Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As a Teacher

When Harriet's mother died in 1816, it was quite natural that the burden of the household should, in a large measure, fall upon the eldest daughter of the family, the talented Catherine, though she was only sixteen or seventeen years of age herself. Nevertheless, she had been so well trained by her mother, as well as being naturally capable and energetic that she filled the vacant place very well indeed until the new mother came to guide the riotous band of motherless children. Catherine was her father's favorite daughter and at that time was considered the most talented of the children. Naturally she had a great influence over the sensitive, dreamy Harriet. In fact, the younger sister almost worshiped this brilliant, sympathetic spirit who was the very life of the home for so many years, and no doubt she received much inspiration and help from her, Catherine herself was an author of no mean reputation, and wrote on a wide range of subjects from cooking recipes and home economics to the most profound philosophy and religious discussions.

When Harriet was about nine years old, Catherine went to Boston to study music and other subjects preparatory to teaching, and after a short time accepted a position as teacher in a young ladies' school in New London, Connecticut. Here she became engaged to a promising young professor of Yale, by the name of Alexander Fisher, a mathematical genius. He had made such an enviable record as a student that upon his graduation he was appointed professor of mathematics and was sent abroad by his alma mater to study in his chosen field and to purchase books and mathematical instruments for his department. The ship, Albion, of which he was a passenger, was wrecked off the coast of Ireland, and only one of the passengers reached shore alive. Catherine Beecher was for a time almost crushed by this loss, especially as she was afraid her lover was not a Christian man, according to her strict views of what that term implied. Nor were her doubts entirely dispelled when she went to live with his parents for a time.

However, Catherine was a strong character and not finding a satisfactory answer to her questions, she resolved not to let her grief crush her utterly, and set about to find happiness in helping others. Being an energetic person by nature, she could not sit down and fold her hands in idleness, so she turned her attention once more toward teaching, and wrote to her father for his advice in regard to opening a seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, similar to the Litchfield Female Academy which Harriet was at that time attending. Dr. Beecher sanctioned the idea and urged her to take steps at once, provided she were earnest in her desire to do this thing and willing to put her whole soul into the project. He even went to Hartford himself to see what prospect there was for such a school in that territory, and, finding people enthusiastic over the plan, cooperated with his daughter in getting the school started. Its first location was in an apartment over a harness shop, across the street from the famous Christ Church. The harness maker advertised his wares by, means of a pair of white, wooden horses, one on either side of the entrance, and the memory of the Sign of the White Horses lingered with the imaginative Harriet throughout her life, for she became one of Catherine's first pupils.

The school opened with an enrollment of but twenty-five, but in a few years it had increased to several hundred. Catherine herself prepared textbooks on chemistry, natural history, and logic for the use of her pupils, as well as studying up very thoroughly on arithmetic, algebra and geometry that she might be well qualified to teach these subjects. The progress of the school was so satisfactory that in the second year of its existence, Miss Beecher put up a building just for its use, and it became a full-fledged female seminary which was to endure for years.

Harriet was nearly thirteen years of age when she entered this seminary as one of its first pupils. She boarded in the home of Isaac D. Bull, a wholesale druggist of Hartford, and his youngest daughter boarded with the Beechers in Litchfield, in order that she might attend the Litchfield Academy. Harriet had a small room that overlooked the Connecticut River, the first room she had ever had all by herself; and the motherly Mrs. Bull watched over her with the tenderest kind of care. The oldest daughter of the druggist's family was a beautiful soprano singer of note in Hartford and her three brothers also possessed good singing voices, so Harriet received much helpful training in that line during the year she lived under their roof.

