It's a famous anecdote of American history (or famous among history buffs, anyway): During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln met Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time. "So this is the little lady," the president said in greeting her, "who made this big war."
Cute story. The only problem is that it never really happened. Like all great apocryphal tales, though, this one keeps hanging around because it rings true; Lincoln may not really have said those words, but he could have. The oft-quoted fictitious greeting won't go away because it seems true.
In reality, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a little lady who wrote a very big book. (Only one book sold more copies in nineteenth-century America than Uncle Tom's Cabin: the Bible.) And while Uncle Tom's Cabin didn't exactly cause the Civil War, it did play a crucial role in opening Americans' eyes to the awful realities of slavery, strengthening the Northern abolitionist movement and thus pushing the nation further into sectional crisis. Uncle Tom's Cabin surely isn't the best book of nineteenth-century American literature, but it is almost certainly the most important in terms of its historical impact.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born to save the world. She was one of more than a dozen children fathered by the Reverend Lyman Beecher, a famous Calvinist preacher whose sermons railed against social ills (slavery prominent among them) at a time when it wasn't yet an accepted fact that the enslavement of African-Americans was wrong. The enormous Beecher clan (Lyman had ten kids with Harriet's mother and four more with his second wife) was educated, pious, and, as Harriet's grandson later put it, armed with "a passion for not minding their own business."1 Her siblings included the preacher Henry Ward Beecher (more famous than his sister during their lifetimes) and the prominent suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker. The Beechers were not people who tolerated idle hands. Isabella Beecher Hooker once told her granddaughter, "I don't ask you to keep the Ten Commandments, but if I ever catch you being bored I'll disown you."2
As a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe didn't have the option of becoming a preacher like her father and brothers or an academic like her husband, the professor Calvin Stowe. She set out instead on a path of reform that was "appropriate" for a wife and mother of the time. Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin and dozens of other books and articles in the privacy of her home, all while raising seven children. Though today she is considered one of the most influential reformers in American history, during her own lifetime Beecher Stowe saw herself as a typical wife and mother. The enormous success of Uncle Tom's Cabin took her largely by surprise. After all, from her perspective, she was just living her life the way she believed she was supposed to: with a sense of duty to make the world a better place. "Harriet Beecher Stowe had a profound effect on nineteenth-century culture and politics, not because her ideas were original, but because they were common," her biographer Joan D. Hedrick wrote. "What makes Stowe so radical is that she insisted upon putting her ideas into action."3