The focus of this report is on Lydia Maria Child's contribution to
abolitionism and its impact on her life.
the antebellum period of the United States, there were many reform movements.
However, the most significant movement was the one against slavery.
The abolitionists fought long and hard against the institution of slavery,
and it was a battle that required a great deal of courage and perseverance.
Our history books today chronicle the events and tell of the brave reformers
of the antislavery crusade. Unfortunately, most historians have
overlooked Lydia Maria Child until recently. This energetic New
Englander devoted most of her life to the elimination of slavery in the
United States. Although she faced much opposition as she fought
for the freedom of the slaves, she never gave up the struggle. In
1882, John Greenleaf Whittier, the great Quaker poet and fellow reformer
in the abolitionist movement, remembered her this way:
. . . her life was a battle- A constant rowing hard against the stream
of popular prejudice and hatred. And through it all--pecuniary
privation, loss of friends and position, the painfulness of being suddenly
thrust from "the still air of delightful studies" into the bitterest
and sternest controversy of the age--she bore herself with patience,
fortitude and unshaken reliance upon the justice and ultimate triumph
of the cause she had espoused. Her pen was never idle. Wherever
there was a brave word to be spoken, her voice was heard, and never
without effect. it is not exaggeration to say that no man or woman at
that period rendered more substantial service to the cause of freedom,
or made such a "great renunciation" in doing it. (Whittier x)
From the 1830's until her death, Child devoted her life to the antislavery
movement and to the freedmen's welfare. It is unfortunate that some
historians have overlooked her influence as an abolitionist for there
are many lessons to be gleaned from Child's courageous life.
She was born Lydia Maria Francis in Massachusetts in 1802. After
attending public school and a seminary, she taught school and later
founded a girls' academy in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1828,
she married David Lee Child, a Boston lawyer. By the time she
was thirty, she was established as a successful writer of both fiction
and nonfiction (Bronson 67). However, Mrs. Child's greatest contribution
was in her work as an abolitionist. Although she was a strong
supporter of the various nineteenth century reform movements, she considered
the abolition of slavery to be the most crucial issue of that era and
focused her time and energy in fighting against the evils of slavery.
1829, Mrs. Child and her husband David heard William Lloyd Garrison
speak at a Boston church. Mr. Garrison challenged the New Englanders
with a powerful message about the evils of slavery. He then exhorted
the audience to become involved in the abolitionist movement (Meltzer
3 1). As a Massachusetts state legislator, David Child strongly
agreed with Garrison. However, Mrs. Child had some misgivings.
She was opposed to slavery but was concerned with the tactics of the
antislavery movement. Scholars are not certain when she actually
committed to the abolitionist movement, but they do agree that Garrison
influenced her decision (Clifford 97; Karcher 136). After his
death in 1879, she described her first encounter with Garrison, "I remember
very distinctly the first time I ever saw Garrison. I little thought
then that the whole pattern of my life-web would be changed by that
introduction.... He got hold of the strings of my conscience,
and pulled me into Reforms. . . . Old dreams vanished, old associates
departed and all things became new" (qtd. in Clifford 97). Once
Mrs. Child decided to join the abolitionists, she never turned back.
She worked tirelessly for this important cause even though it demanded
tremendous personal sacrifice.
her commitment to the abolitionist cause, Mrs. Child decided to write
a serious book on the slavery issue. In 1832, the Boston Athenaeum
invited her to use their fine private library. It is here where
she studied historical documents so as to develop sound arguments against
slavery (Meltzer 3 5). In August of 1833, An Appeal in Favor
of that Class of Americans Called Africans was published as the
first scholarly antislavery book in the United States. In this
book, she vigorously attacked not only the Southern slave system but
also the racism in the North (Clifford 102). Child presented the
facts in a clear, logical way to build the case against slavery and
then called for the immediate emancipation of the slaves. This
book was widely read and many were converted to the abolitionist cause.
Years later, William Ellery Channing, Wendell Phillips and Senator Charles
Sumner would credit this powerful book for having a strong influence
on their attitudes toward slavery (Karcher 137).
the positive impact that the book had on the abolitionist movement,
it caused many repercussions in Child's personal and professional life.
After this book was published, Child was ostracized by the literary
and social circles in New England and was no longer welcome at the Boston
Athenaeum. Sales of her once popular books dropped drastically.
Her children's magazine, Juvenile Miscellany went under
within a year because of cancelled subscriptions. Child and her
husband faced a financial setback (Karcher 14). However, Child
knew that she would be severely criticized and believed that it was
her moral responsibility to address the slavery issue. In the
preface of her controversial book, she wrote:
I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken-
but though I expect ridicule and censure, I do not fear them.
Should it be the means of advancing, even one single hour, the inevitable
progress of truth and justice, I would not exchange the consciousness
for all Rothschild's wealth or Sir Walter's fame. (qtd. in Whittier
Despite all the hostility and rejection that she faced,
Child persevered because she had incredible courage and moral vision.
