Abolition is the act of putting an end to something by law. One young lady would witness a slave auction and go one to write one of the most influential books about the anti-slavery movement. I have the great honour of introducing an author and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811. She was the daughter of outspoken Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxanna Foote. The Beecher family was quite religious. Harriet would become the 7th of 13 children born to Lyman Beecher and his two wives.
Harriet’s mother, Roxanna died on September 13, 1816. A year later, Lyman married Harriet Porter. Harriet was sent to attend school in 1824. She was to attend the school that her sister Catherine had created. Education was important to the Beecher Family. After her graduation, she would teach at the school.
The family would move from Connecticut to 2950 Gilbert Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832. Harriet’s father had become the president of the Lane Theological Seminary. Also, in that year, Harriet would join the Semi-Colon Club for writing. Harriet would again teach at a school that her sister Catherine had established in Ohio.
Cholera became a problem in Cincinnati in 1833. Harriet would leave Cincinnati for Washington, Kentucky along with one of her classmates. While there, she was taken to a slave auction. It haunted and disturbed her considerably. When the epidemic was suppressed, Harriet returned to her family home.
Her first book “Primary Geography for Children was published in 1833. At the age of 23, Harriet had entered one of her writings to The Western Monthly. She won the prize of $50 for “A New England Sketch”.
Like any young woman, her fancy would be directed towards a young man. Calvin Ellis Stowe. Stowe was a chair of Sacred Literature at Lane Theological Seminary. The young teacher was a widower. The couple met while at a literary club. The pair would marry on January 6, 1836. Harriet soon left teaching to become a parent. Harriet and Calvin would have 7 children together.
Calvin would travel often. During this time, Harriet was unwell. To make matters worse, was the fact that the family was in financial difficulties. While staying at home, Harriet would write short stories and essays for the Western Monthly magazine or for the New York Evangelist while tending to the children. In July of 1849, their youngest son at the time, Samuel Charles (born in January of 1848) would contract cholera. He would die on July 22 1849.
1850 saw the young family move to 63 Federal Street in Brunswick, Maine. Calvin was given the opportunity to teach at Bowdoin College.
The death of Samuel was speculated to be the catalyst that got Harriet to seriously consider writing about the injustice of slavery. Harriet was accustomed to sending to periodicals. On August 9, 1850, The Star and Banner printed a short story called “A Freeman’s Dream: A Parable”. The response from the reader was strongly positive. So much so that the paper sent her $100 to continue to produce writings. It was when she wrote “The Mayflower” that her husband Calvin became convinced that she was a serious writer.
Harriet, along with her family became infuriated when the Fugitive Slave law came into effect on September 18, 1950. The act enabled a slave owner to have his escaped slave returned to him, even if the person is in a State where slavery has been abolished. She knew that the topic was sensitive at the that time but the Beechers and the Stowes debated among themselves often.
Beginning on June 5, 1951, Harriet was to be published in the National Era. This was an Abolitionist newspaper. Her story would run over a few weeks. The few weeks became 43 weeks. Her story of a slave and his narrative became instantly popular. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became a best seller.
The articles were so wildly popular that they decided to publish the story in to a book. The publish date was March 20, 1852. One of the first books was sent to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In the year that followed, 300,00 copies were printed. This set a publishing record. Money was no longer a problem for the struggling family. Harriet was paid ten cents for every copy in royalties.
The 1850’s were very tumultuous time. The anti-slavery movement was gathering steam. Buchanan became President on March 4, 1857. Buchanan leaned towards slavery. Two days later, the verdict for Dred Scott vs Sandford would come. The verdict claimed that slaves were not citizens of the USA, and that they were considered property of the slave owners. The decision politically divided the country, infuriating the North, and appeasing the South. In 1853, the family would move again to 73 Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1853, Harriet would befriend Annabella Milbanke, also known as Lady Byron while on a speaking tour of Europe. She would become a confidant and tell Harriet about her husband, Poet Lord Byron. Harriet would again visit Europe in 1856 and again in 1859, meeting Queen Victoria.
July 9, 1857, Harriet and Calvin’s son Henry Ellis would drown in the Connecticut River.
