Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811–1896)

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Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811–1896)

American author whose best-known work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, helped to change the course of American history. Born Harriet Beecher on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut; died on July 1, 1896, in Hartford, Connecticut, of brain congestion complicated by partial paralysis; daughter of Lyman Beecher (d. 1863, a cleric) and Roxana (Foote) Beecher (d. 1816); attended Litchfield Female Academy, 1819–24, and then Hartford Female Seminary where she became a full-time instructor in 1829; married Calvin Ellis Stowe, on January 6, 1836 (died 1886); children: Elizaand Harriet Stowe (twins, b. September 1836); Henry Ellis Stowe (January 1838–1857); Frederick William Stowe (b. May 1840); Georgiana May Stowe (b. August 1843); Samuel Charles Stowe (1848–1849); Charles Edward Stowe (b. July 1850, author and his mother's biographer).

Death of mother (1816); moved to Cincinnati with her family (1832); published first writings in Western Monthly Magazine (1833); moved with husband and children to Brunswick, Maine (1850); published Uncle Tom's Cabin as a book (1852); moved with family to Andover, Massachusetts (1852); traveled to Europe for first time (1853); published second novel Dred (1856); oldest son Henry drowned (1857); published first New England novel, The Minister's Wooing (1859); published The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862); death of father (1863); moved with family to Hartford, Connecticut (1864); published Lady Byron Vindicated (1870); published last novel, Poganuc People (1878).

It was an occurrence that 12-year-old Charles Stowe never forgot. On that special day in November 1862, he accompanied his mother to the White House where they visited President Abraham Lincoln. Charles recalled Lincoln sitting with his feet on the mantelpiece as they entered the small room, and the great man rising and saying as he warmed his hands by the fireplace, "I do love a fire in a room. I suppose it's because we always had one to home." (After the visit, the young lad wondered aloud why President Lincoln said "to home" rather than "at home.") Etched in his memory were Lincoln's words to his mother, "So this is the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war."

The big war which Lincoln alluded to was, of course, the Civil War which broke out in 1861. Many Americans had hoped the slavery question had been laid to rest after the successful negotiation of the Compromise of 1850, which among other provisions admitted California to the Union as a free state, abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, set up the territories of New Mexico and Utah without mention of slavery, and strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law. However, when some Northerners refused to comply with the Fugitive Slave Law, and when Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared soon after the Compromise, the smoldering slave issue burst into flames again. With the coming of Uncle Tom's Cabin, there seemed to be no turning back.

Born in 1811, less than three years after Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe joined a family which was deeply religious. Her father Lyman Beecher, a Congregational minister, possessed "the best theological brain in America" and came to be known as the "great gun of Calvinism." As a young girl, Harriet spent countless hours in her father's study. "Here," she later wrote, "I loved to retreat and niche myself down in a quiet corner with my favorite books around me." One of her father's tomes proved to be "a mine of wealth to me." Cotton Mather's Magnalia contained "wonderful stories. … Stories, too, about my own country. Stories that made me feel the very ground I trod on to be consecrated by some special dealing of God's providence."

Because her mother died when she was only five, Harriet had few memories of Roxana Beecher . She did recall "two incidents" which "twinkle like rays through the darkness." Young Harriet remembered one Sunday morning when the Beecher children seemed especially exuberant, her mother with "pleasant voice saying after us, 'Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.'" Stowe described another occasion when she and her brothers ate a bag of tulip bulbs, thinking they were onions despite their "odd, sweetish taste." When Roxana discovered the empty bag, wrote Stowe, she demonstrated "not even a momentary expression of impatience," but, instead, sat down patiently explaining, "My dear children, what you have done makes mamma very sorry; those were not onion-roots, but roots of beautiful flowers; and if you had let them alone, ma would have had next summer in the garden great beautiful red and yellow flowers such as you never saw."

Although Harriet became the most famous of the Beechers through the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, other members of the Beecher family also distinguished themselves. Harriet's brother Henry Ward Beecher became, like his father, a nationally known preacher. Prior to the Civil War, when Kansas became "bleeding Kansas" because of violence over the slavery issue, it was Henry Ward Beecher who urged communicants of Brooklyn's Plymouth church to send Sharpe's rifles, which came to be called "Beecher's Bibles," to those settlers opposed to slavery. At one church meeting, he exhorted, "There is more moral power in one Sharpe rifle, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas are concerned, than in a hundred Bibles." One might "just as well read the bible to buffalos," but "they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharpe's rifles."

Harriet's sister Catharine Beecher "became one of the greatest figures in the development of higher education for women and in the establishment of professional home economics." Catharine was the driving force in the establishment of the Hartford Female Seminary. Later, she played a similar role in the founding and operation of the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati. In time, she became "a travelling missionary for the cause of women's higher education," publishing such works as True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women. Their half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was also a leading suffragist.

