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Author Biography: Barbara A. White is professor emeritus of women's studies at the University of New Hampshire.
The beecher sisters had the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on one's perspective) to be born into one of the most famous and controversial families of the nineteenth century. Lyman Beecher, the family patriarch, was an energetic Puritan minister who dedicated his life to defending religious orthodoxy. An aggressive and outgoing man, he was widely loved and hated. In addition to his four daughters, Catharine, Mary, Harriet, and Isabella, he had seven sons-William, Edward, George, Henry, Charles, Thomas, and James. All seven would follow their father into the ministry. Henry Ward Beecher outdid Lyman as an orator, ending up the most famous preacher in America. Even the lesser known Beecher boys became college presidents, scholars, or authors; by 1860 the Beechers had written some forty books.
Perhaps Lyman Beecher fathered so many children because he himself grew up as an only child. He came from a long line of blacksmiths, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather having practiced their trade in New Haven, Connecticut. Lyman's father, David, although physically very strong, was known as a man of ideas who read widely. He married fivetimes, a large number even in the nineteenth century. Lyman was the son of David's third wife, Esther, who is described as a "tall, fair and lovely woman." Shortly after Lyman's birth in 1775 she died of consumption, the nineteenth-century killer that would later be known as tuberculosis. David immediately left the baby with his childless aunt and uncle, the Lot Bentons, who lived on a farm in nearby Guilford. Although David Beecher remarried and had other children, he never sent for Lyman. He did help the Bentons pay the cost of Lyman's education at Yale, once Uncle Lot decided that Lyman was too absentminded to make a farmer.
Lyman found Yale still under the influence of the rationalism and religious skepticism of the Age of Enlightenment; when he arrived at the college, there were two different societies named for the radical Thomas Paine. In Lyman's second year, however, the Rev. Timothy Dwight became president of the college. Dwight, the grandson of the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards, author of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, turned the college back toward Calvinism and converted Lyman Beecher in the process. Calvinists believed that human beings were born in a state of sin, which they called "natural depravity." The fate of humans was predestined-either God had elected them to receive the gift of grace and be saved or He had condemned them to everlasting Hell. People could not ensure their salvation; they could only avoid sin and prepare themselves for "conversion," an experience of God's grace that was a sign of being elected.
After graduating from Yale in 1797, Lyman spent a year in Yale Divinity School under the tutelage of Reverend Dwight. He then became minister of the Presbyterian Church in East Hampton, Long Island, across the Long Island Sound from Connecticut. He brought with him his new wife, Roxana Foote, daughter of a well-off Revolutionary War veteran who lived at Nutplains, a two hundred-acre farm outside Guilford, Connecticut. Roxana was a good match for Lyman. She had experience in the household tasks of cooking and sewing and also spoke French, grew flowers, and painted miniature portraits on ivory. The Footes were Episcopalians, but from Lyman's point of view Roxana's best quality was her quiet submissiveness: she "entered into my character entirely," as he put it.
Less than a year after their marriage, Roxana and Lyman's first child was born. Catharine Esther arrived on September 6, 1800, named Catharine after Lyman's foster mother, Aunt Benton, and Esther after his birth mother. Lyman was charmed. He said he would never forget his feelings when Grandmother Foote first put Catharine in his arms-"Thou little immortal!" he exclaimed. Catharine and Lyman were always very close. Her earliest memories were of riding in his carriage as he traveled from farm to farm making pastoral visits. Catharine's biographer Kathryn Kish Sklar suggests that as Lyman Beecher was the most powerful person in the isolated region, Catharine learned from him "to feel the confidence that power brings." Psychologists would probably emphasize her birth order position as the oldest child. She identified strongly with her parents and became, like a typical firstborn, ambitious, achievement-oriented, and domineering.
When Catharine discussed her own childhood, she stressed other issues. She noted her father's nurturing qualities, writing that he possessed "that passionate love of children which makes it a pleasure to nurse and tend them, and which is generally deemed a distinctive element of the woman." Her mother, by contrast, had very little of that passion and did not fondle and caress the children as Lyman did. Roxana was doubtless preoccupied with constant childbearing and trying to make ends meet. She spent what little spare time she had trying to bring "civilization" to their Long Island outpost. All her daughters remembered her famous carpet, the first in East Hampton, which consisted of a piece of woven cotton she had painted in oils "with a border all around it, and bunches of roses and other flowers over the centre." The carpet lasted to Catharine's adulthood and was one of Harriet Beecher Stowe's earliest memories.
