- Lydia Maria Child:Abolitionism and the New England Spirit
lydia maria child (1802–1880) was one of the best-known women intellectuals of the nineteenth century on the American scene, and yet her name is not often heard today.1 Although it might seem gratuitous to attempt to label a thinker—and, in some cases, not only unnecessary, but demeaning—there is ample reason to think that Child can be called a transcendentalist, as well as an early abolitionist and feminist. In any case, the independent and very forward-looking work of this woman thinker of her time, it can be argued, deserves further consideration and is not without philosophical import.
Child’s name comes up now because there is renewed interest in a number of circles in the efforts of abolitionists, both black and white. It is also the case that recent scholarly work on the Grimké sisters, Charlotte Forten, and Margaret Fuller, among others, signals to us that a line of thought revolving around a number of progressive issues, and also at least minimally linked to philosophical movements, can be drawn through the latter half of the nineteenth century. Child had the good fortune to be living and working primarily in Boston, and thus was exposed to a range of individuals whose work turned out to be crucial not only for the anti-slavery cause, but for progressive work in general.2 It will be the argument of this paper that Child is a comparatively unheralded thinker, and one whose work develops and moves forward some transcendentalist themes. It is important to try to clarify the nature of her contributions because what has been written on her up to this point has often focused on her circle of social relationships.
Child was already a successful author in the Boston area at the time of the publication of perhaps her most famous work, An Appeal on Behalf of That [End Page 261] Class of Americans Called Africans (1833). Although Boston was a center for abolitionism, many who were at least mildly sympathetic to the cause were not at all pleased with the barrage of publications it produced, and the public in general regarded the leafleting and pamphleteering—particularly by women—as reprehensible. Detailing the wrongs done to slaves (as did David Walker, writing around the same time, and the Grimké sisters, among others), Child made the argument that religion and a sense of human duty demanded that the slaves be freed and accorded their rights.3 The outcry, at least from some of the more respectable Bostonians, was immediate and furious. Several individuals accused Child of either exaggerating or writing for the sake of incitement, or both. Her biographer, Deborah Clifford, remarks:
The North American Review, which had earlier been so fulsome in its praises of Maria’s writings, voiced regret in July 1835 “that a writer capable of being so agreeable, and at the same time so useful, should have departed from that line of authorship in which she has justly acquired a high reputation.”. . . [A] storm of protest arose. . . [Former admirers] were ready to disown her.4
Given all of the foregoing, one might wonder what drove Child to further the abolitionist cause, and how it was related to her other beliefs. Although Child had already published fiction at this time, and was far from unknown, a relatively unexamined part of her life has to do with Margaret Fuller and sources of influence in the larger sense. Despite the fact that Child’s acquaintance with Fuller is documented—and goes back to a very early portion of her life—what has not received close examination is the impact of Fuller’s life and work (and by extension, that of at least some of the other transcendentalists) on Child’s own work.5 When we remember not only Fuller’s “Conversations,” but her work with women in prisons and her general concern for social issues, it is readily apparent that Child moved in circles that probably provided a great deal of the impetus for the writing of the Appeal. As Madeleine Stern notes in her biography of Fuller with respect to Fuller’s pre-war...