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REVIEW: Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life

by Andy O’Brien

Originally appeared in The Bollard, January, 2023

Lydia Maria Child isn’t commonly read today, but in the 1800s she was a very popular author and a powerful and compassionate voice for abolition, racial justice and indigenous rights. In her novels, pamphlets and children’s stories she openly challenged white supremacy, often at the expense of her livelihood. In her new book, Lydia Marie Child: A Radical American Life, Colby College professor Lydia Moland provides an intimate portrait of Child rendered via her work and correspondence with prominent anti-slavery men and women like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Jacobs, Angelina Grimke, the radical John Brown, and various close confidants. 

Born in 1802 in Medford, Mass., Lydia Maria Francis was raised by hard-working Calvinist parents in a household described as “cold, shaded, and uncongenial.” Her father was a dour, frugal and puritanical man who strongly believed in the Protestant work ethic and had little use for frivolous things like novels. Young Lydia, despite this, was a spirited and inquisitive girl who developed a life-long love of reading under the tutelage of her older brother, Convers. 

After her mother died of tuberculosis in 1813, Lydia was sent at age 13 to live with her adult sister in the small village of Norridgewock, Maine. Moland writes that the year Lydia arrived, a flood in Norridgewock brought down a tree that revealed a church bell left intact after the 1724 British massacre of Abenaki Indians and Father Sébastien Rale, a French Jesuit missionary. Teenage Lydia befriended some of the local Abenaki. She ate meals with them, heard their stories and realized how indigenous people had been grievously wronged.

After a brief stint teaching in Gardiner, Lydia moved back to Boston in her early 20s to live with Convers, who had become a Unitarian minister. It was there she launched her literary career, in 1824, with her taboo-breaking first novel, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Time, about a love triangle between a young white woman, an Englishman and a Native American warrior. Although some reviewers condemned the book for its scandalous content, she used her connection with Boston luminary George Ticknor to secure a favorable review that catapulted sales of the book. She was invited to the famous drawing rooms of Beacon Hill and was rubbing shoulders with Boston’s elite.

Child followed up the success of her debut novel with self-help books like her popular Frugal Housewife, and Juvenile Miscellany, the first monthly periodical for children. Her children’s books offered advice on how to be virtuous citizens in the young democratic republic. In her imaginary conversations between “Aunt Maria” and her nephew, Child wasn’t afraid to address controversial issues like slavery and the savage treatment of Native Americans. But, as Moland notes, her early writings were also deeply flawed, reflecting the views of elite, Northern, white society.

It was “desirable” to help Indians become happy and prosperous, Aunt Lydia told her nephew, but “probably not worth the effort,” because they would likely “cease to exist” in a few hundred years anyway. Aunt Maria sternly rebukes her nephew for saying Southern slave owners are “cruel” for keeping slaves, because “our Southern brethren have an abundance of kind and generous feeling.” 

In 1828 she married a rebellious young journalist named David Lee Child. Possessed of more passion than common sense, David Child is described by Moland as a “walking financial disaster” who hopped from one failed venture to the next. The couple racked up mountains of debt and went through periodic spells of bankruptcy due to David Child’s penchant for libeling powerful men in his newspaper, and his failed attempt to grow sugar beets in an effort to break the Southern slaveocracy’s sugar monopoly. Moland’s descriptions of their turbulent, yet romantic, relationship read almost like a novel.

After Lydia Child became radicalized by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, in 1833 she wrote An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, the first book-length anti-slavery tract by a white woman in the U.S. A radical book for its time, An Appeal called for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people without compensation for their white masters. She exposed and assailed the very idea of white supremacy, arguing that the “removal of this prejudice is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of duty.”

Moland writes of how Child believed that by participating in a racist society, she shared a responsibility for its institutional injustices and railed against Northern whites for enabling slavery to continue. “If the free states wished to cherish a system of slavery forever,” Child once wrote, “they could not take a more direct course than they do now.”

But Moland does not allow more “enlightened” white readers of today to get off the hook, noting that in 2017, the net worth of white Bostonians was $247,500, while for indigenous Black Bostonians it was just $8. “Let’s not flatter ourselves,” she cautions.

The subversive Appeal sparked shock and outrage. Preachers denounced Child from their pulpits for undermining societal norms. She wasblacklisted, ostracized and booted from Boston’s elite society. But Child’s courage earned her admiration among the burgeoning abolitionist movement. 

Using the personal letters of Child and her fellow activists, Moland documents the movement’s internal struggles. These organizations were dominated by white men, even though women were instrumental in circulating petitions, fundraising and other critical organizing work. Child and other female abolitionists literally put their bodies on the line to protect male anti-slavery speakers from club-wielding, anti-abolitionist mobs.