By the time Catharine's first sister, Mary Foote Beecher, was born in 1805 Roxana had given birth to four children in five years. Mary was named after Roxana's younger sister, Mary Foote Hubbard, who lived with the Beechers during much of their time in East Hampton. Mary Hubbard had a tragic clash with the inhumane practice that would touch the lives of all the Beechers, chattel slavery. At age seventeen she married a merchant and went to live on his slave plantation in the West Indies; she had no idea what to expect. Harriet later wrote of her: "What she saw and heard of slavery filled her with constant horror and loathing. She has said that she has often sat by her window in the tropical night, when all was still, and wished that the island might sink in the ocean, with all its sin and misery, and that she might sink with it."
Mary Hubbard finally left her husband and returned to East Hampton. She soon died of consumption, but before her death she helped Roxana run a small boarding school for girls in an attempt to meet the family expenses. Roxana taught English composition, French, drawing, painting, and embroidery. Catharine would remember how her mother and Aunt Mary studied chemistry and did some "ludicrous" experiments in order to impart the new science to their pupils. In Catharine's view a better school was the intellectual atmosphere created by her father as he read his sermons to her mother and Aunt Mary. "By this intellectual companionship our house became in reality a school of the highest kind, in which he was all the while exerting a powerful influence upon the mind and character of his children."
Roxana's school was successful but not lucrative enough to compensate for Lyman's low income. After Mary, another child was born (George). A salary of four hundred dollars plus firewood was not enough to support such a large family-this would be a continual problem in Lyman's ministerial career and those of most of his sons. By this time, however, Lyman's name was becoming recognized-as his sermons against dueling and drinking had been published-and he easily found another position. In 1810 the Beechers moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, in the northwest corner of the state, where Lyman became minister of the Congregational Church. Litchfield was a prosperous town, a Federalist stronghold with genteel and educated residents. It could boast of two well-known schools, the Litchfield Law School and the Litchfield Female Academy. The academy was one of the first schools for women in the United States, having been started by Sarah Pierce in 1792. It had an excellent reputation and Miss Pierce was one of Lyman's parishioners. In return for his help and advice, Catharine recalled, she gave his children free schooling. Catharine, age ten, was enrolled immediately.
In Litchfield three more children were born, Harriet, Henry Ward, and Charles. Harriet arrived on June 14, 1811. She was named for another of her mother's sisters, the one considered the smartest and wittiest of the Foote girls. Roxana had given the same name to an earlier baby who had died of whooping cough at the age of one month. The new Harriet was the Beechers' sixth child and third daughter to survive infancy. As the famous author Harriet Beecher Stowe, she would later write in her novel Poganuc People (1878) that the first child is pure poetry but the later ones are prose. Dolly, the character Stowe based on herself, entered the family "at a period when babies were no longer a novelty, when the house was full of the wants and clamors of older children, and the mother at her very wits' end with a confusion of jackets and trousers, soap, candles and groceries, and the endless harassments of ... a poor country minister's wife." Harriet thus emphasized her birth position. As a middle child, she had to compete for her parents' attention with both older and younger siblings.
But even Harriet's distracted mother was taken from her when she was only five. Roxana died in 1816 at the age of forty-one. Like Lyman's mother and her own younger sister Mary, she was felled by consumption. By all accounts, Lyman and the children were devastated and immediately set about turning Roxana into a saint. As Forrest Wilson, one of Harriet's biographers, notes, "Roxana became pure spirit with them all, an ideal ... the symbol of all that was most perfect in womanhood." This ideal, Harriet said, influenced the children toward good more than the living presence of other mothers. Henry, who was just two when she died and could hardly remember her, would in middle age tell his congregation that his mother was to him what the Virgin Mary means to a devout Catholic.
The holy mother is a hard act to follow and perhaps Lyman Beecher's second wife, the mother of the youngest Beecher daughter, Isabella, was doomed to failure from the beginning. Lyman went to Boston hunting for a wife less than a year after Roxana's death and found Harriet Porter from Portland, Maine. Like Roxana, Harriet P. was a devout Christian from a distinguished family far above Lyman Beecher's. Her father was a successful doctor, and her mother's brothers included members of Congress, senators, ambassadors, and a governor of Maine. Harriet P.'s family led a fashionable life in Portland and Boston, and she had once been a belle. After conversion she was predisposed to admire an evangelist, even if he struck her family as being, in one writer's words, "an outlandish, threadbare country minister." Also, Harriet P. may have accepted Lyman because when they met she was twenty-six, old enough to be considered a spinster.
At first, the marriage seemed successful. Catharine felt displaced, having been allowed to leave school at her mother's death and take on the maternal role in the family. But when she wrote a stilted letter of welcome, Harriet P. replied in a pleasant manner. She assured the children that she intended not to take the place of their mother but to be a new friend. The children's first reaction to her was positive, as expressed years later by Harriet Beecher Stowe:
I was about six years old, and slept in the nursery with my two younger brothers....
