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Lydia Maria Child

Reformer, Speaker and Writer

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Lydia Maria Child portrait

Lydia Maria Child

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Lydia Maria Child Facts

Known for: abolitionist and women's rights activism; Indian rights advocate; author of Over the River and Through the Wood ("A Boy's Thanksgiving Day")
Occupation: reformer, writer, speaker
Dates: February 11, 1802 - October 20, 1880
Also known as: L. Maria Child, Lydia M. Child, Lydia Child

Lydia Maria Child Biography

Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1802, Lydia Maria Francis was the youngest of six children. Her father, David Convers Francis, was a baker famous for his "Medford Crackers." Her mother, Susanna Rand Francis, died when Maria was twelve. (She disliked the name "Lydia" and was usually called "Maria" instead.)

Born into America's new middle class, Lydia Maria Child was educated at home, at a local "dame school" and at a nearby women's "seminary." She went to live for some years with an older married sister.

First Novel

Maria was especially close to her brother, Convers Francis, a Harvard College graduate, a Unitarian minister and, later in life, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. After a brief teaching career, Maria went to live with this six-year-older brother and his wife at his parish. Inspired, she later said, by a conversation with Convers, she took up the challenge to write a novel depicting early American life, finishing this novel, Hobomok, in only six weeks.

This novel today is valued not for its lasting value as a literary classic, which it is not, but for its attempt to realistically portray early American life and for its then-radical positive portrayal of a Native American hero as a noble Indian in love with a white woman.

New England Intellectual

The publication of Hobomok in 1824 helped bring Maria Francis into New England and Boston literary circles. She ran a private school in Watertown where her brother served his church. In 1825 she published her second novel, The Rebels, or Boston before the Revolution. This historical novel achieved new success for Maria. A speech in this novel which she puts into the mouth of James Otis was assumed to be an authentic historical oration and was included in many 19th century schoolbooks as a standard memorization piece.

She built on her success by founding in 1826 a bimonthly magazine for children, Juvenile Miscellany. She also came to know other women in New England's intellectual community. She studied John Locke's philosophy with Margaret Fuller and she became acquainted with the Peabody sisters and Maria White Lowell.

Marriage

At this point of literary success, Maria Child became engaged to a Harvard graduate and lawyer, David Lee Child. A lawyer who was eight years older than she was, David Child was the editor and publisher of the Massachusetts Journal. He also had political interests: he served briefly in the Massachusetts State Legislature and often spoke at local political rallies.

Lydia Maria and David knew each other for three years before their engagement in 1827, and were married a year later. While they shared middle-class backgrounds of struggle for financial stability and also shared intellectual interests, their differences were considerable, too. She was frugal where he was extravagant. She was more sensual and romantic than he was. She was drawn to the aesthetic and mystical, while he was most comfortable in the world of reform and activism.

Her family, aware of David's indebtedness and reputation for poor fiscal management, opposed their marriage. But Maria's financial success as an author and editor allayed her fears on that account and, after a year of waiting, they were married in 1828.

After their marriage, he drew her into his own political interests. She began to write for his newspaper. A regular theme of her columns and of children's stories in Juvenile Miscellany was the mistreatment of Indians by both the New England settlers and earlier Spanish colonists.

Indian Rights

When President Jackson proposed moving the Cherokee Indians against their will out of Georgia, in violation of earlier treaties and government promises, David Child's Massachusetts Journal began virulently attacking Jackson's positions and actions.

Lydia Maria Child, around that same time, published another novel, The First Settlers. In this book, the white main characters identified more with the Indians of early America than with the Puritan settlers. One notable interchange in the book holds up as models for leadership two women rulers: Queen Isabella of Spain and her contemporary, Queen Anacaona, Carib Indian ruler. Her positive treatment of Native American religion and her vision of a multiracial democracy caused little controversy -- mostly because she was able to give the book little promotion and attention after publication. David's political writings at the Journal had resulted in many cancelled subscriptions and a libel trial against David. He ended up spending time in prison on this offense, though his conviction was later overturned by a higher court.

Earning a Living

David's decreasing income led Lydia Maria Child to look to increase her own. In 1829, she published an advice book directed at the new American middle-class wife and mother: The Frugal Housewife. Unlike earlier English and American advice and "cookery" books which were directed to the educated wealthy, this book assumed as its audience a lower-income American wife. Child did not assume that the housewife had a household of servants. Her focus on plain living while saving money and time focused on the needs of a far larger audience.

With increasing financial difficulties, Maria took on a teaching position as well as continuing her own writing and publishing the Miscellany. She also wrote and published, both in 1831, The Mother's Book and The Little Girl's Own Book, more advice books with economy tips and even games.

Anti-Slavery

David's political circle, which included William Lloyd Garrison, and its anti-slavery sentiments, drew her into consideration of the subject of slavery. She wrote more of her children's stories on the subject of slavery.

