Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As Author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

We have already seen how stirred Mrs. Stowe was over the Fugitive Slave Law, which was enacted for the purpose of giving slave owners the privilege of pursuing and bringing back runaway slaves from any state in the Union, and also how her sister-in-law's letter roused in this gifted writer the desire to write something which would stir the public to a realization of what a menace to society slavery really was. But there were other reasons which caused her to write her wonderful book, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

When she was but a girl, her aunt, Mary Hubbard, who had married a planter of the West Indies, returned to her New England home to live, unable to remain on her husband's plantation any longer because she could not endure the sights she was daily compelled to witness among the miserable slaves of the Islands. The Beecher children were greatly impressed with the terrible tales she told them, and Harriet never forgot her aunt's agony of spirit over the great wrong which she could not right nor even lessen, however much she tried.

A few years later, while she was teaching in Catherine's school in Hartford, she visited a Kentucky slave plantation with another teacher of that school. Here she saw only the best side of slavery. There was little to shock or disturb her. The negroes were well cared for and seemed happy enough. Harriet apparently gave little heed to what she saw about the plantation, yet years later when her friend, the teacher, was reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, she recognized the description of the Shelby farm as that of the plantation they had visited that day.

For seventeen years Mrs. Stowe lived in Ohio, just across the river from Kentucky, which was a slave state, and she not only had seen runaway slaves, but had aided them herself in their dash for freedom. In fact, what was called the "underground railroad" ran through her own home. This underground railroad was a chain of houses of people known to be friendly to the black race, and with these families the escaped slaves knew they would be safe until they could press on to the next station on this peculiar railway system. In Cincinnati there was quite a settlement of free negroes, among whom runaways often took refuge, until the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law made it impossible for them to find safety anywhere in the United States. Mrs. Stowe often had colored help from this settlement, and from this source learned much that made her heartsick over the plight of this unhappy race. Many times she taught black children in her own home with her own children because that was the only means they had of receiving an education, and Mrs. Stowe believed in uplifting the black man as well as in giving him his freedom. She always practiced what she preached.

Her father and six brothers were ministers of the Gospel, and every man of them was bitterly opposed to slavery and had the courage to attack it from the pulpit. It was a ticklish thing in those days for a preacher to come out openly on such a question, and many a man who really believed the system was wrong, kept silent rather than antagonize his congregation; but not so with the Beechers. Henry Ward was at this time pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, and many slaves owed their freedom to this man, who, by his wonderful eloquence was able to rouse his people to such intense feeling that time after time they raised money enough to redeem some fugitive who had taken refuge in the shadow of this church.

One night Henry Ward came to visit his sister, through a blinding snowstorm, and they sat up all night discussing this grave question which was menacing the very life of their country. She told him she intended to write a story directed against the evil, and he promised that he would scatter the book over the face of the earth as thick as the leaves of Vallombrosa!

While Mrs. Stowe was still living at her father's house in Cincinnati, her brother Charles was studying for the ministry, but could not reconcile his own beliefs with his father's Calvinistic theology; and at last, despairing of ever being able to make a preacher of himself, he accepted a position as clerk for a wholesale commission house in New Orleans. This company did business with cotton plantations of the Red River district, and here Charles saw the worst side of the slave trade. On one of his trips he met a heartless trader who boasted that he had hardened his huge fists in knocking down "niggers." From her brother's description of the man Mrs. Stowe drew her picture of Legree, the slayer of Uncle Tom. From this same source she also got the incident of the slave woman who cast herself into the river from the boat, preferring to drown rather than be sold to a cotton plantation where such terrible conditions existed for the hapless negro.

During Mrs. Stowe's young womanhood, a wealthy, refined Louisiana family came to Ohio and settled near Cincinnati, bringing with them a number of negro servants whom they liberated. Among these freed slaves was a queer, impish little girl who attended a small mission Sunday School where Mrs. Stowe was teaching, and furnished a good deal of amusement by her antics. This child has been faithfully reproduced in Topsv.