Nevertheless, abolitionist women were mocked in newspapers as a “parcel of silly women” and “petticoat philanthropists” (not unlike the sexist rhetoric of today about “social justice warriors” and “blue-haired commies”). When conservative male clergy finally expressed interest in joining the abolitionist movement, they refused to get involved unless the radical women were “put back in their place.”

Garrison insisted the movement advocate for all truths, including women’s rights and temperance. And as Moland notes, abolitionists also struggled with the perennial question of whether to participate in electoral politics. Some founded the short-lived Liberty Party to run anti-slavery candidates. Members would later join the Free Soil Party in 1848, before it merged into the Republican Party in the 1850s. Garrison chose to abstain from voting while the government sanctioned slavery, which caused a split in the movement in 1840.

“To some, Garrison’s withdrawal [from politics] looked less like an embrace of truth and more than an abdication of duty,” writes Moland. “To others it looked like selfishness and self absorption. By following this line of thought, Garrison could congratulate himself on his purity of conscience while others did the dirty work of compromise and persuasion.”

As editor of the National Slavery Standard, the official weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Child was caught between both sides. For Child, Moland writes, it was the “old problem that has puzzled the world eighteen hundred years” since Jesus’ death: “Can individuals living in the midst of a wicked world conduct [themselves] precisely as they would, if… earth was made a Heaven?”

Moland also highlights the schism over tactics between white abolitionists like Child and Garrison and Black activists like Frederick Douglass and Peter Paul Simmons. Garrison’s side long believed in the flawed “uplift suasion” strategy, which relied on the belief that more white people would become abolitionists if more Black people became respectable. This stubborn idea, still held by many white conservatives, suggests racist stereotypes about Black people are valid and that it’s the responsibility of Black people to change these perceptions by being better behaved. As Simmons said in 1839, white Americans’ obsession with the “moral elevation of our people” was “nothing but a conspicuous scarecrow designed expressly … to hinder our people from acting collectively for themselves. We must show ACTION! ACTION! ACTION!”

Moland notes that Child departed from the Garrisonians over their calls for Northern states to secede due to slavery, as well as their advocacy of “come-outism,” which demanded abolitionists “come out” of any organization or church that didn’t explicitly condemn slavery. Child hated confrontation and insisted that moderates could still be moved to become radicals. She felt that hardline purity politics alienated potentially sympathetic whites.

“I see fragments of truth in all, and the whole of truth in none,” Child wrote, noting that some may quit a church over its pro-slavery attitude, but “another may honestly think he can do more good by remaining within the association, and exerting his influence to purify it.”

Like many activists, at times Child suffered from intense bouts of despair when it seemed like the movement wasn’t getting anywhere. As Moland observes, Child could “retreat to her novels,” but it was life or death for African Americans. Moland also points out that Child was not immune to the prejudices of her time. She could be patronizing and condescending toward Black people. She believed in the racist, pseudoscientific practice of phrenology, which equated skull shapes with the capacity of intelligence. But Child was constantly evolving and looking for new ways to use her influence and privilege to help lift up the most marginalized people in society.

The abolitionist movement was very effective in forcing Southern elites to become more and more extreme in their reactions to anti-slavery activism. Southern politicians cracked down on free speech by banning abolitionist newspapers and imposing a “gag rule” on discussion of anti-slavery petitions in Congress. They passed the Fugitive Slave Act, effectively making every white Northerner a “slavecatcher,” and the Supreme Court’s abhorrent Dred Scott decision created a massive expansion of slavery into US territories, denied African Americans citizenship rights and struck down the Missouri Compromise.  These egregious policies, along with numerous violent acts by pro-slavery mobs, made moderate white Northerners realize that no one would be free if the authoritarian slave power continued to expand.

Following the war until Child’s death in 1880, white terrorist violence against newly emancipated Black workers intensified, the North abandoned Reconstruction and Jim Crow took hold in the South. Child knew the fight for justice and equality was far from over. “When people ask me if I am thankful to have to seen justice done to the negro,” Child wrote, “I reply, ‘If I do live to see justice done to the negro, I shall be very thankful.’”

As white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville and January 6th insurrectionists unfurled a Confederate flag in the U.S. Capitol — not far from the portrait of Child’s friend, Charles Sumner — Moland sought to find answers, through Child’s example, of how to conduct one’s life when confronted by sanctioned evil and systemic injustice. As she shows in her book, Child’s path is certainly an exemplary one to follow.

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