“The gold was never coined for which I would barter my individual freedom of acting and thinking upon any subject, or would knowingly interfere with the rights of the meanest human being.” -Lydia Maria Child, 1833
Lydia Maria Child was a 19th century American “abolitionist” and “women’s rights advocate”–or to use today’s word for someone who opposes state supported slavery and inequality: a libertarian. She once said, “I am so great an advocate of freedom that I would have everything done voluntarily.” She was a prolific writer, mainly of fiction and much of it for children. She is perhaps best remembered (sadly given her life’s work) for her Thanksgiving poem, “Over the River and Through the Wood.”
“In the simplest things I write,” she wrote to friend, “whether for children or grown people, I always try to sow some seeds for freedom, truth, and humanity.” She used her fictional stories to dramatize the plight of women and slaves in 19th century America, including extremely controversial topics like interracial marriage (explored in her first book) and sexual exploitation. Her short story, “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes: A Faithful Sketch,” describes the sexual abuse of a beautiful slave who was murdered by her master. Her slave “husband” (who she was forbidden from marrying) killed their master after her murder and was hanged. The story concludes: “Not one [newspaper] was found to tell how the slave’s young wife had been torn from him… and murdered with slow tortures.”
An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833 constituted her entrance onto the political scene. The book was profoundly radical for the time—the first book published in defense of emancipation without compensation. “Have the negroes no right to ask compensation for their years and years of unrewarded toil?” she demanded to know. “Slave holders try to stop all efforts of benevolence by vociferous complaints about infringing upon their property; and justice is so subordinate to self-interest, that the unrighteous claim is silently allowed, and even openly supported.”
Child attacked the very idea that one man could own another and in so doing enunciated the heart of libertarianism. “The personal liberty of one man can never be the property of another,” she wrote. “In slavery there is no mutual agreement; for in that case, it would not be slavery. The negro has no voice in the matter—no alternative presented to him—no bargain is made. The beginning of his bondage is the triumph of power over weakness…One man may as well claim an exclusive right to the air another man breathes, as to the possession of his limbs and faculties. Personal freedom is the birthright of every human being.”
The Civil War posed a significant conundrum for Child and her abolitionist allies. She generally opposed the use of violence, but after being attacked by a Southern man for offering her sympathies to the radical John Brown, she wrote in reply, “In this enlightened age, all despotisms ought to come to an end by the agency of moral and rational means. But if they resist such agencies, it is the order of Providence that they must come to an end by violence.” Nonetheless, she was acutely aware of the failings of both John Brown and the Union government, particularly under Lincoln. During the early years of the war, she wrote despairingly of Lincoln’s policy of returning runaways:
Every instance of sending back poor fugitive slaves has cut into my heart like the stab of a bowie-knife, and made me dejected for days; not only because I pitied the poor wretches who trusted the government in vain, but because I felt that all moral dignity was taken out of the conflict by such incidents…. It seems to me as if the eyes of the government were holden, that they cannot see. Still pursuing the old policy of years–willing to disregard the dictates of justice and humanity, for the sake of conciliating the few slave-holders we have left to be conciliated.
Throughout her life, Child was also a tireless advocate on behalf of Native Americans. In 1868, after emancipation had been accomplished for slaves, she turned toward the subject in earnest, writing “An Appeal for the Indians.” As in her work on slavery, she systematically demolished each argument against equality, using science and reason. “Do we say that their modes of torture indicate irreclaimable barbarism?” she asked. “I might fill columns with similar monstrosities practiced by nations of the white race. The tortures of the Inquisition were almost entirely for differences of belief concerning theological doctrines; an insanity of cruelty of which Indians were never guilty.”
This leads nicely to the reason I decided to write about Child here—she was a skeptic. She was a Unitarian in name, but a ruthless critic of religion and theology. Elsewhere in her “Appeal for the Indians,” for example, she writes, “Their ideas of politeness prevent them from ever ridiculing or contradicting the theological ideas of other people; but when missionaries told them of a hell, where sinners were punished to all eternity, perhaps there was some latent sarcasm in their reply, ‘If there be such a place, it must be for white men only.’” She adds, “No wonder there has been so little success in attempts to convert them to Christianity.”
Child’s magnum opus was a three volume work called The Progress of Religious Ideas: Through Successive Ages. “Even if nothing worse than wasted mental effort could be laid to the charge of theology, that alone ought to be sufficient to banish it from the earth, as one of the worst enemies of mankind,” her study concluded. “What a vast amount of labour and learning has been expended, as uselessly as emptying shallow puddles into sieves! …What a blooming paradise would the whole earth be, if the same amount of intellect, labour, and zeal, had been expended on science, agriculture, and the arts!”
I want to close by drawing attention to her comments about the early abolitionist movement, which I feel has so much connection to the current liberty movement. “The memory of the early anti-slavery days is very sacred to me,” she wrote. “Political and theological prejudices and personal ambitions were forgotten in sympathy for the wrongs of the helpless, and in the enthusiasm to keep the fire of freedom from being extinguished on our national altar… before the moral force which emanated from them had become available as political power.” That is the stage at which, I feel, the liberty movement currently stands: running on shear enthusiasm for the fire of freedom.
In a letter to friend, Child wrote about a dinner party that reminded me so much of many nights with libertarians throughout the country—drinking, laughing, debating, or just sitting and listening to other members of this select group of activists who have chosen to devote their lives to this ideal of liberty. “How much we did talk!” she wrote. “Sometimes laughing over old reminiscences, sometimes serious even to sadness in view of the great struggle between despotism and freedom. None of us had much faith in men, or in any political party… We didn’t any of us realize in those early days the extent of our privilege in having engaged in a cause so righteous, with so many earnest, true-hearted, all-alive people.”
While I affirm, as she said on another occasion, that “men, great they may be, are of small consequence in comparison with principles,” I also am constantly reminded of the privilege it is to know so many great, principled men and women who can aptly be said to be, “earnest, true-hearted, all-alive people.”
Update: I have been asked whether Child accepted the theory of evolution, and as far as I can tell, this is the only thing she ever wrote on the subject in a letter to a friend: “I have not made up my mind about the Darwinian theory, but I have long felt that man does not sufficiently recognize his kindred with animals.”
Update 2: Child’s criticisms of religion weren’t limited to Christianity. Betraying a profoundly capitalist spirit, she also wrote, “he made a mistake, that good ‘Lord Buddha.’ It would have been more wise to have taught his fellow-creatures how to raise more grain, weave more cloth, and take better care of their health, than it was to descend into beggary with them.” Of course on the other hand, she wrote that “Buddhism can show a cleaner record than Christianity. It has had no such institution as the Inquisition, and has never put men to death for heretical opinions.”
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