Biography of Lydia Maria Child, Activist and Author

Lydia Maria Child
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Lydia Maria Child, (February 11, 1802–October 20, 1880) was a prolific writer and fervent activist for women's rights, Native American Rights, and abolition. Her best-known piece today is the homey "Over the River and Through the Wood," but her influential anti-slavery writing helped sway many Americans towards the abolitionist movement.

Fast Facts: Lydia Maria Child

  • Known For: Prolific author and activist for abolition, women's rights, and Native American rights; author of "Over the River and Through the Wood" ("A Boy's Thanksgiving Day")
  • Also Known As: L. Maria Child, Lydia M. Child, Lydia Child
  • Born: February 11, 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts
  • Parents: David Convers Francis and Susanna Rand Francis
  • Died: October 20, 1880 in Wayland, Massachusetts
  • Education: Educated at home, at a local "dame school," and at a nearby women's seminary. 
  • Awards and Honors: Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (2007)
  • Published Works: "Over the River and Through the Wood," "Hobomok," "The Rebels, or Boston before the Revolution," Juvenile Miscellany magazine, "An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans"
  • Spouse: David Lee Child
  • Notable Quote: "I was gravely warned by some of my female acquaintances that no woman could expect to be regarded as a lady after she had written a book."

Early Life

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 and influenced by her older 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 brother and his wife at his parish. Inspired by a conversation with Convers, she took up the challenge to write a novel depicting early American life, finishing it in only six weeks.

This first novel, "Hobomok," has never been honored as a literary classic: It is no classic. The book is remarkable, rather, for its attempt to realistically portray early American life and for its then-radical positive portrayal of a Native American hero as a noble human being 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 put 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 activist 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 her senior, David Child was the editor and publisher of the Massachusetts Journal. He was politically engaged: 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. While they shared middle-class backgrounds and many intellectual interests, their differences were considerable. 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 monetary management, opposed their marriage. But Maria's financial success as an author and editor allayed her own fiscal fears and, after a year of waiting, they were married in 1828.

After their marriage, he drew her into his own political activity. 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 Native Americans by both the New England settlers and earlier Spanish colonists.

Native American 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 Native Americans of early America than with the Puritan settlers. One notable interchange in the book holds up two women rulers as models for leadership: Queen Isabella of Spain and her contemporary, Queen Anacaona, Carib Indian ruler.

Child's 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 him. 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 educated and wealthy women, this book assumed as its audience a lower-income American wife. Child did not assume that her readers had 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 to write and to publish the Miscellany. In 1831, she wrote and published "The Mother's Book" and "The Little Girl's Own Book," more advice books with economy tips and even games.

Anti-Slavery "Appeal"

David's political circle, which included abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his anti-slavery cohort, drew Child into consideration of the subject of slavery. She began to write more of her children's stories on the subject of slavery.

In 1833, after several years of study and thought about slavery, Child published a book that was a radical departure from her novels and her children's stories. In the book, awkwardly titled "An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans," 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 through the integration of ex-slaves into American society. She advocated education and racial intermarriage as some means to that multiracial republic.

The "Appeal" had two main effects. First, it was instrumental in convincing many Americans of the need for the 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. Second, Child's popularity with the general public 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

Undaunted, Child continued to write prolifically. 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 and 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, at 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. Child responded to a letter from the wife of Virginia Senator James M. Mason that defended slavery by pointing to the kindness of Southern ladies in helping slave women give birth. Child's reply:

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

Harriet Jacobs and Later Work

As the war neared, Child continued to publish 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.

In 1868, Child 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."

Death

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 by name, 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 the writer who was a novelist, journalist, domestic advice writer, and social reformer. One of her greatest accomplishments seems ordinary today, but was groundbreaking: She was one of the first American women to earn a living income from her writing. In 2007, Child was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Sources

  • Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, edited by Carolyn L. Karcher, University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
  • Child, Lydia Maria. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817–1880, edited by Milton Meltzer and Patricia G. Holland, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
  • Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Duke University Press, 1998.