In 1859, after John Brown’s failed attack on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, where he hoped to spark a slave insurrection, Lydia Maria Child asked permission from Virginia governor Henry Wise to visit Brown, who was awaiting execution. She said she merely wanted to comfort the brave old freedom fighter.
It was an odd request—and of course a political gambit, which Wise instantly understood. He likely knew who Child was. Most of the country knew who she was: for more than twenty-five years she’d written novels, children’s literature, domestic advice manuals, and countless essays. And she was a determined opponent of slavery. “If the monster had one head,” she once said, “assuredly I should be a Charlotte Corday.”
Wise replied with pointed civility:
Virginia and Massachusetts are involved in no civil war, and the Constitution which unites them in confederacy guarantees to you the privileges and immunities of a citizen of the United States in the State of Virginia.
But he couldn’t help adding that he held Child responsible, in part, for what Brown had done: his violence was a “natural consequence,” Wise scolded, “of your sympathy.”
Child scoffed. “Your constitutional obligation, for which you profess so much respect,” she wrote back, “has never proved any protection to citizens of the Free States, who happened to have a black, brown, or yellow complexion; nor to any white citizen whom you even suspected of entertaining opinions opposite to your own.”
Thus began Child’s heated exchange of letters with the governor and then with Margaretta Mason, the wife of Virginia senator James M. Mason. Mrs. Mason berated her as a hypocrite who cared less about the workers up north than about slaves. “Do you soften the pangs of maternity in those around you?” Mason haughtily asked. “I have never known an instance where the ‘pangs of maternity’ did not meet with requisite assistance,” Child coolly answered. “Here at the North…after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.”
Immediately published in pamphlet form, Child’s correspondence with the two Virginians and John Brown sold a whopping 300,000 copies. Yet years later she was mostly associated with her sappy Thanksgiving jingle “Over the river and through the wood,/To grandfather’s house we go.” And by 2017, when her most recent biographer, Lydia Moland, a philosophy professor at Colby College, stumbled onto her name, she didn’t have the faintest idea who Child was.
Still, Child’s light hasn’t exactly been hidden under a bushel. As a poet she doesn’t rank anywhere near Emily Dickinson or even her friend John Greenleaf Whittier, and as a novelist she doesn’t possess the hallucinatory brilliance of Melville, never mind the messianic popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe. But she was pretty famous. Her controversial Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), calling for the immediate, uncompensated end of slavery, greatly influenced a number of abolitionists, including Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, the silver-tongued agitator Wendell Phillips—and no doubt John Brown. The Black writer Pauline Hopkins thoroughly admired her; Ralph Ellison referred to the Appeal.1 Among more recent and scholarly studies, Carolyn Karcher’s The First Woman in the Republic (1994) remains invaluable, as does the superbly annotated selection of Child’s riveting personal correspondence.2
After the 2016 presidential election, Moland visited the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute with what she calls “the criminally vague idea of researching the philosophical foundations of American abolitionism.” A librarian brought her a box of letters, and among them Moland discovered Child, a woman, she later learned, “unwilling to accept the conventional wisdom of her time and unable to abide by its norms.” With her penchant for posing rhetorical questions, Moland began to wonder, “What could the example of her life teach me?” And “does the world need another white hero?”
Moland’s Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life answers with a resounding affirmative. “We might not need more white heroes,” she writes, “but I have come to believe that white Americans like me need more examples like hers.” As a result, she emphasizes, if somewhat didactically, Child’s significant commitment to abolition and racial justice, as though communicating to students unfamiliar with American political and cultural history: “To what extent are we implicated in society’s wrongs even if we object to them?” she asks. Presumably Lydia Child provides the right reply.
Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1802, a year before Ralph Waldo Emerson, she did not have his family and educational advantages. Her father, Convers Francis, a baker, was by her account often depressed, as were her elder brother Convers and Lydia herself, as she later admitted. Their mother, Susannah (Rand) Francis, died when Lydia was twelve. “I wonder whether her mother was ever able to enjoy her youngest daughter’s promise,” Moland muses. “Did she ever smile as this diminutive human struggled to keep up with her brother’s lectures on Shakespeare? Did she ever laugh when Lydia’s astonishing facility with language began to emerge?” Whatever the answers, Lydia drew close to her siblings, especially to the more traditional Convers, who, when he was pastor of the First Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, introduced her to colleagues and friends like Emerson and the outspoken Reverend Theodore Parker. Despite his conservatism, Convers became a charter member of the Transcendental Club.
At twenty-two, Lydia wrote her first novel, “pen scratching furiously,” Moland imagines. Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824) depicted a consensual marriage between a Native American man and a white woman. Having heard that the influential Harvard professor George Ticknor admired the book, she shrewdly contacted him to ask for a good word. The prestigious North American Review had already mentioned it somewhat favorably, though it concluded that the plot was “not only unnatural, but revolting.” (“It would be hard to recover from that,” Moland writes.) But now the magazine ran a second, far longer notice that praised the novel’s style and characters despite its somewhat outré subject. Soon she was Ticknor’s protégée and the bright young doyenne of what Moland calls “the most genteel parlors in American’s self-proclaimed City on a Hill.”
Never a woman who stood in her own way, Lydia quickly published another novel, the mostly forgettable The Rebels, or Boston Before the Revolution (1825). At about the same time, she met the dashing David Lee Child, whom Moland characterizes as “ambitious, idealistic, persuasive, and charming—a combination perfectly suited for racking up debts.” Decidedly impractical, Child was upwardly mobile, or so it seemed. A farmer’s son, after graduating from Harvard he’d been employed as secretary to the American legation in Portugal until he walked off the job so he could volunteer to fight for Spain in its war of liberation against France. He returned to Boston “penniless,” Moland dryly remarks, but with “some very good war stories.” Subsequently admitted to the bar and elected to the state legislature, Child also happened to be an ardent opponent of Andrew Jackson and a litigious antislavery polemicist willing to take on the Jacksonians when he edited the soon-to-be defunct Massachusetts Journal.
Child possessed a “genius for not succeeding,” the novelist William Dean Howells observed. This was also true in his marriage, even though it lasted for nearly fifty years, albeit uneasily and with long periods of separation—at one point for almost a decade. The couple wed in 1828, but a year later David was convicted of libel and spent six months in jail. In part to shore up their finances, Lydia published a domestic advice manual, The Frugal Housewife (1829), aimed, she said, at “those who are not ashamed of economy”—that is, women who had to do their own housework because they couldn’t afford servants. By 1855 The Frugal Housewife was in its thirty-third printing. That didn’t stop Lydia from worrying about money; she wrote on the backs of old letters to conserve paper, though she would then donate what money she had to the Freedmen’s Aid Association or the Woman Suffrage Association. Penury was a fact of life.
With the equally combative abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, David had become a charter member of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, helped write its constitution, and at its first anniversary meeting in 1833 delivered an address, “Despotism of Freedom, or the Tyranny and Cruelty of American Republican Slave-Masters,” which included the testimonials of Black men he had interviewed and stories about those who had been kidnapped or murdered. Lydia later said that he was “wide awake before I was.” So too was the Black Bostonian David Walker, whose militant Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) was reviewed in Garrison’s new abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. According to Karcher’s biography, which Moland closely follows, “Despotism” and Walker’s tract were similar to Lydia’s much more expansive, much less florid, and fully researched An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans.
“Our prejudice against the blacks is founded in sheer pride,” she succinctly wrote in An Appeal. “We made slavery, and slavery makes the prejudice.” As for the pretense that enslaved persons were content, she tartly reminded complacent readers that these captives
have stabbed themselves for freedom—jumped into the waves for freedom—starved for freedom—fought like very tigers for freedom! But they have been hung, and burned, and shot—and their tyrants have been their historians!