In her own family she had as a servant a young woman whose son is the original of little Harry. One day after the Fugitive Slave Law had become a law of the land, this young mother learned that her former master was in the city hunting for her. In her terror she flew to Mrs. Stowe with her story, and that night in a raging storm, Professor Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher drove the woman and her child to a lonely farmhouse owned by a man named Van Sant, who also conducted a station on the underground railroad; and here she found shelter until such time as it would be safe for her to go on to Canada. This scene Mrs. Stowe has reproduced in her description of Eliza's flight, as well as the true incident of the crossing of the Ohio River on floating cakes of ice. Mrs. Stowe met and talked with the man who had helped the fleeing young negress up the Ohio bank after her perilous trip, and from him obtained all the little details which she later wove into her story.

A friend who had witnessed the sale of slaves at auction, described the pitiful scenes of mothers parted from their children, of husbands torn from their wives, and of educated, refined mulattoes or quadroons sold to cotton planters for work on the southern plantations where slave life was of the lowest type. She learned from eye witnesses how the black man was punished, even to being killed by unfeeling and cruel masters, who boasted that they had no use for sick niggers, but "turned them in with the crops." Thus from various sources the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin  garnered her material, but always she verified it before introducing it into the book which was destined to shake this country from border to border. Facts were what she was seeking, and facts were what she got,—overwhelming, dismaying, terrible facts!

One day, sitting at communion in church, he had a vision of the death of Uncle Tom; and hurrying home, she wrote the chapter, with no thought whatever of the book as a whole. Calling her children to her, she read what she had written, and they wept bitterly, so clear was the picture she had sketched with her pen. Her ten- and twelve-year-old sons clenched their fists and cried, "Oh, mamma, slavery is the most cruel thing in the world!"

Professor Stowe was absent from home at the time this was written, but some time later he came across the scribbled sheets in a drawer where his wife had tucked them for safe keeping, and she found him with tears streaming down his face as he read the words so hastily scrawled on scraps of brown paper saved from the groceries she had bought at the store. It was his suggestion that she make a serial story of it with the death scene as a climax, and she wrote the editor of the National Era, saying that she was contemplating writing such a serial and asking if he cared to make use of it. He promptly spoke for it, and it appeared a few chapters at a time for nearly a year before the whole book was done.

Never in the true sense of the word was Mrs. Stowe or her husband an Abolitionist. She heard a great deal of the abolitionist doctrine preached, and witnessed the anti-abolitionist riots in Cincinnati, which at one time even threatened Lane Seminary because this institution housed so many abolitionist students. These disgraceful disturbances were caused primarily because Dr. Bailey published his anti-slavery paper in Cincinnati, and slave traders just across the border resented his attitude. Twice, mobs led by slaveholders from the Kentucky side of the river, attacked his office, destroyed its contents and set fire to the building. Not content with venting their spite in this manner, they raided the shacks of the free black people and drove them from the city, burning their houses and abusing the frightened negroes.

During this time Henry Ward Beecher carried loaded pistols with him for days, and his grim countenance, as he made these ready for use, told his sister for the first time just how serious the anti-slavery situation was becoming. The members of the Beecher household slept many a night with arms in the house and a great bell ready to summon help from the Seminary students in case the mob should come to search their premises for fugitive slaves. But fortunately, Walnut Hills, where the Seminary was located, was two miles from town, and the poor, hilly roads, with their deep and clay-like mud, proved too great an obstacle for the rioters to overcome; so these good people were never molested.

At length, Dr. Bailey gave up the struggle in Cincinnati, and went to Washington to establish his paper there, where by his courtesy, courage and honesty, he made friends among even the most outspoken slaveholders of the south. But all anti-slavery advocates were not as fortunate as Dr. Bailey. Love joy, who attempted to edit a similar paper in Alton, Illinois, was shot to death by the infuriated mob who destroyed his office and set fire to his house. At first it was reported that Edward Beecher, who had been a great friend of Lovejoy's, had been killed at the same time; but this proved to be a false rumor.

