From The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now
All month long, American libraries and educational institutions will be hosting events to commemorate the 200th birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born on June 14, 1811. Her masterpiece Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often considered the most influential work published in the nineteenth century, and one of the most famous apocryphal quotations attributed to Abraham Lincoln underscores the novel’s outsized reputation.
But what did Lincoln really say to Stowe? In an interview with The Library of America, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Joan D. Hedrick tells us what we know—and what we don’t know—about what happened:
In 1862 Stowe traveled to Washington to meet with President Lincoln to assure herself that he was serious about proceeding with the Emancipation Proclamation. The meeting between the tall, lanky president and the literary woman who stood less than five feet gave rise to the story, told in family biographies and often quoted, that Lincoln greeted Stowe with the words, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.” One would give a good deal to know the details of this meeting, but the accounts leave almost everything unsaid. Stowe wrote to her husband Calvin, “I had a real funny interview with the President . . . the particulars of which I will tell you.”Although no account of their meeting by either Stowe or Lincoln survives, the following year the novelist did write a portrait of Lincoln for the largely Baptist readership of the Watchman and Reflector. The reception with the president must have assuaged her concerns; Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation only weeks after their meeting, and Stowe’s article paints a flattering picture of his background and unreservedly supports his reelection. Stowe did quote Lincoln at one point, and it’s very likely she was recalling their famous conversation at the White House. The sentence is also the article’s most eerily prophetic line about “this dreadful national crisis”: “‘Whichever way it ends,’ he said to the writer, ‘I have the impression that I sha’n’t last long after it’s over.’”
Note: The Wilmot Proviso, referred to on page 87, would have banned slavery in any territory acquired during the Mexican-American War.
The revolution through which the American nation is passing is not a mere local convulsion. It is a war for a principle which concerns all mankind. It is THE war for the rights of the working classes of mankind, as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies. You can make nothing else of it. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!