The second year several members of the Beecher family were living in Hartford, so Dr. Beecher's sister Esther came to the city to act as housekeeper for them, and Catherine, Mary and Harriet, and two of the brothers who were attending school there became members of this household. Several of the school-teachers boarded with them, too, making a large family of grown people with Harriet the only girl, and they had some very interesting discussions around the table at meal time. All these experiences tended to develop and discipline the girl, and to give her new views of life. Now, too, she came to realize one of her dearest dreams. She had always longed for girl friends her own age, but somehow in Litchfield had never found the real chum she sought. Here among Catherine's first pupils, however, were two unusually intelligent, lovable girls, who wrote letters of welcome to Harriet before she left Litchfield, to which Harriet responded very promptly, and this was the beginning of lifelong friendships between them. One of them, Catherine Cogswell, was the daughter of Hartford's leading physician, and so popular a girl among her mates that Harriet could receive but a small share of her leisure time. Georgiana May, the other chum, was of a more retiring nature, and being older than Catherine, was less sought after by the younger girls, but between her and Harriet there sprang up a rare and beautiful friendship which grew only stronger and deeper with the passing years.

Yet in spite of the new friends and experiences, the next few years of Harriet's life were probably the most futile and unhappy of any period she passed through in her varied career, due to her intense emotional nature. Brought up in such a strongly religious atmosphere as existed in her father's house, she naturally was religiously inclined from early childhood, but at the age of thirteen, while at home on a vacation, a sermon of her father's on the text, "I call you not servants, but friends," made so strong an appeal to her that she surrendered herself completely to the service of the Lord and told her father of her decision upon reaching home after the sermon and sacramental service were over. The good doctor held her in his arms silently for a moment, and said simply, "Then has a new flower blossomed in the Kingdom this day."

But, having doubts as to her understanding of the step she had just taken, he urged her to go to her Hartford pastor and talk the matter over with him, which Harriet did upon her return to school. In those days great stress was laid upon what was called, "being under conviction," before a person could become a Christian in the opinion of his fellow beings, and Harriet's simple statement of her decision was most unusual. Even her own sister Catherine doubted the genuineness of the younger sister's conversion, and the well-meaning pastor of the First Church in Hartford asked her such bewildering and awe-inspiring questions concerning the state of her soul, that poor Harriet was stripped of all the joy she had experienced in deciding to become a Christian, and left only with morbid questionings and grave doubts to torment her.

Naturally, a feeling of great depression took possession of her. She could not grasp her father's philosophy, and his stern, uncompromising Calvinistic beliefs appalled her. She came to think of God as a great Power afar off, too omnipotent to be bothered with her petty cares and troubled thoughts. The religious arguments between Catherine and her brother Edward increased her mental distress and to make her misery complete, her health became seriously impaired, for she was using up her physical energy by too long hours in the schoolroom and too many tasks out of it. Sixteen or eighteen hours a day she worked with might and main, with very little physical exercise or relaxation, and human nature cannot stand such a strain.

When one pauses to consider that at thirteen years of age this girl was translating Ovid into English verse, at fourteen was teaching Virgil and rhetoric to students as old or older than she herself, besides studying French and Italian, drawing and painting, was allowing herself only half an hour at mid-day for her lunch, was in the habit of snatching a bite of supper only when she could find time from her other tasks, and was helping her Aunt Esther with the housework of the large family, one can readily understand why nature rebelled and why she grew so depressed mentally.

In those days, physical culture for the women of the family was not regarded as essential. Dr. Beecher recognized the necessity of relieving his own mental fatigue by indulging in physical labor, such as splitting wood and hoeing in his garden, but the women folk of his household were permitted to work early and late at tasks that held them indoors most of the time and afforded little or no mental relaxation. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" also applies to sister Jill, and Harriet suffered the consequences of overwork, hard study, and her spiritual struggle by permanent injury to her once robust health.

She tried to express her misgivings to her father, but for once he failed to understand how serious was her need, although he had passed through a similar struggle in his own young manhood. She tried to hide her troubled condition from her friends, hoping that she would soon find the comfort and peace she was seeking, and succeeded so well that she was often reproved for laughing too much when in reality she was feeling the worst. Fortunately she had an older brother who finally won her confidence, and was able to untangle the snarl of misgivings which had hampered her for so long a time.

