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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Abolitionist

The Stowes and the Beecher family were part of the burgeoning movement to abolish slavery. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the issue of slavery increasingly divided the South, where slavery was legal, and the North, where it wasn't. Opponents of slavery argued against it for many different reasons. From a moral perspective, abolitionists said, it was fundamentally wrong to enslave another human being. Others took a more pragmatic approach, pointing out that the issue threatened the harmony of the young United States. They were certainly right.

Calvin and Harriet Beecher Stowe were definitely opposed to slavery. When they learned that one of their servants in Ohio was a runaway slave, they helped her connect with people in the Underground Railroad. But although Harriet Beecher Stowe personally abhorred slavery, for a long time she did not speak out publicly against it, preferring to listen to others' arguments. In 1850, Calvin Stowe was appointed a professor at Bowdoin College, and the family moved to Brunswick, Maine. Around that time, Harriet received an impassioned letter from her sister Isabella that made her rethink her silence. "Hattie," she wrote, "if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."6

A personal tragedy had also changed Stowe's perspective. In 1849, her eighteen-month-old son, Charley, contracted cholera. At the time there was no effective treatment for the infectious bacterial disease. Stowe was forced to watch in agony as her baby son sickened and died. The loss of her son and the memory of her helplessness deepened her sympathy for women whose children were sold away into slavery, never to be seen again. Any law that allowed such an inhumane act, she believed, was inherently wrong.

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