Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born 14 June 1811 in Litchfield, CT to the Reverend Lyman Beecher and Roxanna (nee Foote) Beecher, the sixth of 11 children. All seven sons became ministers, then the most effective way to influence society. The oldest daughter, Catharine, pioneered education for women. The youngest daughter, Isabella, was a founder of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Then there was Harriet, who believed that her purpose in life was to write. Her most famous work focused on the greatest social injustice of her day: slavery.
When Harriet was five years old, her mother died and her oldest sister Catharine assumed much of the responsibility for raising her younger siblings. Harriet showed early literary promise. At the age of seven, she won a school essay contest, earning praise from her father. Her father’s second wife, Harriet (nee Porter) Beecher, was a beautiful woman who was slightly overwhelmed by the eight boisterous children she inherited. She had three children of her own, Isabella, Thomas and James, adding them to the already noisy Beecher household.
As a young girl, Harriet took part in lively debates at the family table. By discussing current events and social issues, Harriet learned how to argue persuasively. She began her formal education at Sarah Pierce’s academy, one of the earliest institutions to encourage girls to study academic subjects in addition to the traditional ornamental arts.
In 1824, Harriet first was a student and then taught at the Hartford Female Seminary, which had been founded by her sister Catharine. Catherine strongly believed girls should be afforded the same educational opportunities as men, although she never supported women's suffrage.
In 1832, 21-year-old Harriet Beecher moved with her family to Cincinnati, OH when her father
Lyman was appointed as the President of Lane Theological Seminary. There she met and married Calvin Stowe, a theology professor. Harriet 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, Harriet often encountered runaway enslaved people and heard their stories. In 1833, Cincinnati was afflicted with a serious cholera epidemic. To avoid illness, Harriet visited Washington, KY, a major community of the era just south of Maysville. She stayed with the Marshall Key family, one of whose daughters was a student at Lane Seminary. It is recorded that Mr. Key took her to see a slave auction, as they were frequently held in Maysville. When she and Calvin learned that one of their servants was a runaway slave, they immediately sought her passage to the next "safe" house on the Underground Railroad. These events helped fuel her abolitionist fervor.
Six of Harriet’s seven children were born in Cincinnati, including twin daughters. In the summer of 1849, Harriet experienced for the first time the sorrow of many 19th century parents when her 18-month-old son, Samuel Charles Stowe, died of cholera. She later credited that crushing pain as one of the inspirations for Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it helped her understand the pain enslaved mothers felt when their children were sold away from them, saying “It was at his dying bed, and his grave, that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.”
In 1850 Calvin Stowe joined the faculty of his alma mater, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, ME. The Stowe family moved and lived in Brunswick until 1853. Also in 1850, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime for citizens of free states to give aid to runaway enslaved people.
The Stowes were ardent critics of slavery and supported the Underground Railroad and temporarily housing several fugitive slaves in their home. One fugitive from slavery, John Andrew Jackson, wrote of hiding with Harriet in her house in Brunswick as he fled to Canada.
In June 1851, the first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in serial form in the newspaper The National Era, a weekly anti-slavery publication. She originally used the subtitle "The Man That Was A Thing", but it was soon changed to "Life Among the Lowly". Installments were published weekly from 5 June 1851 to 1 April 1852 and Harriet was paid $400. Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form on 20 March 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. Each of its two volumes included three illustrations and a title-page. In less than a year, the book sold an unprecedented 300,000 copies. By December, as sales began to wane, Jewett issued an inexpensive edition at 37½ cents each to stimulate sales.
The book brought the subject of slavery out of the shadows and into the spotlight. 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. Frederick Douglass said that Harriet 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.
In the South, however, Uncle Tom’s Cabin infuriated slave owners. They felt attacked and misrepresented, despite Harriet's inclusion of benevolent slave owners, 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 in 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. The abolitionist sentiment fueled by the release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin most likely helped Abraham Lincolns' election in 1860, bringing the North-South tensions which had been on the rise for decades to a head. Southern states began to secede from the Union, leading to the brutal four year conflict that almost destroyed the United States.
Harriet traveled to Washington, D.C. and met with President Lincoln on 25 November 1862. Her daughter, Hattie, reported, "It was a very droll time that we had at the White house I assure you... I will only say now that it was all very funny—and we were ready to explode with laughter all the while." Harriet's own accounts are vague, including the letter reporting the meeting to her husband: "I had a real funny interview with the President." It was at that time that Lincoln greeted her by saying, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." However, it is highly unlikely that he made this quotation since it did not appear in print for thirty-four years. Regardless of who said it or when, it definitely held some truth.
When her husband retired from his position teaching theology at Andover Theological Seminary in 1864, the family moved to Hartford, CT. There, Harriet built her dream house, Oakholm, in Nook Farm, a neighborhood full of friends and relatives. The high maintenance cost and encroaching factories led her to sell her mansion in 1870. In 1873, Harriet, along with her husband and two adult daughters, settled into a brick Victorian Gothic cottage on Forest Street where she remained for 23 years.
After the Civil War, the Stowes purchased a house and property in Mandarin, FL on the St. John’s River, now a part of Jacksonville, and began to travel south each winter. The relatively mild winters of northern Florida were a welcome respite from Hartford’s cold and the high costs of winter fuel. Harriet’s brother Charles opened a Florida school to teach emancipated people and he had urged Calvin and Harriet Stowe to join him. Newly expanded railroads made shipping citrus fruits north a potentially lucrative business. She purchased an orange grove which she hoped her son Frederick would manage. Harriet loved Florida, comparing its soft climate to Italy and her family wintered in Mandarin for more than 15 years before Calvin’s health prohibited long travel.
Following the death of her husband, Calvin Stowe, in 1886, Harriet started rapidly to decline in health. In 1888 The Washington Post reported that as a result of dementia the 77-year-old Stowe started writing Uncle Tom's Cabin over again. She imagined that she was engaged in the original composition, and for several hours every day she industriously used pen and paper, inscribing passages of the book almost exactly word for word.
Mark Twain, a neighbor of Harriet's in Hartford, recalled her last years in the following passage from his autobiography:
"Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes. And she had other moods. Sometimes we would hear gentle music in the drawing-room and would find her there at the piano singing ancient and melancholy songs with infinitely touching effect."
Harriet died on 1 July 1896 in Hartford, 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 was buried in Andover, MA, next to her husband and son, Henry Ellis.
Harriet wrote 30 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters, but nothing approached the impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
"When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn." - Harriet Beecher Stowe