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Anticipating Progressive Era Refonners: Lydia Maria Child and the Mothering State JULIE HUSBAND Because of their vocal criticism of slavery, abolitionists, often by default, have been characterized as proponents ofthe emergingsystem ofwage labor. Lydia Maria Child, as a case in point, might easily be accused of acting as an apologist for the wagelabor system. She opposed the ten-hour movement and considered labor unions just as socially destructive as employer cartels . In fact, Child regarded "free labor" as an essentially moral system provided that its "worst abuses" could be curbed. N onetheless , she was an outspoken critic ofthe unregulated, laissezfaire capitalism that was developing in New York in the early 1840s. Child struggled to represent industrializing New York City and to prescribe remedies for the widespread poverty, lawlessness , and social tensions she saw emanating from economic changes in the North. In her writings about Southern slavery, Child tended to move from policy prescriptions to fictional forms that advanced these policy prescriptions; in her treatment of Northern socioeconomic reforms, however, the two emerged together. Child's "Letters from New-York" offer a glimpse of a practiced social critic as she formed her thoughts about the new urban, industrial society and as she experimented with idioms for describing it. In 1841 Child moved from Boston to NewYork to become the first female editor of an antislavery newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. During her nine years in NewYork she traveled extensively through working-class neighborhoods and ESQ I v. 50 14TH QUARTER I2004 283 A childselling her wares on the street. From Solon Robinson's bestselling Hot Corn, Life Scenes in New York Illustrated ... (New York, De Witt and Davenport), facing 4:8. This 1854: collection ofstones, set in the slums of Five Points, inspired several stage dramatizations. CHILD AND mE MOTHERING STATE toured prisons, courts, and orphanages. institutions closely associated with the city's growing working class. The section of the NationalAnti-Slavery Standard most consistently concerned with NewYork's working population, and the most popular part of the paper, was her column, "Letters from New-York." Addressed to an anonymous male friend, the letters combined descriptions ofNewYork's neighborhoods with reviews of cultural events and tourist sites. These letters, she claimed, were her opportunity to "turn wearily aside from the dusty road of reforming duty, to gather flowers in sheltered nooks•. or play with gems in hidden grottoes.'" More accurately, they became her opportunity to study the most industrialized city in the United States during the antebellum period and, under the guise of offering unedited and uneditoriahzed sketches, to develop a sometimes penetrating and sometimes conflicted analysis of class, race, and gender in the new urban landscape. Compared to her antislavery writings, the "Letters from N ewYork " are more speculative and more self-conscious, as if she were experimenting with various ways of representing an entirely new experience. The tone is an inviting one that appeals to a broad audience. Indeed, when Child left the NationalAntiSlavery Standard in r843, the Boston Courier continued the series, and she published a second series in 1846.2 The most prevalent figure to emerge in the "Letters from N ew-York" to represent the failures of "free labor" is the street child, a child prematurely thrust into the market economy with little parental supervision, emotional support, or social training . As Child focused on images of street children, she developed a critique of the excessive freedom oflaissez-faire capitalism . She articulated a theory of the "mothering state" that guided her choice of urban reforms in the North and prefigured the maternalist politics that characterize many reform organizations in the later Progressive Era. The argument advanced here responds primarily to two longstanding debates. One concerns the relationship between antislavery agitation and capitalism. Contemporaneous proslavery writers such as journal editor James D. B. DeBow, Senator John C. Calhoun, domestic noveIist Caroline Lee Hentz, and many others characterized antislavery activists as a 285 JUUE HUSBAND grasping and hypocritical group. They claimed that abolitionists tried to export a system of wage labor for personal profit and disguised their motives by claiming to be concerned with the plight of slaves. Calhoun, for example, in an 1847 speech inveighing against proposed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 283-314
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-11
Open Access
No
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