Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abolitionist

Dan Graves, MSL

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abolitionist

"If I could use my pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is," Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister wrote her. Harriet vowed to write something. The result was Uncle Tom's Cabin. An international bestseller, it was adored by abolitionists but vilified by the South. It so enflamed popular opinion that when she met Abraham Lincoln during the war between the states he said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war!"

Harriet was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on this day June 14, 1811, the sixth child of Lyman Beecher, an ardent Calvinist and Puritan. "Wisht it had been a boy," remarked Lyman. Although he doted on his daughters, he desired sons who could become preachers and soul-winners. The fifth Beecher child had also been named Harriet, but had died of whooping cough a few weeks after birth.

Harriet was often morbid while growing up as she struggled with issues of faith. But when she was fourteen, she cried to her father that she had given herself to Christ. Later in her marriage to Calvin Stowe, she would plead with him to seek Christ with the same burning devotion with which he sought knowledge. "If you had studied Christ with half the energy that you have studied Luther ... then would he be formed in you ... " When he turned to spiritualism, she pleaded with him, the biblical scholar, that it was unbiblical.

Although Harriet wrote many other books and stories, Uncle Tom's Cabin is her best. Blacks are shown as fully human and, more importantly, as created in the image of Christ. Many of the characters, such as Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, Eva and Topsy are vivid and memorable. Eliza, crossing the Ohio river by leaping from chunk to chunk of ice, is an unforgettable picture and is based on the true account of a desperate fugitive.

Critics were harsh. When one of Harriet's children died, some said God had taken the babe to keep Harriet from growing vain over her success. She replied, "I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed & brokenhearted, with the sorrows & injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity--because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath."

Harriet was always in financial difficulty. Neither she nor Calvin understood money management. After her literary success, they built an expensive house which turned into a money pit. Bad investments gobbled up thousands more dollars. The Stowes also suffered in other ways. Calvin was a hypochondriac. A rapid succession of children left Harriet weak. One son predeceased the parents. Another became an alcoholic and disappeared from sight. Harriet also was loudly berated for her defense of Lady Byron. Her last ten years she lived in a never-never world, no longer fixed to reality.

Bibliography:

  1. Allen, John. One Hundred Great Lives. New York: Journal of Living, 1944.
  2. Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: a life. New York : Oxford University Press, 1994.
  3. Kunitz, Stanley. American authors, 1600-1900: a biographical dictionary of American literature. New York : The H. W. Wilson company, 1938.
  4. Petersen, William J. Harriet Beecher Stowe Had a Husband. Wheaton Illinois: Tyndale, 1983.
  5. Stowe, Charles Edward. Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, compiled from her letters and journals by her son. Detroit, Gale Research Co., 1967.
  6. "Stowe, Harriet Beecher." Dictionary of American Biography. New York : Scribner, 1958-1964.
  7. Sundquist, Eric J., Editor. New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin. London: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  8. Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.
  9. Wintle, Justin. Makers of 19th Century Culture. London ; Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Last updated April, 2007.

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