Article abstract: Stowe’s popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin attacked slavery as a threat to the Christian family and helped to end this institution in the United States. In this and later novels, Stowe wrote as an early advocate for women—one who wished to help them by creating a “women’s sphere” in the home.
Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher’s father, was a stern New England Calvinist preacher whose image of a God who predestined humans to heaven or hell left a mark on his children. The fact that Harriet’s mother died when she was four made Harriet’s father’s influence even more important. By the age of six and a half, the young “Hattie,” as she was known to her family, had memorized more than two dozen hymns and several long chapters in the Bible. As an adult, however, Harriet Beecher would substitute for her father’s dogmas a religion of hope that stressed the love and compassion of Christ rather than the divine judgment that her father preached. Some people hold that she “feminized” her father’s religion. Throughout her life, she retained a strong sense of religious mission and zeal for social improvement.
At age twelve, Harriet moved to Hartford to live with her older sister Catharine, a purposeful woman who had started the Hartford Female Seminary. Harriet attended Catharine’s school and stayed on as a teacher and guardian of young children. In 1832, she moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where her father had been offered the post as president of the new Lane Theological Seminary. Three years after arriving in Cincinnati (in January, 1836), Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a Lane professor.
These years in the West prepared Stowe for her later career. She had eight children between 1836 and 1850, and if she and Calvin had not alternated taking “rest cures” in Vermont over the years, she might have had more. In 1834, Harriet won a fifty-dollar prize for “A New England Sketch,” which was published in the Western Monthly Magazine. From that point on, the members of her family saw her as a person of literary promise, even though she claimed that this activity was only a way of supplementing the always meager family income. In 1842, Calvin wrote to his wife, “[My] dear, you must be a literary woman. It is written in the book of fate.”
While in Cincinnati, Harriet also experienced the intense emotions aroused by the slavery issue during these years. On one visit to a Kentucky plantation, she saw slaves whom she later used as models for some of the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1836, a local mob attacked the print shop of an abolitionist in the city, and the struggle between the abolitionists and the moderates at Lane eventually drove her father to retire and her husband to take a job at Bowdoin College in Maine in 1850.
When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in the fall of 1862, he greeted her as “the little lady who made this big war.” He was not alone in believing that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had been a crucial event in arousing the antislavery sentiments that led to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not the best novel of the nineteenth century, it certainly had the greatest impact. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies the year it was published, and Stowe’s great work helped to end slavery by personalizing that “peculiar institution.” Slavery was wrong, the novel argued, because it was un-Christian. More specifically, slavery tore children from their mothers and thus threatened the existence of the Christian family. It has been said that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “a great revival sermon,” more effective than those of her father. Harriet herself later wrote that the book was written by “the Lord Himself. . . . I was but an instrument in his hands.”
Each of the main characters in this melodramatic novel displayed virtues and vices that were important to Stowe. The main character, Tom, was sold by a kind master, Mr. Shelby, to a second one, Augustine St. Clare, who had ambiguous feelings about slavery and planned to free Tom. Before he could do so, St. Clare was killed and Tom was sold to a singularly evil man, Simon Legree, who finally beat Tom to death when the slave refused to tell him the hiding place of two slaves who were planning to escape.
Aside from Tom, the strongest characters in the novel were female. The slave Eliza, also sold by Mr. Shelby, escaped with her son (who would have been taken from her) by jumping across ice floes on the Ohio River. She and her husband George were finally reunited in Canada. Little Eva, the saintly and sickly child of Augustine St. Clare, was a Christ-like figure who persuaded her father to free Tom before she herself died. Mary Bird, the wife of an Ohio senator, shamed her husband into helping Eliza when she sought comfort at their home. Senator Bird violated the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—which he had helped to pass and which required Northerners to return escaped slaves—by helping Eliza. Ophelia,...
(The entire section is 2127 words.)