Tongue of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria Child
by Milton Meltzer

She was such a good person that I admire her, even though she was a do-gooder and more of a reformer than a radical libertarian. This biography is written for youngsters, which means it is simple, straightforward, and moralistic (all qualities that make it better than most biographies).

Maria Francis was born in 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts. Her father was a baker. Her mother died when Maria was 12 years old. Her favorite brother, Convers, went to Harvard and helped her to educate herself by directing her reading and supplying her with books. Her first novel, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times, about a white girl who has a baby by an aborigine, was published anonymously in 1824 and became a success. She was only 23 years old when her second novel, The Rebels; or Boston before the Revolution, was published within a year "By the author of Hobomok." She was invited to suppers with the upper crust of Boston society, where she met such celebrities as Daniel Webster, William Ellery Channing, and General Lafayette.

In 1826, she created and edited a 90-page magazine for children, Juvenile Miscellany, which came out every two months. It was the first such magazine in America and it was an immediate success.

In 1828, she married David Child, who was then a newspaper editor, lawyer, and a member of the state legislature. David tried to rally support for the Cherokee Indians through his newspaper. Maria then took up the cause of the Indians by writing another novel: The First Settlers of New England. She wrote The Frugal Housewife, The Mother's Book, and The Girl's Own Book, which became best sellers. On the education of young ladies, Maria said: "If they are to grow into something better than "man-traps," they must learn more useful things." (28)

Her husband David became an abolitionist and, with the help of William Lloyd Garrison, converted her to abolitionism. Referring to Garrison, Maria said, "He got hold of the strings of my conscience and pulled me into reforms." (34) Garrison had worked for David as a typesetter. Later, when Garrison was the leading abolitionist, both David and Maria took turns working for Garrison as editor of The Liberator.

In 1831, David became a founder of and one of the first two lawyers for the New England Anti-slavery Society. He never made much money. Maria, by her writings, was the primary breadwinner throughout their long marriage.

In 1833, Maria risked her popularity as a writer and her welcome in respectable society by writing An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. It was the first antislavery volume to be published in the United States. Outraged mothers canceled subscriptions to Maria's magazine Juvenile Miscellany, and within a year it was dead. See my notes on An Appeal in Behalf of that Class of Americans called Africans by Lydia Maria Child.

She became editor of The Standard, which in two years had twice as many subscribers as The Liberator.

She invented the newspaper column. She titled her column "Letters from New York." Emerson called her "Letters" a "contribution to American literature, recording in a generous spirit, and with lively truth, the pulsations of one great center of existence." (95)

Maria wrote the famous children's Thanksgiving poem whose first verse is:

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way,
To carry the sleigh,
Through the white and drifted snow.

In 1855, Maria published The Progress of Religious Ideas Through Successive Ages, in three volumes. It was her least successful book.

Negroes were barred from the New York women's antislavery society. (110) In rebuttal of those who feared emancipation would lead to intermarriage, Maria wrote,

"The argument is so shallow! The fear is so contradicting of itself! If there is an "instinctive antipathy," as many assert, surely that antipathy may be trusted to prevent amalgamation. If there is no instinctive antipathy, what reason is there for the horror? If the colored people are really an "inferior race," what danger is there of their attaining to an "equality" with us? If they are not inferior, what reason is there for excluding them from equality?" (163164)

Year Read: 1997


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