Born into a family of ministers and abolitionists who worked with the Underground Railroad, it would have been surprising for Harriet Beecher Stowe not to have been a bold free thinker. Stowe is credited with writing the fictional story that threw the spark that ignited the American Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln himself spoke of her as the “little lady who started this great big war.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century. Based on stories that Stowe heard told by escaped slaves, the story depicts a variety of slave situations. The main character is Uncle Tom, a slave who is sold by his owners due to their financial troubles. His new owner is a kind man. But when Tom is sold again, he falls into the hands of the evil Simon Legree who is determined to break Tom and his faith in God.
Another character, Eliza, is owned by the same family. But upon learning that she might be torn from her son by the sale, she takes the child and runs away. She has the good fortune to encounter abolitionists along the Underground Railroad who help to keep her from being captured by a slave catcher.
Stowe’s book enraged Southern slaveholders. Some Southern authors retaliated with their own “Anti-Tom” literature, defending slavery and condemning Stowe’s work. One of the most popular “Anti-Tom” novels of its day was The Planter’s Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. The story is seen through the eyes of a Northern abolitionist’s daughter who marries a slave owner.
A ‘male education’
Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the seventh of thirteen children. Her mother, Roxanna, died when Stowe was five. Her father, Lyman Beecher, became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Stowe moved to Ohio to join her father after receiving what was considered a ‘male education’ at her sister Catherine’s academy. In Ohio, Stowe met a widower and professor at her father’s seminary named Calvin Ellis Stowe. They married 6 January 1836.
In 1851, Calvin Stowe was teaching at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, while his wife began writing The Man Who Was A Thing. Installments were first published in National Era, an antislavery journal. The title was changed to Life Among The Lowly, and later to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Book form appeared in 1852 and sold three hundred thousand copies in less than a year.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote other novels, but will be known as the author of the second best selling book in history, second only to the Bible. She died 1 July 1896 at the age of 85 in Hartford, Connecticut.
See also our article on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.