“The little woman who started the great war.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe was the Cincinnati-based author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, often called one of the most influential texts ever written. Based on Stowe’s experiences with the Underground Railroad in Ohio, the novel painted a devastating portrait of the evils of slavery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the second bestselling book of the nineteenth century, outsold only by the Bible. Its influence on the American public — and on the growing belief that slavery was morally wrong — was incalculable. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies were sold in the United States alone. It was serialized, adapted for the stage, published overseas, and translated into dozens of languages. The book’s impact was so great that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe during the Civil War, he reportedly said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of the Rev. Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote. The Beecher family was prominent and accomplished: one of Harriet’s sisters was the educator and author Catharine Beecher, and her younger brother was the influential clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Harriet was educated at her sister Catharine’s Hartford Female Seminary, where young women were taught subjects that in those days were typically reserved for men: logic, rhetoric, ethics, mathematics, history, Latin, and the natural and mechanical sciences. Catharine’s school was one of only a handful in the country where women could acquire such a “daring” education.
In 1832 the Beecher family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lyman Beecher had accepted a position as president of Lane Theological Seminary. Here, Harriet began her writing career. In 1834, when she was 23, her first story was published in Western Monthly Magazine. While living in Cincinnati, Harriet met Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at the Lane Seminary. Calvin Stowe was nine years older than Harriet and was the widower of her friend Eliza Tyler. The two fell in love and were married in 1836. The couple produced seven children during their 50-year marriage, four of whom died during Harriet’s lifetime.
Slavery and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
During the 1830s, as a young wife and mother in Ohio, Stowe became an ardent abolitionist. Slavery had been prohibited north of the Ohio River since the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Just across the river from Cincinnati was the state of Kentucky, where slavery was legal. Thousands of runaway slaves passed through Cincinnati as they traveled to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Stowe became friends with several Ohio abolitionists, including some whose homes were stops on the Railroad. She met former and fugitive enslaved people, heard their stories, and witnessed slavery herself while visiting Kentucky. When Harriet and Calvin learned that their employee, Zillah, was actually a runaway in danger of being returned to slavery, Calvin and Harriet’s brother Henry Ward Beecher helped Zillah escape to Canada and legal freedom. All these experiences would form the basis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In 1850 Calvin Stowe accepted a position at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and the Stowes moved back East. The abolition debate was also heating up at this time: the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required the federal government to actively assist slaveowners in their efforts to reclaim runaway slaves in Northern states. Harriet realized that most Northerners had never witnessed slavery firsthand. They had no idea how brutal it was. She believed that if people understood what slavery really involved — the beatings, the harsh living conditions, the exploitation of enslaved women, the separation of families — they would be compelled to oppose it.
In 1851 the abolitionist newspaper The National Era contracted with Stowe for a serial story that would “paint a word picture of slavery.” The result was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe initially planned to write a total of three or four installments; in the end, she wrote more than 40. In 1852 the serial was re-published as a two-volume book, and became a runaway bestseller in the U.S., Great Britain, Europe, and Asia. It sold 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a global phenomenon, and changed forever the way people viewed slavery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin made Stowe an instant celebrity. But that was not her only book. She continued to write throughout her life, producing a second anti-slavery novel, Dred: A Tale from the Swamp, the non-fiction Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as children’s textbooks, advice books on homemaking and childrearing, biographies, and religious studies. Her Pink and White Tyranny attacked the idea that women should be ornamental and helpless. The informal, conversational style of her many novels permitted her to reach audiences that more scholarly works would not, and encouraged people to address such controversial topics as slavery, religious reform, and gender roles.
In 1864 the Stowes retired to Hartford, Connecticut, where Calvin died in 1886. Harriet outlived him by ten years, dying on July 1, 1896 at her home in Hartford. Later that year, Houghton, Mifflin and Company of Boston published The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe in 16 volumes. Stowe is buried at the Academy Cemetery of Andover, Massachusetts.
Resources for Harriet Beecher Stowe:
- Harriet Beecher Stowe House
- The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
- Harriet Beecher Stowe at Ohio History Central
- National Women’s Hall of Fame: Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Ohio’s Women: Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Women in History: Harriet Beecher Stowe
- A Celebration of Women Writers: Harriet Beecher Stowe
- National Women’s History Museum: Harriet Beecher Stowe
- American Civil War Women: Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Project Gutenberg