When she was sixteen years old, her ill health worried Catherine so much that the older sister persuaded her to make a visit to Nutplains, and the rest, together with regular, wholesome meals, peaceful surroundings and a normal mode of living did much to build up the tired body and over-stimulated brain. Thus she gradually worked her way out of the labyrinth of doubts and fears that had oppressed her. She began to believe that God was not a God of wrath, but a God of compassion, and taking for her creed, "God is love," she found happiness and sunshine in life once more by doing for others, just as Catherine, in her great sorrow, had found peace and resignation by devoting her time and self to those about her.

Her Uncle Samuel Foote had told her at one time of a sun dial he had seen in his travels which bore the inscription, "I count the fair hours only." This sentiment appealed to her so strongly that she determined to make it her own motto and to forget the unsatisfactory things in life which she did not understand. So after four years of struggle and despair, she found herself back at the point from which she had started, when at thirteen years of age she had made her decision to be a Christian girl.

It was while Harriet was passing through this troublesome period that her father accepted a call to become pastor of Hanover Church in Boston, and the family left Litchfield never to return there to live. But Harriet found little enjoyment in her Boston home, because of the continuous theological discussions which took place under its roof between her father and brothers and visiting preachers. However, she was not there a great deal, because of her work as teacher in Catherine's school at Hartford. In fact, when she was but eighteen years old, she took entire charge of this school, while Catherine was forced to go away in search of health, and during this period of great responsibility she instituted a system of self-government among the pupils which proved to be as satisfactory as it was unique for that day and age. She had wanted to open a school of her own in Groton, where her brother George was preaching, but was persuaded to give up the plan by her father and Catherine. Now, however, the opportunity had unexpectedly come to her to show others that she was capable of so great a responsibility, and it pleased her greatly to find her efforts at managing Catherine's school so successful and herself so popular a teacher.

Now came a great change in the Beecher fortunes. Dr. Beecher had for a long time been meditating on going West to take up his work in the new country which was rapidly being opened up to civilization. West at that time still meant east of the Mississippi River. The territory beyond that great waterway was a trackless wilderness. This great preacher seemed to feel that there was to be a big conflict waged in the Mississippi Valley between the forces of right and wrong; so when he received a call to become the head of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, he accepted with characteristic enthusiasm, and prevailed upon Catherine to go with him to establish a school in that city.

Although Harriet shared her father's enthusiasm for the new project, she dreaded leaving her loved ones, most of whom were established now in or near Hartford. Her brothers William and Edward were both preaching from their own pulpits; Henry Ward and Charles were in college; and the sister Mary was married and living in Hartford. It would be hard to leave all these behind, but she wasted no time in lamentations. There was a long journey to be undertaken, and she had an adventuresome spirit like all pioneers. So she decided to go with the rest of the family and do her part toward bettering this new country.

There were no railroads to this growing Western city at that time, so the move of the Beechers was made in relays, part by steam-boat, part by private conveyance, and much of it by stage. They stopped in all the large towns they came to, in order that Dr. Beecher, whose reputation had preceded him, might preach to eager audiences and raise funds for the founding of the chair of Bibliography at Lane Theological Seminary. This position was to be filled by Prof. Calvin E. Stowe, unknown to the Beechers then, but later to become Harriet's husband. The journey turned out to be a very tedious one with many unexpected delays. They stopped for several days in New York City, which Harriet decided she did not like, because the noise and confusion made her head ache. Then they went by steamboat to Philadelphia, where in some manner they became separated from their baggage, and had to wait for a week until it was located. This experience was particularly trying for the women folk of the family who had no clean caps to wear until the missing luggage was located. Most of the remaining journey was made in old-fashioned stages drawn by four great horses. There were nine members in the little party so they chartered a coach whenever possible, so they might travel by themselves, singing and scattering religious tracts by the wayside, until Harriet said they "peppered the landscape" with their literature. Wherever they stopped they held song and prayer services, whether or not the learned doctor was to preach.

