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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Author of Uncle Tom's Cabin


Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852

Image © 2002 Jone Johnson Lewis.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Biography

Dates: June 14, 1811 - July 1, 1896

Also: Harriet Beecher Stowe Facts - basics about Harriet Beecher Stowe

Childhood and Youth

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Connecticut in 1811, the seventh child of her father, the noted Congregationalist preacher, Lyman Beecher, and his first wife, Roxana Foote. Her mother died when she was four, and Harriet's oldest sister, Catherine, took over care of the children. Even after Lyman Beecher remarried, and Harriet had a good relationship with her stepmother, Harriet's relationship with Catherine remained strong.

After five years at Ma'am Kilbourn's school, Harriet enrolled in Litchfield Academy, winning an award (and her father's praise) when she was twelve for an essay titled, "Can the immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?"

Harriet's sister Catherine founded a school for girls in Hartford, Hartford Female Seminary, and Harriet enrolled there. Soon, Catherine had her young sister teaching at the school.

In 1832, Lyman Beecher was appointed president of Lane Theological Seminary, and he moved his family -- including both Harriet and Catherine -- to Cincinnati. There, Harriet associated in literary circles with the likes of Salmon P. Chase (later governor, senator, member of Lincoln's cabinet, and Supreme Court chief justice) and Calvin Ellis Stowe, a Lane professor of biblical theology, whose wife, Eliza, became a close friend of Harriet.

Teaching and Writing

Catherine Beecher started a school in Cincinnati, the Western Female Institute, and Harriet became a teacher there. Harriet began writing professionally: first she co-wrote a geography textbook with her sister, Catherine, and then sold several stories.

Cincinnati was across the Ohio from Kentucky, a slave state, and Harriet also visited a plantation there and saw slavery for the first time. She also talked with escaped slaves. Her association with anti-slavery activists like Salmon Chase meant that she began questioning the "peculiar institution."

Calvin Stowe, Family, Moving

After her friend Eliza died, Harriet's friendship with Calvin Stowe deepenened, and they were married in 1836. Calvin Stowe was, in addition to his work in biblical theology, an active proponent of public education. After their marriage, Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to write, selling short stories and articles to popular magazines. She gave birth to twin daughters in 1837, and to six more children in fifteen years, using her earnings to pay for household help.

In 1850, Calvin Stowe obtained a professorship at Bowdoin College in Maine, and the family moved, Harriet giving birth to her last child after the move. In 1852, Calvin Stowe found a position at Andover Theological Seminary, from which he'd graduated in 1829, and the family moved to Massachusetts.

Writing About Slavery

1850 was also the year of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and in 1851, Harriet's son 18-month-old died of cholera. Harriet had a vision during a communion service at the college, a vision of a dying slave, and she determined to bring that vision to life.

Harriet began writing a story about slavery, and used her own experience of visiting a plantation and of talking with ex-slaves. She also did much more research, even contacting Frederick Douglass to ask to be put in touch with ex-slaves who could ensure the accuracy of her story.

On June 5, 1851, the National Era began publishing installments of her story, appearing in most weekly issues through April 1 of the next year. The positive response led to publication of the stories in two volumes. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold quickly, and some sources estimate as many as 325,000 copies sold in the first year.

Though the book was popular not only in the United States but around the world, Harriet Beecher Stowe saw little personal profit from the book, due to the pricing structure of the publishing industry of her time, and due to the unauthorized copies that were produced outside the U.S. without the protection of copyright laws.

By using the form of a novel to communicate the pain and suffering under slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe tried to make the religious point that slavery was a sin. She succeeded. Her story was denounced in the South as a distortion, so she produced a new book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, documenting the actual cases on which her book's incidents were based.

Reaction and support was not only in America. A petition signed by half a million English, Scottish, and Irish women, addressed to the women of the United States, led to a trip to Europe in 1853 for Harriet Beecher Stowe, Calvin Stowe, and Harriet's brother Charles Beecher. She turned her experiences on this trip into a book, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. Harriet Beecher Stowe returned to Europe in 1856, meeting Queen Victoria and befriending the widow of the poet Lord Byron. Among others she met were Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe returned to America, she wrote another antislavery novel, Dred. Her 1859 novel, The Minister's Wooing, was set in the New England of her youth, and drew on her sadness in losing a second son, Henry, who drowned in an accident while a student at Dartmouth College. Harriet's later writing focused mainly on New England settings.

After the Civil War

When Calvin Stowe retired from teaching in 1863, the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Stowe continued her writing, selling stories and articles, poems and advice columns, and essays on issues of the day.

The Stowes began spending their winters in Florida after the end of the Civil War. Harriet established a cotton plantation in Florida, with her son Frederick as the manager, to employ newly-freed slaves. This effort, and her book Palmetto Leaves, endeared Harriet Beecher Stowe to Floridians.

Though none of her later works were nearly as popular (or influential) as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the center of public attention again when, in 1869, an article in The Atlantic created a scandal. Upset at a publication that she thought insulted her friend, Lady Byron, she repeated in that article, and then more fully in a book, a charge that Lord Byron had had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, and that a child had been born of their relationship.

Frederick Stowe was lost at sea in 1871, and Harriet Beecher Stowe mourned another son lost to death. Though daughters Eliza and Harriet, the twins, were still unmarried and helping at home, the Stowes moved to smaller quarters.

Beecher-Tilton Scandal

Another scandal touched the family in the 1870s, when Henry Ward Beecher, the brother with whom Harriet had been closest, was charged with adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of one of his parishioner, Theodore Tilton, a publisher. Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony were drawn into the scandal, with Woodhull publishing the charges in her weekly newspaper. In the well-publicized adultery trial, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Harriet's half-sister Isabella, a supporter of Woodhull, believed the charges of adultery and was ostracized by the family; Harriet defended her brother's innocence.

Last Years

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 70th birthday in 1881 was a matter of national celebration, but she did not appear in public much in her later years. Harriet helped her son, Charles, write her biography, published in 1889. Calvin Stowe died in 1886, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, bedridden for some years, died in 1896.

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