This month marks the 200th birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born on June 14, 1811 and died at age 85 on July 1, 1896. Her masterpiece, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is often considered the most consequential work published in the nineteenth century. The book was a bestseller which has never been out of print.
Harriet was the seventh child of Roxana and Lyman Beecher, a noted Congregationalist minister. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, became a famous preacher and figurehead of the abolitionist movement. Her sister Catherine was instrumental in promoting educational opportunities aimed at women. She married Calvin Stowe in 1836 . The marriage consummated seven children. Harriet was educated at the Hartford Female Academy. The school was founded by her sister, Catherine Beecher, in 1823. She also taught at the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati, established by Catherine in 1832.
Her most famous work was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1850. The book opened up the realities of slavery to the entire world. Harriet Beecher Stowe, wife of Professor Stowe, of Bowdoin College, received $4,000, as her share of the sales already made on the work. She received 10 cents for each copy sold, and a Bangor paper said she was offered $10,000 outright for the copyright of the book. 160,000 volumes were published in the brief period of eleven weeks!
While attending a church , Harriet had a vision of a slave owner beating one of his slaves as a punishment for an offense the slave committed. She returned home at once and began writing the story. She pursued these frequent images and started what was to become the novel that helped open the eyes of the North and one that the South would come to detest. She spoke with freed slaves as well as slaves who had escaped from their masters’ plantations.
Harriet went to numerous southern plantations in pursuit of raw facts for her controversial book. “When, in a burst of inspiration, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her signature work, she did not know that her book would help change the world.” Her book precipitated considerable southern anger, producing threats that included daily hate mail from the South and a small package containing the severed ear of a slave.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was delighted to receive a scholarly letter written by Frederick Douglass and addressed to her on March 8, 1853. Here in part are the contents of this historic letter. The Douglass letter outlined quite prophetically how,in his view, the progress of blacks in this country would be accomplished from hard labor to the professional classes.
To deliver them from this triple malady, is to improve and elevate them, by which I mean simply to put them on an equal footing with their white fellow-countrymen in the sacred right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I am for no fancied or artificial elevation, but only ask fair play. How shall this be obtained? I answer, first, not by establishing for our use high schools and colleges. Such institutions are, in my judgment, beyond our immediate occasions, and are not adapted to our present most pressing wants. High schools and colleges are excellent institutions, and will, in due season, be greatly subservient to our progress; but they are the result, as well as they are the demand of a point of progress, which we, as a people, have not yet attained. Accustomed, as we have been, to the rougher and harder modes of living, and of gaining a livelihood, we cannot, and we ought not to hope that, in a single leap from our low condition, we can reach that of Ministers, Lawyers, Doctors, Editors, Merchants, &c. These will, doubtless, be attained by us; but this will only be, when we have patiently and laboriously, and I may add successfully, mastered and passed through the intermediate gradations of agriculture and the mechanic arts.
Harriet met with President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to assure herself that he was serious about proceeding with the Emancipation Proclamation. Upon meeting her for the first time, President Lincoln proclaimed “So this is the little lady who made this great war.” The two spoke for an hour or more with Lincoln detailing the atrocities of slavery and the injustice to a group of people whose skin was dark.
The reception with the president must have assuaged her concerns. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation shortly after their meeting, and Stowe’s subsequent writings painted flattering pictures of his background and wholeheartedly supported his re-election. Stowe did quote Lincoln at one
point. It’s very likely she was recalling their famous White House conversation . The sentence is also the article’s most prophetic line about “this dreadful national crisis,” “‘Whichever way it ends,’ Lincoln said to the writer, ‘I have the impression that I sha’n’t last long after it’s over.’”
Queen Victoria was eager to meet the famous author, but was urged by advisers not to receive such a controversial public figure. Instead, as Stowe’s sister Mary related in a letter, the Queen arranged to pass Stowe’s carriage on the road, so that the two women could silently nod to each other.
At the age of 85, Harriet Beecher Stowe passed on in her sleep at her home in Hartford, Connecticut. She was buried at the Andover Chapel Cemetery.
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