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Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best remembered for her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which she wrote in 1851. In the novel, she illustrated the damaging effects of slavery on the individual, as well as family life. Written as a reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which made it illegal to assist escaped slaves and mandated the return of runaway slaves already in the North to their masters), the book became almost an overnight success and a rallying cry for Northern abolitionists during pre-Civil war years. Uncle Tom's Cabin tells the story of the dutiful "Uncle Tom," a slave who is sold by his first master, Arthur Shelby, to Augustine St. Clare in New Orleans. In the idealistic St. Clare household, Tom befriends Augustine's young daughter, Eva, and enjoys a brief respite. After the deaths of both Augustine and Eva, Tom is sold again to Simon Legree, a cruel cotton plantation owner who despises Tom for his piety.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1811. She was the daughter of a Congregational minister named Lyman Beecher. Her family encouraged her to pursue education, as well as raised her in the Puritan tradition of high moral standards. The Beechers moved to Cincinatti when Lyman Beecher, Harriet's brother, was appointed President of Lane Theological seminary. There, Harriet and her older sister Catherine founded a women's seminary called the Western Female Institute. In 1834, Harriet married a seminary professor named Calvin Ellis Stowe, who taught Biblical Literature at Lane. During the first seven years of marriage, Harriet bore five children and wrote pieces for magazines to compliment Professor Stowe's meager salary.

Although Harriet and Calvin lived in the North, Harriet quickly learned about the cruelties of slavery firsthand. Cincinnati was just across the river from the slave trade, and she observed several incidents--including the forced separation of a husband and wife being sold apart--which galvanized her to write her famous anti-slavery novel. Harriet also met fugitive slaves who had escaped to the North. Her family shared her abolitionist sentiments and was active in hiding runaway slaves.

In 1850, Harriet's family returned to the northeast after Calvin was appointed to a post at Bowdoin College, in Maine. The Stowes reached Boston at the height of the public furor over the Fugitive Slave Law, and Harriet set about writing a polemical novel illustrating the moral responsibility of the entire nation. She forwarded the first episodes to the editor of a Washington anti-slavery weekly, The National Era. Her novel was thus first published in forty installments, and despite the limited circulation of the publication, gained widespread popularity in the North and aroused anger in the South. Although many Northerners considered slavery a political institution for which they had no personal responsibility, Uncle Tom's Cabin challenged their complacency and incited abolitionist furor. The novel soon attracted the attention of a Boston publisher, J.P. Jewett, who published the work in its entirety in March of 1852. The novel immediately broke all sales records of the day, and over 500,000 copies were sold by 1857. More important than its literary success, however, was the novel's role in bringing the slavery issue to the nation's agenda. President Abraham Lincoln later remarked, upon meeting Stowe, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." 1 Stowe humbly attributed the success of the novel not to her literary talents but to her faith in God. She declared, "I could not control the story, the Lord himself wrote it. I was but an instument in His hands and to Him should be given all the praise."


Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

Born in 1819, Victoria was the daughter of the Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg. The Duke and Duchess of Kent selected the name Victoria, but her uncle, George IV, insisted that she be named Alexandrina after her godfather, Tsar Alexander II of Russia. In the end, her formal name was a compromise: Alexandrina Victoria. Victoria's father died when she was only eight months old, and her mother quickly developed a close relationship with Sir John Conroy, an ambitious Irish officer. Conroy treated Victoria as his daughter and had a major influence over her as a child. Upon the death of George IV in 1830, his brother William IV became king. William had no surviving legitimate children and thus, Victoria, became his heir. William was in poor health, and he feared that if Victoria should ascend to the throne before she was eighteen, Conroy would effectively rule England. Unbeknownst to her concerned uncle, Victoria herself also disliked Conroy and objected to his attempts to exert power over her. Twenty-seven days after Victoria's eighteenth birthday, William IV died. Victoria thus ascended the throne of Great Britain in 1837 and reigned until 1901. As soon as she became queen, Victoria banished Conroy from the Royal Court.

During the early part of her reign, Victoria depended greatly on Lord Melbourne, an elderly Prime Minister and leader of the Whig party. A widower whose only child had died, Melbourne treated Victoria like his daughter, and the two became very close, spending an average of six hours together at Windsor Castle each day. Melbourne attempted to protect Victoria from the harsh realities of British life and offered her political advice. In 1839, Lord Melbourne resigned after a defeat in the House of Commons, and Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, took his place as Prime Minister. Peel's tenure was short, as he soon resigned after a disagreement with Victoria. Melbourne and the Whigs quickly returned to office to serve their Queen.

That same year, Victoria's cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg (1819-1861), visited London. Victoria immediately fell in love with Albert and although he initially had doubts about the relationship, the couple were eventually married in February 1840. Albert became the passionate love of the Queen's life, and replaced Lord Melbourne as Victoria's chief advisor. By the time Lord Melbourne resigned as Prime Minister in 1841, Prince Albert had become the main influence over Victoria's political views. Whereas Melbourne had advised Victoria not to concern herself with social problems, Prince Albert invited Lord Ashley to Buckingham Palace to discuss child labor in Britain. Both men taught Victoria much about how to be a ruler in a constitutional monarchy where the monarch had few powers but could exert much influence. Albert was moralistic, conscientious and progressive, and with his wife, initiated various reforms and innovations. Albert took an active interest in the arts, science, trade and industry; the project for which he is best remembered was the Great Exhibition of 1851, the profits from which helped to establish the South Kensington museums complex in London.

During the next eighteen years, Queen Victoria gave birth to nine children and devoted herself to her husband and her governance. Prince Albert died of typhoid fever in December 1861. After her husband's death, Victoria continued to carry out her constitutional duties such as reading all diplomatic despatches. However, the heartbroken Queen withdrew into a self-imposed seclusion for ten years, and never fully recovered. She spent most of her time in the Scottish Highlands at her home at Balmoral Castle, and even refused requests from her government to open Parliament in person. Victoria's genuine but obsessive mourning, which would occupy her for the rest of her life, played an important role in the evolution of what would become the Victorian mentality. After a reign of sixty-three years, the longest in Britain's history, Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901 at the age of eighty-one years. The time known as the Victorian age can be considered a tribute to this unique woman of British history and one that won't soon be forgotten.