Lydia Maria Child
Lydia Maria Child (1802 - 1880)
Abolitionist, author, editor, advocate for Native American and women’s rights
Lydia Maria (Francis) Child was born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1802. Her father, a baker, did not value education for girls, but Lydia’s older brother, Convers Francis, loved books and loaned them to his little sister. She became a prodigious reader and, from there, a prodigious writer. At age twenty-two, she published a novel entitled Hobomok which sympathetically recounted a relationship between a European settler and a Native American. She followed its success with another novel and by editing one of the country’s first periodicals for children, The Juvenile Miscellany. In 1829, she published The Frugal Housewife, a household manual that was reprinted twenty-eight times. By the time she was thirty, she was a beloved, trusted, and nationally-known author.
In 1828, she married the lawyer and journalist David Lee Child. Two years later, she met William Lloyd Garrison, the Boston-based abolitionist, and converted to abolitionism. This meant accepting the claim, still radical also among Northerners, that slavery should be abolished immediately and without compensation to enslavers. Three years later, she published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, a book-length denunciation of slavery’s atrocities, including chapters on economics, history, politics and arguments defending the intellectual and moral characters of the African race. In her final chapter, she blamed widespread racial prejudice among her fellow Northerners for slavery’s persistence in the United States. She was subsequently ostracized from Boston polite society, losing her readers and her income.
Child allied herself with other powerful female abolitionists, including Maria Weston Chapman, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Susan Paul, and Abby Kelley and was a leader in the Boston Anti-Slavery Society for many years. With Chapman, she attended and helped organize the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in 1837. During this decade, she wrote several other antislavery tracts, shielded abolitionist speakers from pro-slavery mobs, and wrote the two-volume History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations. Together with other female allies, she fought male abolitionists’ growing insistence that women should not speak in public even in defense of abolition (a controversy known as “the Woman Question”).
In 1838, she and her husband moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, to farm sugar beets in the hope of undermining the economic power of sugar cane grown by enslaved laborers. His combination of idealism and impracticality left them deeply in debt. In 1841, she moved to New York City to edit the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the weekly journal of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Infighting among abolitionists made this work unbearable, and in 1843 she resigned, resolving to fight slavery in other ways. Around this time, her husband went bankrupt and they separated for most of the next decade.
During this period, she published Letters from New York, a wide-ranging and philosophical reflection on New York City. She also wrote a three-volume history of religion, a biography of the Quaker abolitionist Isaac Hopper, more children’s literature, and the poem for which she is, ironically, famous: “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day,” otherwise known as “Over the River and Through the Wood.”
After years of isolation and disappointment, Child and her husband reunited in a home in Wayland, Massachusetts. In 1856, she reengaged in the antislavery struggle by writing The Kansas Emigrants, a serialized novel about pro-slavery violence in Kansas leading up to the presidential election. In 1859, John Brown and his men raided the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to instigate an insurrection against slavery. When the raid failed and Brown was captured, Child wrote to Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, asking permission to nurse Brown in prison. Clearly intending to humiliate her, Wise published her letter along with his reply in the press. Child used her journalist contacts to publish a closely-argued and biting reply. This infuriated a Virginia woman named Maria Jefferson Carr Mason, who attacked Child again in the press. Child responded with an even longer and more searing reply that distilled a lifetime of abolitionist activism. The entire set of letters was printed as a tract by the American Anti-Slavery Society and sold more than 300,000 copies.
In the last pre-war years, Child helped the formerly enslaved author Harriet Jacobs publish Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiographical account of her enslavement. Child’s involvement in this publication has been criticized by scholars concerned about ways in which she may have changed or controlled Jacobs’ story. The two women, however, remained friends for the rest of their lives.
During the Civil War, Child at first refused to support Union soldiers as long as they were being used to return enslaved fugitives to their masters. When this practice was discontinued, she coordinated relief efforts both for Union soldiers and for enslaved people seeking refuge near Union army bases. At the end of the war, she published The Freedmen’s Book, a primer intended to help newly emancipated people learn to read. She included several Black authors and biographies of Black scientists, statesmen, and artists. During Reconstruction, she published a novel entitled The Romance of the Republic which attempted to challenge the racism still flourishing throughout the country.
In the 1870s, Child’s publications focused on drawing attention to racial violence in the South, attacking the atrocities committed against Native Americans by the United States government, and on supporting the women’s rights movement. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony decided to oppose the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment that Black men but no women the vote, she sided instead with Lucy Stone and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in support of it.
David Lee Child died in 1874, after which Child divided her time between rented rooms in Boston and their home in Wayland. Her last publication was a book arguing for religious tolerance, entitled Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals (1878). She died in October, 1880 and was buried next to her husband in Wayland.
Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok. A Tale of Early Times. (1842). Boston: Cummings, Hilliard. Reprinted in Carolyn Karcher, ed., Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. (1986). Rutgers University Press.
Child, Lydia Maria. The First Settleres of New-England: or, Conquest of the Pequods, Narragansets and Pokanokets: As Related by a Mother to her Children, and Designated for the Instruction of Youth. (1829). Boston: Munroe & Francis.
Child, Lydia Maria. The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy. (1829). Boston: Marsh & Capen, and Carter & Hendee.
Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. (1833). Boston: Allen and Ticknor. Reprinted with an introduction by Carolyn Karcher, University of Massachusetts Press, 2023.
Child, Lydia Maria. History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations. (1835). Boston: John Allen.
Child, Lydia Maria. Anti-Slavery Catechism. (1836). Newburyport, Mass: Charles Whipple.
Child, Lydia Maria. Letters from New-York. (1843). New York: C.S. Francis. Reprinted (1998), ed. Bruce Mills. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Child, Lydia Maria. Isaac Hopper: A True Life. (1853). Boston: John P. Jewett.
Child, Lydia Maria. “The Kansas Emigrants.” (1857). In Autumnal leaves: Tales and Sketches in Prose and Rhyme. New York: C.S. Francis, 1857.
Child, Lydia Maria. Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia. (1860). Boston: American Anti-Slavery Society.
Child, Lydia Maria. The Freedmen’s Book. (1865). Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
Child, Lydia Maria. A Romance of the Republic. (1867). Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal for the Indians. (1868). Reprinted in Carolyn Karcher, ed., Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. (1986). Rutgers University Press.
Child, Lydia Maria. Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals. (1878). Boston: Roberts Brothers.
Clifford, Deborah. (1992). Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Beacon Press.
Karcher, Carolyn L. (1994). First Woman of the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Mills, Bruce. (1994). Cultural Reformations: Lydia Maria Child and the Literature of Reform. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Moland, Lydia. (2022). Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.