Anti-Slavery Begins at Home

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

  • The First Woman of the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child by Carolyn Karcher
    Duke, 804 pp, £35.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 8223 1485 1
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan Hedrick
    Oxford, 507 pp, £25.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 19 506639 1

Reflecting on the cultural consequences of the Civil War, the Southern literary critic, Lewis Simpson, wonders how Emerson, the quintessential New England intellectual, could have failed to understand that ‘in their progress as the representation of the idea of emancipation, Americans had become engaged in a bloody emancipation of a second American republic – a modern nation-state – from the political order that, with nostalgic affection, would come to be thought of as the “Old Republic”.’ Emerson had been a late convert to abolitionism and the passions that drove a determined group of his fellow New Englanders to prod the conscience of the Old Republic to live up to the professed goals of its founding document, the Declaration of Independence. But then, Emerson never did feel great kinship with vanguard abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, much less with aspiring literary women like Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who brought the injustices of slavery home to ordinary American readers. When, in 1850, Emerson came to support anti-slavery, he did so more from reasons of abstract ethics than from humanitarian sentiment.

It is now argued, and quite convincingly, that anti-slavery won over Northern sentiment largely because of the wave of humanitarianism unleashed by the writings of women, who came to feel the oppression of the slave almost as if it were their own. In this view, Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more than all the tracts combined to bring anti-slavery into the kitchens, parlours and hearts of the North. Scholarly insistence on the close ties between the rhetoric of anti-slavery and the rhetoric of women’s rights, and among the major figures in both of these antebellum movements, has resulted in an outpouring of books and articles on women and abolition, the origins of the women’s movement in anti-slavery, and the central place of women in antebellum literature. Indeed, the intersection of women’s efforts on behalf both of slaves and of themselves has been the cornerstone of American women’s history.

No group has enjoyed more attention from feminist scholars than the women of greater New England, western New York State and the Western Reserve of Ohio. These were ordinary middle-class women who espoused the cause of social liberation, even as they chafed against the chains of domesticity, maternity and second-class citizenship. Women who broke into the academy during the Seventies readily projected their own feelings and frustrations onto those who, like themselves, seemed excluded from political leadership and literary prestige, just as they embodied the purest, most radical aspirations of their day. Only an oppressive patriarchy could adequately explain why Harriet Beecher Stowe and her colleagues – Hawthorne’s ‘mob of scribbling women’ – had not received the highest literary accolades. Only unyielding male self-interest could explain why the impulse to reform that had hastened the Civil War was not allowed to reach fruition, and why women were forced back into their separate sphere.

The passage of time and, especially, the appearance of biographies of the leading figures, is giving us a more nuanced view of the differences among those initially grouped as ‘feminist-abolitionists’, even if, as these new biographies of Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe show, the tendency remains strong to interpret their experience through a contemporary lens. Neither Child nor Stowe has lacked attention, but Joan Hedrick and Carolyn Karcher make more extensive use of their respective subjects’ correspondence than earlier authors and so offer a more detailed view of their everyday lives. Their focus on personal correspondence and literary productions, however, discourages serious consideration of the movements and ideas Child and Stowe were, at least partially, defining themselves against.

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