A Famous Author’s Fall

Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) may be the most famous person whose name almost always draws a blank in this day and age. Called “the first woman in the Republic” by the pioneering abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (publisher of The Liberator), Child was such a brilliant author and passionate social crusader she practically deserves a place on our coins. This trailblazer in children’s and home-and-hearth literature had a huge following, but she paid a steep price when she broke new ground in books assailing the oppression of American Indians and black slaves.

I discovered Child when co-authoring an American-history-in-a-nutshell book titled Oh, Say Did You Know? (2009). A little later, in 2011, I gave this dedicated woman her due in a book on the Civil War, a conflict about which the exceedingly literate Mrs. Child had much to say. Following are excerpts from the profiles in both books – not surprisingly, with a few repetitions. But if Lydia Maria Child’s achievements and good deeds don’t bear repeating, whose do?

The Astonishing Mrs. Child

The very concept of literature for children was new when Child founded The Juvenile Miscellany, the nation’s first periodical for children, in 1826. That was but one of the accomplishments of the socially conscious Mrs. Child. Her books devoted to domestic life, especially in low-income households, included The American Frugal Housewife (1829) and The Mother’s Book (1831). The woman born Lydia Francis in Medford, Massachusetts, also made her mark in…

  • Editing and journalism. Child was editor of the weekly National Anti-Slavery Standard and published an anthology of her regular columns as Letters from New-York, which threw light on such issues as capital punishment and the plight of the urban poor.
  • Poetry. “Over the River and Through the Woods” was only one of Child’s many poems, as familiar today as it was in the 1900s. (The original second line – “To Grandfather’s house we go” – reflected the decisively dominant status of males in the Victorian era. Later, the poem was not only set to music but the house became Grandmother’s.)
  • Activism. Child’s An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) took a defiant stand against slavery and became a key work of the abolition movement. Her History of the Condition of Women (1835) foreshadowed feminism and was praised by suffragist stalwart Elizabeth Cady Stanton as an invaluable resource in the fight for women’s rights.

Child’s interest in the welfare of American Indians literally bookended her writings. Her first work, the novel Hobokom, A Tale of Early Times (1824) was a sympathetic look at the life of indigenous peoples through the eyes of a white woman wed to an Indian. Her last, An Appeal for the Indians (1868) helped spur the move to establish the federal Board of Indian Commissioners and, in turn, the Peace Policy advanced by the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.

— pages 152–153,  Oh, Say Did You Know? (Reader’s Digest, 2009)

Child vs. the Governor

In 1828 Lydia Maria Francis married David Child, editor of Boston’s Massachusetts Journal, an organ of the Conscience Whigs (the Whig Party’s antislavery faction). As fate would have it, the radical abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison worked briefly at the Journal, and the more Mrs. Child learned of his views, the more she explored “the Negro question.”

The year 1833 saw publication of her fearlessly frank Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, said by some modern-day scholars to be the volume from which all other abolitionist books grew. Woven through the Appeal was a reasoned denunciation of racial prejudice – a call for social justice that incensed most of Child’s adoring readers. Demand for her books and children’s magazine died on the vine, and many of her closest friends deserted her. On the other side of the coin, the Appeal strongly influenced orator Wendell Phillips, Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and other brilliant young thinkers.

Among Lydia Maria Child’s acquaintances was John Brown. As the mad-dog abolitionist lay in a Virginia prison cell awaiting execution after the raid at Harpers Ferry, Child wrote Governor Henry A. Wise and asked permission to visit her friend. The governor granted her request in a letter dripping with sarcasm and condescension. He also pointedly suggested that Child and anyone else who failed to demonize John Brown shared the fanatic’s guilt.

The letter to Gov. Wise somehow found its way into the pages of the New York Tribune. in the meantime, Mrs. Child’s blistering reply to the governor, complete with glorification of the abolitionist cause and indictments of slavery, hypocrisy, and imperialism, elicited an angry letter from the wife of James Mason, the senator from Virginia. Child’s response to Mrs. Mason soared to even greater rhetorical heights. The ever-observant abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison found these debates-by-pen so noteworthy he transcribed them in a pamphlet and printed 300,000 copies. Today the letters live on in book form, under the title Correspondence Between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia.

Lydia Maria Child’s voice was silenced forever in October 1880. At her funeral, eulogist Wendell Phillips spoke for legions of mourners when he proclaimed, “We felt neither fame, nor gain, nor danger, nor calumny had any weight with her… She sought honestly to act out her thought… and she was ready to die for a principle and starve for an idea.”

— pages 36–38, I Used to Know That: Civil War (Reader’s Digest, 2011)

5 Responses to A Famous Author’s Fall

  • Judith anderson says:

    Thank you for introducing me to Lydia Maria Child. The timing of reading your introduction was perfect as I had just finished reading an inspiring article in The New Yorker about Shulasmith Firestone and was on a feminist high. I’m now on a search for more info on Child.

    • Fred says:

      It’s not the only biography of Child out there, but I consulted Carolyn L. Karcher’s The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child, published by Duke University Press in 1994. Good luck!

  • Phillip Mitchell says:

    I read Oh, Say Did You Know? and completely missed the John Brown tie-in. Thank you for this and keep up the good works!!!

    • Fred says:

      Phillip, that’s because the tie-in was in the Civil War book. BUT, if we’re able to expand Oh, Say Did You Know as hoped, Mrs. Child’s effort to visit the imprisoned John Brown will certainly be included.

  • Claudia Hitchcock says:

    This is terrific! Thanks for putting this on your website…Can’t wait to read more! History is a reawakened passion of mine, and I look forward to “filling in the blanks”!

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