She was quite willing to lay aside the promise of wealth, honor and
pleasure so as to gain freedom for the millions of oppressed slaves.
the mid-1800's, she continued to work in various ways to support the
antislavery movement. She faced angry mobs, helped fugitive slaves,
attended many abolitionist meetings and continued to attack slavery
in her numerous works. From 1841 to 1843, she edited the National
Anti-Slavery Standard and tried to keep the focus on the slavery
issue and not on the divisions within the abolitionist movement (Karcher
139). In 1842, she wrote, "My business is not to please the abolitionist
but to convince the people" (qtd. in Clifford 157). She was disheartened
by the dissension within the abolitionist camp and later resigned from
the newspaper in 1843. Although Child distanced herself from the
organized abolitionist movement at this time, she continued to assist
fugitive slaves and supported the antislavery cause in her writings
the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the antislavery and
proslavery forces fought for control of the Kansas territory (Karcher
142). As hostilities mounted in Kansas, Child focused on supporting
the antislavery settlers there (Clifford 230; Meltzer 126). In
May of 1856, Senator Charles Sumner delivered a powerful speech in which
he denounced the South for its attempts to extend slavery to the Kansas
territory. His speech infuriated Southerners. A few days
later, Sumner was brutally beaten in the Senate chamber by Representative
Preston Brooks of South Carolina. When Mrs. Child learned of Sumner's
beating, she was distressed. She immediately wrote Sumner to offer
her support and then expressed her doubts about the effectiveness of
peaceful measures in stopping slavery (Clifford 226). Over the
next few months, she wrote "The Kansas Emigrants," which was serialized
in the New York Tribune, in the fall of 1856. This short
story about life in the Kansas territory was widely read and considered
by many to have a significant effect on unifying antislavery forces
(Clifford 228; Karcher 142). While sectional differences deepened
and violence increased in the Kansas territory, Mrs. Child reconsidered
her position regarding the use of force to stop slavery.
1859, news of John Brown's raid jolted the entire country and renewed
Child's commitment to the abolitionist cause. Although she strongly
disagreed with Brown's tactics, she sympathized with his intentions.
She immediately wrote a letter to the imprisoned Brown and sent it to
the governor of Virginia. She asked Governor Wise to deliver this
note and requested permission to visit with the wounded Brown.
A series of letters about John Brown were exchanged between Governor
Wise and Mrs. Child and were published in the New York Tribune
(Clifford 240). Mrs. Mason, the wife of U.S. Senator James Mason,
responded to Mrs. Child when she read the published letters (Karcher
145). She vigorously attacked Child. In her letter she began
by writing, "Do you read your Bible, Mrs. Child? If you do, read
there, 'Woe unto you, hypocrites,' and take to yourself with two-fold
damnation that terrible sentence" ("Correspondence"). Mrs. Mason
continued in the letter to attack Child for sympathizing with Mr. Brown.
Child's replied in a civil and dignified way, "I have no disposition
to retort upon you the 'twofold damnation' to which you consign me.
On the Contrary, I sincerely wish you well, both in this world and the
next. If the anathema proved a safety valve to your own boiling
spirit, it did some good to you, while it fell harmless upon me" ("Correspondence").
Child then proceeded to explain that she in no way condoned Brown's
behavior, but that she understood his intentions. She presented
a number of Bible texts to support her position and then denounced several
Southern laws that were unjust and inhumane. Throughout her correspondence
with Mrs. Mason, Mrs. Child displayed her ability to logically present
the facts without personally attacking her opponent. In doing
so, she revealed not only her intelligence but her regard for even her
political enemies. In the following year, Correspondence between
Lydia Maria Child and Governor Wise and Mrs. Mason of Virginia
was published as a tract by the American Anti-Slavery Society and 300,000
copies were sold. It had a powerful effect on both sides of the
debate, and it especially galvanized support in the North (Karcher 145).
this sectional debate continued, Mrs. Child continued to use her literary
skills to advance the abolitionist cause. For several years, Harriet
Jacobs, a fugitive slave from North Carolina, had been trying to find
a publisher for her memoirs. Mrs. Child met with Jacobs and offered
to donate her editorial services. She then negotiated the business
contract and in 1861, Jacobs's narrative, Incidents in the Life
of a Slave Girl, was published (Jacobs xxiii). Today, this
slave narrative is considered by many scholars to be one of the most
insightful records of a slave woman's life (Jacobs xxviii).
and after the Civil War, Child focused not only the elimination of slavery
but on racial prejudice. In 1865, she wrote The Freedmen's
Book, which was designed to foster the freedmen's racial pride
and promote their literacy (Karcher 15 1). With slavery eliminated,
she redirected some of her time to other reform issues. However,
she continued to voice her concern about the welfare of the freedmen
and the lingering problem of racism.
died peacefully at the age of 78 on October 20, 1880 (Clifford 297).
Many of her old friends and neighbors gathered to mourn the loss and
celebrate the life of this great lady. In his eulogy, Wendell
Phillips remembered that she "was ready to die for a principle and starve
for an idea" (qtd. in Whittier 268). Child's firm belief in the
dignity and worth of every human being never wavered. Although
she paid dearly for her bold commitment to these principles, she did
not regret the loss of worldly gain. She once wrote, "the gold
was never coined for which I would barter my individual freedom of acting
and thinking upon any subject, or knowingly interfere with the rights
of the meanest human being. The only true courage is that which
impels us to right without regard of consequences" (qtd. in Meltzer
42). Lydia Maria Child was a gifted scholar, accomplished writer
and was one of the most courageous Americans of her time. Her
powerful intellect and her firm commitment to justice contributed significantly
to the abolitionist movement. Even after her death, she remembered
the freed slaves in her will by contributing to agencies that supported
their welfare (Karcher 298). However, her greatest contribution
is the legacy that she leaves behind. Today, we can glean much
from her enormous courage and her undying devotion to freedom.
Bronson, Walter Cochran. "Lydia Maria Francis Child. " The
of American Biography
. New York: Charles
Clifford, Deborah Pickman. Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia
Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
"Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and
Mrs. Mason of Virginia."
http://Icweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/quer ... :
@@@$REF$ (23 Feb. 1998).
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Karcher, Carolyn L., ed. A Lydia Maria Child Reader.
Meltzer, Milton. Tongue of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria
New York: Thomas
Y. Crowell Company, 1965.
Whittier, John Greenleaf, ed. Letters of Lydia Maria
and Company, 1882.