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Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe

By John T. Marck

Her Life and Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly

"And behold the tears of such as are oppressed; and on the side of their oppressors there was power. Wherefore I praised the dead that are already dead more than the living that are yet alive."

In March 1862, Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House and upon meeting President Abraham Lincoln, it is said he said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war?" Although it is doubtful that Lincoln said these words, there is no denying that her novel had an impact on the slavery debate.

She was born Harriet Elizabeth Beecher on June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut. Born into a family of ministers and reformers, her father was a well known Congregational Revivalist, and seven of her brothers were ministers. The most famous of these brothers was Henry Ward Beecher, a celebrated public speaker, and her eldest sister Catherine was renowned for her stern teaching methods.

Harriet attended Catherine's school in Hartford, where she later taught, and also attended another of her schools in Cincinnati. She loved to write, and her first published work was a geography book, followed by a sketch, which was her first attempt at fiction. So good, this won a magazine contest. While in Cincinnati, she soon began to learn about slaves and slavery, with the slave state of Kentucky across the river. One day, upon visiting a Kentucky plantation, she saw first hand the plight of the slaves. Upon her return home, she orchestrated the escape of a black maidservant who was a fugitive slave.

At the age of 24, she married Calvin Stowe, 33, who was a professor of Bible studies at her father's seminary in Cincinnati. Together they would have seven children, over a fifteen-year period. This left her little time with which to write, but she did manage some. Having completed several short stories, her collection was published which finally convinced her family that she could write.

In 1850, she and her husband moved to Brunswick, Maine where he accepted a professorship at Bowdoin College. One day while attending a church service, Harriet became inspired and returned home and began writing what would be her greatest novel. As she completed various chapters of this novel, it was published in 36 installments as a serial story in the National Era, an anti slavery magazine in Washington, D.C.

In 1852, her masterpiece, now in two volumes was published in book form, titled, Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly. The first day it was released it sold 3,000 copies, and 300,000 the first year. Although outstanding in its own write, it did happen to come at a perfect time in America's history, with the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which increased the Northern resistance toward slavery. Furthermore, Uncle Tom's Cabin brought to reality in the North the human side of slavery, and the effect was that for the first time, readers felt the evils of slavery. Consequently, Harriet was celebrated in the North, and hated in the South.

With Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe was able to write in such a manner as to stir emotions, brought out by her vivid characterizations. Using stereotypical descriptions, she described exactly what slaves, slavery, and Southerners were about. However, she knew little if anything about these subjects from first-hand experience, but rather from abolitionist movements, combined with her own imagination.

Although misunderstood, her intention was not an indictment toward the South or Southerners, but was merely against the institution of slavery itself. In spite of her repeated attempts to convince them otherwise, Southerners looked upon it as an attack on their way of life, and denounced it angrily. Consequently, Uncle Tom's Cabin became ammunition in the sectional arguments, outselling all other books of the century, and spawned numerous stage plays. Harriet, quite distressed that her work was misconstrued, published in 1853 an explanation of the book titled A Key To Uncle Tom's Cabin, but this did not work, falling on deaf ears.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was actually not as one-sided as the South would have made it appear. In the early scenes, the story depicted Colonel Shelby and Augustine St. Clare as very kindhearted gentlemen of the South who took good care of their slaves. But still it was true, treated good or bad, they still advocated slavery, the one thing Harriet was trying to abolish. But the most famous of the villains was Simon Legree, who with his whips and bloodhounds, made the greatest, most lasting impression on the readers.

Harriet went on to write more than twenty books over the next twenty years. Her second anti slavery novel was titled Dred, and sold well, but less successful than Uncle Tom's Cabin. She also wrote several shorter works which were published in the Atlantic Monthly and the Christian Union. Many of her writings excelled Uncle Tom's Cabin in their literary merit, but none surpassed the success of "Cabin."

Unfortunately, both she and her husband were poor business managers, thus she had to continue writing and producing books for support. Some of her novels in the later years were hastily written to cover advances from publishers. Many of these were loosely constructed, and did contain the same moral fire as did Uncle Tom's Cabin, but their relevance and timing could never match those consequences that made Uncle Tom's Cabin the social and political work of art it was. It made Stowe the first professional writer since Thomas Paine to strongly influence American history.

On July 1, 1896, Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut. When asked about the book that made her famous, she replied, "God wrote it."

I believe that Uncle Tom's Cabin is a book that everyone should read. If you haven't yet had the opportunity, check it out and join Cassy, Miss Ophelia, Topsy, Evangeline, Tom and others for an experience I think you'll enjoy.

Copyright 1993-2022 by  John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.