This will be brief, but I just finished reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time ever (shocking, right? My siblings had to read it for school, and though I attended the same school, it was never required reading for me). I wanted to share a few thoughts about the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and also about another author, Hannah More, who was her counterpart in the abolition movement years before in England. These women are true role models, and I highly recommend introducing them to your children.
Probably the most important thing to remember about Stowe and More is that their writings helped to turn the tide of public opinion against slavery in the United States and England, respectively. Both were abolitionists and dedicated followers of Jesus Christ.
I’ll give a brief sketch of what I found to be most interesting about each author, starting with Stowe.
Stowe was born in 1811 (when More was 26 years old), and she died in 1896, years after the end of the Civil War. She was the daughter of a minister, and as I was reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, my daughter pointed out to me that one of the songs she had just come across in piano practice was a hymn by Stowe called “Still, Still with Thee.” I was able to find several hymns written by her. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, was her most important work; it has been credited with helping to build momentum toward ending slavery in the United States. The only book to outsell Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1800s was the Bible.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe used her characters to illustrate the main excuses white Americans used to justify their support of slavery, and she used main characters, Tom and Eliza, to give a face to the human beings who were being bought and sold as property. She showed her readers the brutality of the institution of slavery that was ripping husbands from their wives and infants from their mothers. In one scene, she looked at how one clergyman justified slavery, but in the same scene, another preacher was disgusted by the obvious twisting of the Scriptures (Stowe 127-128). God-fearing Quakers figured prominently into the story by sheltering runaway slaves and helping them escape to safety in Canada. At the end of the book, she implores fellow Christians to end slavery—to stop being complicit by their silence or by their excuses or by outright support.
As a testimony to the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center details an account (that is possibly apocryphal) of Stowe’s visit to the White House in 1862 during the Civil War where President Lincoln upon meeting her “is reported to have said, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.’”
Years before in England, another woman, born in 1745, had also used her literary talents to help bring an end to slavery; her name was Hannah More. She lived as a spectator to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, but she was part of another kind of revolution on home turf; biographer Karen Swallow Prior in Fierce Convictions calls her “the single most influential woman in the British abolitionist movement” (Prior 136).
While More’s dear friend William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament and dedicated Christian, worked for decades to persuade his fellow lawmakers to abolish slavery, Hannah More’s anti-slavery writings worked to change the hearts and minds of the English citizenry. Prior writes that “it could be said that More was the mastermind behind some of the abolitionist movement’s most effective campaigns to sway public opinion” (133). Her writings and “other arts were essential to the abolitionist movement because…the slave trade was so hidden from the eyes of the people. Even most of the abolitionists had not witnessed firsthand the worst horrors of the trade” (133, 134). The Emancipation Bill that required all slaves to be freed within a year passed on July 26, 1833, and Wilberforce died three days later. Hannah More died two months after that (136).
Some other fascinating facts about More are that she and Wilberforce were instrumental in the Sunday School movement—a movement that educated poor children whose only day off from work was Sunday; she also wrote in support of the humane treatment of animals—at a time when cruelty towards animals was commonplace; and she was a best-selling English writer—her first novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, was on par in popularity with the books of Jane Austen that were published later. The novel “not only cultivated the new ideal of marriage based in companionship rather than political or economic expediency but also promoted More’s ideals for female education, parenting, and morality” (235).
Though both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hannah More lived in times where they were not treated as equal to men and didn’t have the right to vote, they were still able to live out their convictions and use their voices to effectively advocate for their fellow human beings. I am inspired by their example.
Now that you know a little more about Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hannah More, I would love to get your thoughts on the above. Were you already familiar with these two authors? Have your children been introduced to Stowe and More? Is Uncle Tom’s Cabin still required reading at your child’s school? What are your additional suggestions for must-read literature for young people?