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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Wife, Mother, Writer

A Living Institution

Inspired

Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family were living in a city that housed the largest collection of Underground Railroad "conductors" and "stations" in the country, and all the Beechers were finding that it was impossible to remain neutral on the topic of slavery for long. Harriet's curiosity about slavery prompted her to ask her favorite uncle, Samuel Foote, to set up a visit to one of his Kentucky friend's slave plantations. She and a fellow teacher from the Western Female Institute crossed the Ohio River and visited a plantation, where they walked the grounds and were treated to lavish meals. The master was kind to his slaves, but he forced them to perform for the guests. The slaves lived in tiny log cabins on the plantation grounds, each with its own garden. It wasn't difficult to discern the social system on the plantation, either. The house slaves were lighter-skinned and stylishly dressed, while the darker- skinned slaves were relegated to labor-intensive field jobs. The hierarchy sickened Harriet, and she watched everything that transpired that day with a keen eye, burning every image into her brain. This plantation would become the prototype for Colonel Shelby's plantation in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

After her visit, Harriet pondered the arguments for emancipation and immediate abolition of slavery. Lyman Beecher, like his daughter, believed that abolitionists often damaged their cause with their passionate demands for immediate emancipation. This kind of tactic, Lyman often told his daughter, would only make the South hold even firmer to their slave-based economy. Violence, too, he reasoned, would only beget violence–many abolitionists advocated emancipation by force. Gradual emancipation was the best way to go, both he and Harriet believed, because that would allow time for education and social adjustment.

In the spring of 1834, Harriet traveled back East with her brother Henry Ward to visit friends and scattered siblings. While she was there, she received word that her friend Eliza Tyler Stowe had died of cholera. When she returned to Cincinnati, she found Eliza's husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, was a frequent dinner guest. Absent-minded to the point of inefficiency, Calvin leaned on Harriet's organizational skills, and before long, the two had begun a romance.

In early 1835, Mrs. Beecher died after a long illness. That autumn, Harriet and Calvin announced their engagement and they married in January 1836. Harriet was in awe of Calvin, a kind, exceptionally intelligent man. He became Harriet's greatest fan, even when her fame eclipsed his and she became the family's main breadwinner.

Harriet was soon pregnant, and she continued to write during her pregnancy, contributing articles to the Western Monthly Magazine. That summer, two Cincinnati abolitionists founded an abolitionist magazine called The Philanthropist. When a pro-slavery mob burned down the magazine's printing plant, Harriet and her father took their action as proof that the abolitionists were bringing violence upon themselves by their lack of moderation. In fact, Harriet wrote a scathing satirical article blasting the abolitionist leaders for their tactics.

In September 1837, Harriet gave birth to twin girls, whom she and Calvin named Eliza, after Calvin's first wife, and Harriet. Lyman Beecher arrived from a trip east with a new wife, Lydia Jackson from Boston. The Panic of 1837 hurt everyone, not least of all the newly married Stowes. Their finances were strained by the economic downturn, and Harriet wrote to put food on the table. During this time, Henry Ward was ordained, got married, and moved to Ohio. Harriet became pregnant again, and while pregnant, she traveled to Putnam, Ohio to visit her brother William and his wife. There she was exposed to the abolitionist movement and was able to discern some of the intricacies of the abolitionist argument. A moderate approach to the abolition of slavery, she discovered, might not be as feasible as she had initially thought–the South, she learned, would not give up the basis of its economy without a fight.

In January 1838, Harriet gave birth to a baby boy she named Henry Ellis. The next year, despite the poor shape the Stowes' finances were in, Harriet hired a black girl from Kentucky as a maid. Although the girl was free, one day her master came looking for her. Calvin Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher armed themselves, and Harriet hid with the girl, and they managed to fight the Kentucky slave owner off. Harriet later rendered this incident in faithful detail in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

By the early 1840's, Harriet was juggling her increasing domestic duties with her writing career, which had become very promising. She was, in addition to her regular contributions to Western Monthly Magazine, writing for a moderate abolitionist magazine called The New York Evangelist, an intellectual publication in Cincinnati called Souvenir, and the most popular women's magazine of the day, Godey's Lady Book. Harriet Beecher Stowe's name was known to thousands of people even before she put pen to paper and began writing her most famous book.

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