Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Little Daydream that Made a Big Book

By Rebecca Price Janney

Because I’m a writer, people frequently ask where I get my ideas. Honestly, they come from all over the place! Life itself is so interesting that I end up having more inspiration for stories than I could ever write. My first novel came to me in the form of a dream, so when I discovered that Harriet Beecher Stowe had a similar experience, I became pretty excited.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet was born on June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut to an illustrious family of preachers and social activists. Her father was the Rev. Lyman Beecher, and between his first wife, who died young, and his second, he fathered 12 children. His goal for each of his sons was to become preachers, and amazingly, all nine of them did! He also was as zealous about saving souls as he was about redeeming society.

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Lyman Beecher 

Harriet received a solid education and began teaching in her sister Catherine’s school when she was just 16. When her father founded Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832, 22 year-old Harriet went along. In that city she saw first-hand the effects of slavery on people’s lives, and the experience made an enormous impact on her life. Ohio was a free state, but neighboring Kentucky was not. One day when Harriet was visiting a minister who lived along the Ohio River, she asked why he kept a lantern lit in one of his windows. He explained it was a signal for runaway slaves crossing into Ohio from Kentucky, that he was part of the Underground Railroad network of people providing assistance to slaves who sought freedom. 

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Map of Underground Railroad Routes

He told Harriet a story about a woman who’d come to his house early one spring after fleeing across the Ohio River on ice floes with her baby in her arms, an image that made a strong impression on the young woman. 

Woman Fleeing with Her Child

When Harriet married seminary professor Calvin E. Stowe and they hired a young black girl to help around the house, Harriet discovered she was actually a runaway slave. She wanted to do everything in her power to help stop the terrible institution, but she didn’t know how. She didn’t have a pulpit like her father and brothers and as a woman, she wasn’t keen to speak out in public because that would be socially frowned upon. Somehow, though, she would do something.

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Scene From the Underground Railway

The Stowes ended up moving to Maine a few years later when Calvin got a teaching position at Bowdoin College. Harriet had been writing for several years, something she continued to do to express her innate creativity, and to supplement their meager income. Then came a major turning point in her life, something which impacted the entire nation.

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The Rev. Josiah Henson

On a cold February morning in 1851 while she sat in church, she found it difficult to concentrate on the sermon as she became caught up in a vivid daydream. In it a male slave was being brutally beaten to death, and Harriet could picture his terrified face. Then he took on the appearance of Harriet’s friend, Josiah Henson, a former slave who’d fled the South and become a pastor, a man who harbored no bitterness against his oppressors, just forgiveness and a concern for his former master’s eternal soul.

Following the church service, Harriet rushed home and quickly removed her coat and, sitting at her desk while her family ate the noon meal, she began writing down everything she’d seen in her mind’s eye. She later said it was as if the story had written itself. She filled several pages and when she ran out of paper, Harriet started writing on plain brown wrapping paper so her creative streak wouldn’t be broken. Her characters sprang to life on the pages, a godly slave she named Uncle Tom, and a ruthless master called Simon Legree. Little did she know that her scribbling would become a catalyst for war, as well as immortalized in American literature.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

At first her story appeared as a magazine serial in The National Era, an abolitionist publication, and it was so powerful and so well received that her editor encouraged Harriet to turn the tales into a novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly came out in March 1852 and quickly sold out its first printing. The novel became a national sensation, selling 300,000 copies in the first year. Just as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense had moved the colonies toward independence from Great Britain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin solidified the North’s position against slavery in the years leading to the Civil War.

Statue of Harriet Meeting President Lincoln

There’s a story that when Harriet met President Lincoln at the White House in 1862, he greeted her with, “So, here’s the little lady who made this big war.” She encouraged him to sign an emancipation decree to end slavery, and two months later, she attended a Boston Music Hall performance to celebrate Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. When a man came onto the stage to announce that the President had just put his signature on the document, cheers erupted throughout the auditorium. 

Emancipation Proclamation is Signed

Then someone remembered Harriet Beecher Stow was in attendance and began shouting, “Mrs. Stowe!” The crowd quickly took up the chant, “Mrs. Stowe! Mrs. Stowe!” She stood before them on a balcony, leaning over the railing, waving and smiling, her dream of emancipation having come true.

Rebecca Price Janney’s Great Women in American History (Moody Pubishers) contains the full story of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s experience with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as vignettes about 22 other women of faith and principle. She lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and son and is fostering an appreciation for America’s rich heritage through her involvement with the Children of the American Revolution.; @rebeccajanney.


  1. Thank you for sharing Harriet's story. I live about 20 miles from Washington, KY, the small town in Mason County that Harriet visited. I have long been aware of this important time in our history but this will be very interesting reading for many people.

  2. Thanks Connie. It's nice that you have a local connection to this truly great woman.

  3. Isn't it amazing what one person can do! I wonder if Mr. Beecher was as proud of Harriet as he was his preacher sons.
    Thanks for the interesting post.

    1. It is amazing, indeed. What an impact she made!

  4. That's an extraordinary story, Rebecca, and an inspiration for us writers. If it hasn't already been done, it would make a perfect children's book, too. (Title and all,) thanks for sharing.

  5. My pleasure, Linore. I love stories about other writers.

  6. I enjoyed reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and found this post interesting about the author. Sm. wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  7. She was a fascinating woman. I'm glad you enjoyed learning more about her.

  8. How amazing her story had such far-reaching impact. Do you think any of our stories would ever influence people so much?

  9. That's an inspiring, as well as humbling, thought. You never know what God might do with the stories he gives us!