“The scenes of this story, as its title indicates, lie among a race hitherto ignored by the associations of polite and refined society; an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt.
But another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, poetry, and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, ‘good will to man.’
The hand of benevolence is everywhere stretched out, searching into abuses, righting wrongs, alleviating distresses, and bringing to the knowledge and sympathies of the world the lowly, the oppressed and the forgotten.
But the heart of the dominant race, who have been her conquerors, her hard masters, has at length been turned towards her in mercy; and it has been seen how far nobler it is in nations to protect the feeble than to oppress them. Thanks be to God, the world has at last outlived the slave trade!”
So wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe in the preface to her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly” published in 1852. Mrs. Stowe was born on today’s date, June 14 in 1811. Her novel about the horrors and degradation of slavery galvanized public opinion in America against the institution, and in part lead to a gradual erosion of public willingness in the north to accept the further extension and existence of slavery. And this ultimately lead to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.
Harriet’s Anti-Slavery Upbringing
Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut. The seventh of 13 children, her father was the outspoken religious leader Lyman Beecher and her mother was Roxana Foote, a very religious woman who died when Stowe was only five years old. Harriet was taught in a girls’ school, run by her sister Catharine, wherein she studied what were then considered “male subjects” such as mathematics, languages and and the classics of literature. When she was 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio joining her father, who had been appointed as the first president of Lane Theological Seminary, a school for Presbyterian Ministers (their Cincinnati home, a museum today, is pictured above). Harriet’s father was strongly opposed to slavery, and delivered fiery sermons against it. But he was not an straightforward abolitionist. He favored a more “pragmatic” approach to the slavery issue in hopes of gaining mainstream support for its eventual abolition. Towards this end Lyman Beecher supported “colonization” , which was the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa to colonize the country of Liberia. The Lane Seminary became a primary debating ground in the growing dispute between those who favored immediate and total abolition of slavery, and those who favored other, less immediate solutions to the issue which was then tearing the United States apart.
Harriet Becomes Actively Anti-Slavery
In 1836, Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a widower and professor at the seminary, with whom she would have seven children. Mr. Stowe was a full fledged supporter of the “Underground Railroad” which was a movement to secretly aid African Americans who had escaped slavery in the south to freedom in the north, and Harriet (pictured above, circa 1853) joined him in such activities, at times harboring fugitive slaves in their home. It was here in Cincinnati which was then considered at the western-most reaches of the United States, that Harriet as a young wife and mother encountered tales of the evils and the degrading cost of slavery. Ohio was a free state, and Cincinnati, being right on the Ohio River was just across the water from Kentucky which was a slave state. So this brought Harriet into contact with former slaves who told her first hand accounts of their miserable lives while slaves, as well as witnessing the treatment of slaves during her occasional trips across the river into Kentucky. The Compromise of 1850 with it’s accompanying Fugitive Slave Act infuriated Harriet, as it made it a matter of written law that not only could citizens not assist fugitive slaves in their flight to freedom, but citizens were required to assist in the capture and return to slavery of fugitive slaves.
Harriet Writes “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” …. a Best Seller!!
In 1850, Harriet wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, who edited the nationally published anti-slavery journal “National Era” that she was planning to write a novel about the evils 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.” she said in a letter to Mr. Bailey. The result was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” , installments of which were published weekly from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852 and in book form on March 20, 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. Saying that “I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” Stowe’s novel told the story of Tom, a strong, religious man living with his wife and 3 young children, and Eliza, Harry’s mother,and their attempts to escape to freedom. They had the support of Eva, the angelic, young, white girl whose death in the story was deeply moving to the audience of the day. They were chased by the evil-spirited Simon Legree, Tom’s master who in the end has Tom whipped to death for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of his fugitive family members.
Stowe’s Novel Changes the Equation
This tale of bestial treatment of human beings because they were legally slaves, the spectacle of their being bought and sold and families being broken apart awakened many of the white citizens of the free north to a realization of the human cost of slavery. They could never again turn their heads and ignore it’s existence, nor take refuge in the excuse that it was somehow a benevolent institution to those who were enslaved. Her message was clear and uncompromising: “Did it ever occur to you… that the enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, — and a dishonor upon the Christian religion, more particularly in us Americans, whom the Lord hath so marvelously protected, in our recent struggle for our own liberty?” thundered one of the characters in the book. This was obviously a cry to conscience of the citizens of the north, and a call to arms. And the reading public went for it whole-heartedly, pushing the sales of the novel to the then unheard-of levels of over 300,000 copies in one year. In Great Britain, it sold 1.5 million copies in one year. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has been translated into over a dozen languages since it’s original publication in 1852, and has been the subject of countless stage productions and other forms of media. And it’s influence on the slavery debate is beyond measure.
“Into the emotion-charged atmosphere of mid-nineteenth-century America Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded like a bombshell…the social impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the United States was greater than that of any book before or since.”
— Printing and the Mind of Man, Edited by John Carter & Peter H. Muir .
by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852.