Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe: “The author of this great war”

In every article on, or edition of, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the writer is obligated to observe that Lincoln greeted Stowe in the White House as the “little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” The exact quote–and whether it was actually said–is in question, because the bon mots were published not during Stowe’s lifetime but after her death, by her biographers.

The earliest printed source for a similar version of the quote–“Is this the little woman who made the great war?”–appeared in theAtlantic Monthly (pg. 148) version of Annie Fields’s biography, entitled “Days with Mrs. Stowe” and published in August 1896, nearly contemporaneous with Stowe’s death on 1 July. When “Days with Mrs. Stowe” was republished in Authors and Friends (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1896, see pg. 181 on GoogleBooks), the quote is altered slightly: rather than the woman “who made the great war” she is the woman “who made this great war.” In both texts Fields’s version is attributed to Lincoln thirdhand, to Stowe’s daughter’s memory of the quote being reported to her, though Fields does not state whether the daughter is Hattie or Eliza.

According to biographer Joan Hedrick, Stowe was accompanied on her 2 December 1862 visit to the White House by her sister Isabella Beecher Hooker and her daughter Hattie. Although Joan Hedrick does not report the famous quote in her biography–presumably it is not mentioned in Hattie’s contemporaneous letter to her twin sister Eliza or in Harriet’s letter to her husband Calvin–she emphasizes their reports on the joviality of the occasion. When back in their rooms, according to the daughter Hattie, they “perfectly screamed and held our sides while we relieved ourselves of the pent up laughter.” Stowe likewise reports to her husband a “really funny interview with the President” (Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life [New York, Oxford UP, 1994], pg. 305).

The second relatively early printed source with family connections is Charles Edward and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s 1911 biography, which credits Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “book” in the form of the quote given first. See page 203 on Google Books. The quote is notably absent from the earliest attempt at an official autobiography, Charles Edward Stowe’s collaboration with his mother in Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Compiled from Her Life and Letters (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889).

If a Stowe scholar has identified additional archival evidence for this quote from an earlier date, I’m not aware of the discovery. While Stowe scholars of the literary and cultural studies bent find the quote irresistible–if not unimpeachable–Lincoln scholars hesitate to affirm the veracity of this piece of Stowe family lore. For example, Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher do not include the quote in Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford, 1996). See James M. McPherson’s Atlantic review, which addresses this quote’s absence from the Fehrenbachers’ work. But a possible instance of corroborating evidence has appeared in a 2005 auction catalog. The online listing offers an intriguing clue, an inscribed copy of Stowe’s Sunny Memories from Foreign Lands. The inscription, purportedly from Lincoln to Stowe, is as follows (to the best of my ability from the auction site image):

Mrs. Stowe,
The author of this great war,
A Lincoln
Nov. 19, 1863

See inscription for yourself. A web site for the Auction Gallery of Florence has an auction entry for the book. (You may need to try the link more than once. The liveauctioneers.com web site is erratic.)

The Lincoln Log offers additional connections between Stowe and Lincoln. On 26 May 1862 the Library of the Executive Mansion ordered two of Stowe’s books: Pearl of Orr’s Island and Agnes of Sorrento. Note: Log lists first title as Pearl of Ord Island. On 16 June 1862 Lincoln borrowed Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the Library of Congress. It is worthy of remark that Lincoln borrowed Stowe’s book a few months before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

But despite at least some evidence that Lincoln read Stowe’s books, I’m skeptical that Lincoln would have presented a signed copy of Stowe’s book to her. That a person (even a president) presents a signed copy of an author’s book to the author seems odd. My reasons for skepticism that this book was signed by Lincoln are these:

  • The auction specifically states that “There is presently no completed Authentication Report accompanying the handwriting represented in this Lot.” Given the fame of the two figures, one would think it would be worthwhile to the auction house to verify the handwriting, if it could. If it could not, then the merely vague connections among Stowe, Lincoln, and Gettysburg (implied but not authoritatively documented) are suggestive that the item could be of great value while leaving the onus of determining whether the connection is genuine on the buyer. Such a claim is in the interest of the seller whereas an attempt at definitive authentication carries with it both the possibility of significant reward or of significant disappointment to the seller.
  • The date on the inscription is suspicious. According to Charles Edward’s biography (1889), the date of Stowe’s visit to Lincoln was near Thanksgiving 1862. Also see “How Mrs. Stowe Wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ” McClure’s Magazine, 36 (1911) (on ProQuest). The date is important: Stowe visited after the first Emancipation Proclamation was signed in September 1862. If Lincoln inscribed this copy of Sunny Memories when Stowe visited at the White House, the date on the inscription would be expected to correspond, December 1862. Instead, the inscription date matches perfectly with another of the war’s most famous events, the Gettysburg Address, on 19 November 1863. Stowe’s son Frederick was wounded at Gettysburg, but the connection implied in this uncanny coincidence–Lincoln signed a copy of Stowe’s book on way to, at, or on way back from Gettysburg–seems to me too cute.

I posed a version of this query to SHARP-L mailing list (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing), and the consensus of those who responded was that it would be unlikely that a prominent person would sign an author’s book in dedication.

I tend to believe that Lincoln greeted Stowe in one version of those words, as the biographers later claimed. It is sufficiently playful to qualify as memorable verbal banter. But I am too skeptical to accept this book inscription as Lincoln’s, given the evidence so far.

In the initial draft of the post, I stated that I could not address whether the signature was genuine. I contacted Daniel Stowell of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. He shares the opinion of John Lupton, an expert on Lincoln’s handwriting, that the “signature is deficient.” Professor Stowell also informs me that the practice of dating forged signatures to significant events in Lincoln’s life (in copies of books originally published during his lifetime) was common in the late part of the century, a “cottage industry.”

UPDATE: A correction. I added Annie Field’s 1896 version of quote. I corrected misprint on date of Charles Edward Stowe’s Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Copyright page has 1889, not 1899 as I mistakenly transcribed. For both of these corrections my thanks to the SHARP-L correspondent.

UPDATE: (12/2008) A second update and correction. Added Atlantic version of Field quote in `Days with Mrs. Stowe.” Added distinction between two alternate Fields versions (the/this). Cleaned up some of the awkward parenthetical phrases referring to responses from Stowell and SHARP-L correspondents. Added a bit from Hedrick biography about Stowe’s December 1862 White House visit.

UPDATE: (5/2009) A historian offers a much better documented reading on the historiography and contemporary importance of this quote, which he designates dismissively as belonging to the “strata of pseudo-historical flotsam that increasingly defines that which is considered ‘historical’ in the digital age.” That harsh dismissal of the digital age seems exaggerated. The particular bit of flotsam was long in currency before anyone fired up a browser. See http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jala/30.1/vollaro.html

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2 Responses to Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe: “The author of this great war”

  1. Pingback: The Unreconstructed Rebel | gabriel's wharf

  2. Annette Hubbell says:

    Thank you for such an in depth analysis of this issue. I tend to believe Lincoln could very well have said something like that, for it’s his type of humor. He was such a jokester!

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