The most unlikely of catalysts for a civil war, a slight, shy New England mother of six named Harriet Beecher Stowe became, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "the little lady who started this big war." Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in what seemed to be a hopelessly divide America. On one side of the Mason-Dixon line, a somber, industrial North grew crowded with immigrants and rich with invention and manufacturing. On the other, the languid South likewise prospered, but its wealth came, not from factories, but from plantations, on which human cruelty and human suffering were the only currency known.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born in New England, spent much of her life in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was a city-sized microcosm of America–split by the question of slavery. On the Ohio side of the Ohio River, slavery was illegal. Just across the river in Kentucky, however, slavery was legal. The battle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions were fierce, and Harriet, along with the rest of her accomplished siblings, was faced with a living example of what they all had, in theory, learned to deplore: the enslavement of fellow human beings.
The publication of Stowe's most famous book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is considered a major factor in the escalation of the slavery debate during the mid-1800's. The book was based on slave accounts she had read, ex-slaves she had interviewed, and a Kentucky plantation she visited while living in Cincinnati. It was a scathing work of social and moral commentary, and steeled many formerly moderate anti-slavery proponents against the South, turning them into radicals almost overnight. Each work of writing she produced–from her many contributions to abolitionist magazines to her socially conscious short stories to her polemic novels–was an attack against slavery and against those who supported slavery and its economic system. The woman who called the greatest event in her life the abolition of slavery was often just writing to pay the bills, considering her life's calling a business rather than art.
When Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe became the most famous woman in America, and one of the most famous Americans in the world. She became, to many, a living symbol of all that the anti-slavery movement stood for. Ironically, Stowe remained, for many years, a moderate, believing the emancipation of slaves should be gradual, and accomplished through religion and education.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, with the North victorious and the South in shambles, Stowe and her Beecher siblings remained committed to causes like education for freed slaves, women's suffrage and other controversial social movements. Despite her forward-thinking tendencies, however, Stowe remained quite traditional in the realms of religion and domestic life. Although she was a fervent supporter of women's rights, she always deferred to her husband Professor Calvin Ellis Stowe, and considered herself of lesser rank in the household. She was for many years, as a result of her strict Presbyterian upbringing, intolerant of Catholicism. Only after a number of trips abroad, during which she was exposed to different religions and different systems of morality, did she become more accepting of other religions and, in fact, left the Presybyterian church to become an Episcopalian.
For over thirty years, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the most famous literary figure in America and was the mouthpiece for the anti-slavery movement. Her passionate polemics, her religious inquiries, her travelogues, her many short stories and children's books, and her novels, were all instant bestsellers in their time. Now, despite the heavy sentimentalism and the clichéd plots, Harriet Beecher Stowe's books stand up as social documents and evidence that literature can change the course of a nation.