International Women's Day: Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was a famed abolitionist and author best known for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. Her work was incredibly influential regarding U.S. abolitionism. The portrayal of the effects of slavery and how the institution touched all of society instigated a wave of Northern support for the cause, as many began to sympathise with slaves for the very first time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was hugely popular; it sold 300,000 copies within its first year, and was a great success internationally. Stowe toured nationally and internationally discussing her book, and donated consistently to anti-slavery causes.
As a child, Stowe grew up in an abolitionist household in Maine. Her family heavily criticised the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), which legally compelled Northerners to return fugitive slaves to their owners, and supported the underground railroad. They temporarily hid fugitives on the underground railroad in their home. Stowe’s book can be seen as a call-to-arms for other Northerners to defy the Fugitive Slave Law.
The influence of her book on American abolitionism was second to none. In a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he allegedly called her, 'the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.' (Sachsman, 2007, p.8)
Stowe’s novel aroused abolitionism in the North, further dividing a country heading into war. This new empathy from Northerners toward slaves touched on their Christianity, as it did with Stowe, and brought to light the sins it entailed. Many U.S. citizens then turned towards the abolitionist cause, edging the situation to its conclusion – Civil War.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin sparked counter-novels from Southern writers, including Mary Henderson Eastman’s Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, which attempted to portray slavery as a beneficial, good institution, but they never reached the same heights of popularity as Stowe. Their attempts to rectify Northern opinions on slavery were in vain. Stowe had enlightened many to the abolitionist cause by educating the masses on the horrifying sins of slavery, turning popular opinion in favour of freeing slaves across the Southern states.
- Sachsman, D. B. (2007) Memory and Myth: The Civil War in Fiction and Film from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Cold Mountain. Purdue University Press.