I have the fortune to have a dear friend who lives just a couple doors down from 80 Bartlet Street in Andover, Massachusetts. While visiting there recently, I was delighted to learn that this address was the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The author lived there just after the publication of her seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Indeed, she applied her first royalty check from the novel toward the renovation of the home for her large family. Her husband, Calvin Stowe, taught Sacred Literature at Andover Theological Seminary, and it was this position that precipitated the move of the family there.
Born into a notable family devoted to faith and education, one of the ironies of Harriet’s childhood, is that when she was born, her father was disappointed that she was a girl! A preacher himself, her father wanted sons who could follow in his footsteps, which a number did. While a few of the Beecher sons made names for themselves during their lifetimes, it was Harriet who had the most dramatic and lasting impact upon the fate of the nation and upon the history of the world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a runaway best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. It was subsequently translated into 60 languages and impacted other nations still under the bondage of serfdom and slavery.
Gazing at the place Harriet called home for eleven years, I enjoyed imagining the happy chaos that must have often filled the halls and chambers of this lovely stone dwelling. It is easy to romanticize the life of someone from the past, but I know better than to do so with her. Harriet has always been an inspiration for me, because, not only was she the mother of seven children, but she often parented alone, as her husband was sickly and given to melancholy and depression. Because of her husband’s frequent illnesses, financial matters were always a concern, which was another of Harriet’s motivations for writing, as she was often forced to supplement the family income. But despite the tremendous pressure upon her as wife and mother, she found time to devote to her passionate desire for abolition, and became a driving force through the dramatic words that flowed from her pen. So convincing was her characterization in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that Americans all over the country were able to identify vicariously with the suffering slaves and their brave liberators. This identification became a catalyst for change, and through the power of Harriet’s pen the nation grew ripe for emancipation.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 Stowe wrote “It was God’s will that this nation—the North as well as the South—should deeply and terribly suffer for the sin of consenting to and encouraging the great oppressions of the South”—(The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe). It was to her a direct breach of the second great commandment as she noted, ” . . . the enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourself”.
If you have never enjoyed the moving experience of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, consider picking it up as a summer read-aloud. Though the language can seem a bit archaic at first, a little diligence will be rewarded handsomely, as the dramatic plot will quickly pull readers in. Most importantly, the lessons of compassion, empathy, and justice will linger long in listener’s hearts and minds.
A wonderful companion to the study of Stowe’s novel is Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers by Jean Fritz. The stories of the rambunctious household that Harriet grew up in, and the tales of her own seven children, may have a familiar ring to contemporary families who have made home education a choice and a lifestyle. In the often humdrum duties of daily life, it is easy to forget that sometimes, future greatness can be hidden in an unlikely package. Though her father and her culture could not have imagined it, Harriet’s preaching turned her world upside down and helped bring justice to untold millions.