After the death of her mother, Harriet spent about a year living in Nutplains, Connecticut, with her maternal aunt Harriet Foote . Her father then married Harriet Porter (Beecher) of Portland, Maine, which brought the young Harriet back to Litchfield, Connecticut. About Harriet and her brother Henry, the second Mrs. Lyman Beecher wrote in one letter, "They are lovely children as I ever saw; amiable, affectionate, and very bright."

When Harriet was about eight, she began attending Litchfield Female Academy. "Much of the training and inspiration of my early days consisted not in the things I was supposed to be studying," she wrote, "but in hearing, while seated unnoticed at my desk, the conversation of Mr. Brace with the older classes." Near the age of 12, she wrote a composition that was read aloud before "all the literati of Litchfield" including Lyman Beecher. The essay, "Can the Immortality of the Soul Be Proved by the Light of Nature," obviously impressed her father. He asked Brace, "Who wrote that composition?" "Your daughter, sir," replied the teacher. Harriet described that exchange as "the proudest moment of my life."

In 1886, Stowe would write that "some-where between my twelfth and thirteenth year I was placed under the care of my sister Catharine, in the school she had just started in Hartford, Connecticut," called the Hartford Female Seminary. In the autumn of 1827, at age 16, Stowe began teaching a course on Virgil. In those years, too, she became more and more committed to Jesus Christ, once writing, "It was about this time that I first believed myself to be a Christian." She frankly admitted that "most of father's sermons were as unintelligible to me as if he had spoken in Choctaw," but that on one occasion he spoke "in direct, simple and tender language of the great love of Christ and his care for the soul." This caused her "as soon as father came home" to fall into his arms exclaiming, "Father, I have given myself to Jesus, and He has taken me."

Hooker, Isabella Beecher (1822–1907)

American suffragist. Name variations: Isabella Beecher. Born Isabella Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut, on February 22, 1822; died in Hartford, Connecticut, on January 25, 1907; daughter of Reverend Lyman Beecher and his second wife Harriet (Porter) Beecher; half-sister of Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe; educated mainly in schools founded by her half-sister Catharine; married John Hooker (a lawyer and real-estate entrepreneur), in August 1841.

Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1822, Isabella Beecher Hooker grew up in Boston, Cincinnati, and Hartford, with her half-sisters Harriet Beecher (Stowe) and Catharine Beecher . In 1841, Isabella married John Hooker, a young law student and descendant of Thomas Hooker, founder of Hartford. For ten years, the couple lived in Farmington, Connecticut, then moved to Hartford, where John and a brother-in-law bought a 100-acre lot, built houses for their families, and then sold off parcels to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dudley Warner, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

Influenced by her husband's studies and the essays of John Stuart Mill, Isabella Hooker became interested in the law as it related to women. Under the urging of Caroline M. Severance , Hooker joined forces with Susan B. Anthony , Elizabeth Cady Stanton , and Paulina Wright Davis , and helped found the New England Woman Suffrage Association in 1868. That same year, Hooker anonymously published "Mother's Letters to a Daughter on Woman's Suffrage" in Putnam's Magazine. In 1869, she organized the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, remaining president of that organization until 1905, and lobbied the state legislature for a married women's property act. Hooker was a main speaker at the 1870 convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C., and spent the next few years lobbying in Washington, along with her friend Victoria Woodhull . She also accompanied Woodhull on her journey into Spiritualism.

Speaking before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate in 1872, Hooker began: "You sit here, gentlemen, in judgment on my rights as an American citizen, as though they were something different from your own; but they are not." In 1874, Hooker published Womanhood: Its Sanctities and Fidelities, and, in 1893, was on the Board of Lady Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In early October 1832, the Beechers moved to Cincinnati where Lyman had accepted the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. One of Stowe's biographers wrote that "Harriet while living in New England had not given slavery much thought" but that "slavery was something one had to think about in Cincinnati." It was from Cincinnati that she crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky to visit a plantation which provided her with "her only first-hand impression of the patriarchal side of slavery and secured the scene of the Shelby's plantation in which she opened the story of Uncle Tom's

Cabin." It was also while living in Cincinnati, said Stowe, that "I learned incidently of the slave system in the history of various slaves who came into my family, and of the underground railroad which, I may say, ran through our house." It was in Cincinnati that she may have gained "her first harsh impression" of slave owners after reading an editorial by Thomas Brainerd, a respected Presbyterian cleric and a staunch supporter of her father. Brainerd had said that there could be "no apology" for a slaveholder "who raises human beings to sell."

