Information and Articles About Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist, and one of the prominent women of the civil war
Harriet Beecher Stowe Facts
June 14, 1811
July 1, 1896 (aged 85)
Author of numerous magazine articles, essays, and stories
Author of over 30 novels, including Uncle Toms Cabin
Supporter of Underground Railroad
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Harriet Beecher Stowe summary: Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which played a significant role in accelerating the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. The book originally was a serial in the anti-slavery newspaper The National Era in 1851. Born to a large New England family that encouraged the education of all of the children and their involvement in public affairs, Stowe was a life-long writer, educator, and philanthropist.
Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut, the seventh of nine children of Roxanna (Foote) and Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher, a well-known Calvinist preacher. Beecher was one of the leaders of the Second Awakening, a Christian revival movement that also inspired social activism—he preached against slavery in the 1820s in response to the Missouri Compromise.
Harriet’s mother died when she was three and Harriet was sent to live with her Aunt Harriet Foote, where she learned to read and learned catechism. When she was six, her father remarried, to Harriet Porter. Two brothers and a sister, Isabella, were born of this marriage.
Harriet first attended Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Academy, which provided a traditional women’s education in decorative arts, music, and French but also had an academic curriculum. In 1824, at the age of 13, she moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to attend the Hartford Female Seminary, founded and run by her eldest sister, Catharine. Hartford Female Seminary was one of the first institutions for women’s higher education that provided comprehensive education rather than just preparing or "finishing" women for successful social lives. Harriet eventually became an assistant teacher at the seminary.
In 1826, the Beechers moved from Litchfield to Boston, Massachusetts, where Lyman was a minister at the Hanover Church. As a Calvinist preaching against the evils of Unitarianism in the religious center of the Unitarian movement, he was not as successful as he had hoped. He moved his family again in 1834, this time to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati and president of the Lane Theological Seminary of Cincinnati. By moving to the western frontier, Lyman would train preachers at the seminary and use them to spread Protestantism—and his anti-Catholicism views—in the West.
While in Cincinnati many members of the Beecher family, including Harriet, joined the Semi-Colon Club, a literary and social salon that included future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Salmon P. Chase, Judge James Hall, who was editor of Western Monthly Magazine, and other prominent members of Cincinnati’s intellectual society. They read and critiqued each other’s writing and debated social issues, including slavery.
In 1836, Harriet married widowed clergyman Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at her father’s theological seminary. They had seven children between 1836 and 1850. During their time in Cincinnati, the Stowes met and talked with slaves that had escaped to Ohio from neighboring Kentucky and Virginia. They were friends with abolitionists who participated in the Underground Railroad, and Harriet visited Kentucky, where she saw the impact of slavery first-hand.
In 1839, the Stowes hired a servant girl from Kentucky, who by the laws of Ohio was free since her mistress had brought her and allowed her to stay in Cincinnati. However, a few months later, they learned that the girl’s master was in town looking for her and could legally, by any means, seize her and return her to slavery in Kentucky. One night, Professor Stowe and his brother-in-law, Henry Ward Beecher, armed themselves and drove the girl in a covered wagon by unfrequented roads into the country to a trusted friend’s home. This incident became the basis of the fugitives’ escape in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Married life and motherhood did not put a damper on Harriet’s literary career, which had started before her marriage. Calvin, active in public education, was very supportive of her writing and her involvement in public affairs. In 1833, she had co-authored A Primary Geography for Children with her sister Catharine. In 1834, Harriet won a writing contest in the Western Monthly Magazine and began writing articles, essays, and stories for it and, over the course of her life-long writing career, other publications including The Atlantic Monthly, New York Evangelist, the Independent, and the Christian Union. She published a short story collection, The New England Sketches, in 1835. In 1843 she published her first novel, The Mayflower, and published roughly a book a year for the ensuing 30 years.
Following a cholera outbreak in 1849 that took the life of their youngest son, Samuel Charles, known as Charley, the Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin was a professor at Bowdoin College, his alma mater. Harriet gave birth to their last child, Charles Edward, on July 8, 1850.
On September 18, 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it illegal for anyone to help a fugitive slave, thus allowing slave owners to travel far into the Northern free states to reclaim slaves. In 1851, Stowe began a contract with The National Era, an anti-slavery magazine, for a story that would "paint a word picture of slavery," for Northerners who had never witnessed it first-hand, as a way to galvanize them to action against the institution of slavery. Stowe originally planned for the story to consist of just three or four installments, but she ended up writing more than 40. The first installment was published June 5, 1851, and before the series was finished, she had an offer to publish it as a novel.
The following year, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly was published. It became a bestseller in the United States, Britain, Europe, and Asia, and was eventually translated into over 60 languages. It accomplished what Harriet had intended—a wave of anti-slavery sentiment swept the North.
Harriet was invited to speak about the novel, slavery, and emancipation in cities across North America and Europe. In 1853, she wrote The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to defend herself against critics, who either disagreed with her anti-slavery politics and her portrayal of the South or who thought she had not been radical enough in depicting the evils of slavery. In a letter in 1853, she explained, "I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity – because as a lover of my county, I trembled at the coming day of wrath."
That same year, Calvin took a position at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts, where the Stowes lived from 1853 to 1864. Harriet continued her various philanthropic efforts to help slaves, including establishing schools for them, and continued to write—articles and columns for newspapers, and novels. When the American Civil War began, Harriet felt that President Abraham Lincoln did not move quickly enough to emancipate slaves and met with him in 1862 to urge him to take decisive action. Her son Frederick left Harvard Medical School to enlist in the Civil War and was seriously wounded by a shell fragment at Gettysburg.
After Calvin’s retirement in 1864, the Stowes moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Harriet was surrounded by friends, family, and where, in 1873 when they moved to a home on Forest Street, they counted Mark Twain and his family among their neighbors and friends. While living in Hartford, Stowe wrote some of her best known novels: The American Woman’s Home, Lady Byron Vindicated, and Pogunuc People. After the Civil War, she and Calvin began to spend winters in Mandarin, Florida, near where her brother Charles Beecher had opened a school for emancipated slaves.
On July 1, 1896, Stowe died at her home in Hartford, Connecticut. During her lifetime, she had established herself as a major American writer, abolitionist, and social advocate. While her prominence faded somewhat following her death, Uncle Tom’s Cabin lived on in stereotypes in plays and films in the early 20th century. On the eve of the mid-20th century civil rights movement, James Baldwin published a scathing criticism of the novel, laying on it some of the burden of ingrained racial stereotypes. However, the feminist movement of the 1970s reclaimed Harriet Beecher Stowe as a feminist figure and a figure of scholarly interest—Joan Hedrick won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1994 biography of Stowe and in 2006, Henry Louis Gates, an eminent African American scholar, refuted Baldwin in an annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Although Harriet is perhaps the most well-known of the Beecher children, the atmosphere they were brought up in encouraged them all to become involved in public affairs and make a difference in their world by taking action. All of them became educators, all of the boys became clergymen, and one, Henry, became a great orator, speaking out in favor of abolition and advocating temperance. One sister, Mary, was content to live a quiet life in Hartford, though her daughter, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was a prominent author and advocate of women’s rights and social reform. Harriet’s other sisters—Catharine and Isabella—made as large an impact as Harriet did in 19th-century America. Catharine was a staunch advocate for women’s higher education, establishing women’s schools in Connecticut, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Isabella became one of the driving forces in the Woman’s Suffrage movement—she organized the annual convention of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1871 and, with her husband, introduced a bill in the Connecticut Legislature giving married women the same property rights as their husbands, which was passed in 1877.
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