The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child feared the effects of electing “a blot upon humanity.”
“I am not yet prepared to believe that the people of this republic are corrupt enough to choose by fair and honest votes, such a blot upon humanity as Andrew Jackson,” Lydia Maria Child wrote to her new mother-in-law in the early months after Jackson’s election in 1828. When I stumbled upon this letter among Child’s papers at Harvard, I felt a pang of sympathy. The sorrow and despair behind Child’s reluctance to accept her fellow citizens’ choice were all too familiar. She did not contest the election: the votes had been “fair and honest.” Why, then, did she call her fellow citizens “corrupt”?
Child was only twenty-six when Jackson was elected, but she was already an established author, well on her way to becoming a household name as a crusader for justice. Her 1824 novel Hobomok had propelled her to literary fame with its sympathetic account of the plight of native Americans. Her 1833 treatise An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans was so progressive in the cause of abolition and so scathing against northern racism that she was temporarily ostracized from Boston society. Undaunted, she followed the Appeal with The Evils of Slavery, and the Cure of Slavery and the Anti-Slavery Catechism, as well as newspaper columns, children’s stories, and novels all with abolitionist themes.
Those published writings give ample evidence of her convictions, but the box of letters in front of me provided a more personal view. In 1862, twenty-four years after she’d lamented Jackson’s election to her mother-in-law, Child was writing to her nephew William Haskins, then serving in the Fifty-first Massachusetts Regiment of the Union Army. (His brother, also enlisted, would die in the coming year.) By then, Child had penned any number of excoriating condemnations of slavery and diagnoses of its persistence. But the task here was different. How to describe to a young man whose life was on the line how it had come to this, that his country had engaged in an evil so radical that it required his life to right itself?
“Apologizing for despotism, and yielding inch by inch to its aggressions, had caused a great decline in the Spirit of Liberty among us,” she wrote. As a precocious teenager living in what’s now Maine, Child had seen morally compromising politics firsthand. Would-be Mainers had voted for independence in 1819 only to have their statehood made conditional on the admission of Missouri as a slave state. Child’s early history suggests that her political consciousness developed around the dispiriting moral effects of this compromise. “We had given aid to cruel oppression,” she continues in her letter, “until the moral atmosphere of the country had become so corrupt, that nothing but a terrible thunder-storm could purify it.”
In her 1860 tract “The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Law,” Child had railed against Massachusetts legislators for their complicity in the Fugitive Slave Act. Recognizing slavery’s evil yet returning escaped slaves to their masters was moral outrage enough, she argued, but the impact on the moral character of northerners was a disaster unto itself.
At the start of the Civil War, Child saw more corruption. Only their fear for their own safety—not a conviction for justice, she writes to Haskins—had finally galvanized northerners’ resistance. In this Child saw a hidden, even devious, divine plan: Providence had so ordained things that although northerners could not be persuaded to fight for others’ basic human rights, they could be threatened into fighting for themselves. “If the white working-men of the North want to secure of their own freedom,” Child writes, “they must see to it that the black working-men of the South have theirs.”
Child had hoped fervently as war was declared that the slaves would be immediately emancipated and recruited into the Union Army. But Lincoln hesitated. Child places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of her fellow northerners: “But, after all, it would not be fair to blame the President for moving so slowly. The people were not prepared to sustain him in any such measure; they had become too generally demoralized by long subservience to the Slave Power.”
What was to become of such a corrupt, diminished, demoralized, nation? The question must have agonized Child, not just as a lifelong abolitionist but as one with close relatives at war. “No news of you is good news,” she writes to her nephew; “and so we feel better when we have looked in vain for your name.” She adds, “Your uncle keeps up a brave heart. A dozen times a day I hear him singing at his work:
Then conquer we must
For our cause it is just
The belief that good will conquer was, for Child, a kind of philosophical truth. “I cannot otherwise than trust that all is coming out right, at last,” she writes to Haskins, “that the great battle of Freedom will surely be won.” The war, she suggests, was a storm sent “not in anger, but in love”; “and in spite of the evil devices of man, I believe the storm will accomplish its work of purification, and a serene sky will light up the retreating clouds with a brilliant bow of promise.”
But the Star-Spangled Banner’s prophetic “must,” as Child knew all too well, is conditional. The certainty of victory requires us to embrace a just cause. And on this front, Child was less certain, little though she admitted this to her enlisted nephew. Could a population so corrupted, so weakened by complicity with injustice, be trusted with a just cause? Sometimes she seems to think that the war itself will root out corruption; elsewhere, she fears that the destruction of war is too good for a people so degraded. “It seems as if it would be better than this guilty nation deserved to get rid of its blasting curse without going through more suffering,” she regrets. And sometimes she despairs of both justice and victory: “Thus far, the U.S. have been acting so basely towards the slaves, that it seems that God could not think us worth saving, as a nation. Perhaps we are destined to be a warning to future nations, having proved ourselves too wicked to be used as an example.”
The range of philosophical beliefs expressed in these letters could have been paralyzing. If Providence is ordering all for the good, our efforts are unnecessary. If one’s country is doomed by its sinful past, resistance is futile. But Child refused to be paralyzed. Her lifetime of struggle evidences her belief that even if the triumph of justice was inevitable, it depended on the actions of individuals. Even if the country were beyond saving, it was her duty to try.
So she devoted her formidable talents for research, rhetoric, and philosophical argument to pricking her fellow citizens’ consciences. She wrote with empathy about suffering southerners and was unsparing of northern hypocrisy. She raised money for regional anti-slavery organizations and used her body to shield abolitionist speakers from threatening mobs. Here, too, her letters give a more personal view, showing the small, human efforts she undertook: making sewing-kits for “the freedwomen of Mississippi,” forgoing new clothing to fund homes for fugitive slaves, knitting hats for soldiers. She refused to take her national anthem’s “must” for granted. She believed it could only be fulfilled by tireless, creative, multi-pronged effort.
In Child’s early despair over the results of an election, there’s the beginning of a lifetime of refusing to be infected by moral complacency. She may initially have been reluctant to believe in her country’s corruption, but once having acknowledged it, she attacked its root causes and devoted her talents to its eradication. She made mistakes; she often doubted; sometimes her efforts failed. In this box of letters to her family, she often admits to depression and despair. Nevertheless, she persisted. She could not have foreseen our current moment, but she would have understood it well.
The referenced letters by Lydia Maria Child are archived at Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Lydia L. Moland is associate professor of philosophy at Colby College in Waterville, Maine where she is also associate director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities. She is the author of Hegel on Political Identity: Patriotism, Nationality, Cosmopolitanism and the forthcoming Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism. She has written numerous articles on moral and political philosophy and is a current fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies.