Activism, or civic engagement, was an important part of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life. From an early age, she was taught the importance of participation and a responsibility to help shape America. She and her family debated many political issues and world events and were taught to stand up for what they believed in.
In 1832, Harriet moved to Cincinnati, Ohio with her sister Catharine and her father Lyman, after he was appointed president of Lane Seminary. The distance did not stop the extended Beecher family from continuing their debates and discussions of such issues as the abolitionist movement. They wrote “circular” letters; each family member wrote a paragraph or two and then sent the entire letter on to the next destination so news went full circle, from Hartford to Cincinnati and stops in-between.
Her new residence gave Stowe much to write about. Ohio was a free state; but across the river, Kentucky was a slaveholding state. In Ohio, Stowe met fugitives from slavery, heard abolitionists speak, and observed what she described as the “nightmare abomination” that was slavery.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required everyone to help slave owners track down those escaping enslavement making it impossible for enslaved people to find a safe place in the United States. The law also stated that anyone helping an enslaved person escape would be fined or sent to jail. Stowe could not believe what she saw. America, founded on principles of freedom and equality, applied those principles unevenly. Stowe thought this was awful and felt a responsibility to call attention to this injustice. This led her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which humanized enslaved people and changed the way many felt about slavery leading up to the Civil War.
Stowe’s brothers also worked for social change. Charles became Florida’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, following the Civil War, and opened a school for emancipated people, a cause Stowe helped raise money for. William was an advocate of abolition; Edward was an abolitionist who wrote about the injustices of slavery; George was an abolitionist who joined the Anti-Slavery Society; and Henry was an abolitionist and a minister who gave sermons on the wrongs of slavery.
Stowe’s sisters were active in education reform and women’s rights issues. Catharine, with the help of her sister Mary, opened the Hartford Female Seminary on Main Street in Hartford and instructed students in rhetoric, logic, natural and moral philosophy, chemistry, history, latin, algebra and drawing at a time when most 19th century women were expected to marry and manage homes. Stowe’s sister Isabella Beecher Hooker became one of the most prominent advocates of women’s suffrage in the United States. She organized suffrage conventions in Hartford and Washington D.C.
Harriet and her siblings spoke out about the problems they saw around them. Stowe used her talent as a writer to make change. What will you do?
This article corresponds with Let Your Words Change the Word: A Bicentennial Celebration of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Unit 2 curriculum for grades 7 – 10. Lessons are published weekly in the Hartford Courant from January 26 – February 16. To sign up or to find out more information, please contact Julia Baldini, Program Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org