A meeting with the president, in another era

WAY BACK WHEN

`Uncle Tom' author Stowe was praised by Lincoln in 1862

Back Story

Taking Note of History

August 27, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It's debatable whether President Bush will consent to meet face-to-face with Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan, who began a vigil outside of his Crawford, Texas, ranch in early August.

Sheehan's son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq last year, and she has become the focal point of an anti-war movement that has grown increasingly frustrated by the loss of American lives and the president's determination to "stay the course" in that war-torn country.

Sheehan wants a few minutes of the president's time to talk about the war that took her son and is becoming, according to recent polls, increasingly unpopular with the American public.

In his 2001 proclamation for Women's History Month, Bush praised the efforts of female activists from the nation's past -- among them Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Wilma Rudolph, Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart, Zora Neale Hurston and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

"Our nation's women could not be where they are nor could our country be where it is without the strength and courage, wisdom and persistence of those who preceded them," Bush said.

It remains to be seen how we will think of Sheehan in the days, months and years ahead, but one woman whom Bush mentioned in his proclamation, Harriet Beecher Stowe, actually accomplished what Sheehan proposes, with an earlier chief executive.

Born in Litchfield, Conn., in 1811, Stowe was raised there and in Hartford. She was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a no-nonsense Calvinist, who was perhaps the most renowned preacher in America during the 19th century.

In 1832, she moved to Cincinnati after her father became president of Lane Theological Seminary. She was married in 1836 to Calvin E. Stowe, a biblical professor at Lane, and while living in Cincinnati, she had her first experiences with fugitive slaves.

The event foreshadowed the remainder of her life and led her to write one of the most influential and explosive books of the 19th century.

Because Cincinnati was on the Ohio River -- the border between the slave and free states -- many runaway slaves passed through Ohio on their way to freedom or were eventually tracked down and captured by bounty hunters who returned them to their masters.

Stowe, who wrote short stories and newspaper and magazine articles, had friends in the Underground Railroad, and from them heard first-hand accounts of the many cruelties of slavery.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which required northerners to return runaways or face fines and prison terms, and the death of her 1-year-old son Charley from cholera in 1849, were seminal events in Stowe's life that led her to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"It was at his dying bed, and at his grave," Stowe wrote, "that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her. ... I have often felt that much in that book had its roots in the awful scenes and bitter sorrows of that summer."

Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in weekly installments in the journal National Era from 1851 to 1852, and through her book, Stowe became one of the country's foremost abolitionists in calling for the end of slavery.

"Does not every American Christian owe to the African race upon some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them?" she wrote in Uncle Tom's Cabin. "Shall the church of Christ hear in silence the taunt that is thrown at them, and shrink away from the helpless hand that they stretch out, and shrink away from the cruelty that would chase them from our borders? If it must be so, it will be a mournful spectacle."

She added: "If it must be so, the country will have reason to tremble, when it remembers that fate of nations is in the hand of the One who is very pitiful, and of tender compassion."

Frederick Douglass wrote that the effect of the book, reissued by Washington publisher John P. Jewett in 1852, "was amazing, instantaneous and universal."

President Abraham Lincoln was a fan of the book, and it is said that he read Stowe's 1853 nonfiction book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which It Is Based, as background before writing the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1862, Stowe traveled from her home in Brunswick, Maine, to Washington to meet Lincoln at the White House.

Upon greeting Stowe, Lincoln said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"

"Perhaps someday a President will greet Cindy Sheehan this way: `So you're the little woman who stopped the Iraq war,'" said an editorial in the New York Daily News last week.

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