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.

Karcher’s strategy is to expand her account of Child’s life into a ‘cultural biography’ in an attempt ‘to view 19th-century America through the window of Child’s mind’. Child, Karcher insists, participated in the ‘leading intellectual and social movements of her time’ and ‘devoted her life and writings to transforming the United States into a multiracial egalitarian republic’. She thus presents ‘an exceptionally revealing perspective’ on a tumultuous era. Karcher traces this through a detailed chronicle of Child’s works, which touched on many of the main social, political and religious issues of the time. Unfortunately, this strategy results in a long and occasionally tedious book. Child lived from 1802 to 1880, and was the author of 37 independent publications as well as countless stories, articles, reviews and editorials. Few of her books are in print, but Karcher, determined to make the case for Child’s intellectual and literary significance, provides summaries of their plots and arguments. This decision was shortsighted. For Karcher’s glosses frequently undermine one’s confidence that hers is a faithful picture of Child’s own meanings or intentions.

Karcher convincingly argues that Child deserves recognition as one of the handful of leading women intellectuals of her day: indeed, of leading intellectuals of either sex. To follow her unfolding interests is to follow what Lewis Simpson might call the life of the American mind. Hobomok, a novel published in 1824, explored the plight of American Indians. Subsequent books, for children and adults, took up anti-slavery, women’s intellectual gifts, housewifery, the careers of great men, religion and contemporary politics. Child’s opposition to slavery was staked out in An Appeal in Favour of That Class of Americans Called Africans, in 1833. Her Letters from New York, the first volume of which appeared in 1843, depicted the transformation of urban life under the pressures of capitalism and industrialisation. The Progress of Religious Ideas, in 1855, signalled her deep-seated opposition to doctrinal orthodoxy of any kind. Along the way, she edited several journals, including the National Anti-Slavery Standard (1841-4).

Extraordinary by any standard, these achievements appear all the more impressive given the modesty of Child’s origins, and the financial insecurity that dogged her for most of her adult life. The daughter of a baker in Medford, Massachusetts, she grew up in a family that valued manual labour and discouraged intellectual pretension of any kind. Yet from early childhood, she shared with her older brother, Convers, a passion for books, which persisted after he left to study for the ministry at Harvard. According to Karcher, the absence of comparable educational opportunities in her own case ‘sowed the seeds of a feminist consciousness’. Child’s writings suggest that she was able to make up for her lack of formal education, but, in Karcher’s view, she never fully shook off the psychological legacy of her early years. The premature death of her mother in whose love she had little reason to trust led her, Karcher argues, on a lifelong quest for love and approval, not least in her marriage to the very dashing, wonderfully intelligent, but ultimately incompetent, David Child. He, too, struggled to overcome a modest background through intellectual and, in his case, political and financial, achievement. Unlike her, he failed. And for six years in the middle of their fifty-year-long, childless marriage, when her career was thriving and his was in ruins, they separated. Karcher dwells on Child’s deep, platonic attachments to three other men during this period, seeing in them further confirmation of her need for love and support as well as a welcome openness to amorous, if not sexual freedom. But even on Karcher’s unenthusiastic showing, it seems clear that the bonds between Child and her husband prevailed: after David’s death Child told her friends that ‘no tongue can express the desolation I feel. We had lived together nearly half a century, and for the last twenty years had lived alone, mutually serving each other. We had such pleasant companionship intellectually, and he was always kind and lover-like up to the last day of his life. The tearing up roots so deeply bedded, makes the heart bleed.’

Karcher’s resounding lack of enthusiasm for Child’s loyalty is all the more surprising since she unequivocally approves Child’s repeated use in her fiction of cultural and racial intermarriage as devices to bind up the wounds of Indian removal and slavery. Presumably such marriages served liberationist purposes that an ordinary marriage did not. Had experience not ‘repeatedly taught’ her that ‘marriage in the 19th century was not an egalitarian institution’? Perversely, Child refused to draw the lessons from her experience that Karcher would have had her draw. Worse, she reproved feminist women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull, who attacked marriage and promoted free love. In Child’s view, such women ‘recklessly ... throw overboard the question of duty toward households, or toward society! ... They are so wild for freedom, that they forget such a [word?] as duty exists.’ The best Karcher can offer in her defence is that Child, having consistently sacrificed freedom to duty in her own life, had little patience for those who refused to do the same. Unable to grasp that Child might genuinely have believed in the virtue of duty, Karcher concludes that she defended the sanctity of marriage and resisted the liberalisation of divorce laws ‘not because those issues were more controversial, but because they aroused deep personal conflicts in her’.

On one point after another, the postbellum Child disappoints her biographer. Karcher criticises her inclination to diagnose the social ills of class and gender in moral terms. She criticises especially her enthusiasm for the assimilation of Indians and former slaves into the mainstream of American society. Although Child recognised the importance of cultivating students’ pride in their ethnic background, she unaccountably seems to have ‘conceived of bicultural education merely as a temporary expedient’. And in this allegedly misguided notion ‘lay the fatal flaw of the multiracial ideal she held up for the nation to follow – a flaw even more obvious in her prescriptions for the Indians than in her programme of uplift for African-Americans.’ But then Child, who was not at all sympathetic to the emerging working class, especially Catholic immigrants, saw African-Americans as true, Protestant Americans who could, given freedom and appropriate opportunities, be counted on to take their rightful place as loyal and productive citizens.