On January 6, 1836, Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor of Biblical literature at Lane Theological Seminary. Calvin, who was "nine years older, stoutish and a little bald," had lost his first wife Eliza Stowe , also a friend of Harriet's, through death. The following September, while her husband was in Europe, Harriet gave birth to twin daughters. She named one Eliza and the second Isabella. However, her husband upon his return home insisted that Isabella's name be changed to Harriet, so highly did he esteem his second wife. The Stowes would have one more daughter, Georgiana May , and four sons. One son, Frederick William, was named after the king of Prussia, one of Calvin's heroes. Samuel Charles, born in January 1848, lived but 18 months and died of cholera. On July 26, 1849, Stowe wrote, "My Charley—my beautiful, loving, gladsome baby … so full of life and hope and strength—now lies shrouded, pale and cold, in the room below."

Abraham Lincoln">

So this is the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war.

—Abraham Lincoln

As the Stowe family grew, both her sister Catharine and her husband encouraged Harriet to write not merely to develop her skills, but to supplement the family income. About three years before her marriage, the Western Monthly Magazine had bought and published her first piece of fiction. Soon thereafter, she published with sister Catharine Geography for Children for which Harriet received $187 as her share. By 1842, Stowe had written enough short pieces to be collected and published by Harper's as The Mayflower. Calvin was so impressed that he wrote, "God has written it in his book that you must be a literary woman, and who are we that we should contend against God?" The Boston Miscellany now offered her not $2 a page but $20 for three pages, a princely sum indeed.

In the spring of 1850, the Stowes left Cincinnati for Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin had agreed to become the Collins Professor of Natural and Revealed Religion at Bowdoin College. Harriet, who was pregnant, preceded her husband to their new home in a trip that was not easy. One story, possibly apocryphal, persists of how a certain Professor Smith, at the behest of the president of Bowdoin, went to meet the bedraggled Mrs. Stowe and her brood. He returned without her, reporting that he had found only an "old Irish woman with a lot of brats." Surely, Stowe must not have taken this too seriously, for in 1853, in what one writer calls "the most famous description of her herself," she wrote: "I am a little bit of woman, somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never very much to look at in my best days, and looking like a used-up article now."

In the same year the Stowes moved to Brunswick, the members of Congress spent several weeks discussing the slavery issue. Eventually out of all the debate came several proposals collectively called the Compromise of 1850. One of the concessions to the South included the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act, designed to make the recapture of runaway slaves easier. This infuriated many opposed to slavery. From her sister-in-law Isabella Jones Beecher , Harriet received a letter which read, "Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something to make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is." Harriet responded, "I will write something. I will if I live." And so Uncle Tom's Cabin was born.

Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly, as it was first titled, was initially published as a serial in the National Era, a Washington, D.C., publication edited by Dr. Gamaliel Bailey. For $300, Stowe wrote 40 installments, with the first appearing on June 5, 1851, and the last on April 1, 1852. Because Uncle Tom's Cabin was such an immediate hit, book publisher John P. Jewett soon agreed to publish Stowe's work in book form. Shortly before the National Era issued the last installment, Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared as a book of two volumes on March 20, 1852.

Stowe, who would receive a 10% royalty on all sales, remarked, "I hope it will make enough so I may have a silk dress." As it turned out, two days after publication the entire first edition of 5,000 copies was sold. In four months, the author had earned $10,000 in royalties. In the United States, some 300,000 copies were sold the first year, while at the same time 150,000 were purchased in England. In August 1852, the novel was dramatized, notwithstanding the disapproval of Stowe who refused assent on the grounds that "if the theaters began showing respectable, moral plays, the young people of Christian families would be allowed to go to see them and would develop the habit of promiscuous theater-going, as a result." As a dramatic production, Uncle Tom's Cabin was presented on the stage well into the 20th century.

Overnight Uncle Tom's Cabin made Harriet Beecher Stowe world famous. Henry W. Longfellow sent congratulations, characterizing Uncle Tom's Cabin as "one of the greatest triumphs recorded in literary history," while another literary giant, John Greenleaf Whittier, sent "ten thousand thanks for thy immortal work." Jenny Lind , the famed "Swedish Nightingale" who was touring the United States at the time, sent Stowe "two choice tickets" for her final New York concert. When Harriet sent a thank-you note, Lind replied, "Certainly God's hand will remain with a blessing over your head." In England in 1856, Stowe and her husband met with Queen Victoria ; she also met such celebrities as Lord Palmerston, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ). Oliver Wendell Holmes became a good friend.

