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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)

[6766] L. Schamer, Lydia Maria Child (1870), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-5535].

Lydia Maria Child (born Lydia Francis) was raised outside of Boston in a community she described as made up of “hard-working people who had small opportunity for culture.” Her parents ran a bakery while raising six children, leaving them little time for intellectual pursuits. Still, Child, encouraged by her Harvard-educated older brother, developed an early interest in books and learning. By 1820, she had completed her training as a teacher and begun working at a school in Maine. She soon moved back to Massachusetts, where she started a school for girls and kept house for her brother, who had become a Unitarian minister. When she joined the Unitarian Church herself, Child adopted a new name to signal her independence and new identity. Rebaptized as Lydia Maria, she preferred to be called Maria for the rest of her life.

Child embarked on her literary career after reading a piece in The North American Review in 1821 calling for American authors to take American colonial history and Native American life as subjects for their fiction. Taking up the challenge, Child wrote Hobomok, a tale of interracial marriage between a Puritan woman and an Indian man set in colonial Salem. Although Hobomok was published when Child was only twenty-two, the novel was an early illustration of the concern with social justice and commitment to ending racism that would dominate her subsequent work. While many critics pronounced the novel, with its moving portrait of racial intermarriage, “in very bad taste,” it immediately catapulted Child to literary celebrity. Capitalizing on her success, she soon produced another historical novel and the first periodical for children published in the United States, The Juvenile Miscellany.

In 1828, Lydia Maria married David Child, a man who shared her commitment to radical social causes. Unfortunately, he was also extremely impractical and prone to debt, leaving the couple dependent upon Child’s literary efforts to support their household. While living with David, she successfully published housekeeping manuals, a history of the condition of women, and stories and articles for a variety of American journals. In 1833, Child changed the course of her career with the publication of An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, a sweeping indictment of slavery and racism addressed primarily to a female audience. The pamphlet was greeted with hostility and damaged Child’s mainstream popularity, but it also pushed her to the forefront of the radical abolitionist movement in the North. Affiliated with abolitionism, the movement for women’s rights, and advocacy of Native American rights, Child had marked herself as a radical and a reformer.

In 1841, Child informally separated from her husband and moved to New York City to edit The National Anti-Slavery Standard, an abolitionist newspaper, and to work as a correspondent for the Boston Courier. Composing weekly “Letters from New York,” Child reported on a broad spectrum of urban life, including problems of poverty, crime, and racism. She eventually collected this groundbreaking journalistic work into the two-volume Letters from New York (1843, 1845).

In 1843, exhausted by divisions within the abolition movement, Child resigned as editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard. In 1850, ending nine years of independence, she reunited with her husband and moved to a village outside Boston where she cared for her ailing father and continued writing on behalf of the causes that had motivated her early career. While some of her work was very public, such as the stirring letters she wrote in defense of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Child also worked behind the scenes, helping Harriet Jacobs edit her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. All of Child’s anti-slavery writing and editing work was crucial to the development of the abolitionist movement. Some 300,000 copies of the pamphlet collection of her abolitionist letters circulated in 1860, effectively galvanizing anti-slavery sentiment in the North.

Upon her death in Wayland, Massachusetts, Child left a legacy of pioneering literary achievement. In her nonfiction work, she gave voice to the perspectives and concerns of traditionally marginalized groups. In her fiction, she mixed sentimentality with calls for social reform, creating a powerful formula that would be imitated by writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Helen Hunt Jackson.

Teaching Tips

  • Child composed her “Reply” within the context of her defense of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry. Since some students might be unfamiliar with this incident, you should provide them with the historical background. Brown was a white man who was committed to eradicating slavery by whatever means necessary–including violent resistance and aggression. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and a group of about twenty followers (including five black men) crossed from Maryland to Virginia in an attempt to take over the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Their goal was to set up a base from which to organize, arm, and support slave insurrections throughout the South.While Brown and his group managed to take the arsenal by surprise and seize several hostages, the Virginia militia quickly responded to defend the arsenal. By the morning of October 18, Brown’s men had killed four people and wounded nine, while the Virginia militia had killed ten of Brown’s group (including two of his sons) and captured seven (including Brown). Convicted of treason against the state and conspiracy to incite insurrection, Brown was hanged on December 2 at Charlestown, Virginia.

