Most famous for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly, the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist whose writings had a profound effect on the public debate surrounding slavery. Indeed, such was the significance of her novel in galvanising public opinion during the mid-nineteenth century that the discussion surrounding the novel can be seen to represent the deep divide in the United States regarding the issue of slavery.
Born in 1811 in Connecticut as the seventh child of 13, Stowe had a largely religious upbringing. Her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, whom she married in 1836, was a strident abolitionist. Both she and her husband actively participated in helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada during the early years of their marriage.
The idea for her most well-known novel came during a communion service where Stowe had a vision of a dying slave, inspiring her to write his story. Stowe’s main motivation was to highlight the emotional side of slavery and appeal to people’s humanity. Originally published in 1851 in instalments in a magazine, Uncle Tom’s Cabin ultimately became the best-selling novel of the century. However, opinion was polarised, with the novel well-received in the North, energising the abolitionist campaign, whereas in the South it was met decidedly less well, where the anti-slavery content enraged many in an area which was so reliant on slave labour. The novel prompted several ‘anti-Tom’ novels to be published in the South, which tried to highlight the positives of slavery, though none were as successful as Stowe’s novel.
The novel brought Stowe fame both in North America and Europe, and she travelled extensively, promoting the abolitionist cause. The combination of the focus Stowe placed on the human cost of slavery and the timing of the release of the novel meant the novel was perfectly positioned to have the wide-reaching impact that it did. Such is the legacy of her writing that upon meeting President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, he is said to have greeted her with the comment, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”