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August 2016

Lydia Maria Child: A True Patriot

Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child was an author, editor, journalist, and scholar.

“By publishing [An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans] I have put my mite into the treasury. The expectation of displeasing all classes has not been unaccompanied with pain.  But it has been strongly impressed upon my mind that it was a duty to fulfil this task; and earthly considerations should never stifle the voice of conscience.”

—Lydia Maria Child

“Over the river and through the woods, to grandfather’s house we go…”  Though most of us born in 20th century America remember the lyrics as “grandmother’s,” almost all of us have heard this charming song. Almost none of us know that the writer was one of the most outstanding abolitionists of the 19th century. A writer so gifted and so dedicated to the cause of human freedom that William Lloyd Garrison referred to her as “the first woman of the republic,” Lydia Maria Child was a prolific author and editor with a string of impressive accomplishments that included 57 books and tracts, and thousands of letters. She founded the first children’s magazine in the U.S.; wrote An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, the first book by a white person on the issue on slavery; and was an advocate of Native American rights, writing a novel and many articles on that topic. She helped shape the American historical novel and short story, writing on themes as far-ranging as science fiction and interracial marriage. She also wrote cookbooks, advice on domestic concerns, books for children, and historical treatises.  According to her biographer Carolyn L. Karcher, Child essentially created the American genre of children’s literature. This Renaissance woman was, understandably, a household name for half a century. But, like so many other women of accomplishment in the 19th century, Child was virtually unknown in the 20th.  Not until the 1980s and the 1990s was her remarkable career brought to light again.

Even before she became an active abolitionist, Child campaigned against prejudice and slavery.  She used her children’s books and her magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, as a vehicle for combating racial prejudice, publishing her first antislavery story in 1830. Each subsequent issue contained antislavery commentary. In 1831, she editorialized against slavery in the Massachusetts Journal, edited by her antislavery husband David Lee Child. Unlike so many of her rivals, she was unafraid of controversey. Child’s writings reflected her uncompromising commitment to the cause of human freedom. Combat sometimes exhilarated her, says Karcher. She quotes Child’s comment: “Oh, if I were a man, how I would lecture!  But I am a woman, and so I sit in the corner and knit socks,” an ironic remark, considering her life-long public campaign against slavery and other abuses against freedom.

Though her literary career ranged from children’s material and household advice to Native American rights, Child’s greatest legacy was as a scholar and writer in the fight against slavery. According to Karcher, no other white abolitionist researched African cultures more thoroughly or dedicated herself more to refuting racist myths. Child’s book An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called African, published in 1833, was a powerful and carefully researched book that influenced many people to join the abolitionist cause. In 1836, she published Anti-Slavery Catechism, which addressed fears about the effects of immediate emancipation. The Evils of Slavery and the Cure for Slavery was published in 1836.  Child protested further against slavery and racism in two other books: Philothea (1836), a book highly praised by Edgar Allan Poe, and The History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (1845). These are only some of the antislavery tracts she wrote.

Child paid a high price for her abolitionist activism. Since most Americans disapproved of the abolitionists, her choice to become an activist crippled her literary career.  When Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africa came out, The Juvenile Miscellany folded, her innovative childrearing Mother’s Book went out of print, and sales of The Frugal Housewife dropped precipitously. Renouncing a highly coveted paean of praise and recognition from the prestigious North American Review, she was forced to give up her livelihood at a time when she and her husband were in bad financial circumstances. It took great moral courage to renounce her promising literary career and her livelihood for what she considered a higher calling. She was well aware that her positions on race would be condemned. In the essay in An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, writing on the topic of laws against interracial marriage, she says: “I am perfectly aware of the gross ridicule to which I may subject myself by alluding to this particular; but I have lived too long, and observed too much, to be disturbed by the world’s mockery.”  Once again, moral courage. She also sacrificed valued friendships to become an abolitionist. When her cherished role model, writer Catherine Sedgwick, objected to her radical views, speaking out for moderation instead, Child’s impassioned response was “Moderation! How can you be moderate?”