Born in Lychfield, Connecticut, in 1811, Harriet Beecher, like Child, grew up in the heartland of middle-class, New England Protestantism. Like Child, she long remained haunted by the early loss of her mother. Unlike Child, however, she came from a family of religious and intellectual distinction that valued education and achievement for women as well as men. Her early advantages did not come without a price. There was nothing easy about life as the daughter of Lyman Beecher, as those who have read Kathryn Kish Sklar’s splendid biography of Stowe’s sister Catharine will recall. But for Stowe, these difficulties were decisively mitigated by the attention of female relations, notably her mother’s sister, Aunt Harriet Foote, who introduced her both to Episcopalian refinement and domestic economy, and later her own sister, Catharine, who initiated her into the world of the female seminary. Hedrick suggests that, from the combination of these early female influences, including her idealised memories of her mother, Stowe drew a powerful image of ‘a literary mother’ and ‘a domestic landscape’ infused with ‘maternal love’. This image persisted throughout her life, informing her most successful fiction.

Hedrick skilfully recounts the details of Stowe’s life, drawing heavily on her correspondence to create a sense of immediacy. Many of the events are familiar: her move to Cincinnati to join her father, her marriage to Calvin Stowe, who was teaching at the Lane Seminary over which her father presided, the birth of her children, the loss of her son Charley, her trips to water cures to recuperate from pregnancies and to avoid more, her struggles with housekeeping and budgets, the beginnings of her literary career, the publication and reception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Familiarity does not, however, detract from the success of Hedrick’s account.

And although Uncle Tom enjoys the prominence in the book that it enjoyed in Stowe’s life by launching her into an unimagined celebrity, it does not dominate her Life. More sympathetic than Karcher to the support that marriage and domestic life brought to ambitious women, on whom they also made weighty demands, Hedrick accords Calvin Stowe an importance that Karcher grudges David Child. No doubt, the two men differed significantly in achievement and reliability, but, with the benefit of distance, we can see that they also had much in common, not least the responsibility of marriage to women who enjoyed more worldly success than they did. But then Hedrick is more successful than Karcher at integrating her subject’s public success with her private life, and at sustaining the threads of Stowe’s developing religious and social attitudes, which lay at the heart of her sense of herself as a woman, her purposes as a writer and her vision of American society.

Hedrick shares with Karcher, however, an unfortunate tendency to resort to contemporary feminist standards to evaluate her subject’s challenges and attitudes. Evidence for Stowe’s deep friendships with, and frequent reliance on, other women unquestionably abounds, yet one wonders whether the many references to ‘bonds of sisterhood’ or the weight of ‘patriarchy’ precisely capture her own sense of her experience. One of the most remarkable aspects of this biography is its forthright depiction of the extraordinary freedom that Stowe exercised. As the principal bread-winner, she often placed the demands of her career above those of her family, travelling widely and spending long periods away from home. That she also proved a devoted wife and mother changes nothing. Domestic claims may have weighed on her and limited her freedom, but they never crippled it. Scholars have long agreed that Stowe drew much of her political and social vision from her sense of the superiority of domestic relations over those of the marketplace that increasingly dominated the larger world.

Like Child, Stowe moved naturally from anti-slavery to the question of women’s rights. After the Civil War, she wrote:

The question of woman and her Sphere is now, perhaps, the greatest of the age. We have put Slavery under foot, and with the downfall of Slavery the only obstacle to the success of our great democratic experiment is overthrown and there seems no limit to the splendid possibilities which it may open before the human race.

   In the reconstruction that is now coming there lies more than the reconstruction of States and the arrangement of the machinery of government. We need to know and feel, all of us, that, from the moment of the death of Slavery, we parted finally from the regime and control of all the old ideas forced under the old oppressive systems of society, and came upon a new plane of life.

The radicalism of these words owes more to Stowe’s New England past than to the nation’s prospects of an industrial-capitalist future. She had been decisively shaped by the realities and dreams of her youth, and her vision of women’s rights retained more than a trace of the millennialism that had informed her anti-slavery. Although, in her notorious Lady Byron Vindicated, she explicitly criticised the English marriage laws that made the position of the married woman ‘in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave’, she, like Child, refused in the end to support Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony’s radical wing of the woman’s movement. She rejected approaches inviting her to become editor of their new journal, Revolution, and wrote instead for her brother Henry’s new journal, the Christian Union. What she wanted, she told him ‘is that the paper be a power – and a distinctly Christian power’.

Above all, Child and Stowe were loyal daughters of the Old Republic that had flowered in antebellum New England, where it had also sown the seeds of its own eventual destruction. Neither embraced the extreme manifestations of perfectionism and utopianism that flourished around them, although both took up the cause of the slave as emblematic of their world’s failure to realise its own highest ideals. Each followed her own path of rebellion against the constraints of orthodox Calvinism, Child by her move to Swedenborgianism, Stowe by her move first to perfectionism, then to the practice of the imitation of Christ, and finally to Episcopalianism. The difference in their religious allegiance has to do with difference in their class position; the similarity in their deepest commitments with the similarity in the circumstances and values that shaped their early experience.

Between them, Child and Stowe’s lives chart the early strength and eventual dissolution of the antebellum New England middle class of merchants, preachers, intellectuals, farmers and tradesmen. That broad middle class had fostered a domestic sphere – kitchen and parlour – in which women and men met as companions and collaborators in the rearing of children and the advance of culture. From that world, Child and Stowe had drawn the education and intellectual ambition that carried them into the world of professional literature; from it they continued to draw personal support and ideological conviction. The postbellum emergence of an exclusive male literary establishment, with all-male clubs and an aesthetic that devalued the immediate, homey voice of women writers, signalled, as both Karcher and Hedrick impatiently note, the beginning of the end for both women’s literary fortunes. What they see less clearly, and what Child and Stowe themselves failed to see, is that the modern nation-state which emerged so rapidly from the war was a direct consequence of the anti-slavery forces that Child and Stowe had helped to release. The attempt to realise the values they defended resulted in the demise of the world that had nurtured them.