Her book changed what the world knew about slavery, but did you know how truly fascinating her life was? Here are 10 simple, but amazing facts about Harriet Beecher Stowe, the woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
1. She Had A Remarkable Family
Beecher Stowe’s father a prominent minister and her older sister Catharine founded a girls’ school where Harriet later studied and taught. Her youngest sister Isabella was one of the founders of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and all seven of her brothers were ministers. The 11 Beecher children were regularly treated to legal arguments and discourse around the dinner table while they dined with students from the nearby Tapping Reeves’s law school. In a time when women were expected to remain at home and be little more than ornaments, Harriet was instructed in math, science, and languages – a man’s education.
2. She Started Writing For Money
Her husband’s salary as a professor was not large, so to help support their growing family, Harriet began writing. It was a natural choice as she had always had an interest in literature, and writing was the only way a woman of that time period could publicly express an opinion. Her first works were published in 1843, shortly before the birth of her fifth child, after which she spent 15 months recovering from exhaustion.
3. She Drew Ideas From Personal Experience
Part of the reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin became such a success was the poignancy with which she described the pain of tearing apart families. She often stated that the germ of the story came while she watched her infant son Charley dying of cholera. From this experience she felt she understood the anguish a slave mother must feel when her own child is taken and she is powerless to stop it. Writing the novel was cathartic and therapeutic, allowing her to finally move past crushing grief to sorrowful acceptance.
4. She Was A Prolific Author
Although mainly remembered for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet spent more than 50 years writing, during which she penned dozens of short stories, essays and poems, as well as several novels. Her subjects ranged from religion and abolitionist pieces, to children’s stories, educational books and informative works for women. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally written in installments that were published in an abolitionist paper with a small readership. When the popularity of the installments became evident, the work was printed as a book that was a bestseller. The money Harriet received from this allowed her to write as she pleased without the financial pressure to sell her work.
5. She Hid Slaves
While living in Cincinnati, Harriet witnessed at first hand the slave trade going on across the river in Kentucky. Both she and her husband were friends with a local abolitionist who was very active in the Underground Railroad, and they soon became active participants themselves. The Stowe family helped escaping slaves traveling to the northern states, and they later assisted in getting escaped slaves to a more secure freedom in Canada. While living there, Harriet began interviewing slaves that had escaped the south and recorded their stories. Many of their tales were used to build the characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
6. She Met President Lincoln
In 1862, some 11 years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet was invited to Washington DC to meet the president. Accounts by her daughter stated that the meeting was quite a joyous occasion, and her son later reported that the president had jokingly referred to Harriet as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”. Harriet would only say that the meeting was “real funny”.
7. She Campaigned For Women’s Rights
Following the Civil War, Harriet began championing the expansion of the rights of married women. Especially surprising, given the era, she compared the position of a married woman to that of a slave, pointing out that neither could hold property, keep money or have any legal rights at all. Harriet may have contributed to her sister Isabella’s strong feelings about women’s suffrage. Both women lived in Hartford at the time and Isabella continued the fight, eventually succeeding in getting a bill passed that gave property rights to married women.
8. She Created An Integrated School
Harriet set up an integrated school in the town of Mandarin, Florida, where her family spent their winters. It was one of the first in the country that promoted equal education for all students. Harriet’s brother Charles strongly believed that education was the key to integration and encouraged her to help him in his endeavors to teach emancipated children and adults.
9. She Wrote A Tourism Guide
Harriet loved Florida so much that she wrote a promotional book depicting Florida as an ideal place to vacation. Her book describes a life of picnicking and sailing, and includes a chapter on the Stowe family orchard and their experience with growing crops. Mixed with promotional chapters are personal vignettes about life and people she met while living in Mandarin.
10. She Wrote Parts Of Her Book Twice
After her husband’s death in 1886, Harriet began her own decline into ill health. Likely suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Harriet did not remember completing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and began spending several hours a day carefully writing her novel. From unconscious memory she wrote out long passages from the book with nearly exact wording, a remarkable feat in itself. She even chose the same type of paper and pen that she had originally used and it was speculated at the time that, had her original manuscript been available, even the appearance of the writing would be the same. Her disease progressed fairly rapidly and in July of 1896 she was laid to rest in the cemetery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.