Harriet Beecher Stowe

Nancy Lusignan Schultz

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HARRIET BEECHER STOWE TIMELINE

1811 (June 14):  Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut to the Rev. Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote Beecher.

1816:  American Colonization Society was founded to resettle free blacks in West Africa.

1816:  Roxana Beecher died.

1820:  The Missouri Compromise established 36°30′ latitude on Missouri’s southern boundary as the northern limit for slavery when new territories were admitted to the Union.

1826:  Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery.

1831:  The Nat Turner slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia  killed approximately sixty whites.

1831:  William Lloyd Garrison helped found the New England Anti-Slavery Society and began publishing The Liberator.

1832:  Harriet Beecher moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lyman Beecher took a position at Lane Theological Seminary.

1833:  The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded, and the United Kingdom abolished slavery.

1834:  Harriet Beecher, who was still living in Cincinnati, visited a family friend’s Kentucky slave plantation.

1834:  The Lane Debates over paths to emancipation sparked tension between students and trustees.

1834:  Harriet Beecher published her first work of fiction, “A New England Sketch,” in Western Monthly Magazine.

1836:  James G. Birney’s abolitionist press was destroyed during mob violence in Cincinnati.

1836:  Sarah and Angelina Grimké gained fame for their abolitionist work.

1836:  Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe.

1838:  Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and became an active abolitionist.

1840:  The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded.

1844:  Harriet Beecher Stowe witnessed the separation of enslaved family members at an auction in Kentucky.

1849:  Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery.

1849:  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fourth child, an infant son, Charley, died of cholera, providing the emotional fuel for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

1850:  The Fugitive Slave Act made it mandatory for Northerners to capture and return escaped slaves.

1850:  Sojourner Truth published The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.

1850:  Harriet Beecher Stowe interviewed escaped slaves; Calvin and Harriet Beecher Stowe moved to Brunswick, Maine; and Harriet Beecher Stowe published “The Freeman’s Dream” in the National Era.

 1851–1852:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in serial form in the National Era, and was published in book form.

1853:  A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published.

1853:  Calvin and Harriet Beecher Stowe moved to Andover, Massachusetts and traveled to the United Kingdom for a speaking tour.

1854:  The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, leaving the question of whether to permit slavery up to the territories (thereby repealing the 1820 Missouri Compromise).

1856:  Harriet Beecher Stowe published Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

1856:  John Brown led a massacre of five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas.

1857:  The Dred Scott decision by U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of slaveholders to take slaves into the Western territories.

1858:  Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech to solidify his political campaign against incumbent senator Stephen A. Douglas; the Lincoln-Douglas debates argued the slavery question, previewing national issues to arise after Lincoln’s election to the Presidency.

1860:  Abraham Lincoln elected the sixteenth President of the United States, and  Southern states seceded from the Union.

1861:  The Civil War began.

1861:  Harriet Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

1862:  Harriet Beecher Stowe met President Lincoln at the White House.

1863:  Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

1865:  The Civil War ended in Union victory.

1865:  The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery was passed.

1896 (July 1):  Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut.

BIOGRAPHY

Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield Connecticut on July 14, 1811, the sixth child of Roxana Foote Beecher and Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher. [Image at right]  She and her siblings grew up to be prominent members of the abolitionist movement. When Harriet was five years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Roxana was deeply mourned and enshrined as a saintly figure in the household, an icon of nineteenth-century true womanhood. Harriet’s older sister, Catharine, took on a maternal role in the family, a role that continued after Lyman Beecher married Harriet Porter in 1817.  Beecher was a prominent clergyman who was active in the Second Great Awakening. He was a fire and brimstone Calvinist preacher who believed strongly in predestination, the belief that God has determined who shall be saved and who shall be damned. His parenting focused on the states of his children’s souls, and he placed strong emphasis on religious conversion. He also instilled into his children a powerful sense of social responsibility, and they became influential in the temperance and abolition movements. Lyman Beecher believed that slavery was a cancer on the nation that needed to be eradicated before the Second Coming of Christ in the millennium. Beecher made education available to both his sons and daughters, and Harriet was an avid reader at an early age. She also grew emotionally attached to the African American servants in the household, and learned about the domestic arts of sewing, housekeeping, and the art of painting, during times spent at her maternal grandmother’s home at Nutplains in Guilford, Connecticut.

