By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!’ This quotation is one of the most famous lines associated with the American Civil War, and is up there with ‘Four score and seven years ago’ – which, coincidentally, was spoken by the same person, Abraham Lincoln.
But did Lincoln really say ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war’? And if he did, to whom did he say these famous words?
The story of when Harriet met Abe has often been told. Around Thanksgiving Day 1862, the American President Abraham Lincoln came face to face with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the popular anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had been published a decade earlier. According to numerous historians, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the words, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!’
This momentous exchange – between the president who was fighting the war and the writer who’d caused it – is, like many great anecdotes, entirely apocryphal. Lincoln and Stowe may have met at the White House towards the end of 1862 (we cannot be sure a meeting definitely took place), but the quotation attributed to Lincoln didn’t appear in print until thirty-four years later.
It wasn’t until 1896 that Stowe’s biographer, Annie Fields, published a piece in the Atlantic Monthly which printed the line. As Daniel R. Vollaro points out in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, the anecdote was never verified by Stowe herself. Few biographers of Lincoln mention it, and the detailed account of the President’s daily activities, Lincoln Day by Day, doesn’t mention a meeting with Stowe.
Even the writers who cite his ‘you’re the little woman’ line can’t agree on the precise wording. Stowe’s own relatives give wildly different accounts of the meeting: some say it occurred on 25 November, others on 2 December.
And there is also a historical problem with the story. As Arthur Riss notes in his chapter on Stowe in The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists, when Stowe and Lincoln met – assuming a meeting ever actually took place – the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet been signed and nobody could be certain that the American Civil War was a ‘war on slavery’, which is the insinuation in Lincoln’s (supposed) remark. Stowe’s reason for meeting with the President was to urge him to issue the Proclamation, which he duly did, but at that time, why would he have drawn a firm link between slavery and the war?
But then in the famous words of John Ford, ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Lincoln’s line – apocryphal though it may be – epitomizes the influence that Stowe’s novel had on the American public. After the Bible, it was the biggest-selling book of the entire nineteenth century, and it certainly played its part in raising the profile of the abolitionist cause. Indeed, Putnam’s Magazine went so far as to call it ‘the first real success in book-making’.
But its influence wasn’t altogether positive: Stowe’s portrayal of the deferential title character, Uncle Tom, perpetuated an African-American stereotype.
The novel ends with the faithful Tom’s spirit well and truly uncrushable. But he can be physically beaten. Tom ends up dying of his wounds, using his last breath to forgive his oppressor. The novel carries a strong message of Christian piety, embodied by the title character, but also tugged at the heart-strings of an American public that was becoming increasingly uneasy with slavery. Even if the novel didn’t cause the Civil War (and Lincoln never even suggested it had), Uncle Tom’s Cabin nevertheless helped to win people over to the abolitionist cause.
The novel was published in Britain by Samuel Beeton, the husband of Mrs Beeton who, a decade later, would write the (somewhat hastily compiled and partly plagiarised) Book of Household Management. The book would be successful on both sides of the Atlantic, and would even spawn a sub-genre of its own: ‘anti-Tom’ literature that challenged the representation of the slave-owning South that Stowe had put forward. The most popular of these was a novel by Mary Henderson Eastman, pointedly titled Aunt Phillis’s Cabin and published later in the same year as Stowe’s book.
‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!’ may have itself been a work of fiction, a quotation that was never, in fact, uttered. But it points up the important role that Beecher Stowe’s novel had on changing the national mood – or at least, the mood in a considerable chunk of the northern states.