Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Francis was born in Medford, Massachusetts on 11th February, 1802. In her twenties Child began to write popular historical novels such as Hobomok (1824) and The Rebels (1825). In 1826 established a periodical for children called Juvenile Miscellany. Her book, The Frugal Housewife (1829), was especially popular with the American public.

After hearing William Lloyd Garrison speak at a public meeting in 1831 Child began involved in the campaign against slavery. This included her book An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833). This book converted people such as Charles Sumner to the cause but upset her traditional readers and sales of her other books dropped dramatically. She was eventually forced to cease publication of Juvenile Miscellany and instead she started with her husband, David Lee Child, a weekly newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Standard.

In 1839 Child and two other women, Lucretia Mott and Maria Weston Chapman were elected to the executive committee of the Anti-Slavery Society. This upset some members of the society were extremely upset by this decision. Lewis Tappan, the brother of Arthur Tappan, the president of the society, argued that: "To put a woman on the committee with men is contrary to the usages of civilized society."

Whereas one leaders, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass were as committed to women's rights as they were to the abolition of slavery. Others disagreed with this view and in 1840 a group including Arthur Tappan, James Birney and Gerrit Smith left the Anti-Slavery Society and formed a rival organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

Lydia Maria Child (1882)
Lydia Maria Child

In 1861 Child controversially helped Harriet Jacobs publish Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. At the time the book was condemned because of the way it dealt with the sexual exploitation of young female slaves. Jacobs was also highly critical of the role of the Church in maintaining slavery.

Child also became concerned about the rights of women and Native Americans. This was reflected in the publication of History of the Condition of Woman in Various Ages and Nations and An Appeal for the Indians.

Lydia Maria Francis died on 7th July, 1880, in Wayland, Massachusetts.

Primary Sources

(1) Lydia Maria Child, was a strong opponent of capital punishment. She explained her views on the subject in her book, Letters from New York (1846)

A few years ago, a poor German came to New York and took lodgings where he was allowed to do his cooking in the same room with the family. The husband and wife lived in a perpetual quarrel. One day the German came into the kitchen with a clasp knife and a pan of potatoes, and began to pare them for his dinner. The quarrelsome couple were in a more violent altercation than usual; but he sat with his back toward them, and, being ignorant of their language, felt in no danger of being involved in their disputes. But the woman, with a sudden and unexpected movement, snatched the knife from his hand, and plunged it in her husband's heart. She had sufficient presence of mind to rush into the street and scream murder. The poor foreigner, in the meanwhile, seeing the wounded man reel, sprang forward to catch him in his arms and drew out the knife. People from the street crowded in and found him with the dying man in his arms, the knife in his hand, and blood upon his clothes. The wicked woman swore, in the most positive terms, that he had been fighting with her husband and had stabbed him with a knife he always carried.

The unfortunate German knew too little English to understand her accusation or to tell his own story. He was dragged off to prison, and the true state of the case was made known through an interpreter; but it was not believed. Circumstantial evidence was exceedingly strong against the accused, and the real criminal swore unhesitatingly that she saw him commit the murder. He was executed, notwithstanding the most persevering efforts of his lawyer, John Anthon, Esq., whose convictions of the man's innocence were so painfully strong that from that day to this he has refused to have my connection with a capital case. Some years after this tragic event, the woman died, and on her deathbed confessed her

agency in the diabolical transaction; but her poor victim could receive no benefit from his tardy repentance; society had wantonly thrown away its power to atone for the grievous wrong.

(2) Lydia Maria Child, controversially helped Harriet Jacobs publish her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

I have revised her manuscript; but such changes as I have made have been mainly for purposes of condensation and orderly arrangement. I have not added any thing to the incidents, or changed the import of her very pertinent remarks. With trifling exceptions, both the ideas and the language are her own. I pruned excrescences a little, but otherwise I had no reason for changing her lively and dramatic way of telling her own story. The names of both persons and places are known to me; but for good reasons I suppress them.

It will naturally excite surprise that a woman reared in slavery should be able to write so well. But circumstances will explain this. In the first place, nature endowed her with quick perceptions. Secondly, the mistress, with whom she lived till she was twelve years old, was a kind, considerate friend, who taught her to read and spell. Thirdly, she was placed in favorable circumstances after she came to the North; having frequent intercourse with intelligent persons, who felt a friendly interest in her welfare, and were disposed to give her opportunities for self-improvement.