Mrs. Stowe had no sympathy, of course, with these rioters, nor did she advocate the violent methods the Abolitionists proposed for ridding the country of the slave traffic. She did not believe the Abolitionists would receive her book favorably, because it was not as radical as the doctrines they preached; but she confidently expected that the South would accept it with applause because she thought she had treated the subject with such fairness. To her utter surprise and genuine consternation, the South rose in a mass to denounce her, while the Abolitionists hailed the product of her pen with wild enthusiasm. William Lloyd Garrison, in commenting on this book in a letter he wrote to her personally, remarks that since her story had made its appearance, the slave-holders of the South had ceased to bother him with their denunciations, but had directed all their venom toward the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Originally Mrs. Stowe intended the serial to run about three months, but as a matter of fact, it grew to such magnitude that it continued from June 5, 1851 to April, 1852. The month before the last installment appeared in the National Era, it was published in book form by John P. Jewett, of Boston, who made overtures for its publication in this form long before it was complete as a serial. Mr. Jewett, however, felt called upon to protest at the length of the story, saying that it would be too long for one volume, and being an unpopular subject, was apt not to succeed when it did appear on the market. Mrs. Stowe replied that she could not help the length of the story, for it had made itself, and she must continue to write it down until it was done. Mr. Jewett offered her ten per cent of all sales, or half the profit with half the risk, if the book should be a failure. Mrs. Stowe's business advisor was Philip Greeley, a member of Congress, and he counseled her to accept the ten per cent royalty, agreeing with Mr. Jewett that the subject was too unpopular to allow of any great success, and besides, a book written by a woman stood little chance of an extensive sale at best.

When the volume finally made its appearance, Professor Stowe carried one of the first copies they received from the publisher to the railroad station where the Congressman was about to board a train for Washington, and this very calm and collected New Englander, who had so poor an opinion of woman's ability as an author, immediately opened the volume and began to read as soon as his train pulled out of the depot. To his profound amazement and deepest chagrin, he found the tears streaming down his cheeks as the simple tale unfolded itself before him; and being unable to check their flow, he left the train at Springfield, engaged a room at a hotel, and sat up far into the night until he had finished this novel, of whose success he had been so doubtful.

Three thousand copies were sold the first day the book appeared on the market, and over three hundred thousand in a year. As a serial, the author received but three hundred dollars for it. In book form it brought her considerably more than ten thousand dollars. She had never given the money part of it any great thought, saying only that she hoped it would bring her enough to buy a new gown with. When the first check for ten thousand dollars reached her,—royalties for the first three months' sale,—she passed it without comment to the Professor. He gazed at it in astonishment for some moments, then gasped, "Why, Hattie, that is more money, than I ever saw in my life!"

When the book was nearly finished, Mrs. Stowe's strength suddenly left her, and she suffered a great reaction mentally as well as physically. In her discouragement she wondered if anyone would ever read what she had written. How little she realized that this heart-thrilling tale of hers was to be a contributing cause to the greatest war our nation had ever known!

The story as a whole has often been criticized because it has no literary style; but however that may be, it had the greatest circulation of any book in America except the Bible, and has had almost as many translations. There have been no less than sixty-six translations, not counting abridgments or dramas. Because the United States had no copyright laws at that time, and Mrs. Stowe failed to secure a copyright in England, she unfortunately received but a small percent of the money she should have had from the various editions of her book, and no compensation whatever for its dramatization, though it is doubtful if any other story has ever been so often played on the public stage.

In commenting on the popularity of the author, Dr. O. W. Holmes has said:

"Briton and Frenchman, Swede and Dane,

Turk, Spaniard, Tartar of Ukraine,

Hidalgo, Cossack, Cadi,

High Dutchman and low Dutchman, too,

The Russian serf, the Polish Jew,

Arab, Armenian, and Mantchoo,

Would shout, 'We know the lady.'"

Most of the book was written while the Stowes were living in Brunswick, Maine, but just before it was completed the Professor decided to accept a position offered him in the Theological Seminary of Andover, Massachusetts, and they moved again. There being no available house large enough for their family, the school authorities gave them permission to make use of an abandoned stone building, which had formerly been a workshop; and they took possession at once, finding great delight in remodeling the structure to suit their needs. Thereafter the place was always referred to as the Stone Cabin, and it became a great gathering place for learned men of the day.