford is now the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, devoted to the writer and her mission of social justice.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

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