Her argument was aimed right at the white society that had so recently and warmly embraced her. Predictably, the publication of An Appeal sank her immediate prospects, which she knew it would. “I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken,” she wrote in its preface. “But though I expect ridicule and censure, it is not in my nature to fear them.” The Boston Athenaeum, at the time the only public library in town, rescinded her free library privileges, and George Ticknor looked the other way when he ran into her on the street. The book also cost her the beloved Juvenile Miscellany, the first children’s magazine in America, which she had founded in 1826. Subscriptions so markedly dropped off that it ceased publication the year after An Appeal was published.
But she who lived in words continued to live that way. Child’s output remained prodigious, almost obsessive, and by her own admission she frequently suffered from a depression that writing seemed to alleviate, though as she once pungently said of herself, she was “born before nerves came into fashion.” She continued to address the pressing social, political, and cultural issues of her century—and even ours: genocide, women’s rights, social justice, religion, immigration, economic inequality, and aging. Having researched the history of slavery, she turned her scholarly attention to what became the two-volume History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (1835). Echoing Karcher, Moland notes that it was not a book about women’s rights, or an argument for them. “The truth of slavery’s evil had hit her like a thunderbolt,” Moland claims. “No such clarity about women’s rights had emerged.”
Hired to be agents of several British antislavery societies, Lydia and David Child were about to embark for England when they were forced off the ship. David’s former partner at the Massachusetts Journal had filed an injunction against his leaving; he owed a great deal of money. “If only he had been arrested for his radical views,” Moland laments. “There would have been dignity in that.” (Presumably she’s speaking for herself and not Lydia Child.)
Averse to using sugar harvested by slaves, David then heard about a process that might produce sugar from beets, and in 1836 he went alone to Europe to investigate. He was incommunicado for almost a year, and when he returned the couple undertook an experiment in Northampton, Massachusetts, where they tried to eke out a living by growing free-labor sugar beets. “What did their Boston community think as the Childs moved west?” Moland wonders, adding, as if a Bostonian would ask, “Where exactly was Northampton?”
The experiment was a flop, the living arrangements spare, the neighbors uncongenial, and the couple was in debt. They had no children, so when the American Anti-Slavery Society asked them to edit the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Lydia Child had the perfect escape. David stayed behind while she moved to Manhattan, where she planned to issue an inclusive paper, one that didn’t demand ideological purity or prefer one antislavery faction over another. For there had been dissension in the ranks—and rancor: disagreements about whether women should participate in the society, disagreements about Garrison’s policy of moral suasion, disagreements about whether abolitionists should work with politicians. Readership increased under Child’s stewardship, but it seemed all sides were unhappy. Even the usually mild John Greenleaf Whittier didn’t quite approve.
Demoralized and exhausted, in the spring of 1843 she quit both the Standard and the American Anti-Slavery Society, declaring that she had “retired from the anti-slavery cause altogether.” Her decision rattled Ellis Gray Loring, a good friend. “When I said I would have nothing to do with reforms,” she calmed him, “I merely meant with the organized machinery. I will work in my own way, according to the light that is in me.” That way continued to be literature.
She put Loring in charge of her financial affairs, which she now kept separate from her husband’s, since she was publishing two volumes of her popular “Letters from New York,” written initially for the Standard and the Boston Courier. These best-selling books display the trenchant wit of a flaneur strolling through Babylon. There’s a contagious joy in Child’s prose, as when she describes Battery Park at dawn as the morning light glances off the water. And her playfulness is never without its point. “There are few books, which I can read through, without feeling insulted as a woman,” Child observes. “Just imagine, for a moment, what impression it would make on men, if women authors should write about their ‘rosy lips,’ and ‘melting eyes.’” She comments on the squalor in the Five Points neighborhood, dog-killers, a street musician on Broome Street, the preaching of the Black woman Julia Pell in the Methodist Church on Elizabeth Street, and the prison at Blackwell’s Island: “The world would be in a happier condition if legislators spent half as much time and labour to prevent crime, as they do to punish it.” She loved music: “Beethoven was constantly accused of violating the rules” by “masters of the art. ‘They forbid them, do they?’ said Beethoven. ‘Very well. I allow them.’” Like Thoreau, she needed to witness her limits transgressed.
