Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur




As a Student

In the center of the town of Litchfield was the village green, where the square, old meeting-house stood. From this green, like the spokes of a wheel, radiated four wide, elm-bordered streets, called East, West, North and South Streets. The parsonage where the Beecher family lived was built at the highest point of North Street, and about the same distance from the green on West Street stood the ugly, box-like building where Harriet received her first schooling. This was the Dame School, and in Harriet's day was conducted by Ma'am Kilbourne, a strict, fussy, disagreeable person who seemed to take delight in confusing her pupils instead of trying to make their lessons clear to their youthful minds. The schoolhouse stood in an unfenced, barren waste, with neither trees nor flowers to beautify the yard, with nothing but a huge pile of wood in front of the door in winter, and a scattered pile of chips in summer.

Inside the building it was just as dreary-looking. The benches were great rough slabs set on legs. The desks were the same, except that they were set at an angle. They were cut and scratched and disfigured by generations of jack-knife engravings, but if Ma'am Kilbourne saw any of her pupils in the act of marring these ancient desks, punishment was swift and sure. If the stinging ferrule was not at hand, her fingers were just as good, and the scholar who had once felt the pinch of these supple fingers on arm or hand was slow to offend again.

Harriet and Henry Ward attended this school together six days of the week, from early morning till late afternoon, with but a brief intermission at noon for lunch. But on Saturday the session differed somewhat from the program of other days, in that the pupils learned to recite the Shorter Catechism, instead of studying The New England Primer, which taught them to read by means of quaint rhymes, such as,

"The cat doth play

And after slay,"

or

"Young pious Ruth

Left all for truth."

When the lessons were learned sooner than the time allotted for them, these little scholars brought forth a bit of sewing and busied themselves making neat stitches, in order that no precious minutes should be wasted during school hours. Even at noon when the lunches had been eaten, there were long towels to be laboriously hemmed by boys and girls alike, instead of the games that modern-day school children enjoy. Evidently Ma'am Kilbourne did not believe in physical exercises of any kind for her small charges; at least there was no playtime provided for them, and it is no wonder they often envied the flies on the window-pane because they did not have to go to school. When Harriet had mastered the art of reading her Primer, she was promoted to reading the Bible and the Columbian Orator, to doing sums in Daboll's Arithmetic, and to writing in her copybooks with quill pens. But getting an education in those days must have been a tedious task if all school-teachers were like Ma'am Kilbourne.

After a few years, Harriet entered the Litchfield Female Academy, a goal she had long been looking forward to with eager heart. This Academy was conducted by Miss Sally, and Miss Mary Pierce, very sensible, charming, cultivated ladies. Miss Sally was particularly well beloved, and probably the Miss Titcomb of Mrs. Stowe's Oldtown Folks  was drawn from her impressions of this teacher. The school was held in a small, modest house with a closet at each end, one for the piano and the other for the pupils' wraps. There were the same severely plain desks and benches that formed the equipment of all schools in that day, and a small table and an elevated chair for the teacher. This chair was where Miss Sally Pierce, the principal, sat to instruct her charges. She was given to expressing herself in dignified and rather flowery language, which her pupils tried to emulate.

Her ideal which she held constantly before her school was moral perfection. Dr. Beecher was much interested in the academy, and made it a practice to visit there every Saturday in order to talk with the young ladies about the state of their souls. They, in turn, were required to attend his church on Sundays and to report on the sermons he preached. It was the fashion at that time for everyone to keep a diary, and some of these records of everyday affairs have been saved by relatives of the writers, so we can read the entries certain ambitious pupils made regarding Dr. Beecher's doctrines, as well as other matters that give us an insight into what was expected of school-girls of that period.

Mrs. Beecher was also interested in this school, and though unusually retiring and modest in her manner, so she could not bring herself to speak in public anywhere, she often acted on committees for awarding prizes at the end of the term. The annual graduation exercises took place in June, just as they do now, and this event was a very important occasion for the whole town. The gayly dressed girls formed in line and marched down North Street to the music of the flute and flageolet until they reached the church, where, after brief exercises, they received their diplomas, stating that they had completed the prescribed course of study. This included grammar, geography, history, arithmetic, rhetoric, natural and moral philosophy, chemistry, logic and the principles of taste. The diplomas were printed on small squares of white satin and bound with blue ribbon. Some of them, yellow-stained now and ancient looking, are still preserved in the Town Museum of Litchfield, but Harriet Beecher's is not there. In fact, she probably did not remain in Litchfield long enough to earn hers, as she left her birth-place to be with her sister Catherine in Hartford, while she was still a young girl. But she thought so much of Miss Pierce's method of teaching history that when she had a family of little ones of her own, she wrote to her former teacher for a copy of the book that she herself had studied in her childhood.

Miss Pierce's school was so successful that it finally became necessary to have another assistant, and her nephew, John Brace, accepted the position she offered him. Harriet Beecher was greatly impressed with his knowledge of botany, mineralogy and natural sciences in general, and could not resist listening to the recitations of the classes he conducted, when she should have been studying her own lessons. She found him a very stimulating and inspiring instructor, and became so interested in the discussions he held with his classes in moral philosophy and rhetoric that she could hardly wait until she was old enough to write compositions herself.

He used to divide the school into groups of three or four, who took turns in writing each week. Besides that, he called for volunteers every week and there were always those who responded. So when Harriet was but nine years old, she volunteered to write a composition every week, quite a task for one whose hand-writing was hardly formed yet. But this amused Mr. Brace, and he instructed her to the best of his ability, although the subjects he chose for his pupils' essays seem very strange indeed. Imagine a child of twelve writing a composition on "Can the Immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?" Yet this was the title of an essay Harriet wrote, which was read as one of the three best at a school exhibition that her father attended. Dr. Beecher was seated on the platform facing the school when the papers were read, and Harriet saw his face brighten with interest, as he leaned forward to listen to hers. She says it was the proudest moment of her life when he asked who wrote that particular essay, and was told that it was his own daughter. It was shortly after this episode that Harriet was sent to Hartford, and she never returned to the Litchfield schools again.

Besides these experiences in public and private schools of that period, Harriet received much book knowledge from home instruction, when, from time to time her father or step-mother acted as teacher of their own children and conducted regular lessons at regular hours daily. The necessity for this arose, no doubt, from the fact that the family moved several times to districts where the schools were inferior or too far away for the children to attend with any regularity. It is possible also that the Doctor's slender salary could not cover all the demands made upon it, and it was more economical to teach the children at home than to send them all to school.

When but a child herself, Harriet assumed the task of teaching her younger brothers, and some of her efforts were ludicrous indeed. To mischievous Henry Ward she patiently explained his grammar lessons, saying, "Now, 'his' is a possessive pronoun, and denotes possession. You would say 'his book,' and not 'him book'."

"But why can't I say 'hymn book'?" Henry demanded saucily. "We sing out of a hymn book at church."

Another time she told him, "'A' is an indefinite article, used only with a singular noun. It is proper to say 'a man,' but never 'a men.'

"Yes it is, too, proper to say 'amen,'" protested the roguish little fellow. "We always say amen at the end of our prayers."

What could the youthful teacher do at such sallies but laugh, which was just what the small boy desired, and the lesson would end for the day.

Nor was book knowledge the only thing Harriet gleaned from her home life, for with such a remarkable father as head of the household, it was impossible for her to escape hearing the discussions he carried on with his older children and with the famous men who sought him out because they valued his opinions in all matters. Much of these conversations was too deep for the child to understand at the time, but it had its influence, nevertheless, and as she grew in age, her brain developed with great rapidity, absorbing all kinds of information that proved of great value to her later.