Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin didn't start the Civil War. It just threw a gallon of lighter fluid onto the already-smoldering debate over slavery that divided North from South during the 1850s. Slavery – and the issue of whether states should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted it – would eventually lead to the greatest crisis in American history, the Civil War. Beecher Stowe, a wife and mother living in Maine, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to dramatize the grotesque, dehumanizing horrors of slavery. Though her nineteenth-century depictions of race can be uncomfortable to read today, there's no question that the book had a major historical impact, pushing America much closer to a final reckoning with the question of whether or not slavery could remain a legitimate cornerstone of American society.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born into the Beecher family, a large, pious, and influential New England clan headed by the Reverend Lyman Beecher, a famous Calvinist preacher. Harriet and her nine siblings were raised to be a force for good in the world; they grew up, in the words of one writer, "unselfishly, stubbornly and often annoyingly bent on doing good to their fellow-mortals." Harriet's older sister, Catharine, founded one of the most progressive girls' schools in the country, and another sister, Isabella, fought for women's suffrage. The sermons of her preacher brother, Henry Ward Beecher, probably did as much to shape public opinion during the Civil War era as did Uncle Tom's Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to change the world the best way she knew how – through the power of the pen. And though she probably would have described herself simply as a Christian wife and mother, she was also – as an old legend put it – the little lady who made a big war.