Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811. She was the seventh of 13 children, born to outspoken religious leader Lyman Beecher and Roxana (Foote), a deeply religious woman who died when Stowe was only five years old. Roxana’s grandfather was General Andrew Ward of the Revolutionary War. Her notable siblings included a sister, Catharine Beecher, who was an educator and author, as well as brothers who became ministers: including Henry Ward Beecher, who became a famous abolitionist, Charles Beecher, and Edward Beecher.
Harriet enrolled in the seminary (girls’ school) run by her sister Catharine, where she received a traditionally “male” education in the classics, including study of languages and mathematics. Among her classmates there was Sarah P. Willis, who later wrote under the pseudonym Fanny Fern. At the age of 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to join her father, who had become the president of Lane Theological Seminary. There, she also joined the Semi-Colon Club, a literary salon and social club whose members included the Beecher sisters, Caroline Lee Hentz, Salmon P. Chase, Emily Blackwell, and others. It was in that group that she met Calvin Ellis Stowe, a widower and professor at the seminary. The two married on January 6, 1836. He was an ardent critic of slavery, and the Stowes supported the Underground Railroad, temporarily housing several fugitive slaves in their home. They had seven children together, including twin daughters.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, prohibiting assistance to fugitives. At the time, Stowe had moved with her family into a home near the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where her husband was now teaching. Stowe had a vision of a dying slave during a communion service at the college chapel, inspiring her to tell his story. On March 9, 1850, Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the weekly antislavery journal National Era, that she planned to write a story about the problem of slavery: “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak… I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.” Shortly after, In June 1851, when she was 40, the first installment of her Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in the National Era. She originally used the subtitle “The Man That Was A Thing”, but it was soon changed to “Life Among the Lowly”. Installments were published weekly from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852. For the newspaper serialization of her novel, Stowe was paid only $400. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form on March 20, 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. Each of its two volumes included three illustrations and a title-page designed by Hammatt Billings. In less than a year, the book sold an unprecedented three hundred thousand copies. By December, as sales began to wane, Jewett issued an inexpensive edition at 37 1/2 cents each to further inspire sales.
The book’s emotional portrayal of the impact of slavery captured the nation’s attention. It added to the debate about abolition and slavery, and aroused opposition in the South. Within a year, 300 babies were named “Eva” in Boston alone and a play based on the book opened in New York in November of that year. After the start of the Civil War, Stowe traveled to Washington, D.C. and there met President Abraham Lincoln on November 25, 1862. Stowe’s daughter Hattie reported, “It was a very droll time that we had at the White house I assure you… I will only say now that it was all very funny—and we were ready to explode with laughter all the while.” What exactly Lincoln said is a minor mystery. Her son later reported that Lincoln greeted her by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Her own accounts are vague, including the letter reporting the meeting to her husband: “I had a real funny interview with the President.”
In 1868, Stowe became one of the initial editors of Hearth and Home magazine, though she departed after a year. In the 1870s, Stowe’s brother Henry Ward Beecher was accused of adultery, and became the subject of a national scandal. Stowe, unable to bear the public attacks on her brother, fled to Florida but asked family members to send her newspaper reports. Through the affair, however, she remained loyal to her brother and believed he was innocent.
Mrs. Stowe was among the founders of the Hartford Art School, which later became part of the University of Hartford. Following Calvin Stowe’s death in 1886, Harriet’s own health started to decline rapidly. By 1888 the Washington Post reported that as a result of dementia she started “writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin over again. She imagined that she was engaged in the original composition, and for several hours every day she industriously used pen and paper, inscribing long passages of the book almost exactly word for word. This was done unconsciously from memory, the authoress imagining that she composed the matter as she went along. To her diseased mind the story was brand new and she frequently exhausted herself with labor which she regarded as freshly created.”
Mark Twain, a neighbor of Stowe’s in Hartford, recalled her last years in the following passage of his autobiography: “Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes. And she had other moods. Sometimes we would hear gentle music in the drawing-room and would find her there at the piano singing ancient and melancholy songs with infinitely touching effect.” Modern researchers now speculate that at the end of her life Harriet was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Harriet Beecher Stowe died on July 1, 1896, at age eighty-five in Hartford, Connecticut. She is buried in the historic cemetery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
- June, 14, 1811
- Litchfield, Connecticut
- July, 01, 1896
- Hartford, Connecticut
Cause of Death
- Alzheimer's disease
- Phillips Academy Cemetery
- Andover, Massachusetts