Students will learn about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s activist writing, particularly her best-known work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After watching a video synopsis of her life, they will examine the cover page of sheet music for a play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and will read excerpts from the book that illustrate the power of her writing. To conclude the lesson, students will design a new book jacket for Uncle Tom’s Cabin that will highlight the importance of both the author and the novel.
20 - 40 minutes
- Crusade: a campaign for a cause
- Atrocity: an extremely cruel act
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: Part of the Compromise of 1850, the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act outraged Northerners and abolitionists and dramatically increased the tensions that preceded the outbreak of the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required all Northerners, both law enforcement officials and civilians, to assist in the return of people who had fled enslavement. Federal marshals were paid $10 to return individuals captured under the auspices of this act to slavery, but they received only $5 to declare a person free, thus endangering all black people--including those who had long lived in freedom. The passage of this act led to large-scale emigration of African Americans to Canada.
Learn more about the Fugititve Slave Act:
Background on Harriet Beecher Stowe | Author and Abolitionist
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811—the sixth of 11 children born to Rev. Lyman Beecher and Roxanna Foote Beecher in Litchfield, Conn. She was an American abolitionist and author, and is best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which catapulted her to international fame.
Because her parents valued education and religion, Harriet and her siblings studied arduously. Stowe attended the Hartford Female Seminary run by her older sister Catharine, who pioneered education for women. Stowe’s youngest sister, Isabella, founded the Woman’s Suffrage Association. All seven of Stowe’s brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and became ministers, an influential occupation in society in the 1800s.
Harriet Beecher Stowe who believed her purpose was to write and expose the injustices in the world, particularly slavery. In addition to writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe wrote more than 30 books, including children’s textbooks, religious studies, biographies, travel memoirs and even a book on homemaking, which she wrote with her sister Catherine.
But it was Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin that inspired change. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first written in installments in a weekly newspaper, the National Era, from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852. By depicting the atrocities of slavery, Stowe’s book changed how Americans and people worldwide viewed slavery—the system that treated people as property. Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a best-selling novel that sold over one million copies worldwide and was translated into over 60 languages. Then, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted into a popular play.
“Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!” Stowe wrote in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Stowe’s story gave slavery a human face, emphasizing the impact slavery had on families. She helped people understand and empathize with the plight of enslaved mothers, whose children were sometimes taken away and sold.
A mother herself, Harriet Beecher Stowe understood what it was like to lose a child. Her 18-month old son, Samuel Charles Stowe, died of cholera in 1849. She used the emotional pain she felt in losing a child when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Harriet Beecher Stowe garnered respect worldwide for her efforts to abolish slavery. When she visited Britain in 1853, she was presented with a 26-page petition signed by British women living all over the world, including the Duchess of Sutherland and the Countess of Shaftsbury, begging their American sisters to immediately abolish slavery.
After the Civil War ended slavery, Stowe began fighting for the rights of married women. Stowe was a social advocate who argued against injustice wherever she saw it.
“The position of a married woman ... is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave,” Stowe argued in 1869. “Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earned a fortune through her talents, [a woman’s husband] is the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny… In the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence,” Stowe continued.
Stowe continued writing throughout her life. She died in 1896.
“Any mind that is capable of a real sorrow is capable of good,” Stowe wrote in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Ask students some of the following:
You have probably heard the expression, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” What does it mean? Do you think it is a true statement?
Have you ever read a novel that has helped you to understand another person’s experience--particularly a person whose life circumstances are much different than your own?
Do you think that novels can be more powerful than works of non-fiction?
Introduce Harriet Beecher Stowe:
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a 19th Century American author. Her most famous work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was credited with changing how many people felt about slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War due to her moving descriptions of the lives of enslaved people.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
What inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write about slavery?
Why do you think she chose to write a novel rather than an essay about the wrongs of slavery? How might her gender have influenced this decision?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image below, Oliver Ditson’s cover for the music score to Eliza’s Flight, by E.J. Loder and M.A. Coller in 1852. Explain to students that this is the first page of a music score, entitled Eliza’s Flight, published in 1852.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was enormously popular, and sold almost two million copies in its first year, a truly remarkable number given that the total population of the United States was only about 23 million people at the time. Inspired by the huge popularity of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, many plays, songs, and works of art were created based on the themes and characters in the novel. The image on the cover to this sheet music depicts a scene in which Eliza Harris flees slavery in Kentucky to freedom in Ohio with her infant child in her arms. A line from the book describing Eliza’s flight is underneath the illustration: “God helping me, I crossed the river on the ice; they were behind me--right behind–and there was no other way.”
NOTE: To read the lyrics and hear a performance of the song, click here.
Instruct students to examine the picture; even if they have not read the book, they can likely tell what is happening in the story.
1. Why do you think the composer chose Eliza’s flight from slavery for the topic a piece of music?
2. Do you know of any books that have inspired music, plays, or movies? Do you think it helps to read the original before seeing the performance or hearing the music?
Written Primary Source Activity (30 minutes)
These five excerpts can be used for a “jigsaw” activity. After students have read their passage, have them share their findings with other students who have read the same passage in an “expert group” before having them meet with their “home group”. Each excerpt is on a separate page. To view, click here.
Download the Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]
At the top of each page:
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe used a variety of techniques to arouse the sympathies and stir the anger of her readers. These included sharing stories of cruelty, developing likeable characters (both black and white), referring to Christianity (the religion of the overwhelming majority of her readers), evoking the moral superiority of women (a widely held belief at the time), and asking the reader to take the perspective of characters. As you read the passage below, underline any examples you find of these techniques—or others not listed here—and be ready to share them with your peers.
At the bottom of each page:
What is your reaction to what you have just read?
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
Have students develop a book jacket (or front and back cover) for a new release of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book jacket should include:
- The title, author’s name and an illustration on the front cover
- A brief summary of the major purpose and impact of the book
- A short biography of the author explaining why she wrote the book
- A sentence or two from the book (taken from the passages used in the written primary source activity) to give the flavor of the writing
- Opinions from “critics” about why the book still matters today