Portrait of Stowe by Alanson Fisher, 1853 (National Portrait Gallery)
Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was an American abolitionist and author. She came from the Beecher family, a famous religious family, and is best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which depicts the harsh conditions for enslaved African Americans. The book reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the United States and Great Britain, energizing anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. Stowe wrote 30 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential for both her writings and her public stances on social issues of the day.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Civil War.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, prohibiting assistance to fugitives and strengthening sanctions even in free states. At the time, Stowe had moved with her family to Brunswick, Maine, where her husband was now teaching at Bowdoin College. Their home near the campus is protected as a national historic resource in her honor.
Stowe claimed to have a vision of a dying slave during a communion service at the college chapel, which inspired her to write his story. However, what more likely allowed her to empathize with slaves was the loss of her eighteen-month-old son, Samuel Charles Stowe. She even stated the following, “Having experienced losing someone so close to me, I can sympathize with all the poor, powerless slaves at the unjust auctions. You will always be in my heart Samuel Charles Stowe.” On March 9, 1850, Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the weekly anti-slavery journal The National Era, that she planned to write a story about the problem of slavery: “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak… I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.”
Shortly after in June, 1851, when she was 40, the first installment of her Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in serial form in the newspaper The National Era. 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 June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852. For the newspaper serialization of her novel, Stowe was paid $400. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form on March 20, 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 designed by Hammatt Billings. 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.
According to Daniel R. Lincoln, the goal of the book was to educate northerners on the realistic horrors of the things that were happening in the south. The other purpose was to try to make people in the south feel more empathetic towards the people they were forcing into slavery.
The book’s emotional portrayal of the effects of slavery on individuals captured the nation’s attention. Stowe showed that slavery touched all of society, beyond the people directly involved as masters, traders and slaves. Her novel added to the debate about abolition and slavery, and aroused opposition in the South. In the South, Stowe was depicted as out of touch, arrogant and guilty of slander. Within a year, 300 babies in Boston alone were named Eva (one of the book’s characters), and a play based on the book opened in New York in November. Southerners quickly responded with numerous works of what are now called anti-Tom novels, seeking to portray southern society and slavery in more positive terms. Many of these were bestsellers, although none matched the popularity of Stowe’s work, which set publishing records.
After the start of the Civil War, Stowe traveled to the capital, Washington, D.C., where she met President Abraham Lincoln on November 25, 1862. Stowe’s 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.” What Lincoln said is a minor mystery. Her son later reported that Lincoln greeted her by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Her own accounts are vague, including the letter reporting the meeting to her husband: “I had a real funny interview with the President.”