Mar 12, 2018

Harriet Beecher Stowe

 “The pen is mightier than the sword” is attributed to playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1839 wrote a historical play about Cardinal Richelieu.  And, according Friedrich Nietzsche: “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” An example would be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Life among the Lowly.” Release of the book on March 20, 1852 infuriated slave owners and strengthened the resolve of abolitionists. The story of Uncle Tom’s long-suffering
life as a slave touched millions.  It was the bestselling book of the 19th century surpassed only by the Bible. Simon Legree, Tom’s hard taskmaster, has become part of American lexicon when referring to a cruel employer who makes excessive demands.  And, who could forget poor Eliza, hopping from ice flow to ice flow across the Ohio River to freedom. When Harriet Beecher Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 he is purported to exclaim, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started the Great War!”

When John and I were in Cincinnati the Harriet Beecher Stowe
House was on our must-visit list. Except for a young lady doing research we were the only visitors so there was plenty of time to chat with the docents.  Stowe’s father was a Congregationalist minster and was raised in a family of religious leaders, educators, writers, abolitionists, and advocates of human rights. Before moving to Cincinnati, Stowe lived in Brunswick, Maine where she hid a fugitive slave in her house for one night.  She and her children, she had seven, listened to the slave’s songs and stories. He mentioned that he dearly missed his wife and daughter in South Carolina.  Stowe even inspected his
back which was covered with scars from the numerous whippings. She may not have known his name but he remembered hers. After a few years of safely in St. John, Canada, the runaway, John Andrew Jackson, went overseas on the abolitionist lecture circuit during which time he wrote a memoir of his time in bondage, “The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina.” In the book he mentions Stowe by name and recounts the night he spent in her house. 

At this time female abolitionists shocked the decorum of the early
1800s by speaking in public gatherings. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped to change that and encouraged more females to enter in public political discussions.  Stowe wrote many books but it was a time when women and their writings were not taken seriously.  A lesser known Stowe book, “Lady Byron Vindicated” caused an international uproar because she charged Lord Byron with incest. During the time the Stowes lived in Cincinnati the area was rife with abolitionists.  The Ohio River was one of the dividing lines between slave states and free states with many runaways sneaking across the river to freedom, first in Cincinnati, and then after the Fugitive Slave Law required northerners to return runaways, onward to Canada. 

We didn’t have time to visit the John Rankin House in nearby Ripley but there is a display about John Rankin in Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad Freedom Museum. Rankin was one of Ohio’s most active conductors on the Underground Railroad. 
There is also a Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Brunswick, Maine and in Hartford, Connecticut. Connecticut is where she spent the last years of her life and, interestingly, she was a neighbor of Mark Twain.