This Day In Writing History
On June 14th, 1811, the legendary American writer and activist Harriet Beecher Stowe was born. She was born Harriet Elisabeth Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother died when she was five years old, leaving Harriet and her nine siblings to be raised by their father, Hyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister known for his evangelical fervor. He co-founded the American Temperance Society and preached about the evils of drink.
Beecher was an abolitionist - and a hypocrite. He preached against slavery from the pulpit, but he was also a racist. He was opposed to the forced emancipation of slaves by the federal government, believing that the institution of slavery would eventually die out. When that time came, he believed that blacks should be repatriated to their African homeland rather than be allowed to live freely and integrate with whites in America. When, as president of the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, he refused to admit black students, fifty white students left the seminary in protest.
Reverend Beecher's virulent racism was not limited to blacks. In 1834, he delivered a fiery anti-Catholic sermon in Boston that was believed to have inspired the burning of a nearby convent. He also authored a notoriously racist Nativist tract, A Plea for the West, where he urged the federal government to strictly limit immigration or restrict it entirely to protect white Christian (Protestant) Americans from racial and religious undesirables. Sound familiar?
Harriet Beecher determined to become a writer at the age of seven, when she won a school essay contest. After completing her primary education, she enrolled in a progressive school for girls run by her older sister Catharine, an educator known for her feminist educational philosophy and her early advocacy for adopting the German kindergarten class for little children into the American public education system.
When she was 21, Harriet moved to Cincinnati to attend her father's seminary. There, she became a member of a writer's group called the Semi-Colon Club, whose membership also included her two sisters and one of the seminary's professors, Calvin Stowe, with whom she fell in love. They were married, and she would bear him seven children, including twin daughters.
Unlike Harriet's father, Calvin Stowe was a ferocious abolitionist who called for immediate emancipation - freedom for all slaves. She shared her husband's convictions, and their home soon became part of the Underground Railroad - the famous secret network of safe houses for fugitive slaves. The escaped slaves would move from house to house as they traveled en route to free states, where slavery was illegal.
In 1850, Congress, bowing to pressure from the South, tried to tighten the screws on the Underground Railroad by passing the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal for people - even those living in free states - to assist fugitive slaves. The law also compelled local law enforcement to arrest fugitive slaves and provide assistance to the vicious bounty hunters privately hired to track runaway slaves.
The free states reacted with outrage to the Fugitive Slave Act, which resulted in gross abuses. Many openly defied it. Several free states passed laws granting personal liberties, including the right to a fair trial, to fugitive slaves. Wisconsin's state Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. The law failed to disrupt the Underground Railroad; by the time it was passed, the network had become far more efficient. Afterward, it grew as the unjust law inspired scores of moderate abolitionists to become passionate activists.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to do more than just dedicate her home to the Underground Railroad. She wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the abolitionist magazine The National Era, to tell him that she planned to write a story that would expose average white Americans to the true horrors of slavery. A year later, the first installment of her novel was published in a serialized format in The National Era.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) told the unforgettable story of a kind and noble slave whose faith cannot be broken by the evils of slavery. The novel opens on a Kentucky farm owned by Arthur and Emily Shelby, who like to think that they're kind to their slaves. But, when he needs money, Arthur has no problem selling two of his slaves without regard to where they might end up. The slaves in question are Uncle Tom, a wise and compassionate middle-aged man, and Harry, the son of Emily's maid, Eliza. The Shelbys' son George, who looked upon Uncle Tom as a friend and mentor, hates to see him go.
Uncle Tom and Harry are sold to a slave trader and shipped by riverboat down the Mississippi. While on the boat, Uncle Tom strikes up a friendship with Eva, a little white girl. When she falls into the river, he saves her life. Her grateful father, Augustine St. Clare, buys Uncle Tom from the slave trader and takes him to his home in New Orleans. There, the friendship between Uncle Tom and Eva deepens. Sadly, Eva becomes severely ill and dies - but not before sharing her vision of heaven.
