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Fighting Slavery with the Pen: Harriet Beecher Stowe's 196th Birthday

Harriet Beecher Stowe, writer and abolitionist, is most famous for her 1852 epic Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly, the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the book that President Abraham Lincoln is said to have credited with starting the American Civil War. Stowe, however, published more than thirty additional books in her lifetime while also raising a family of seven children. In honor of the 196th anniversary of her birth, Documenting the American South remembers Stowe and her legacy of literary activism.

Stowe was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a famous minister, and the family relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio, when he became president of Lane Theological Seminary in 1832. Just four years later, Harriet married widower Calvin Ellis Stowe, also a clergyman. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which stiffened penalties for aiding runaways and imposed new, more invasive measures aimed at recapturing those those who sought haven in the North and returning them to the Southern plantations from which they had fled. Stowe was so outraged by this law that she began writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, which appeared serially in The New Leader and was later published in two volumes. Also in 1850, Calvin moved the family to New Brunswick, Maine, after he accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin College. Three years later, they moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where they lived until 1864, when Calvin retired and the family relocated—this time permanently—to Hartford, Connecticut. Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford on July 1, 1896.

Stowe published the two-volume novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp in 1856 as a follow-up to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dred is set in Chowan County, North Carolina, near the Great Dismal Swamp. The title character is an escaped slave and religious zealot who aids fellow slave refugees and spends most of the novel plotting a slave rebellion. He is a composite of Denmark Vesey, who plotted an insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, and Nat Turner who led an 1831 revolt in Southampton County, Virginia (now West Virginia). In fact, Stowe includes a copy of Turner's famous confessions as an appendix to the novel. On the one hand, Dred is a character of great strength and intellect and thus represents a much more assertive and potentially dangerous slave character than the loyal slaves, passive victims, or doomed escapees who inhabit Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe, however, also sometimes portrays Dred as animalistic or savage, playing into many of the prevailing racial stereotypes of African American men. And although North Carolinians and other Southerners rejected Dred as abolitionist propaganda, the novel had far less influence than Uncle Tom's Cabin on the state and national debate over slavery.

Dred is part of the "North Carolina Experience: Beginnings to 1940 Collection," which collects books, letters, artifacts, songs, and oral histories about North Carolina, its people, and its history.

DocSouth staff