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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 657


This is the grave of Lydia Maria Child.

Lydia Maria Francis was born in 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts. Going by her middle name her whole life and pronouncing it “Mariah,” she grew up in a ministerial family. Her older brother went to Harvard and became a Unitarian minister. Of course, this path was cut off for a woman. She went to a women’s school and prepared to become a teacher. Her mother died and she spent a good chunk of her childhood years with family in Maine. Her brother, seeing her potential, took her in and exposed her to the best education he could, including reading the classics.

Child began writing as a young woman. She was asked to review a book and it inspired her to write her first novel. Hobomok came out in 1824 and was a remarkable subject–a white women who has a child by a Native man and who attempts to raise the child in white society. It was initially shunned for engaging in a taboo subject. But Francis was a rising star in the Boston literary society and it soon became respected by the rest of that group. She taught for awhile to support herself and created Juvenile Miscellany in 1826, an early periodical specifically for children. Then in 1828, married David Child, a journalist.

After her marriage, Child turned full-time to writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Her most well-known book was an early book of housekeeping titled The Frugal Housewife, part of the burgeoning literature for middle-class women on proper housekeeping. Published in 1829, it had 33 printings over the next 25 years.

But Child’s biggest contribution would be toward reform causes. She and her husband became influenced by the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Child went further though. She believed that the status of slaves was similar to that of women in marriages. Of course it wasn’t and Child didn’t really know slavery, but she very much knew the oppression women faced in their marriages, even if she was in a largely supportive one in the beginning. She fought for equal participation of women in the anti-slavery movement, which often upset the men who ran that movement. In 1833, she published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, a book that argued for the immediate emancipation of slaves without compensation to their masters. She was the first American woman to write on book on this subject and one of the first whites to write on this period. She suffered a real social backlash for this. It’s worth remembering that abolitionism was seen as a freak show movement, even by other reformers at the peak of the Second Great Awakening. You had to be pretty out there to be supporting abolitionism. And when she argued for not only emancipation but education and equality, well that was way way out there. The Juvenile Miscellany shut down after outraged parents cancelled their subscriptions.

She helped organize the first anti-slavery fairs in Boston, in 1834, intended to raise funds for the movement. She became editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1841, one of the most important abolitionist newspapers in the country. She kept doing that for three years and then served another year as her husband’s assistant when he took it over. This was also an important personal milestone, as she and her husband had moved to Massachusetts in 1838 so he could run a beet sugar manufacturing operation. She stopped writing for those three years and this revived her life. Overall, her marriage became a bit rough. Her husband was terrible at making money and it put a lot of stress on the relationship.

Child continued to write anti-slavery fiction through these years. In much of this, she dealt with the sexual exploitation that respectable society didn’t want to talk about. It was hard enough to talk about this in the burgeoning Victorian society of middle-class America. But there was room in abolitionist circles for portraying women as innocent victims of men and certainly slaves were. She was also involved in the growing women’s rights movement and the atmosphere of women’s intellectualism during the Transcendental years, including working closely with Margaret Fuller.

As the abolitionist movement split over the use of violence to resist slavery, Child left the American Anti-Slavery Society. Horrified by violence generally, she refused to countenance it, even against the horrors of slavery. But the horrors of the slave power in Kansas and the beating of Charles Sumner, her personal friend, on the Senate floor changed her mind about violence, which she now began to believe was necessary. She was an early sympathizer with John Brown after his famous raid on Harpers’ Ferry, after most of his allies had abandoned him, however briefly, and attempted to go to Virginia to visit him. In 1860, building on her previous work exposing the sexual exploitation of slavery, Child edited and wrote the introduction to Harriet JacobsIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And while that story definitely has Child’s hand in the way it was presented for respectable white female audiences, it is also one of the most remarkable books in American history, one that still resonates today. The Childs also opened their home for the Underground Railroad, helping spirit slaves to Canada after the horrific Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and signed by Millard Fillmore.

Child was pretty quiet in the Civil War years, mostly staying at home. She did write a book called The Freedmen’s Book that was published in 1865 and pressed the idea that the former slaves should have self-respect and fight for their rights. She also worked on her last novel, A Romance of the Republic, published in 1867, which followed two mulatto women in New Orleans who marry into Boston society where they are accepted. This…was not a realistic portrayal of race relations in Boston, but you have to respect her trying.

Later in life, Child moved toward the protection of Native rights at the time when the American generals who had defeated treason in defense of slavery turned to use those same tactics to commit genocide, such as Phil Sheridan. She was influential enough to have an effect. In 1868, she published An Appeal for the Indians, in which she argued for a humane policy toward them. This inspired other reformers, such as Peter Cooper, to get involved on the issue. It also helped push Ulysses Grant to push his Peace Policy as president, much to the chagrin of Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman. The Peace Policy…wasn’t exactly peace though, even if it wasn’t outright genocide.

Child died in 1880, at the age of 78. In his eulogy, her old abolitionist comrade Wendell Phillips said, “We felt that neither fame, nor gain, nor danger, nor calumny had any weight with her.”

Lydia Maria Child is buried in North Cemetery, Wayland, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wendell Phillips’ grave seems to have been lost, which is kind of sad. John Brown is in North Elba, New York and Elijah Lovejoy is in Alton, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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