‘If you want to change the world, pick up your pen.”           Martin Luther

November 25, 1862 – The White House, Washington, D.C.: Abraham Lincoln wasn’t looking forward to meeting with anti-slavery activist Harriet Beecher Stowe. She had been openly critical in the newspapers of his slowness to issue a presidential proclamation to free the slaves. When they met in the Oval Office, Lincoln shook her hand, stared down at her, and commented, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war?” Harriet wasn’t sure what to say, so she just smiled.

Harriet Beecher was the seventh of 11 children born to the famous Congregational preacher Lyman Beecher. Her father always encouraged his children to make their mark in the world. All seven of Harriet’s brothers were preachers. From an early age, her love was writing. She was educated at the Hartford Female Seminary, a school her older sister had established and one of the finest academies for girls in the country.  

When Harriet was 21, her father accepted the position of president of Lane Seminary, in Cincinnati Ohio, and moved the family from Connecticut. The slave auctions across the Ohio River in Kentucky were the family’s first exposure to slavery. They were appalled by what they saw. The Beechers became ardent abolitionists who sometimes opened their house to runaway slaves headed north.

In 1836, 25-year-old Harriet met Calvin Stowe, a Bible professor at the seminary. They married four years later and would go on to have seven children. Calvin encouraged Harriet’s writing, and she wrote numerous magazine articles covering a wide range of topics from homemaking to religion.

Burdened by the nearby slave trade, Harriet’s older sister Catherine challenged her, “If I could use a pen like you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” Harriet took the words to heart. While praying, she got an idea for a book and began to write by candlelight after her children were in bed.

In March 1851, National Era, an abolitionist newspaper in Washington, D.C., published Harriet’s first column, titled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The column so grabbed the capital city’s attention that over the next 10 months the newspaper published 41 weekly columns from Harriet.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in its entirety as a book in March 1852. It focused on the struggles of Tom, a slave who was sold numerous times and physically abused by his owners. The book was a runaway bestseller with unprecedented sales. Ten thousand copies were sold in the first week and 50,000 within two months. The publisher could not keep up with demand. By year’s end, more than 300,000 books were sold.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was controversial from the day it was released. According to poet Langston Hughes, “It was the most cussed and discussed book of its time.” Abolitionists adopted it as their rallying cry, while outraged Southerners accused Harriet of presenting an unrealistic, one-sided view of slavery. In 1853, in response to the backlash and to prove her book was based on actual slaves, Harriet published The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a detailed bibliography of her sources.

By November 1862, when Harriet met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House, two million copies of her book had been sold in America and another million in England. It caused people to see slavery through the eyes of its victims. During their brief but cordial meeting, the president shared the impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on him as he wrestled with the decision about whether to free the slaves. 

On January 1, 1863, six weeks after meeting with Harriet, the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation as the nation approached its third year of a bloody civil war. The proclamation freed all slaves, although the war raged on until April 1865.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the most influential writer of the century. She wrote 30 books, but none impacted the world like Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was second only to the Bible in book sales in 19th century America. It was published in more than 70 languages. The little woman with the mighty pen influenced a president and changed the course of a nation.