On March 20th 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was published. Within three months, the novel had sold 300,000 copies and was so widely read that when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he reportedly said, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Stowe was born on June 14th 1811, the seventh child of the famous Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher. She studied at private schools in Connecticut, then taught in Hartford from 1827 until her father moved to Cincinnati in 1832. She accompanied him and continued to teach while writing stories and essays. In 1836, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, with whom she had seven children. She published her first book, Mayflower, in 1843.
While living in Cincinnati, Stowe encountered fugitive slaves and the Underground Railroad. Later, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to recently tightened fugitive slave laws. The book had a major influence on the way the American public viewed slavery. The book established Stowe’s reputation as a woman of letters.
In June 1851, when she was 40, the first instalment of her Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in the National Era. She originally used the subtitle “The Man That Was A Thing”, but it was soon changed to “Life Among the Lowly.” Instalments were published weekly from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form on March 20, 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. Each of its two volumes included three illustrations and a title-page designed by Hammatt Billings. It was an instant literary success. By December, as sales began to wane, Jewett issued an inexpensive edition to further inspire sales.
The book’s emotional portrayal of the impact of slavery captured the nation’s attention. It added to the debate about abolition and slavery, and aroused opposition in the South. Within a year, 300 babies were named “Eva” in Boston alone and a play based on the book opened in New York in November of that year.
She traveled to England in 1853, where she was welcomed as a literary hero. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, she became one of the original contributors to The Atlantic, which launched in November 1857. In 1863, when Lincoln announced the end of slavery, she danced in the streets. Stowe continued to write throughout her life and died in 1896, aged 86.