Harriet Beecher Stowe
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Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Harriet Beecher was the seventh child of the Reverend Lyman Beecher, a Congregational minister and moral reformer, and Roxanna Foote Beecher. She was schooled at the Pierce Academy and at her sister Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary, where she also taught. She moved with the family to Cincinnati in 1832, when her father was appointed president of Lane Theological Seminary. The spectacle of chattel slavery across the Ohio River in Kentucky and its effects on the acquiescent commercial interests of white Cincinnati moved her deeply.

In 1836, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, professor of biblical literature at Lane. The death of a son in 1849 led her away from her father’s Calvinism and gave supremacy in her views to the redemptive spirit of Christian love. By 1850, the family had moved to Maine, where, in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of that year, Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), her most celebrated work. Sentimental and realistic by turns, the novel explored the cruelties of chattel slavery in the Upper and Lower South and exposed the moral ironies in the legal, religious, and social arguments of white apologists.

The immense impact of the novel (it sold 300,000 copies in its first year) was unexpected. Antislavery fiction had never sold well; Stowe was not an established writer, and few would have expected a woman to gain a popular hearing on the great political question of the day. Some female abolitionists had shocked decorum in the 1840s by speaking at public gatherings, but they were widely resented. The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin went far toward legitimizing, if not indeed creating, a role for women in public affairs.

To the dismay of many northern radicals, Uncle Tom’s Cabin casually endorsed colonization rather than abolition. In fact, Stowe was unconcerned about the tactics that made slavery a political issue: for her, the problem was religious and emotional, and one that women were best equipped to confront. Her stated purpose, “to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race” and to urge that readers “feel right” about the issue, belongs to a feminist and utopian agenda that contemporary readers were slow to recognize. In the South, the book was read as sectional propaganda; in the North, it was read as a compelling moral romance. Although Stowe blamed the slave system itself as “the essence of all abuse” rather than the slaveholders and deliberately made its chief villain, Simon Legree, a displaced New Englander, the novel’s effect was to exacerbate regional antagonisms. Indeed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which called forth anti-Tom novels from southern writers, so raised the temperature of the dialogue that Lincoln would later, half-seriously, apportion to Stowe some responsibility for starting the Civil War.

Notable among Stowe’s subsequent works are A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), documenting her case against slavery; Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), also on slavery; and The Minister’s Wooing (1859), a historical novel that attacks Calvinism. Stowe also wrote realistic regional fiction, including The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1861), which influenced Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Her miscellaneous writings include Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), which created an international sensation by charging Lord Byron with incest, and Palmetto Leaves (1873), written at her winter home in Florida, which encouraged a Florida land boom.

Thomas F. Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (1985); Eric J. Sundquist, ed., New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1986); Forrest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1941).


The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.