American Portraits

Activism through Literature: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Slavery, and Justice

In this lesson, students will learn about how Harriet Beecher Stowe fought against the injustice of slavery. They will also consider ways in which they can fight injustices in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

Edmund Burke once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This idea was firmly established in the Bible, which was a vital part of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s upbringing. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was an evangelical Presbyterian minister in Litchfield, Connecticut. Harriet was raised in an environment which provided many educational opportunities for women and supported the exploration of literature. Lyman Beecher often hosted literary discussions in his home. Harriet pursued writing as an intellectual outlet that was acceptable for women during the time since it was considered a skill necessary for maintaining family ties. Writing was encouraged throughout her childhood. At the age of thirteen, her essay “Can the immortality of the Soul be proved by the light of nature?” was featured in a school publication. Her father and sister acknowledged her intellect and supported her continued education, which extended beyond sixteen years, the age which generally marked the end of female education….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you fight against injustices in your life?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how Harriet Beecher Stowe fought against the injustice of slavery. They will also consider ways in which they can fight injustices in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will examine Harriet Beecher Stowe’s actions in fighting against the injustice of slavery.
  • Students will understand ways in which they can fight injustice in their own lives.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of justice towards the fair and equal treatment of others.

Background

Throughout the 19th century, the issue of slavery in the United States slowly became a more and more polarizing issue. The nation divided itself between states that allowed the institution and states that outlawed it. Leaders attempted to maintain the balance between these two sections by ensuring that neither one gained too much political power. The Compromise of 1850 was necessary to maintain this balance between slave and free states. Under it, California entered the union as a free state while the inhabitants of the Utah and New Mexico territories were given the power to decide on the issue of slavery through popular sovereignty. The abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. and a new Fugitive Slave Act were also components of the Compromise.

The most controversial section of the Compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act, which led to further conflict between the North and the South. The first Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1793. It mandated the return of runaway slaves and created penalties for anyone who harbored a runaway slave. However, as anti-slavery sentiments grew throughout the 19th century, many Northerners defied the law. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed to appease Southerners who believed the original law was being ignored. Under this new law, Northerners were expected to help slavecatchers track down escapees. Citizens who hid slaves or refused to help in a slave hunt faced severe punishments. What was considered a southern institution suddenly had national implications as citizens in all parts of the country were expected to become active participants in slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act created a dilemma for many Northerners who had to decide whether to help a human being or obey the law.

Vocabulary

  • Compromise of 1850
  • Popular sovereignty
  • Fugitive Slave Act
  • Penalties
  • Harbored
  • Abolition
  • Initiate
  • Evangelical
  • Presbyterian
  • Exploration
  • Outlet
  • Immortality
  • Cholera
  • Epidemic
  • Compelled
  • Catalyst
  • Advocate
  • Parable
  • Institution
  • Imagery
  • Humanized
  • Empathy
  • Undermined
  • Passive
  • Sentiment
  • Providence
  • Infirm
  • Confounds
  • Refuge
  • Reparation
  • Defiant
  • Zealot

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Harriet Beecher Stowe?
  • What was Stowe’s purpose in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
  • How did Stowe attempt to fight the injustice of slavery?
  • How did Harriet Beecher Stowe help to promote freedom for others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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