Not everyone applauded Stowe's work. Many Southerners believed that the South had been portrayed unfairly. Others felt that Harriet had been too critical of the Christian church. In response, Stowe wrote A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in which she sought to refute those who thought her characters had been overdrawn and that the slave experience she described in Uncle Tom's Cabin was unrealistic. Out of this came another novel, Dred, a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Stowe proved to be a prolific writer, turning out numerous books and articles after the appearance of her most famous work. The publication in 1859 of her novel The Minister's Wooing drew this response from James Russell Lowell: "I am sure that The Minister's Wooing is going to be the best of your products hitherto, and I am sure of it because you show so thorough a mastery of your material, so true a perception of realities, without which the ideality is impossible." Other works that poured from her pen included Agnes of Sorrento, The Pearl of Orr's Island: A Story of the Coast of Maine, and Oldtown Folks. When in 1877 she published a collection of her religious writings, Footsteps of the Master, it was her 30th book. Her last novel, published in 1878, was a "fictional autobiography" titled Poganuc People which one of her biographers calls "invaluable as an authentic picture of New England village life in the early decades of the Nineteenth Century." Two short stories written in late 1878 for the Atlantic Monthly, "The Parson's Race Horse" and "A Student's Sea Story," were her last significant works in fiction.

Stowe's Lady Byron Vindicated, published in 1870, raised a furor much like that which had ensued after the appearance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. While visiting England, Stowe had become well acquainted with Lady Byron , the widow of Lord Byron. At the time of his death, Lord Byron was separated from his wife. He had left her because, he said, she was hard-hearted, cantankerous, and mercenary. To Harriet, Lady Byron confided that her husband had committed incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh . When Lord Byron's last mistress Countess Guiccioli published a book vilifying Lady Byron, Harriet felt Lady Byron, now dead, deserved to have her honor defended. Thus, in the September 1869 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, she published "The True Story of Lady Byron's Life" in which she revealed Lady Byron's secret concerning her husband. The article provoked such a storm of criticism that Stowe felt compelled to write the volume Lady Byron Vindicated.

Although Uncle Tom's Cabin brought Harriet Beecher Stowe fame and some fortune, her life was not a bed of roses. In the same year Uncle Tom's Cabin was published, she had to move to Andover, Massachusetts, where her husband had accepted the chair of Sacred Literature at Andover Theological Seminary. She left Brunswick, Maine, with some reluctance: "I shall never find people whom I shall like better than those of Brunswick." In 1857, her oldest son Henry, who was a freshman at Dartmouth College, drowned in the Connecticut River. Her father Lyman Beecher died in 1863. Her son Frederick, who was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg, "grew into a besotted drunkard," took a trip to San Francisco, and was never heard of again. In the fall of 1870, her daughter Georgiana fell victim to a nervous illness from which she never recovered. Her famous brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was publicly charged with committing adultery with Elizabeth Tilton , wife of Theodore Tilton, a well-known editor.

In 1863, Harriet's husband retired, and the Stowes then moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where they had built a new home. It was in retirement that Harriet encouraged Calvin to write Origin and History of the Books of the Bible. About this venture, one biographer, Forrest Wilson, wrote, "Thus did a scheming and clear-sighted wife manoeuvre the most indolent, procrastinating, neurasthenic, temperamental, scholarly and likeable husband in the world into producing a masterpiece for the theological library."

Calvin Stowe lived until August 6, 1886, proving to be an amiable companion when not bothered by depression. In his retirement years, the Stowes spent most winters in Mandarin, Florida, and summers in Hartford. The death of her husband made Harriet more aware that life was fleeting, so in the winter following Calvin's death, she began collaborating with her son, Charles, in the writing of her life's story. When Charles completed the manuscript in September 1889, Harriet wrote the preface in which she stated, "I am going to my Father's."

Wilson describes her preface as her "valedictory to the world" for, he notes, "she wrote these sentences at the end of her lucid existence on earth." Harriet herself realized that mentally she was not what she had been. She wrote to an old friend, "My mind wanders like a running brook." More and more she thought about her own mortality, writing in one letter, "I am come to that stage of my pilgrimage that is within sight of the River of Death, and I must have all in readiness, day and night, for the messenger of the King." On July 1, 1896, less than three weeks after her 85th birthday, that long pilgrimage came to an end.


Fields, Anne. Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898.

Foster, Charles H. The Rungless Ladder. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1954.

Gilbertson, Catherine. Harriet Beecher Stowe. NY: D. Appleton-Century, 1937.

Stowe, Charles Edward. Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890.

Wilson, Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1941.

suggested reading:

Adams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. NY: Twayne, 1963.

Ammons, Elizabeth, ed. Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1980.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Johnston, Johanna. Runaway to Heaven: The Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe. NY: Doubleday, 1963.


Collections of Stowe letters can be found in the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library, Harvard University Library, Yale University Library, and the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California; 16 volumes of Harriet Beecher Stowe writings were published in 1896 by Houghton, Mifflin under the title The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Robert Bolt , Professor of History, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan

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Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811–1896)

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