She considered herself a sister to George Sand, she adored George Eliot, and though she was carried away by Jane Eyre, she thought “a real living Jane Eyre, placed in similar circumstances, would have obeyed an inward law, higher and better than outward conventional scruples.” That private comment may illuminate her relationship with the several men she met while in New York. For she not only wanted to write, she wanted to stay in New York to be near John Hopper, a lawyer thirteen years her junior and the son of the Quaker abolitionist Isaac Hopper. Boarding with the Hoppers, Child found in John a constant, doting kindred spirit, one who came to mean so much to her that, as she confided to Loring, “I hardly care what happens to me, if I can only manage not to be separated from John.” Sometimes calling him her son, she added that “it would almost kill me to have to leave him.” She dedicated the first volume of Letters from New York to Hopper.
“How good it must have felt,” Moland exclaims, referring to the book’s brisk sales. Though she claims that Child was “nurturing her artistic core,” she also chides the writer for this “very long break” from abolitionism: “White abolitionists could take breaks: blend into the anonymity of New York streets, pursue neutral means of employment, retreat to the countryside to consider racial injustice from a distance.” But Child was not taking a break. She told a friend that she could do more good by “infusing, as I must necessarily do, principles in favor of peace, universal freedom, &c into all I write.” Her intention had always been, she said, “to attack bigotry with ‘a troop of horse shod with felt.’”
Yet she fell into a depression after Hopper eloped with a woman closer to his own age. A beloved older sister died, and her friend Margaret Fuller left New York for Italy. Although Moland doesn’t mention him, the wealthy businessman Edmund Benzon, to whom she was attached, sailed to England. She’d dedicated the second volume of her New York letters to him, and years later, when he died, he left her $7,800. So, the long separation from her husband, it was said after her death, “gave rise naturally, to ill-natured talk.” Regardless, she remained in New York for almost ten years, and though David occasionally came to visit, he never stayed for long.
Having left the Standard, she began researching a monumental three-volume history of religion. “Why do this to herself?” Moland wants to know. Chiefly preoccupied with Child’s abolitionism, Moland speculates that this “imprudent” (that is, unprofitable) undertaking was her response “to the desperate disappointment of having broken with a cause that she loved so deeply and for which she had sacrificed so much.” Perhaps, but this perspective shortchanges the variety and extent of Child’s writing and literary interests as well as her romantic attachments, her gift for friendship, and especially her lifelong meditation on religious ideas. As she commented in Letters from New York, she’d always looked
calmly on all forms of religious opinion—not with the indifference, or the scorn, of unbelief; but with a friendly wish to discover everywhere the great central ideas common to all religious souls, though often re-appearing in the strangest disguise, and lisping or jabbering in the most untranslatable tones.
She hated the hidebound. “The thing I detest most, next to Slavery, is Calvinism,” Child privately said. “I consider its moral influence most decidedly pernicious.” She had dabbled in Swedenborg, which led her to more ancient religious writing, and from this, it seems, she moved away from her early anti-Semitism. She laughed at airy transcendentalism, and though she said Emerson could sometimes be as “refreshing as a glass of soda-water,” she later recalled that he influenced her far more than the Bible.
She said she sought only “quiet mysticism, and the coolest rationality.” That was in keeping with her character: a private spiritualism braced by steely logic and a commitment to comity and compassion. Regrettably, Moland does not quote Child, who said she aimed to knock down the “partition walls” separating all religions, each of them claiming “that there can be one true religion, and that all others must be false. There can be no Universal Church on earth, till this feeling gives way.” Such was the ethos underlying all she did and believed.
Moland doesn’t discuss Child’s decision to reunite with her husband, except to conclude that “David and Maria Child had found a way to live their love for each other.” But Child’s private correspondence tells a more complicated story. “In resigning myself to this inevitable destiny, and conforming my own tastes and inclinations to his, I find peace of mind,” she wrote Loring in 1850. “But it takes all the electricity out of me.” Much as she loved her impecunious husband, this was a surrender of sorts. “He is good and kind, and I have made up my mind that ‘I never will desert Mr. Macawber [sic],’” she wrote, quoting Dickens. She rented the Lorings’ small farm near Boston and considered joining a cooperative community in New Jersey, but in 1853 she and David moved into her father’s modest house in Wayland, Massachusetts, about fifteen miles west of Boston, where they would spend the rest of their lives.