At Harrisburg they rested up for the long journey in the Appalachian Mountains, and it was well they did, for what ordinarily was but a two-day journey dragged itself out over eight days, on account of bad roads and poor horses. When they reached Wheeling, they had expected to take the canal boat down the Ohio River to Cincinnati, but because of a rumored epidemic of cholera along this water-way, they decided to continue their journey by stagecoach, even though this meant a longer trip, and many miles of it were over a corduroy road, made of logs laid crosswise and covered with dirt—a very rough and jolting ride. But at length they reached the beautiful Ohio Valley and entered the city of Cincinnati, which was to be the Beecher home for eighteen years.

Samuel and John Foote, Harriet's uncles, were wealthy residents of this new city of the West, so the Beechers were cordially welcomed and quickly introduced to the social life of the new country. Their first home here was a very uncomfortable, unsatisfactory affair, inconveniently arranged, and with very little light or ventilation, which Harriet hinted was due to the fact that the owner was a bachelor. The kitchen was entirely separated from the rest of the house, so it was necessary to go out of doors to reach it at all. But they did not linger long in that place. A house was being prepared for them at Walnut Hills, close to Lane Seminary and they moved into it as soon as it was ready. It was about two miles from the heart of town, but the roadway leading to it lay through some of the most beautiful scenery the Beechers had known, much to the delight of Catherine and Harriet, who had to make the trip daily to and from their school.

The house was a two-story brick building facing west, with a long L running back into a thick grove of beech and black oak which gave them shade during the heat of the summer, and protected them from the bitter winds of winter. Here it was that the venturesome little sister, Isabella, climbed to the topmost branches of the high trees and rocked in their cradling arms as she listened to the music of the whispering leaves. There was a wide veranda built in the angle formed by the L, and here the family lived during the hot summer months.

Dr. Beecher, besides being head of the Seminary, was also pastor of the Second Church of Cincinnati, considered the best church in the city, having been offered the position by the parishioners with the understanding that he give the church just what time he could spare from the Seminary. So the family became happily established in this growing city of the West which had sprung up like a mushroom in the night. There was room for thirty steamboats to tie up to the wharves at one time, and the river was a busy place, for Cincinnati had a lively export and import trade even in 1832, which was the year the Beechers took up their residence there. The city also boasted twenty-one foundries and factories, a medical college and hospital, a court house, a theater, a museum, several public libraries and fifteen churches.

Catherine had great ambitions for her school, which was to include a teachers' training department of fifty or sixty young ladies, a primary department of a similar number of little girls and a school for little boys, on the plan of our normal schools of to-day; for this pioneer educator foresaw that eventually the teaching of young America was to be done by the women of the land. The men would be engaged in sterner duties, tilling the soil, preaching from the pulpit and blazing the trail still further into the west. She experienced some difficulty in securing qualified teachers at first, so Harriet threw herself into the work with characteristic energy, much to the detriment of her health. She worked early and late, neglecting her physical needs, as she had always done, until she was completely exhausted, and wrote pathetically to her friend, Georgiana May, back East, that she was no good to herself nor to anyone else.

The school very early in its career discovered that all geographies then published for children were very unsatisfactory, and Harriet was appointed to compile this important textbook. She called it the "New Geography for Children," and it instantly sprang into such favor, that it was used by all the primary schools of Cincinnati. It was not the kind of geography that is used by schools of to-day, but was written like a story, depicting the customs of the different peoples of the earth, their manners, religions, laws, and characteristics.

All his life Dr. Beecher had been very open and emphatic in his opposition to the Church of Rome, but his daughter Harriet was more diplomatic and unprejudiced in the matter, and handled the question so tactfully in this little geography, that Bishop Purcell, while visiting the Beecher school, commended her for her attitude, much to her delight. She also treated the subject of slavery very ably, showing how England had forced this wretched system upon her colonial possessions this side of the. Atlantic, and censuring the Mother Country for the misery it had caused our fair land. But notwithstanding this and other very pointed remarks concerning England's treatment of America, nearly twenty years later, this book was published in its original form in England, for use in English schools.