Harriet Beecher was admitted to Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy at the precocious age of eight, when the typical matriculation age of the students was twelve. She was a gifted reader and writer. When Catharine Beecher’s fiancé, Alexander Fisher, died in a shipwreck in 1822, Catharine was determined never to marry; instead, she decided to devote her life to the education of women. Catharine founded the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823 and thirteen-year-old Harriet became one of her first pupils. Catharine offered women the chance to study subjects such as logic, philosophy, algebra, and physical education, pushing against traditional ideas about the education of women. Harriet later taught at the school, and, in 1831, the future Quaker abolitionist Angelina Grimké was a guest of Harriet’s sister, Mary Beecher Perkins. Grimké was exploring the teaching profession, and she conducted observations at the seminary (Hedrick 1994:64–65). The Quakers had no strictures against women speaking in a meeting, or against women’s education, and Grimké’s visit made a deep impression on Harriet. In 1832, she moved to Cincinnati with her father, who took a position at the Lane Seminary. The proximity of the slave state of Kentucky to Ohio gave Harriet direct experiences with seeing slavery first hand. Lyman Beecher believed that colonization was a solution to ending slavery, but students at Lane Seminary were much more radical in their abolitionist views. The “Lane Debates” of 1834 so enraged the school’s trustees that they attempted to silence the students, many of whom left to attend Oberlin

College. During this period, in 1836, the same year violent riots broke out in Cincinnati over the issue of slavery, she married Calvin Stowe. [Image at right] Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a letter against mob violence to the editor of the Cincinnati Journal, and in support of abolitionist James G. Birney, which she signed with the male pseudonym, “Franklin.” At this stage of her life, Harriet was less radical than her friends, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who had broken from traditional women’s roles, and spoke in public against slavery.

The writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in The National Era in serial form in 1851–1852, and was published in book form in 1852, was emotionally fueled by the death of her infant son Charley during a cholera epidemic in 1849. According to Stowe’s biographer, Joan Hedrick, Charley’s death was the inspiration for the literary death of the special child, Eva St. Clare, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Is there a peculiar love given us for those that God wills to take from us?” Stowe wondered. She would later write, “There were circumstances about his death of such peculiar bitterness of what might seem almost cruel suffering, that I feel I should never be consoled for it, unless it should appear that this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others” (Hedrick 1994:191–92). Stowe’s profound feeling of the loss of her own child was effectively aimed against the “peculiar institution” of slavery, as she powerfully portrayed the anguish of slave mothers at the separation from their children. The creation and depiction of black characters who loved and grieved over their children with the same intensity as middle-class white people was a radical development in American fiction that helped end the institution of American slavery. The popularity of the novel and the spread of the story through theatrical and minstrel performances made its Christ-like main character, Uncle Tom, a household name. Stowe appropriated the stories of Frederick Douglass and fugitive slave Josiah Henson (who eventually published their own narratives) as the basis for her characterization of George Harris and Uncle Tom, seeing her role as a spokesperson for the oppressed.

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin [Image at right] was dismissed by pro-slavery readers as exaggeration, Stowe marshaled evidence of its veracity in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). She especially objected to the idea that Christianity and the Bible offered support for American slavery. She exposed the complicity of American Christian churches in slavery, pointing out that Christianity teaches that all persons are made in Christ’s likeness. Slavery, she said, was the “denial of humanity to man” (Stowe 1853:242). She concludes A Key with this assertion, “The thing to be done, of which I shall chiefly speak, is, that the whole American Church, of all denominations, should unitedly… seek the entire abolition of slavery throughout America and throughout Christendom.”

Following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United Kingdom, for which Stowe received no royalties, she was invited by the British antislavery society to tour several cities. Stowe did not speak in public on her book tour, but received a cash gift from her supporters there. Her trip abroad became the basis for her 1854 travel guide, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. Following the accidental drowning of her son, Henry, Stowe was inspired to write The Minister’s Wooing (1859), in which she posited that women are more fitting spiritual leaders than men. In this book and in her life, then, she rejected the Calvinist doctrine of her father and drifted toward Episcopalianism. Stowe became embroiled in controversies involving the defense of her friend, Lady Byron (the widow of George Gordon, Lord Byron), publishing Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), and over her brother Henry Ward Beecher’s alleged adultery the same year. Between 1870 and 1878, she published a book a year, including Women in Sacred History (1874), a retelling of the tales of biblical heroines. Her husband Calvin died in 1886, and Harriet’s health subsequently declined until her death in Hartford, Connecticut in 1896.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

