|Harriett Elizabeth Beecher Stowe|
Born Harriet Elizabeth Beecher, and called "Hattie" as a child, Harriett was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a famous American preacher of his day, and the sister to Henry Ward Beecher, an influential abolitionist pastor. Harriett would later marry a pastor, Calvin Stowe, and she would bear sons who also became pastors.
Hattie's father, Lyman Beecher, moved from Connecticut to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832 to become the president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. Harriett Elizabeth Beecher, 21 years of age at the time, followed her father to Cincinnati. Both Lyman and Harriett Beecher became friends with my great-great grandfather Charles T. Cherry, who was the western agent for the American Sunday School Union and ran a book store and publishing house in downtown Cincinnati near the Ohio River. At the time my grandfather knew Harriet Beecher, she worked as a writer/reporter for the Cincinnati newspaper. While in Cincinnati, Harriett met and fell in love with Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor and ardent abolitionist. The two were married in 1836 and they remained married for the next 50 years, until Calvin's death.
Just across the Ohio River which runs through downtown Cincinnati was the slave state of Kentucky. Harriett was first exposed to the institution of slavery on her visits to Kentucky. In Cincinnati, she also heard first-person accounts from former slaves who had escaped slave using the Underground Railroad. Harriett began to write about the sinfulness and awfulness of slavery, becoming a well-known advocate for the abolition of slavery.
In 1850, Calvin accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin College in Maine, and Calvin and Harriett moved from Cincinnati to Brunswick, Maine. That same year (1850), Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forced northerners, under penalty of law, to return runaway slaves to their southern owners. It was the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which prompted Harriett Beecher Stowe to write the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Stowe’s gripping portrayal of the horrors of racial slavery captured the nation. Abolitionists embraced the book as their manifesto, but those desiring slavery cursed both the book and its author. Abolitionists quickly wrote screen plays of Uncle Tom's Cabin and put the story on stage, with the characters of Tom, Eva and Topsy becoming American icons.
During the height of the Civil War, Harriett traveled to Washington where she met with President Abraham Lincoln. A popular story about the meeting has the President greeting Harriett with these words: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” While little is known about the actual meeting, it is without doubt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the major sources of the national conflict over slavery.
Harriett Beecher Stowe would receive accolades throughout her life and in the decades after her death. The Harriett Beecher Stowe Center in Connecticut is dedicated to keeping her life and legacy alive. The Harriett Beecher Stowe House in Maine, where Hattie wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a museum and bookstore that honor the life of a great American woman.
Harriett Beecher Stowe's greatest honor, however, came when she was twelve years old. It happened when she was still in Connecticut, prior to moving to Cincinnati. It was Harriett's first and most rewarding honor.
When Harriet was eleven, she wrote her first essay. She would later recall how astonished she was at the ease in which she could place in writing her thoughts. Writing came naturally to her, and she soon began to write for fun. Even as a child, she would write for hours at a time, and would later go back to what she had written, making revisions as necessary.
Her first honor and award for writing came after a year of practice writing, when she was all of telve years of age. The students at the Litchfield Academy, where Harriett attended school in Connecticut, were required to submit essays at the end of the school year. The grand prize was for the winning paper to be read aloud by the headmaster at the graduation exercises.
In 1823, the grand prize was awarded by a unanimous vote of the Litchfield Academy judges to a document entitled Can the Immortality of the Soul Be Proved by the Light of Nature? Reading the twenty-five hundred words aloud, the headmaster kept the audience in rapt attention with the logical and easy to understand narrative on nature's evidence of man's immortality. When the headmaster finished, the audience exploded in applause.
Then, to the shock of the students and parents in attendance, the headmaster announced that the winner of the the essay contest was 12-year-old Harriet Elizabeth Beecher.
Harriett turned and glanced at her father when her name was announced, and would later say she never forgot the proud and delightful smile on her father's face as he stood with others and applauded. Time dissipated Hattie's memory of that day; everything but the memory of her father's smile. Toward the end of her life, Harriett reflected on this experience as a 12-year-old and said to her friends:
"My father's smile is the highest honor I have ever received."
Any of us fathers would do well to remember this anecdote of Harriett Elizabeth Beecher Stowe, and be quick to share a smile with our children, knowing that though they may become highly honored and famous in America, it is the smile of one's father that is their highest honor.