I am well aware that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these pages to the public; for the experiences of this intelligent and much-injured woman belong to a class which some call delicate subjects, and others indelicate. This peculiar phase of slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them. I do it with the hope of arousing conscientious and reflecting women at the North to a sense of their duty in the exertion of moral influence on the question of slavery, on all possible occasions. I do it with the hope that every man who reads this narrative will swear solemnly before God that, so far as he has power to prevent it, no fugitive from slavery shall ever be sent back to suffer in that loathsome den of corruption and cruelty.

(3) Lydia Maria Child, The Anecdote of Elias Hicks (1839)

The following anecdote was told to me by a member of the Society of Friends. It made a strong impression on my mind, because it shows so clearly the excellence of a bold meekness and Christian firmness in the discharge of duty; because it adds another fact to prove that he who trusts in moral power hath ever a brave indifference to threats of physical violence.

When Elias Hicks was preaching in Virginia, many years ago, he took occasion to bear a powerful testimony against the sin of slavery. Among the large audience collected together by the fame of his eloquence were several planters; and they, of course, were sorely aggrieved by his remarks. One in particular was so filled with wrath, that he swore vehemently he would blow out the preacher's brains, if he ventured near his plantation.

When this threat was repeated to Elias, he quietly put on his hat and proceeded straightway to the forbidden spot. In answer to his inquiries, a slave informed him that his master was then at dinner, but would see him in a short time.

The preacher seated himself, and waited quietly until the planter entered the room. In serene tones he addressed him thus: "Friend, I understand thou hast threatened to blow out the brains of Elias Hicks, if he comes near thy plantation. I am Elias Hicks!"

What could brute force do in a dilemma like this? To have taken pistols and deliberately shot an unresisting guest would have been too assassin-like. It would have been a deed of ill appearance; and moreover it could not be done, by reason of a restraining power within. Earnestly, as the planter might wish the preacher in heaven, he could not, under such circumstances, help to send him thither. He did the best he could to sustain his position. He stammered forth, in surly tones, an acknowledgment that he did make use of such a threat; and he considered it perfectly justifiable when a man came to preach rebellion to his slaves.

"Friend," replied Elias, "I came to preach the Gospel, which inculcates forgiveness of injuries upon slaves, as well as upon other men; but tell me, if thou can, how this Gospel can be truly preached without showing the slaves that they are injured, and without making a man of thy sentiments feel as if they were encouraged in rebellion."

This led to a long argument, maintained in the most friendly spirit. At parting, the slaveholder cordially shook hands with the Quaker, and begged him to come again. His visits were renewed; and six months after, the Virginian emancipated all his slaves.

(4) Lydia Maria Child, The Emancipated of Slaveholders (1839)

The Anti-Slavery conflict is so prolonged, and so arduous, that even abolitionists of strongest faith at times grow weary. During such brief seasons of discouragement, nothing is more cheering, than proof that our appeals have not fallen powerless on the hearts of slaveholders themselves. From time to time, welcome tidings of this kind gladden our souls, and strengthen them for renewed effort.

Professor Stowe, of Lane Seminary, recently told me an incident highly interesting and encouraging. He was traveling in the interior of Ohio, and found some difficulty in procuring a supper and lodging for the night. Under these circumstances, he asked and received the hospitality of a family residing in the second story of a building filled with many occupants. A woman, with three or four children around her, spread the table and cooked supper in the same room, which, like the cobbler's stall, served them "for kitchen for parlor and all." The furniture was scanty, and the general aspect of things indicated a state of deprivation bordering on poverty. The woman herself was extremely pretty, intelligent, and lady-like. The delicacy of her hands, the refinement of her manners, and the cultivation of her mind, all implied that her life had not been passed among such scenes as now surrounded her. When her husband came in, his manners and conversation gave similar evidence. The curiosity of their guest was so much excited, that he ventured to inquire how such people as they obviously were came to be in such a place, and under such circumstances.

They told him they were formerly slaveholders in Virginia; but the more they thought upon the subject, the more difficult they found it to reconcile the system of slavery with the dictates of their own consciences. At last, they resolved to emancipate their slaves, to seek the wilds of Ohio, and earn a living for themselves and children by the labor of their own hands.

When asked whether she had not found the sacrifice a very great one, she replied, "At first, labor fatigued me so much, that I feared I never should be able to do all that was necessary for the comfort of my family; but now I have become accustomed to it, and find it easy. It is a privilege to dispense with the lazy, sluttish, and reluctant service of slaves. Never did we feel what it was to be truly free ourselves, till we had made them free."

Professor Stowe added that very many of the more reflecting slaveholders in Kentucky had removed to Ohio, within a few years; their consciences having become ill at ease under the public discussion of slavery. A friend in Philadelphia informs me that a similar emigration is going on from Virginia to Pennsylvania.