We heard father's voice in the entry, and started up in our little beds, crying out as he entered our room, "Why, here's pa!" A cheerful voice called out from behind him, "And here's ma!"
A beautiful lady, very fair, with bright blue eyes, and soft auburn hair bound round with a black velvet bandeau, came into the room smiling, eager, and happy-looking, and, coming up to our beds, kissed us, and told us she loved little children....
Never did mother-in-law [sic] make a prettier or sweeter impression.
In letters to her sister, the new Mrs. Beecher praised the children. She thought Catharine "a fine-looking girl, and in her mind I find all that I expected. She is not handsome, yet there is hardly any one who appears better." Mary would make a good woman, she believed, and was more handsome than otherwise. "She is twelve now, large of her age, and is almost the most useful member of the family." Harriet, who always seemed to be hand-in-hand with brother Henry, was amiable, affectionate, and bright. Harriet P. also noted the refined society of Litchfield and the beauty of the town, with its surrounding hills and wide, tree-lined streets. Her new husband might be only a country minister but in 1818 he was presented with an honorary doctorate from Middlebury College.
But before long Harriet Porter Beecher became less cheerful, and the teenage Mary could write that she was unwell and no longer laughed. Harriet P. had a difficult time recovering from the death at age two of Frederick, her first child, and like her predecessor had to manage a house and many children on her husband's low ministerial salary. Eventually, she sank into a permanent state of melancholy. Lyman himself was more hindrance than help, as he fell into a deep depression the year before his youngest daughter's birth. He had experienced such a collapse earlier in East Hampton, likening it to his father's attacks of "dyspepsia" or chronic indigestion, which were accompanied by depression. According to Milton Rugoff, in the best book on the Beecher family, these attacks would become a sort of "family malaise," reappearing in later generations. Rugoff thinks that Lyman's "violent alternations of despair and hope" might today be diagnosed as manic depression.
Isabella thus had a troubling heritage of mental illness from both her parents. But at her birth on February 22, 1822, observers noted only that she had inherited her mother's beauty, her "finely chiseled features and fair, delicate coloring." Isabella would be considered the prettiest of the four Beecher sisters. As one of the youngest children, she was a favorite and, even by her own admission, was much petted and praised. The family called her "Belle" or "Bella," and she was given the middle name "Homes," after the married name of one of her mother's sisters.
Catharine, now age twenty-two, was home in Litchfield when Isabella was born (the previous year she had gone to New London to teach). For the first few weeks she assumed the care of the new mother and baby. The year 1822 would be a crucial one in Catharine's life, and her experiences would affect her and her sisters for years to come. According to a letter she wrote to her aunt, her father was still sick, little Charles had punctured his knee with a nail, and Aunt Esther, Lyman's spinster step-sister, who was spending the winter with them, was feeble. Catharine's status as the only healthy adult in the extended family, servants and all, lasted only a short time. By April 1822 her father was writing that Catharine had been sick for three days, "the first in acute distress ... she was seized with the most agonizing pain."
Catharine's agonizing pain came not from dyspepsia or manic depression but from another family illness, conversion anxiety, as her father had been "addressing her conscience not 20 minutes before" the painful attack. Catharine had become engaged at the beginning of the year to Alexander Fisher, a brilliant scientist who had earned a Yale professorship at the young age of twenty-four. Fisher was sailing to England to visit European universities at the time of Catharine's April attack, and when he returned they were to marry. This meant that Catharine should experience conversion, for it was considered unlikely after marriage when worldly cares intervened. Thus her father put pressure on her, as he eventually did all his children, whom he loved dearly and never wished to see as sinners in the hands of an angry God.
Catharine resisted. She could not feel her own sin deeply enough and could not fully accept the concept of a God who got angry. When Fisher died in a shipwreck, she felt even more alienated from the Calvinist religion. He had never been saved and, according to her father, would spend his after-life burning in Hell. Catharine wrote her brother Edward that it was not so much the "ruined hopes of a future life" that afflicted her as fear and apprehension for Fisher's immortal soul: "Oh, Edward, where is he now? Are the noble faculties of such a mind doomed to everlasting woe, or is he now with our dear mother in the mansions of the blessed?" A few months later she told her brother that the doctrine of original sin filled her with despair: "When I look at little Isabella, it seems a pity that she ever was born, and that it would be a mercy if she was taken away."
Excerpted from THE Beecher SISTERS by Barbara A. White Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 21, 2013