October 20, 1880

Lydia Maria Child Dies

PRIMARY SOURCE: Letter, 1859
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On this day in 1880, Lydia Maria Child, whom abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called "the first woman in the Republic," was buried in Wayland. A successful novelist and magazine editor and the author of a widely read guide to household economy, she sacrificed her career by taking a highly unpopular stand against slavery. Her anti-slavery work enraged most of the nation and cost Child dearly. She could no longer sell her books or publish her writings, and she lost her job at a children's magazine. But Child continued to argue eloquently and courageously against injustice of all kinds. The eulogist at her funeral declared that Lydia Maria Child was "ready to die for a principle and starve for an idea. . . ."

. . . she was only 22 when she published a novel in which a colonial New England girl falls in love and bears a child with a noble native man.

Born in 1802, Lydia Maria Child grew up under the wing of her bookish older brother; she had more opportunity than most girls to read, study, and debate new ideas. As she matured, she became a serious religious searcher and a staunch individualist. An independent thinker with a soft spot for the downtrodden, she was only 22 when she published a novel in which a colonial New England girl falls in love and bears a child with a noble native man. The novel brought her instant commercial success and celebrity; other novels and stories followed. Soon she was invited to edit a popular children's magazine. At a time when few women had a chance to earn a decent living, Lydia Maria Child had established herself as a well-paid professional.

In 1828 she married David Child, an idealistic but impractical lawyer. He nearly ruined the couple financially by continually investing their resources in good causes and quixotic ventures that failed. In 1829 Maria published a practical guide for housewives who were trying, as she was, to live economically. The ingenious little text, The Frugal Housewife, sold extremely well and brought Child economic security and even greater popularity.

"While we bestow our earnest disapprobation on the system of slavery, let us not flatter ourselves that we are in reality any better than our brethren of the South."

Within two years of publishing The Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child's life would change dramatically. In 1831 the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator. The two met and Child was converted to Garrison's view that slavery was so morally repugnant it should be abolished immediately.

By daring to condemn slavery at a time when abolition was still highly unpopular even in the North, Child became the object of national hatred. Almost overnight, she lost her livelihood, her popularity, and her reputation. She was undeterred, insisting "I want to shoot the accursed institution from all quarters of the globe. I think, from this time till I die, I shall stop firing only long enough to load my guns." Child devoted the rest of her long life to fighting discrimination in all forms.

She poured her heart into an eloquent and carefully argued attack on slavery, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. The book graphically describes the horrific conditions of slave life, analyzes the ways slavery violated Christian teaching, and calls on all Americans — especially northerners — to commit themselves to abolition. In a typically hard hitting passage, Child wrote, "While we bestow our earnest disapprobation on the system of slavery, let us not flatter ourselves that we are in reality any better than our brethren of the South. Thanks to our soil and climate, . . . slavery does not exist among us; but the very spirit of the hateful and mischievous thing is here in all its strength. . . . Our prejudice against colored people is even more inveterate than it is at the South."

"No woman in this country . . . sacrificed so much for principles as Mrs. Child."

The publication of this highly controversial work all but ruined Child's career. People stopped buying her old books, and publishers would not accept anything new from her. She lost her position editing the children's magazine, and she and her husband struggled to make ends meet. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier later remembered, that "her praises were suddenly silenced. No woman in this country . . . sacrificed so much for principles as Mrs. Child."

But her career was not over. She continued to express her opinions freely and openly regardless of their popularity. She found a new audience as the editor of the weekly National Anti-Slavery Standard. She published a collection of her letters and completed a three-volume work that included her often critical assessment of various religious doctrines.

In 1859 Lydia Maria Child once more became the object of public condemnation. An admirer of John Brown, she wrote to him offering to nurse his wounds after the disastrous raid at Harper's Ferry. Brown declined, but the letter, along with a scathing response from Virginia's governor and a vicious attack on Child's character, were published and widely read. She responded in print, and was soon back at the center of fierce controversy. She defended herself ably and eloquently in a series of letters that remain articulate and moving statements of moral courage.

After the Civil War, Child worked tirelessly on behalf of equal rights for the former slaves, for Native Americans, and for women. She never stopped writing. Over the course of her life, she published more than 40 books and countless stories and poems.

If You Go

Wayland, Massachusetts, was Lydia Maria Child's home between 1853 and 1880. Her former home at 91 Old Sudbury Road is still a private residence. She was a member of the First Parish of Wayland and was buried in the town's North Cemetery.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Notable American Women, Vol. 1.

Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, ed. by Peter Hughes, et al.

The First Woman in the Republic, by Carolyn L. Karcher (Duke University Press, 1994).

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