Biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe

Author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Harriet Beecher Stowe is remembered as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book which helped build anti-slavery sentiment in America and abroad. She was a writer, teacher, and reformer. She lived from June 14, 1811 to July 1, 1896.

Fast Facts: Harriet Beecher Stowe

  • Also known as Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe, Harriet Stowe, Christopher Crowfield
  • Born: June 14, 1811
  • Died: July 1, 1896
  • Known for: Teacher, reformer, and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book which helped build anti-slavery sentiment in America and abroad.
  • Parents: Lyman Beecher (Congregationalist minister and president, Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio) and Roxana Foote Beecher (granddaughter of General Andrew Ward)
  • Spouse: Calvin Ellis Stowe (married January 1836; biblical scholar)
  • Children: Eliza and Harriet (twin daughters, born September 1837), Henry (drowned 1857), Frederick (served as cotton plantation manager at Stowe's plantation in Florida; lost at sea in 1871), Georgiana, Samuel Charles (died 1849, 18 months old, of cholera), Charles

About Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin expresses her moral outrage at the institution of slavery and its destructive effects on both White and Black Americans. She portrays the evils of enslavement as especially damaging to maternal bonds, as mothers dreaded the sale of their children, a theme that appealed to readers at the time when women's role in the domestic sphere was held up as her natural place.

Written and published in installments between 1851 and 1852, publication in book form brought financial success to Stowe.

Publishing nearly a book a year between 1862 and 1884, Harriet Beecher Stowe moved from her early focus on enslavement in such works as Uncle Tom's Cabin and another novel, Dred, to deal with religious faith, domesticity, and family life.

When Stowe met President Lincoln in 1862, he is said to have exclaimed, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"

Childhood and Youth

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Connecticut in 1811, the seventh child of her father, the noted Congregationalist preacher, Lyman Beecher, and his first wife, Roxana Foote, who was the granddaughter of General Andrew Ward, and who had been a "mill girl" before marriage. Harriet had two sisters, Catherine Beecher and Mary Beecher, and she had five brothers, William Beecher, Edward Beecher, George Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, and Charles Beecher.

Harriet's mother, Roxana, died when Harriet was four, and the oldest sister, Catherine, took over care of the other children. Even after Lyman Beecher remarried, and Harriet had a good relationship with her stepmother, Harriet's relationship with Catherine remained strong. From her father's second marriage, Harriet had two half brothers, Thomas Beecher and James Beecher, and a half-sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker. Five of her seven brothers and half-brothers became ministers.

After five years at Ma'am Kilbourn's school, Harriet enrolled in Litchfield Academy, winning an award (and her father's praise) when she was twelve for an essay titled, "Can the immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?"

Harriet's sister Catherine founded a school for girls in Hartford, the Hartford Female Seminary, and Harriet enrolled there. Soon, Catherine had her young sister Harriet teaching at the school.

In 1832, Lyman Beecher was appointed the president of Lane Theological Seminary, and he moved his family—including both Harriet and Catherine—to Cincinnati. There, Harriet associated in literary circles with the likes of Salmon P. Chase (later governor, senator, member of Lincoln's cabinet, and Supreme Court chief justice) and Calvin Ellis Stowe, a Lane professor of biblical theology, whose wife, Eliza, became a close friend of Harriet.

Teaching and Writing

Catherine Beecher started a school in Cincinnati, the Western Female Institute, and Harriet became a teacher there. Harriet began writing professionally. First, she co-wrote a geography textbook with her sister, Catherine. She then sold several stories.

Cincinnati was across Ohio from Kentucky, a pro-slavery state, and Harriet also visited a plantation there and saw enslavement for the first time. She also talked with formerly enslaved people. Her association with anti-slavery activists like Salmon Chase meant that she began questioning the "peculiar institution."

Marriage and Family

After her friend Eliza died, Harriet's friendship with Calvin Stowe deepened, and they were married in 1836. Calvin Stowe was, in addition to his work in biblical theology, an active proponent of public education. After their marriage, Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to write, selling short stories and articles to popular magazines. She gave birth to twin daughters in 1837, and to six more children in fifteen years, using her earnings to pay for household help.

In 1850, Calvin Stowe obtained a professorship at Bowdoin College in Maine, and the family moved, Harriet, giving birth to her last child after the move. In 1852, Calvin Stowe found a position at Andover Theological Seminary, from which he'd graduated in 1829, and the family moved to Massachusetts.

Writing About Slavery

1850 was also the year of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and in 1851, Harriet's son 18-month-old died of cholera. Harriet had a vision during a communion service at the college, a vision of a dying enslaved person, and she was determined to bring that vision to life.

Harriet began writing a story about enslavement and used her own experience of visiting a plantation and of talking with formerly enslaved people. She also did much more research, even contacting Frederick Douglass to ask to be put in touch with formerly enslaved people who could ensure the accuracy of her story.