Anti-Slavery "Appeal"

In 1833, after several years of study and thought about slavery, Child published a book quite different from her novels and her children's stories. She titled the book awkwardly: An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. In this work, she described the history of slavery in America and the present condition of those enslaved. She proposed the end of slavery, not through colonization of Africa and the return of the slaves to that continent, but by integration of ex-slaves into American society. She advocated education and racial intermarriage as means to that multiracial republic.

The Appeal had two main effects. One, it was instrumental in convincing many Americans of the need for abolition of slavery. Those who credited Child's Appeal with their own change of mind and increased commitment included Wendell Phillips and William Ellery Channing. Two, Child's popularity plummeted, leading to the folding of Juvenile Miscellany (in 1834) and reduced sales of The Frugal Housewife. She published more anti-slavery works, including an anonymously-published Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery (1835) and the Anti-Slavery Catechism (1836). Her new attempt at an advice book, The Family Nurse (1837), failed, a victim of the controversy.

Writing and Abolitionism

The next phase of Child's life followed the pattern begun with Juvenile Miscellany, The Frugal Housewife and the Appeal. She published another novel, Philothea, in 1836, Letters from New York in 1843-45 and Flowers for Children in 1844-47. She followed these with a book depicting "fallen women," Fact and Fiction, in 1846 and The Progress of Religious Ideas (1855), influenced by Theodore Parker's transcendentalist Unitarianism.

Both Maria and David became more active in the abolitionist movement. She served on the executive committee of Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society -- David had helped Garrison found the New England Anti-Slavery Society. First Maria, then David, edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard from 1841 to 1844 before editorial differences with Garrison and the Anti-Slavery Society led to their resignations.

David embarked on an effort to raise sugar cane, an attempt to replace slave-produced sugar cane. Lydia Maria boarded with the Quaker family of Isaac T. Hopper, an abolitionist whose biography she published in 1853.

In 1857, now 55 years old, Lydia Maria Child published the inspirational collection Autumnal Leaves, apparently feeling her career coming to its close.

Harper's Ferry

But in 1859, after John Brown's failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Lydia Maria Child plunged back into the anti-slavery arena with a series of letters that the Anti-Slavery Society published as a pamphlet. Three hundred thousand copies were distributed. In this compilation is one of Child's most memorable lines. Responding to a letter from the wife of Virginia Senator James M. Mason which defended slavery by pointing to the kindness of Southern ladies in helping slave women give birth, Child replied,

"... here in the North, after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies."

Harriet Jacobs

Back in the fray, Child published more anti-slavery tracts. In 1861, she edited the autobiography of an ex-slave woman, Harriet Jacobs, published as Incidents in the Life of a Slave-Girl.

After the war -- and slavery -- ended, Lydia Maria Child followed through on her earlier proposal of education for ex-slaves by publishing at her own expense The Freedmen's Book. The text was notable for including writings of noted African Americans. She also wrote another novel, Romance of the Republic about racial justice and interracial love.

Later Work

In 1868, she returned to her early interest in Native Americans and published An Appeal for the Indians, proposing solutions for justice. In 1878 she published Aspirations of the World.

Lydia Maria Child died in 1880 at Wayland, Massachusetts, at the farm she had shared with her husband David since 1852.

Legacy

Today, if Lydia Maria Child is remembered at all, it is usually for her Appeal. But ironically, her short doggerel poem, "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day," is better-known than any of her other work. Few who sing or hear "Over the river and through the woods..." know much about this woman who was a novelist, journalist, domestic advice writer and social reformer, one of the first American women to earn a living income from her writing.

More About Lydia Maria Child

Suggested Reading

More About Lydia Maria Child

  • Categories: writers, anti-slavery activist, abolitionist
  • Organizational Affiliations: American Anti-Slavery Society
  • Places: United States, Massachusetts, New York
  • Period: 19th century
  • Religious Associations: Unitarian

Bibliography

  • Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Paperback, Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Karcher, Carolyn L. and Lydia Maria Child. A Lydia Maria Child Reader. Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. Over the River and Through the Wood. Paperback, children's book, Iris Van Rynbach illustrator. 1992.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Carolyn L. Karcher, editor. Paperback, University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
  • Jacobs, Harriet and Lydia Maria Child. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harcourt, 1989.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. The American Frugal Housewife. Hardcover: Applewood Books, 1989.
  • Child, Lydia Maria and Carolyn L. Karcher. Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. Paperback: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. The Mother's Book. Hardcover: Applewood Books, 1989.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. A Romance of the Republic. Dana D. Nelson, editor. Paperback: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. The Family Nurse or Companion of the American Frugal Housewife. Hardcover: Applewood Books, 1997.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. The Girls Own Book. Paperback: Applewood Books, 1991.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817-1880. Milton Meltzer and Patricia G. Holland, editors. Library Binding: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

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