Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Fighter for Social Justice

March is Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s Day. To celebrate both events we are hosting an #ArchivesHerstory party! Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock in the National Archives History Office.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, ca. 1870s-80s. (National Archives Identifier 535784)

Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist, author, and figure in the woman suffrage movement. Her magnum opus, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was a depiction of life for African American slaves in the mid-19th century that energized antislavery forces in the North and provoked widespread anger in the South.

She wrote more than 20 books and was influential both for her writing and her public stance on social issues of the day, including women’s right to vote.

After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which punished anyone who offered food or temporary shelter to runaway slaves, and following the loss of her 18-month-old son, Samuel, Stowe was inspired to write about the abomination of human bondage.

She used the personal accounts of former slaves to write her antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life Among the Lowly. When it first appeared in installments in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era between June 5, 1851 and April 1, 1852, it met with hostility by slavery proponents.

Stowe expected that she would write the story in three or four installments, but she eventually wrote more than 40. The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was then published as a two-volume book in 1852. It was a best seller in the United States, Britain, and Europe and was translated into over 60 languages.

The book received both high praise and harsh criticism and propelled Stowe and the issue of slavery into the international spotlight.

Slavery proponents argued that the novel was nothing more than abolitionist propaganda. In the South, and in the North too, people protested that the depiction of slavery had been melodramatically twisted. Southerners particularly promoted the idea that the institution of slavery was benevolent and benign. Responding to charges that the book was a distortion, Stowe published another book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which documented the actual cases upon which her book was based to refute critics’ claims that her work was fabricated and based on supposition.

Shortly after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, F. W. Thomas, the editor of a German newspaper in Philadelphia, began to print excerpts from the book without paying the required royalties. Stowe filed a claim with the Federal court in Philadelphia and provided a written deposition detailing her authorship to Justice Robert Grier, a notorious enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. He eventually ruled in her favor.

Later, Stowe embraced woman suffrage and briefly considered an alliance with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who tried in 1869 to recruit her to write for their newspaper, The Revolution. Stowe declined the partnership and instead drew upon both suffrage and antisuffrage ideals to create an optimistic and multidimensional vision of progressive womanhood. In My Wife and I, her response to the question of women’s voting rights, she reinforced the home as America’s essential space, described how women exerted control, and endorsed women pursuing their own careers.

Stowe eventually developed a deeper empathy for the women’s rights movement and the activities of the suffragists in a series of writings for the Atlantic. In one installment, she wrote, “The question of Woman and her Sphere is now, perhaps, the greatest of the age. . . . If the principles on which we founded our government are true, that taxation must not exist without representation, and if women hold property and are taxed, it follows that women should be represented in the State by their votes, or there is an illogical working of our government.”

Throughout her life, Stowe used literature to shape public opinion and leaned on her own experiences as a woman and a mother. She was keenly aware of racial differences and regional customs, and it translated into her very own distinct influence on the American experience. Writing at a time when women were denied the vote and had no representation in Congress, Stowe used literature as her political voice.  

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