Harriet Beecher Stowe was not a member of anti-slavery organizations in the 1830s and 1840s. She opposed slavery, and was enraged by the fugitive slave law, but she wasn't an activist.
"She wasn't an abolitionist. She was a writer. She wrote for money ... to help the household and because she loved doing it and it came easily to her," Trinity College professor Joan Hedrick said.
So it must have come as quite a surprise in 1852 when "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published and Stowe suddenly became the most famous abolitionist in the country. Her fame increased when it was adapted into a stage play, which delivered the humanitarian message to people who could not read.
"Frederick Douglass acknowledged the power of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and how much good it did in changing people's consciousness. ... She and William Lloyd Garrison began a dialogue on a variety of issues," said Hedrick, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life."
The historical impact of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and how it thrust Stowe into the forefront of a movement is one of the stories told in the new PBS "American Experience" film "The Abolitionists." The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford will sponsor a preview screening of one episode of the three-part docudrama Monday. The show will be telecast in three segments, beginning Tuesday.
The others profiled in the show -- which is part documentary, part historical re-enactment -- are Douglass, Garrison, Angelina Grimke and John Brown, who was born in Torrington. Hedrick is interviewed on the show, as are Yale professor David W. Blight and Wesleyan professor Lois Brown, among about a dozen historians and writers from around the country.
Hedrick said Stowe and Garrison respected each other but disagreed on some points. "He had problems with Stowe's religion. He was coming from a Christian point of view and he was more despairing of anything good coming out of the Christian church at this point on slavery," Hedrick said. "Stowe still had hope that ministers who had been silent on this issue would exercise their prophetic voice. She was loyal to her father and brothers, who were ministers. She couldn't break fully with the ministry."
What galvanized Stowe to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Hedrick said, was not just her abhorrence of slavery but also of the death of her son. "In the Calvinist scheme of things, if God sent you suffering it was because he loved you and he wanted to teach you something," she says on the show.
Sharon Grimberg, executive producer of "The Abolitionists," said Stowe succeeded in reaching people Garrison and Douglass failed to reach. "Stowe humanized the issue. What Douglass and Garrison had done very eloquently was to point to the immorality of slavery. They talked intellectually about it. Stowe told a story. ... She won people over by the power of human drama."
Brown, who led a failed attack on Harper's Ferry that led to his execution, is portrayed as the fire-breathing radical with a pure heart. "Brown is almost a battering ram of a human being. He has a moral strength and clarity that cuts through the can't about slavery. I think this is very appealing to anti-slavery Northerners who are really giving up almost on the political system and on nonviolent resistance," the show's narration states.
In the show, Kate Lyn Sheil portrays Stowe, T. Ryder Smith portrays Brown, Neal Huff portrays Garrison, Richard Brooks portrays Douglass and Jeanine Serralles portrays Grimke.
Grimberg said the film project began as a profile of Douglass and Garrison. "As we got drawn into the story, we became cognizant that women were a very big part of the story. They were the foot soldiers. They raised money, ran fairs, went door to door getting signatures," Grimberg said. "The first women's rights movement grew out of the abolitionist movement."
So Grimberg added Grimke -- a Southerner and former slave owner, who believed that white people would be punished by God for owning slaves -- and Stowe. Then Brown was added to the show.
"Harper's Ferry was really the keg that lights the whole thing on fire," she said.
Unlike the recent Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln," which focuses on the passage of the 13th Amendment, "The Abolitionists" tells the story of an anti-slavery movement that didn't quite trust Abraham Lincoln.
"In the first months of the war, Lincoln was obsessed with bringing the union back together," Grimberg said. "He talked about colonization, about shipping African-Americans back to Africa because they're better off there. He felt that this was not a two-race country."
Another early suggestion by Lincoln was that slave owners could keep their slaves until 1900. "He disappoints Douglass and Garrison over and over again and both of them are in huge despair. They're mistrustful and skeptical," Grimberg said. "Then Lincoln comes to a transformation offstage. But even after he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, Garrison hears about it and doesn't know whether to trust it."
"AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE ABOLITIONISTS" can be seen on CPTV at 9 p.m. Tuesday, repeating episode one at 10 p.m. Jan. 13 and 20; repeating episode two at 8 and 9 p.m. Jan. 22; repeating episode three at 10 p.m. Jan. 27. For details on the show, visit www.pbs.org.
EPISODE TWO OF "THE ABOLITIONISTS" will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Wallace Stevens Theater at The Hartford, 690 Asylum Ave. in Hartford, in a screening sponsored by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. The screening will be followed by a discussion by producer Sharon Grimberg, Trinity professor Joan D. Hedrick, Wesleyan professor Lois Brown and Stowe Center Director Katherine Kane. Admission is free. Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-522-9258, ext. 305.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at