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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Star Pupil

Important Terms, People and Events

A Living Institution

When she was born on June 14, 1811 to Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana, no one could have guessed that Harriet Beecher Stowe would, in many ways, affect the course of U.S. history during its most troubled period. Born in the parsonage of her father's Litchfield, Connecticut church, Harriet was the sixth child born to Lyman Beecher and his first wife. Reverend Beecher was a strict teetotaler and a conscientious Presbyterian, unwavering in his social and religious beliefs. He instilled into his children a sense of social justice for everyone, including women and blacks. Opportunity, he told his children, should be afforded to everyone, regardless of race or sex. On religious matters, however, Lyman Beecher was not as open-minded: he was a well-known foe of Roman Catholics.

When Harriet was five years old, and just two years after having given birth to Harriet's favorite brother Henry Ward Beecher, Roxana Beecher died. At fifteen, Catharine, the eldest Beecher child, became a mother figure to her younger siblings: Mary, Edward, Thomas, Henry Ward, Harriet and Charles. After her mother's death, young Harriet fell into a depression and her father sent her to visit her grandmother–and namesake–Harriet Foote. While visiting her grandmother's farm, Harriet met black people, including two household servants named Dinah and Harry. The two young people were indentured servants- meaning, they were working towards their freedom. Harriet encountered her first social dilemma–she could not understand why Dinah and Harry were treated as her inferiors. This perplexed her, and was a question she could not forget.

In the early summer of 1816, Harriet returned to her father's home in Connecticut and was enrolled in Ma'am Kilbourne's school, where she proved to be a voracious reader and a precocious student. By the time Harriet was six, she had devoured every book in the house and her father allowed her free use of his library. Around this time, Lyman Beecher remarried. His new bride was an exquisitely pretty, yet cold woman named Harriet Porter. The next year, a new baby arrived named Frederick, but he died the next year from Scarlet fever.

When Harriet was ten, she was enrolled in John Brace's Litchfield Academy, where she received the highest grades in the class and astounded her teachers with her intellect. When Harriet was eleven, she took first prize in the school's essay contest for her essay "Can the Immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?" That same year, 1822, the second Mrs. Beecher gave birth to Harriet's half-sister, Isabella.

Catharine, in the meantime, had lost her fiancé in a shipwreck and had decided to go a different direction with her life. Like her father, she believed women ought to be afforded educational opportunities, and so decided to found her own school for young women in Hartford in 1824. Her younger sister Harriet was her first, and most promising, pupil. There Harriet met another intelligent young woman named Georgiana May, and the two became fast friends. Harriet discovered the poetry of Lord Byron and fell in love with it, dreaming of becoming a poet herself. Because Catharine so disdained poetry, Harriet chose to scribble her poems late at night. Two years later, Catharine was able to construct her own building, and she named the school Hartford Female Seminary.

That same year, 1826, Lyman Beecher was asked to join Hanover Street Church in Boston as clergyman, and he accepted. Harriet, by now an extremely bright, and extremely moody, teenager, followed the Beechers to Boston, while Catharine chose to stay behind to run her school. After a difficult year in Boston, the Beechers sent Harriet back to Hartford to be schooled by her sister. Except for a brief visit to see her new baby brother James, Harriet spent the rest of the year in Hartford, where in addition to her duties as pupil, she was also teaching. She continued to read voraciously, and was having increasing trouble getting a handle on her adolescent emotions. She began writing long letters to friends and family, detailing the religious questions she struggled with-such as God's love for man, and her attempt to improve herself morally and spiritually- as well as the emotional challenges she couldn't seem to overcome. The teachers she roomed with found her mood swings difficult to deal with.

At the age of twenty-one, Harriet had grown into an attractive, ambitious young woman. Except for Catharine, her siblings had not yet begun to show any of the signs of their future greatness. Henry Ward, who would later become one of the most famous clergymen in U.S. History, was at this time a mediocre student, and seemed not to know what he wanted out of life. Harriet, on the other hand, was itching for a change of scenery.

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