    Although he failed to achieve his immediate purpose at Harpers Ferry, Brown succeeded in becoming a martyr for the abolitionist cause. Throughout the North, people responded with sympathy and admiration for Brown’s action; Ralph Waldo Emerson even called him a “new saint.” Southern commentators, on the other hand, declared him a “hoary-headed murderer.” John Brown’s raid, occurring as it did on the eve of the Civil War, became a touchstone for the conflicts that divided North and South.

    After giving your students this background, you might ask them to stage a debate or mock trial of Brown (perhaps drawing some of their arguments from “Mrs. Child’s Reply”). Ask some of the class to work as prosecutors, some as defenders, and some as the jury.

  • In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, African American writer Alice Walker argues that sometimes women’s traditions are best represented by nonverbal artistry, such as quilts. For slave women who never wrote their narratives, quilts became a way to record their histories. These quilts were made from discarded scraps of material and clothing. Some quilts communicated messages in a straightforward way: for example, members of the Underground Railroad hung quilts with the color black on clotheslines to indicate a safe house. Other quilts were subtler. Like authors of slave narratives, African American quilters also used biblical references in their quilts. Ask students to examine the quilts featured in the archive. What stories are being told in them? How do the quilts draw on and transform biblical stories? How do these quilts compare to the written narratives of slavery included in this unit?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Consider the opening of Child’s “Reply.” What role do biblical quotations play in her argument against slavery? Why do you think this might have been an effective rhetorical strategy?
  2. Context: Compare Child’s abolitionist arguments in her “Reply” with the rhetorical strategies developed by some of the escaped slaves who composed narrative exposès of slavery (Douglass, Jacobs, or Craft, for example). Where does Child use strategies similar to those of the ex-slaves? How is her appeal to her readers different? How does her position as a non-slave and a white woman affect her appeal?
  3. Exploration: “Mrs. Child’s Reply” is part of a series of letters that Child exchanged with Governor Wise and Mrs. Mason of Virginia over the specific issue of John Brown’s raid and the general question of the morality of slavery. Child’s subsequent publication of the letters in pamphlet form was a great success. Why do you think Child decided to publish her argument in the form of letters between disputants rather than as a series of essays? Why do you think the collection of letters was popular with northern readers? How does Child’s use of letters compare to later publications of letters, such as Amelia Clappe’s “Shirley Letters”?

Selected Archive Items

[1666] Anonymous, The Harpers Ferry Insurrection–The US Marines Storming the Engine House–Insurgents Firing Through Holes in the Doors(1859),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-126970].
This illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicts the end of John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

[2773] Anonymous, Attack on the Insurgents at the Bridge by the Railroad Men (1859),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-90728].
This illustration from The Life, trial, and execution of Captain John Brown, known as “Old Brown of Ossawatomie” depicts Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown sought to overthrow slavery by armed slave revolt.

[3090] Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt (c. 1895-98),
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Many slave and freed women used quilts to record their histories. Some quilts communicated messages; for example, quilts using the color black are believed to have indicated a safe house on the Underground Railroad.

[3147] James Brown Marston, The Old State House [Boston] (1801),
courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
As the nineteenth century began, immigration, industrialization, and the advent of capitalism began to change American cities from barter economies to commercial ones (Gary Nash, The Urban Crucible). Boston became the stronghold for Unitarians, who were often associated with the new wealthy merchant class.

[3458] American Anti-Slavery Society of Philadelphia, Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention, 1833 (1833),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
At this convention, sixty abolitionist leaders declared their dedication to fighting slavery through nonviolent means. Abolitionists hoped to win sympathizers by using quotations from the Bible to emphasize the conflict between slavery and Christianity. The woodprint by R. S. Gilbert illustrates Psalm 91.13, “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.”

[6766] L. Schamer, Lydia Maria Child (1870),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-5535].
Child was a prominent abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. Her first novel, Hobomok, about “the noblest savage,” was written in the sentimental literary tradition. Child edited Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

[6949] Harriet Powers, Biblical quilt (c. 1886),
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.
Powers, a black woman from Athens, Georgia, made quilts depicting biblical scenes both before and after her emancipation. Both slaves and freed people used Christianity to interpret their hard circumstances and find hope.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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