At a glance, there was nothing extraordinary that you could notice about Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was a mother raising children in a small house on a small Connecticut farm. She wasn’t a well known political figure, and although she was an abolitionist, she wasn’t even regarded as a significant leader of that movement.
But what she was, was someone just like you, who had the same kind of moral compass – the same level of disgust and anger when she noticed people not treating other people very well.
Harriet was not even an accomplished writer in 1851 when she sat down and wrote a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. It was a work that had a profound impact on thoroughly humiliating the Southern state slave owners. And more importantly, it was a book of observations and ideas that reenergized an abolitionist movement that was under funded, under manned, and under siege after the dimwit politicians of their time had agreed to something called the Great Compromise, where runaway slaves were legally hunted down like animals all over America by Southern slave hunters.
Another one of those DC political compromises all because the Southern slave states were whiny and petulant enough to over power the weak character of Congressional compromising types.
Harriet later explained how she never became extraordinary – she was simply mad as hell over the human atrocities taking place around her and she seemed to recognize that there was no special, chosen, ordained, inspired, remarkable person who was coming to the rescue of 2 million African American slaves. There was no special, mystical leader rising up to change all that ugliness.
She didn’t charm or delude herself into believing that some charismatic leader or some organized movement could accomplish any more than she could. She had waited too long.
Today in Washington DC, President Obama will stand for his second inauguration. For four years millions of progressives simply expected too much out of a charismatic, well-meaning Obama who probably wanted to dramatically move America to a better place. I am convinced he gave it his best shot. And as he raises his hand to be sworn in again, most of those same progressives are desperately hoping for a better, a clearer result from President Obama this second time.
But if we are honest and rational, we had better be prepared to admit that as hard as our President may be willing to fight for a more just America – the cavalry probably is not coming to deliver on those changes we desperately want. The truth is, it is up to us. We have to adopt that Harriet Beecher Stowe mentality – and realize that we individually have to do our part to shape the America we are looking for. The cavalry is not coming.
One charismatic, well meaning leader would never have been as powerful as one committed single mother on a secluded Connecticut farm who said “I can do it myself.” I don’t need a president, a celebrity, an organization, an approval network – I don’t need permission or forgiveness, I can do something myself. There is maybe a legend where Abraham Lincoln thanked Harriet for doing what her celebrity political contemporaries never had the courage or ability to do. The story goes that Lincoln in 1862 briefly met Harriet and commented, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
He was mostly right.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a second book called “A Key To Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” were best-sellers that drove the rapacious, shameless, and profoundly evil Southern slave aristocracy to, in the end, burn themselves down.
Enjoy excitement, and splendor of a good president being sworn into office for the second time today. And reflect on the sacrifice of another great man on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s special day. But keep in mind that no one person sustains a movement even when they give their life to it – most of the time a movement is sustained by ordinary people willing to make extraordinary efforts to bring about change.
We are all capable of being a Harriet Beecher Stowe – any one of us has that capacity. But it all begins with abandoning mystical, fairy tale, movie script thinking where we convince ourselves that someone else greater than us, is right around the corner ready to show up for the rescue.