Unique New England Museums: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

By Carla Charter

HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT- It is said that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, he said “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started the great war,” Those today who are interested in learning more about the author Lincoln was speaking with can visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford., Connecticut.

The Beecher family were well-known and lived in Litchfield, Connecticut, where Harriet was born in 1811, then moved to Cincinnati, OH in 1836.  Harriet’s father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Calvinist minister, and all seven of Harriet’s brothers grew up to be ministers as well. Harriet’s sister Catharine Beecher was an educator, founding schools for girls in Connecticut, and Isabella Beecher, Harriet’s youngest sister, grew up to become an outspoken and influential women’s rights activist. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in the Hartford home from 1873 until her death in 1896 with her husband, Calvin, and her adult twin daughters, Hattie and Eliza.

Stowe was not an abolitionist, people who were actively worked for the immediate end of slavery in America. Instead Stowe was part of the anti-slavery movement, advocating for a more gradual end to slavery. She also entertained the controversial idea of colonialism, sending formerly enslaved people “back” to Africa, for some time.

Stowe’s whole family were part of the anti-slavery movement as well, speaking out about the evils of slavery. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher was likely the only family member actively involved in the abolitionist movement. He is well-known for secretly sending rifles down South to aid in the abolitionist efforts there.

“The inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin came when Harriet moved to Cincinnati, she witnessed slavery firsthand and was horrified. After losing her son, Samuel Charles, in 1849, she wrote that she had a better sense of how enslaved women might feel when their children were sold away from them. As a result of these personal experiences, and in light of the increasing political tension and division of the 1840s regarding slavery in America, Harriet decided to write the novel as a way to draw attention to the horrific experiences of slavery, and explicitly directed her novel to white people in the northern states who might not be witnessing that suffering firsthand,” according to Katie Burton Ph.D. Program Coordinator, School & Writing Programs, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Most of the characters in the book were compilations of real people Harriet read about or interviewed, Burton continued. One of the primary sources for the character of Uncle Tom was a man named Josiah Henson, a self-emancipated black man who established a thriving community for formerly enslaved people in Canada.

Her infamous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in the National Era newspaper serially in 1851-52, and published as a two-decker novel in 1852.  Stowe researched the book for months in advance, with the writing taking about 8 months.

The first printing of Stowe’s novel sold out the first 10,000 copies in the first week, and then went on to sell 300,000 in America that year. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.  Millions of copies of the book have been sold to date.

“Stowe was surprised at the success of her novel but also had hoped it would have that effect,” Burton said.  She was a published author, having written 30 books, prior to Uncle Tom’s Cabin but that was the novel that made her a household name.

Among the accolades and awards Stowe received for Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, in 1853, when she was presented with a petition signed by over 600,000 British and Irish women calling for the end of slavery in America. The Duchess of Sutherland, who organized the petition, presented Harriet with the petition as a gesture of gratitude, thanking her for her work galvanizing the anti-slavery movement in America.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin was most influential in its ability to make people more aware, to initiate a national conversation, and in its attempts to establish empathy between readers and enslaved people. Stowe was able to mobilize many white people – especially white women – to become more vocal and engaged in the efforts to end slavery in America,“ Burton continued.

The book was also controversial in its success however. “Some questioned the authenticity of the novel based on Harriet’s identity as a privileged white woman from the North, and accused her of appropriating the stories of black people for her own financial gain. Harriet also uses racial stereotyping and derogatory, racist language and characterizations in the novel, demonstrating her strong beliefs about the superiority of white, Christian worldviews,” Burton said.

Harriet’s great-grandniece, Katharine Seymour Day, preserved the Stowe home, as well as several other homes in the neighborhood, including the Mark Twain house, opening it to the public as a historic house museum in 1968.

Those who would like more information about Harriet Beecher Stowe can visit the center’s website at www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.ocm