Moved by how much Uncle Tom meant to Eva, her father vows to help him become a free man. His racist cousin Ophelia is moved to reject her prejudice against blacks. Unfortunately, Augustine St. Clare is killed at a tavern, and his wife reneges on his promise to help Uncle Tom. She sells him at auction to Simon Legree, who owns a plantation in Louisiana.
Simon Legree is an evil, perverse, sadistic racist who tortures his male slaves and sexually abuses the women. When Uncle Tom refuses to follow Legree's order to whip another slave, Legree beats him savagely. It fails to break Uncle Tom's spirit or his faith in God. The sight of Uncle Tom reading his bible and comforting other slaves makes Legree's blood boil. He determines to break Uncle Tom and nearly succeeds, as the daily horrors of life on the plantation erode the slave's faith and hope.
Just when it seems that Uncle Tom will succumb to hopelessness, he has two visions - one of little Eva and one of Jesus himself. Moved by these visions, Uncle Tom vows to remain a faithful Christian until the day he dies. He encourages two fellow slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, to run away. Later, when Simon Legree demands that Uncle Tom reveal their whereabouts, he refuses. A furious Legree orders his overseers to beat Uncle Tom to death.
As he lay dying, Uncle Tom forgives the overseers, which inspires them to repent. George Shelby arrives with money to buy Uncle Tom's freedom. Sadly, he is too late. Uncle Tom dies before he can become a free man. George returns to his parents' farm in Kentucky and frees their slaves, telling them to always remember Uncle Tom's sacrifice and unshakable faith.
That's actually just a bare outline of this classic epic novel. The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin caused a national uproar. In the North, it was regarded as the bible of abolitionism and inspired many closet abolitionists to come out and join in the fight against slavery. In the South, the book was regarded as an outrage. It was called utterly false and slanderous - a criminal defamation of the South.
Many Southern writers who supported slavery took to writing literature dedicated to debunking Harriet Beecher Stowe's expose of the horrors of slavery. Their writings, called "Anti-Tom" literature, portrayed white Southerners as benevolent supervisors of blacks, who were depicted as a helpless, child-like people unable to live without the direct supervision of their white masters.
To defend herself against the South's accusations of slander and defamation, Stowe wrote and published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), a non-fiction book documenting the horrors of slavery that she both witnessed herself and researched, which inspired her to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book included surprisingly graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse of female slaves, who, in addition to being molested or raped by their white masters and overseers, were also prostituted and forced to "mate" with male slaves to produce offspring that would make a good profit on the auction block.
When Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared in book form in 1852, it was published in an initial press run of 5,000 copies. That year, it sold 300,000 copies. Its London edition sold 200,000 copies throughout the United Kingdom. It became a hit throughout Europe as well. Ironically, by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the book was out of print in the United States, as Stowe's original publisher had gone out of business. She found another publisher, and when the book was republished in 1862, the demand for copies became huge.
That same year, Harriet Beecher Stowe was invited to Washington D.C. to meet with President Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said to her, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."
The novel would be adapted many times for the stage, screen, radio, and television.
In the 20th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin courted a new controversy that continues to this day. African-American activists have accused the abolitionist novel of being racist itself, with its racial stereotypes and epithets. This, like the accusations of racism leveled against Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) comes from a failure to place the novel in its proper historical perspective and consider its overall message.
Although Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote many books, both fiction and non-fiction, none of her other works came close to eclipsing the power and fame of Uncle Tom's Cabin. During the last 23 years of her life, she lived in Hartford, Connecticut - next door to her friend and fellow writer, Mark Twain. She died in 1896 at the age of 85. There are two historical landmarks dedicated to her; the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Brunswick, Maine, where she wrote her classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Quote Of The Day
"The power of fictitious writing, for good as well as for evil, is a thing which ought most seriously to be reflected upon." - Harriet Beecher Stowe
Today's video features a 2-part lecture on the history and legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Professor Cyrus Patell of New York University. Enjoy!