Harriet Beecher Stowe was a world-renowned American writer, staunch abolitionist and one of the most influential women of the 19th century. Although she wrote dozens of books, essays and articles during her lifetime, she was best known for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly, which brought unprecedented light to the plight of enslaved people and, many historians believe, helped incite the American Civil War.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Early Life
Stowe was born into a prominent family on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a Presbyterian preacher and her mother, Roxana Foote Beecher, died when Stowe was just five years old.
Stowe had twelve siblings (some were half-siblings born after her father remarried), many of whom were social reformers and involved in the abolitionist movement. But it was her sister Catharine who likely influenced her the most.
Catharine Beecher strongly believed girls should be afforded the same educational opportunities as men, although she never supported women’s suffrage. In 1823, she founded the Hartford Female Seminary, one of few schools of the era that educated women. Stowe attended the school as a student and later taught there.
Early Writing Career
Writing came naturally to Stowe, as it did to her father and many of her siblings. But it wasn’t until she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, with Catharine and her father in 1832 that she found her true writing voice.
In Cincinnati, Stowe taught at the Western Female Institute, another school founded by Catharine, where she wrote many short stories and articles and co-authored a textbook.
With Ohio located just across the river from Kentucky—a state where slavery was legal—Stowe often encountered runaway enslaved people and heard their heart-wrenching stories. This, and a visit to a Kentucky plantation, fueled her abolitionist fervor.
Stowe’s uncle invited her to join the Semi-Colon Club, a co-ed literary group of prominent writers including teacher Calvin Ellis Stowe, the widower husband of her dear, deceased friend Eliza. The club gave Stowe the chance to hone her writing skills and network with publishers and influential people in the literary world.
Stowe and Calvin married in January 1836. He encouraged her writing and she continued to churn out short stories and sketches. Along the way, she gave birth to six children. In 1846, she published The Mayflower: Or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims.
"Uncle Tom’s Cabin"
In 1850, Calvin became a professor at Bowdoin College and moved his family to Maine. That same year, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed runaway enslaved people to be hunted, caught and returned to their owners, even in states where slavery was outlawed.
In 1851, Stowe’s 18-month-old son died. The tragedy helped her understand the heartbreak enslaved mothers went through when their children were wrenched from their arms and sold. The Fugitive Slave Law and her own great loss led Stowe to write about the plight of enslaved people.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells the story of Tom, an honorable, unselfish slave who’s taken from his wife and children to be sold at auction. On a transport ship, he saves the life of Eva, a white girl from a wealthy family. Eva’s father purchases Tom, and Tom and Eva become good friends.
In the meantime, Eliza—another enslaved worker from the same plantation as Tom—learns of plans to sell her son Harry. Eliza escapes the plantation with Harry, but they’re hunted down by a slave catcher whose views on slavery are eventually changed by Quakers.
Eva becomes ill and, on her deathbed, asks her father to free his enslaved workers. He agrees but is killed before he can, and Tom is sold to a ruthless new owner who employs violence and coercion to keep his enslaved workers in line.
After helping two enslaved people escape, Tom is beaten to death for not revealing their whereabouts. Throughout his life, he clings to his steadfast Christian faith, even as he lay dying.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s strong Christian message reflected Stowe’s belief that slavery and the Christian doctrine were at odds; in her eyes, slavery was clearly a sin.
The book was first published in serial form (1851-1852) as a group of sketches in the National Era and then as a two-volume novel. The book sold 10,000 copies the first week. Over the next year, it sold 300,000 copies in America and over one million copies in Britain.
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Stowe became an overnight success and went on tour in the United States and Britain promoting Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her abolitionist views.
But it was considered unbecoming for women of Stowe’s era to speak publicly to large audiences of men. So, despite her fame, she seldom spoke about the book in public, even at events held in her honor. Instead, Calvin or one of her brothers spoke for her.
The Impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought slavery into the limelight like never before, especially in the northern states.
Its characters and their daily experiences made people uncomfortable as they realized enslaved people had families and hopes and dreams like everyone else, yet were considered chattel and exposed to terrible living conditions and violence. It made slavery personal and relatable instead of just some “peculiar institution” in the South.
It also sparked outrage. In the North, the book stoked anti-slavery views. According to The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Frederick Douglass celebrated that Stowe had “baptized with holy fire myriads who before cared nothing for the bleeding slave.” Abolitionists grew from a relatively small, outspoken group to a large and potent political force.
But in the South, Uncle Tom’s Cabin infuriated slave owners who preferred to keep the darker side of slavery to themselves. They felt attacked and misrepresented—despite Stowe’s including benevolent slave owners in the book—and stubbornly held tight to their belief that slavery was an economic necessity and enslaved people were inferior people incapable of taking care of themselves.
In some parts of the South, the book was illegal. As it gained popularity, divisions between the North and South became further entrenched. By the mid-1850s, the Republican Party had formed to help prevent slavery from spreading.
It’s widely reported that Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe at the White House in 1862, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war,” although the quote can’t be proven.
READ MORE: What Abraham Lincoln Thought About Slavery
Other Anti-Slavery Books
Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t the only book Stowe wrote about slavery. In 1853, she published two books: A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which offered documents and personal testimonies to verify the accuracy of the book, and Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which reflected her belief that slavery demeaned society.
In 1859, Stowe published The Minister’s Wooing, a romantic novel which touches on slavery and Calvinist theology.
Stowe’s Later Years
In 1864, Calvin retired and moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut—their neighbor was Mark Twain—but the Stowes spent their winters in Mandarin, Florida. Stowe and her son Frederick established a plantation there and hired formerly enslaved people to work it. In 1873, she wrote Palmetto Leaves, a memoir promoting Florida life.
Controversy and heartache found Stowe again in her later years. In 1869, her article in The Atlantic accused English nobleman Lord Byron of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister that produced a child. The scandal diminished her popularity with the British people.
In 1871, Stowe’s son Frederick drowned at sea and in 1872, Stowe’s preacher brother Henry was accused of adultery with one of his parishioners. But no scandal ever reduced the massive impact her writings had on slavery and the literary world.
Stowe died on July 2, 1896, at her Connecticut home, surrounded by her family. According to her obituary, she died of a years-long “mental trouble,” which became acute and caused “congestion of the brain and partial paralysis.” She left behind a legacy of words and ideals which continue to challenge and inspire today.
Catharine Esther Beecher. National Women’s History Museum.
Harriet B. Stowe. Ohio History Central.
Harriet Beecher Stowe House. National Park Service.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Obituary. The New York Times: On this Day.
Meet the Beecher Family. Harriet Beecher Stowe House.
The Impact of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ The New York Times.