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A PLEA FOR THE BEECHER HOUSE

Mrs. Stowe is not so old-fashioned as we may think, she may be even ahead of us.
Alfred Kazin, in his Introduction to a 1981 edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe and President Abraham Lincoln
Harriet Beecher Stowe meets Lincoln. Riverside Park, Hartford
Beecher House Beecher House
Beecher House photos
courtesy of Virgil Rollins

The 1775 Litchfield house where Harriet Beecher Stowe was born sits today dismantled in four storage bins.  The house has sat in a deconstructed state since 1998, when it was disassembled after serving for many years as a dormitory for the Forman School. “The more time that goes by,” Virgil Rollins of Virgil Rollins Restorations, who carried out the dismantling, told this writer recently, “the harder it will be to put the place back together.”

   Let me cut to the chase here: this house must be saved, primarily because it is the birthplace of the woman who first convincingly proclaimed the ideal of universal equality America claims to live by today. On meeting Mrs. Stowe, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said “So you’re the little lady who started this big war.” Wallace Nutting, whose father died fighting for the Union, wrote that “Prof. Stowe thought his wife, Harriet, might get enough for a new dress out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The nation got a new dress.”

   Universal equality was the fashion through the Civil War and just after it, before being superseded by the cynicism of the Gilded Age. But, as anyone who knows anything about antiques understands, what was once stylish often has a way of coming back into fashion years or even decades later. In the 1960s, by which time Uncle Tom’s Cabin qualified for antique status, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and the great passion for equality was alive again, becoming not just the law of the land, but its ultimate mission statement in the minds and hearts of the vast majority of the American people.

Beecher House Beecher House

   History teaches us that it would be naïve to think that public sensibility could not move backwards again. There’s an old Motel 6 commercial where Tom Bodett says “We’ll leave the light on for ya.” For our children’s and their children’s sakes, we need to keep the flame of universal, unequivocal equality burning in as many places as possible.  Some individual, or some organization, with financial capabilities in seven figures, someone or some group that understands the central dynamic at stake here, needs to step up and reconstruct the Beecher House as close to its original location as possible. The house needs to be furnished with period furniture and decoration and opened to the public as a living shrine not just to Stowe and her fighting egalitarianism, but also as a place where future generations will be able to touch base with the everyday realities of the transition from the Puritan to the industrial culture. It was here that the Reverend Lyman Beecher, one of the leading clergymen of his day, raised up his unruly, purposeful clan, including Harriet’s younger brother Henry Ward Beecher, who would later, as a minister himself, would ship crates of rifles labeled as bibles to the anti-slavery forces in pre- Civil War Kansas – they called those guns “Beecher’s Bibles.”  Another great aspect of the house is that, when it was part of the Spring Hill School, folk singer and radical activist Pete Seeger boarded there from age five until he was thirteen

  Forrest Wilson wrote that on many evenings Lyman Beecher came back to his house so wound up after a long meeting he had to let himself “run down.”   Out came the old fiddle and around came the dancing, laughing children as the good Reverend scraped off the unholy tune “Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself” while strutting the double-shuffle he had learned in his wayward youth.

    Something tells me that children’s voices will ring out again in the Beecher House.

    You have to believe it.

 



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