Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe is best known for 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that showed how harsh life for African American slaves was. The novel became influential across the United States and Great Britain. Stowe came from the prominent, religious Beecher family and was a fervent abolitionist. She wrote 30 books in total, which included travel memoirs, novels, and article and letter collections.
On June 14, 1811, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut to Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher and Roxana (Foote) Beecher. Harriet was the seventh of nine children. Later on, she would also have four half-siblings. At five years old, her mother died and her father married Harriet Porter the following year.
Her older sister Catharine ran the Hartford Female Seminary, of which Harriet was enrolled in. There she received a traditional education that was normally only given to males of her time. She studied language and mathematics, among others. Harriet attended school with Sarah P. Willis, who would later become famous under the pen name Fanny Fern.
Twenty-one year old Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832. Her father had moved to Cincinnati shortly before and became president of the Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet joined the Semi-Colon Club upon her move. It was a literary salon and social club that included members like the Beecher sisters, Emily Blackwell, Salmon P. Chase, and Caroline Lee Hentz, among others.
In Cincinnati, Beecher also met many African Americans who had suffered in the Cincinnati Riots of 1829, which had been triggered due to the competition for jobs in the city between Irish immigrants and African Americans. The experiences of those she met in the city contributed later on to her writing on slavery. Once again, riots took place in 1836, and then in 1941 as well.
Beecher also met widower and professor Calvin Ellis Stowe at the literary club. Stowe was an ardent slavery critic. On January 6, 1936, Calvin Ellis Stowe married Harriet Elisabeth Beecher. The couple supported the Underground Railroad and temporarily houses many fugitive slaves in their home. They had seven children together, twins Harriet Beecher and Eliza Taylor (1836), Henry Ellis (1838), Frederick William (1840), Georgiana May (1843), Samuel Charles (1848), and Charles Edward (1850) Stowe.
Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which prohibited assisting fugitive slaves even in free states. Stowe, at the time, was living in Brunswick, Maine with her seven children while her husband taught at Bowdoin College. During a communion service at the college chapel, Stowe claimed to have had a vision of a dying slave. This inspired her to write his story. With the loss of her son eighteen month old son Samuel Charles in 1849, Stowe was able to empathize with slave families that were forever separated. His death also fueled the descriptions she used for children and families in her famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Having experienced losing someone so close to me, I can sympathize with all the poor, powerless slaves at the unjust auctions. You will always be in my heart Samuel Charles Stowe,” she once said. On March 9, 1850, Stowe said that she planned to write a story about the problem of slavery in a letter to the editor of National Era, the weekly anti-slavery journal, Gamaliel Bailey.
The first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in June of 1851 in the form of a serial in the National Era. Originally, the subtitle “The Man That Was A Thing” was used, but soon after changed to “Life Among the Lowly.” From June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852, the installments were published weekly. Stowe was paid $400 for the her novel’s serialization. John P. Jewett published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the form of a book on March 20, 1852. The book sold over 300,000 copies in only the first year. To stimulate more sales as sales began to go down around December, Jewett issued an inexpensive edition of the novel.
The goal of the book, according to Daniel R. Lincoln, was to educate people in the north on the realistic horrors of what was going on in the south with slavery. Its purpose was also to make southerners feel more empathy towards those being forced into slavery.
Right away, the nation’s attention was captured with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and how emotionally the effects of slavery was portrayed. Stowe’s novels showed people that slavery did not just affect those directly involved such as masters, traders, and slaves themselves, but all of society. In the south, it aroused opposition, as it added to the abolition and slavery debate. They depicted Stow as an out of touch and arrogant person who was guilty of slander. But within a year, more than 300 babies had been named after one of the book’s characters, Eva, in Boston alone. That November, a play adaptation opened in New York.
With numerous anti-Tom novels, the southerners quickly responded. They sought out to portray society in the south along with slavery in a positive way. While many of these books did become bestsellers, none compared to the popularity of Stowe’s, as she had set publishing records.
On November 25, 1862, Stowe traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet President Abraham Lincoln after the start of the American Civil War. Her daughter, Harriet “Hattie”, said that, “It was a very droll time that we had at the White house I assure you… I will only say now that it was all very funny—and we were ready to explode with laughter all the while.” It was said by Stowe’s son that Lincoln greeted her by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”. However, Stowe’s own accounts of the meeting are vague, including the letter she sent to her husband that reported about the meeting.
Stowe purchased property down in Florida after the Civil War. She wrote in response to a 1873 newspaper article, “I came to Florida the year after the war and held property in Duval County ever since. In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”
Her support for the Duchess of Sutherland made her a more controversial figure. The Duchess’s father-in-law was a leader in transforming the remote Highland of Scotland to an agriculture based society instead of militian based decades previously. Very bitter accounts appeared of them when they moved to Canada. Stowe refuted any of these bitter accounts using evidence provided to her by the Duchess.
One of many new publications for women, in 1868 one of Hearth and Home magazine’s first editors was Stowe. After only a year, she left this position. She began campaigning for the expansion of rights for women. Saying in 1869 that, “[T]he position of a married woman … is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband…. Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earned a fortune through her talents, he is the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny….[I]n the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence.”
Henry Ward Beecher, Stowe’s brother, was accused of adultery in the 1870s. It quickly became a nationwide scandal. Stowe was unable to bear the public attacking her brother, so she fled to Florida. However, she did ask for her family to send her any newspaper reports. Stowe remained loyal to her brother throughout the scandal, firmly believing he was innocent.
When she returned to Connecticut, Stowe was one of the founders of the Hartford Art School, which would later on become a part of the University of Hartford.
In 1886, Calvin Stowe died. After his death, Harriet Stowe’s health began to rapidly decline. Two years later in 1888, it was reported by the Washington Post that the seventy-seven year old Stowe had began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin over again as a result of dementia. Mark Twain, who was one of her neighbors in Hartford, recalled Stowe’s final years in his autobiography, describing that, “Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman.”
On July 1, 1896, eighty-five year old Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut. Modern historians and researchers have speculated that she was suffering through Alzheimer’s disease before her death. Stowe was buried at the cemetery at Phillips Academy, located in Andover, Massachusetts.