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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 19: Drifting Toward Disunion, 1854 - 1861


Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 - 1896)

A member of the famous Beecher family, Stowe wrote Uncle Toms Cabin, the book that more than anything else deepened northern hostility to slavery.

Stowe was closer to her brother Henry, later a famous preacher, than to her father or her older sister Catharine. She was very fond of her parents free black servants, particularly one kind woman who may have been a model for characters in Uncle Toms Cabin.

Although she had published a few stories before marrying Calvin Stowe, a professor at her fathers seminary, she then gave up writing. For eighteen years she was a housewife who struggled to raise her seven children on a very limited income. She visited slaveholding areas of Kentucky during that time and knew abolitionists at her fathers seminary but at first was not very sympathetic to them.

Her brother urged her to write against slavery, and she submitted Uncle Toms Cabin in serial form to a magazine. Although the magazine paid her only $300, the book sold 10,000 copies the first week, 300,000 the first year, and eventually millions in the United States and abroad.

Quote: As long as the baby sleeps with me nights I cant do much of anythingbut I shall do it at last. I shall write it if I live. (Letter to Calvin Stowe, 1850)

REFERENCE: Joan Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994).


John Brown (1800 - 1859)

Brown was the militant abolitionist whose violent attacks at Osawatomie, Kansas, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, helped to bring on the Civil War.

An unsuccessful tanner, cattle driver, and sheep raiser, Brown was frequently in financial difficulty. He had twenty childrenseven by his first wife and thirteen by his second.

For a time he lived in a black community in New York on land donated by abolitionist Gerrit Smith. After five of his sons migrated to Kansas in 1855, he joined them with a wagonload of guns and ammunition and then hacked five proslavery settlers to death in the Osawatomie massacre.

After Osawatomie he solicited money and supplies from some New England intellectuals and began planning to lead a slave uprising. He rented a farm near Harpers Ferry in the summer of 1859 and gradually accumulated weapons and his little army of twenty-one men. He could have escaped after raiding the armory, but his plans were too confused. Two of his sons died in the fighting.

Quote: I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done. (Statement before hanging, 1859)

REFERENCE: Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (1970).


Dred Scott (1795 - 1858)

Scott was the slave whose attempt to secure his freedom was denied by the Supreme Court, which declared that blacks have no rights that white men are bound to respect.

Born a slave in Virginia, Scott was later purchased by a U.S. Army doctor who took him for three years to Illinois (a free state) and two years to Wisconsin (a free territory).

After the doctor died, Scott passed into other hands, but his former owners sons sympathized with him and helped carry his case through the state and federal courts.

After he lost the case, the doctors sons bought Scott and freed him. Although unskilled and illiterate, he was intelligent and proud of his notoriety. Scott was married, had several children, and ended his days as a janitor in a St. Louis hotel.

Quote: I have no money to pay anybody at Washington to speak for me.Will nobody speak for me at Washington, even without hope of other reward than the blessings of a poor black man and his family?I can only pray that some good heart will be moved by pity to do that for me which I cannot do for myself; and that if the right is on my side it may be so declared by the high court to which I have appealed. (Pamphlet containing Scotts appeal for aid, 1854)

REFERENCE: Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case (1978).



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