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Lydia Maria Child: A Researched Report
by Kathy Terrill
March 4, 1998
 
 
The focus of this report is on Lydia Maria Child's contribution to abolitionism and its impact on her life. 
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            In 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. 
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            In 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. 
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            After 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). 
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            Despite 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 ix)

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. 
 
            During 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 (Karcher 142). 
 
            With 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. 
 
            In 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). 
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            While 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). 
 
            During 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. 
 
            Child 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. 

Works Cited 
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Bronson, Walter Cochran.  "Lydia Maria Francis Child. "  The 
          Dictionary of American Biography.  New York: Charles  
          Scribner's Sons, 1958. 
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Clifford, Deborah Pickman.  Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia  
          Maria Child.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. 
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"Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov.  Wise and  
          Mrs. Mason of Virginia." http://Icweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/quer ... :  
          @field(FLDOO 1+07016677+): @@@$REF$ (23 Feb. 1998). 

Jacobs, Harriet A.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Cambridge:  
          Harvard University Press, 1987. 
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Karcher, Carolyn L., ed.  A Lydia Maria Child Reader.  Durham: Duke  
          University Press, 1997. 
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Meltzer, Milton.  Tongue of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria Child.    
          New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965. 
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Whittier, John Greenleaf, ed.  Letters of Lydia Maria Child.  Boston:  
          Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1882. 
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