Nineteenth-century women in the United States were largely relegated to the domestic sphere, while men held political and economic power. Women’s roles, however, accorded them influence in the religious and spiritual realms, and their work in the abolitionist movement was predicated on moral grounds. The American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), formed in Philadelphia in 1833, not only worked for the abolition of slavery, but also allowed female members and advocated for women’s rights. The conjoining of slavery and women’s rights was divisive, and factions of the group broke away to focus on political solutions. At the heart of the AASS was the moral reform that also was at the core of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Slavery in the U.S. was a simmering political and economic issue, but Stowe’s sentimental novel brought the moral realities of slavery directly into the minds and hearts of her readers. Abraham Lincoln observed, “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government.” Stowe’s compelling story truly changed public opinion in favor of abolitionism. When Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, just before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, he is said to have observed, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Whether he truly said this or not is less important than the fact that the book had ignited abolitionist energy in the North, and so pushed the South to staunchly defend its way of life, that the book contributed to creating the conditions for Civil War. David Reynolds has argued that the book was “central to redefining  American democracy on a more egalitarian basis” (Reynolds 2012:xi). The novel was a runaway bestseller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1,500,000 copies in one year. Translated into multiple languages, it reached a worldwide audience and helped inspire democratic uprisings in such far-flung places as Russia, China, and Brazil [Image at right] (Reynolds 2012:xi).

In her works, Stowe associated women, particularly mothers, with religion and an enhanced sense of morality. Many of the women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are morally superior to the men; a notable exception is the narcissistic Marie St. Clare, mother of the saintly Eva. In Stowe’s 1859 novel, The Minister’s Wooing, with its background in the triangle trade of Newport, Rhode Island, women are the main supporters of the Reverend Samuel Hopkins, an abolitionist. The novel also portrays a kitchen slave, Candace, as an effective spiritual leader, who comforts a bereft mother with the idea that Jesus loves her and will care for her.

In addition to Stowe’s essays and novels that touch on abolitionism, Stowe also wrote abolitionist poems, including “Caste and Christ” (1853), and poems such as “Elisabeth of the Wartburg” (1856) that touch on Christian compassion.

Stowe was a fervent abolitionist, but, in her view, radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who criticized centrist clergymen like her father Lyman Beecher, went too far. As Nancy Koester noted, “Stowe would not endorse forms of abolitionism that undermined the authority of Scripture (Koester 2014:185). But Stowe was not afraid to look outside of conventional interpretations of the Bible to design a more feminized conception of Christianity that was maternal in its loving spirit. As Stowe writes in her poem, “Caste and Christ,” of a Christianity based on love:

He who scorns his lowliest brother
Never shall have hand of Mine.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES FACING WOMEN

Stowe was a supporter of women’s rights, including the right to vote. After reading John Stuart Mill’s The Subjugation of Women (1869), Stowe wrote to Fanny Fern, “The more I think of it the more absurd this whole government of men over women looks” (quoted in Koester 2014:270). Harriet Beecher Stowe remained largely bounded by conventional roles for nineteenth-century women. Her work on the reform of slavery was accomplished with her pen, and she rarely spoke in public. While her father and brothers who were prominent clergyman pressed for social change through their writings and speaking from the pulpit, Stowe used her writing to attack slavery and to advocate gently for greater rights for women and progressive causes. She herself did not take credit for the book, claiming that God wrote it, and that she simply transcribed. Her work helped redefine Christianity for her era to a more inclusive and egalitarian theology. Of central importance was her belief that women kept the nation’s spiritual light alive.

IMAGES

Image #1: Photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1852.
Image #2: Photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Calvin Stowe, circa 1850.
Image #3: Cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first edition. Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852.
Image #4: Poster for a stage play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1886.

REFERENCES

Hedrick, Joan D. 1994. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Koester, Nancy. 2014. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Reynolds, David S. 2012. Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1853. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story is Founded. Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. Boston: John P. Jewett and Co.

Supplementary Resources

Belasco, Susan. 2009. Stowe in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Carey, Brycchan and Geoffrey Plank, eds. 2014. Quakers and Abolition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hamand, Wendy. 1988. “‘No Voice from England’: Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Lincoln, and the British in the Civil War.” The New England Quarterly 61, no. 1 (March): 2–3.

Hochman, Barbara. 2011. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851-1911. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Riss, Arthur. 2006. Race, Slavery, and Liberalism in Nineteenth Century Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1874. Women in Sacred History: A Series of Sketches Drawn from Scriptural, Historical, and Legendary Sources. New York: J. B. Ford and Company.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1870. Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy from Its Beginnings in 1816 to the Present Time. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1859. The Minister’s Wooing. London: Sampson Low, Son & Co.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1856. “Elisabeth of the Wartburg.” The Liberty Bell.  By Friends of Freedom. Boston: National Anti-Slavery Bazaar.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1854. Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1853. “Caste and Christ.” Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Autographs for Freedom. Boston: Jewett.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. Boston: John P. Jewett and Co.

Post Date:
13 August 2017

 

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