On June 5, 1851, the National Era began publishing installments of her story, appearing in most weekly issues through April 1 of the next year. The positive response led to the publication of the stories in two volumes. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold quickly, and some sources estimate as many as 325,000 copies sold in the first year.

Though the book was popular not only in the United States but around the world, Harriet Beecher Stowe saw little personal profit from the book, due to the pricing structure of the publishing industry of her time, and due to the unauthorized copies that were produced outside the U.S. without the protection of copyright laws.

By using the form of a novel to communicate the pain and suffering under enslavement, Harriet Beecher Stowe tried to make the religious point that enslavement was a sin. She succeeded. Her story was denounced in the South as a distortion, so she produced a new book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, documenting the actual cases on which her book's incidents were based.

Reaction and support were not only in America. A petition signed by half a million English, Scottish, and Irish women, addressed to the women of the United States, led to a trip to Europe in 1853 for Harriet Beecher Stowe, Calvin Stowe, and Harriet's brother Charles Beecher. She turned her experiences on this trip into a book, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. Harriet Beecher Stowe returned to Europe in 1856, meeting Queen Victoria and befriending the widow of the poet Lord Byron. Among others she met were Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe returned to America, she wrote another anti-slavery novel, Dred. Her 1859 novel, The Minister's Wooing, was set in the New England of her youth and drew on her sadness in losing a second son, Henry, who had drowned in an accident while a student at Dartmouth College. Harriet's later writing focused mainly on New England settings.

After the Civil War

When Calvin Stowe retired from teaching in 1863, the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Stowe continued her writing, selling stories and articles, poems and advice columns, and essays on issues of the day.

The Stowes began spending their winters in Florida after the end of the Civil War. Harriet established a cotton plantation in Florida, with her son Frederick as the manager, to employ formerly enslaved people. This effort and her book Palmetto Leaves endeared Harriet Beecher Stowe to Floridians.

Though none of her later works were nearly as popular (or influential) as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the center of public attention again when, in 1869, an article in The Atlantic created a scandal. Upset at a publication that she thought insulted her friend, Lady Byron, she repeated in that article, and then more fully in a book, a charge that Lord Byron had had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, and that a child had been born of their relationship.

Frederick Stowe was lost at sea in 1871, and Harriet Beecher Stowe mourned the death of another son. Though twin daughters Eliza and Harriet were still unmarried and helping at home, the Stowes moved to smaller quarters.

Stowe wintered at a home in Florida. In 1873, she published Palmetto Leaves, about Florida, and this book led to a boom in Florida land sales.

Beecher-Tilton Scandal

Another scandal touched the family in the 1870s, when Henry Ward Beecher, the brother with whom Harriet had been closest, was charged with adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of one of his parishioner, Theodore Tilton, a publisher. Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony was drawn into the scandal, with Woodhull publishing the charges in her weekly newspaper. In the well-publicized adultery trial, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Harriet's half-sister Isabella, a supporter of Woodhull, believed the charges of adultery and was ostracized by the family; Harriet defended her brother's innocence.

Last Years

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 70th birthday in 1881 was a matter of national celebration, but she did not appear in public much in her later years. Harriet helped her son, Charles, write her biography, published in 1889. Calvin Stowe died in 1886, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, bedridden for some years, died in 1896.

Selected Writings

  • The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters among the Descendants of the Pilgrims, Harper, 1843.
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly, two volumes, 1852.
  • A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded, 1853.
  • Uncle Sam's Emancipation: Earthly Care, a Heavenly Discipline, and Other Sketches, 1853.
  • Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, two volumes, 1854.
  • The Mayflower and Miscellaneous Writings, 1855 (expanded edition of 1843 publication).
  • The Christian Slave: A Drama Founded on a Portion of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1855.
  • Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, two volumes, 1856, published as Nina Gordon: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, two volumes, 1866.
  • A Reply to "The Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to Their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America, 1863.
  • Religious Poems, 1867.
  • Men of Our Times; or, Leading Patriots of the Day, 1868, also published as The Lives and Deeds of Our Self-made Men, 1872.
  • Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy, from Its Beginning in 1816 to the Present Time, 1870.
  • (With Edward Everett Hale, Lucretia Peabody Hale, and others) Six of One by Half a Dozen of the Other: An Every Day Novel, 1872.
  • Palmetto Leaves, 1873.
  • Woman in Sacred History, 1873, published as Bible Heroines,1878.
  • The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, sixteen volumes, Houghton, Mifflin, 1896.

Recommended Reading

  • Adams, John R., Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1963.
  • Ammons, Elizabeth, editor, Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1980.
  • Crozier, Alice C., The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1969.
  • Foster, Charles, The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism, 1954.
  • Gerson, Noel B., Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1976.
  • Kimball, Gayle, The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Her Gospel of Womanhood, 1982.
  • Koester, Nancy, Harriet Beeche Stowe: A Spiritual Life, 2014.
  • Wagenknecht, Edward Charles, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and the Unknown, Oxford University Press, 1965.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe." ThoughtCo, Nov. 13, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, November 13). Biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).

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