In addition to Child’s prodigious writing, she exercised her talents as an editor as well. In 1841, leaving her husband David behind, Lydia moved to New York City, to serve as editor of the controversial National Anti-Slavery Standard (NAS) till 1843. Because of their dire financial circumstances, mostly brought on by David’s unwise investing, they were separated for eight years.  During her time as editor, she tried to heal the split between the two warring factions: those who favored direct action (the anti-Garrisonians) and those who favored nonviolence and education (the Garrisonians).  Like so many political groups, now as then, the different factions needed to be reminded to focus on the real enemy—in this case, slavery. When her efforts failed, she finally resigned and turned instead to the task of picking up the pieces of her shattered literary career.

During her time as editor of the NAS, Child had written a weekly column, “Letters from New York,” with subjects that touched on many aspects of city life in New York City that had little to do with abolitionist concerns.  She essentially pioneered a new genre, including journalistic sketches that highlighted the plight of the urban poor, and speaking out against capital punishment and the imprisonment of women for prostitution. She dared to go, says Karcher, where Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, and other writers of her time were unwilling to tread. Though these highly literary and reflective columns had broad appeal, helping to increase circulation of the journal, some fellow abolitionists, including Abby Kelley, were not happy. They thought the mediations about city life were out of place with antislavery speeches and tales of whippings, lynching and riots.  These columns, however, reflected Child’s belief in building bridges. According to Women’s Studies scholar Heather Roberts, Child’s epistles reflected her belief that “a truer understanding of the nature of political activism would emphasize its necessary foundation in the private sphere of the individual soul.” In late August of 1843, Letters from New York was published as a book; the first edition was sold out by December, subsequently going through ten more editions.

Child was a far-ranging scholar of reform, writing not just on slavery but Native American rights, women’s concerns, and religious bigotry. Her first novel, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times, written in 1824, featured an interracial marriage between a Puritan woman and a Native American (then called an Indian). Child’s History of the Conditions of Women was encyclopedic in its scope, covering every known race and ethnic group, even extending to the little-known topic of African women. The book helped inspire agitation for women’s rights and was cited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton as an invaluable resource for feminism. Child’s stories of the 1840s and 50s exposed the contradictions of the sexual double standard. Her goal of countering bigotry, writes Karcher, also prompted Child to delve into comparative religions. The Progress of Religious Ideas, through Successive Ages, published in 1855, discussed the merits of other religions, such as Hinduism, yet another daring book for the time.

Child continued her personal campaign against slavery the rest of her life. After leaving her editorship of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, she dissociated herself from the organized reform movement by 1844 but not from her “compelling concern for human freedom.”  Child continued to campaign for nonviolent emancipation when others had given up, but finally had to give it up as a lost cause as war approached. When the Civil War finally came, ever the reformer, she continued to push for measures such as a black suffrage amendment, education and job training programs for freedpeople, and redistribution of former slaveholders’ estates among blacks and poor whites. In 1865, she wrote a reader for ex-slaves titled The Freedman’s Book. Never afraid of controversy, Child’s last novel, A Romance of the Republic, published in 1867, suggested that the solution to America’s race problems was interracial marriage.

The scope of Child’s passionate activism and acclaimed literary accomplishments is breathtaking. Tackling controversial topics that few other literary writers dared to touch, she earned the accolades, not only of those who shared her abolitionist and feminist views, but of some of the very writers who did not share her taste for controversy, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Theodore Parker. She inspired future women reformers, such as the teenage Margaret Fuller and feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Child’s heroic sacrifices for the cause of human freedom should not be forgotten. ”Here was a most remarkable woman,” wrote the New York Times, ”one who lived a great life, but lived it so simply and with such limited consideration for herself  that the more you study it the more it grows to be perhaps the truest life that an American woman had yet lived.”