There she continued to write and agitate for the abolition of slavery, particularly after the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which allowed the citizens of that territory to hold a referendum on slavery when applying for statehood; that is, slavery could be legalized in a territory where it had previously been outlawed. Then, two days after denouncing South Carolina senator Andrew Butler and his “harlot, slavery,” Sumner was viciously thrashed on the floor of the Senate. “Was he now to die for those beliefs?” Moland asks. “Or, worse, survive but with his mind in ruins?” Though Moland curiously observes that “we are often told that the South began the Civil War to protect states’ rights,” Child knew better: if the “Slave-Power…is not checked, civil war is inevitable,” she confided to a friend.
During the war, Child edited and authenticated Harriet Jacobs’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), which was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Forced to hide in the cramped attic of her grandmother, a free woman, to elude her master, Jacobs eventually escaped north with her children. “It is one of our most important national stories,” Moland writes. “It is in stories like these that we truly learn who we are, and why.” Slipping into polemic and speculation, she often places Child alongside contemporary values or, more to the point, alongside what she believes our values should be. “I wish Child had been less imperious,” Moland remarks in reference to her editorial work on Jacobs’s memoir. Though the two women became friends, she writes, “even genuine gratitude and friendship are not incompatible with sorrow over lost agency or discomfort with a heavy-handed editor.”
This is fine, to a degree. But Moland’s biography becomes in effect her own spiritual autobiography, which features Lydia Child as exemplum, a Lydia Child who “lived an examined life” and “always sought the highest wisdom.” Asking what it would “mean to seek that wisdom,” Moland tends to convert the real person into herself: “I imagine Child in a perfect rage,” or “It is not hard to imagine Child at her desk, pouring her heart into it,” or “I imagine her lighting a candle,” or “I imagine Child, perhaps at her kitchen table, searching for her book’s first sentences.” “You can do it, I hear her saying.” Similarly, Moland instructs her readers, with the example of Child in mind: “Even if you resolve never to live your life the same way again, center before you stretch,” and “Sometimes the people we love most make our lives unbearable.”
In her last years, despite her apparent conservatism, Child decidedly wanted Andrew Johnson impeached for “the slaughter of loyal whites and Blacks, and the sufferings and discouragements of the freed people, caused by his nefarious ‘policy.’” She admired President Grant but despaired of his treatment of the Modoc Nation and insisted that any reconciliation with the South meant shoring up the Ku Klux Klan. Her work wasn’t finished. She wrote a novel; she published essays, pamphlets, an anthology of writing on growing old, and The Freedmen’s Book (1865), a collection intended for use in Black schools that featured biographies of John Brown and Toussaint L’Ouverture (written by Child) as well as poetry by Mingo, a former slave, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Phillis Wheatley. Proceeds from the book were given to the Freedmen’s Aid Association.
Child refused to join any organizations but commented on women’s suffrage, the Franco-Prussian War, sculpture, and Henry James. She deeply mourned David, who died in 1874. She burned a number of her letters as well as those she’d received from friends. And she completed Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals (1878), a compendium of poems, comments, prayers, sacred texts, and excerpts ranging from the poetry of John Milton to passages from the Koran, from Euripides’ plays to the Bhagavad Gita, from an emancipated slave’s lament for Lincoln to the Vedas—all to show that “the fundamental laws of morality, and the religious aspirations of mankind, have been strikingly similar always and everywhere.” The color of the opal varies as the light varies, but it remains the same gem.
Prejudice too remained. “It is strange that anything so irrational as prejudice should be so difficult to eradicate,” she wrote to Robert Purvis, a Black founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. She would not give up: “All we can do is to work for the right with might and main.” She died in 1880.