Political change would come with the election of President Abraham Lincoln. He ran on the platform of prohibiting slavery. After great debates with opponent Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln was elected on November 6, 1860. Just after a month later, a declaration of secession was given by South Carolina on December 20. Southern states so followed. Lincoln would not let Fort Sumter in South Carolina to fall, yet on April 12, 1861 shots were fired and the United States Civil War begun.
Harriet had begun touring and promoting her book. As per society at the time, women were discouraged to speak publicly, so the speaking was done by her brothers, who accompanied her.
In November of 1862, Harriet would travel to Washington DC. She met with President Lincoln on November 25. Disputed by some, President Lincoln was quoted as saying, “So, you are the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war”. She wrote to her husband saying that she had a “real funny interview with the President”.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order changed the legal status for 3.5 million slaves to free persons.
In 1863, the family moves to Hartford, Connecticut. Calvin had retired in August of that year. The new home would be called Oakholm. By May 1, 1864, the home was complete enough for the family to move in to. The Stowe’s neighbour across the street was writer Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain.
President Lincoln is assassinated on April 14, 1865. On December 6, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was enacted, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. The United States Civil War would officially end on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee would surrender the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.
The year after the war ended, Harriet and Calvin buy land in Florida. They would winter there. She would promote tourism of Florida. In 1868, Harriet would become one of the first editors for the magazine, Hearth and Home. She would stay for about a year there before leaving to campaign for women’s rights.
In 1869, Harriet writes a scathing expose about Lord Byron. It is written in response to an article written about Lady Byron. It claimed that Lord Byron had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. It was surmised that the union produced a child. The story in Britain broke and because of the popularity of Lord Byron at the time, her reputation as a reputed author was shaken. Public opinion in the country feel sharply for Beecher Stowe. Neighbour Twain would defend her in the arena of popular opinion during this time.
Harriet’s son Fredrick moves to California in 1871. He Is a veteran of the Civil war and was wounded at Gettysburg. This ended his military career. Frederick also battled alcoholism since he was a student. Soon after arriving in San Francisco, Frederick disappeared and was never heard from again. Harriet feared he son dead, yet still hope for a letter someday.
In 1873, the upkeep and maintenance of Oakholm was too expensive and the family moved to 73 Forest Street in Hartford Connecticut.
Scandal would hit the Beecher family. Harriet’s brother is accused of adultery by a fellow parishioner late in 1874. Henry is sent to trial in January of 1875. The trial lasted until July. The jury took 6 days to come back being hung. The church would exonerate Henry. Harriet always believed that the story was false and that Henry was innocent. Some of the other siblings would side with the accuser. This cause a rift in the family.
Once Harriet and Calvin settled down after years of wintering in Florida, she became active in her sister Isabella’s activism for women’s rights. Calvin’s health did not permit such trip any further. On May 12, 1878, Harriett’s sister Catherine Beecher passed away in Elmira, New York. It was about the same time that Harriet stopped writing for publication. She still wrote personal letters.
Harriet became a widow on August 22, 1886 when Calvin Ellis Stowe died. He is buried in the Phillips Academy Cemetery in Andover, Massachusetts. Harriet herself had begun to fail health wise. By 1888, she began to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin anew. She had developed a form of dementia. Her health would not improve. She would spend her elder years visiting neighbours, walking about town and on occasion, drinking a little too much wine.
If death had happened in the few years prior to her actual death, it would not have come as a surprise to the community. On July 1, 1886, family gathered at Harriet’s bedside. Also, attending was Harriet’s nephew Edward B. Hooker M.D. He was acting as her medical attendant. She had slipped into unconsciousness and died at noon that day. A funeral was held the next day at 5pm. Friends, family and neighbours attended. He body was shipped by train to Andover so she could be buried with her husband and their son Henry.
A brilliant mind, a strong desire to help the unjust and the talent to use her written words to begin conversations. Harriet would be considered to be one of the great writers. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is considered one of the greatest stories told in the 19th century, only being outsold by the Bible. It has been translated into 23 languages. She wrote under the pseudonym of Christopher Crowfield at times. A fighter for the just, for women, for family. She was a remarkable woman.