L. Maria Child and John Brown

I published this once before, but am dragging it out again for the sesquicentennial of its beginning, when Lydia Maria Child wrote to John Brown, who was in prison in Charles Town, Virginia (now West by-God Virginia).

On October 26th, a little over a week after John Brown’s failed uprising at Harpers Ferry, a woman named Lydia Maria Child wrote him a letter. Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1802, Mrs. Childs began her career as an author in 1824, when her novel Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times was published. In 1831 she heard William Lloyd Garrison speak, and by her own account he “got hold of the strings of my conscience, and pulled me into Reforms.” In 1833 she published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, writing in the introduction “I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken, but though I expect ridicule and censure, it is not in my nature to fear them.”

At any rate, on the 26th of October, 1859, Mrs. Child wrote two letters. The first, to John Brown, was quite brief, a mere three paragraphs, and so I will quote the entirety:

Dear Capt. Brown: Though personally unknown to you, you will recognize in my name an earnest friend of Kansas, when circumstances made that Territory the battle-ground between the antagonistic principles of slavery and freedom, which politicians so vainly strive to reconcile in the government of the United States.
Believing in peace principles, I cannot sympathize with the method you chose to advance the cause of freedom. But I honor your generous intentions–I admire your courage, moral and physical. I reverence you for the humanity which tempered your zeal. I sympathize with you in your cruel bereavement, your sufferings, and your wrongs. In brief, I love you and bless you.
Thousands of hearts are throbbing with sympathy as warm as mine. I think of you night and day, bleeding in prison, surrounded by hostile faces, sustained only by trust in God and your own heart. I long to nurse you–to speak to you sisterly words of sympathy and consolation. I have asked permission of Governor Wise to do so. If the request is not granted, I cherish the hope that these few words may at least reach your hands, and afford you some little solace. May you be strengthened by the conviction that no honest man ever sheds blood for freedom in vain, however much he may be mistaken in his efforts. May God sustain you, and carry you through whatsoever may be in store for you!
Yours, with heartfelt respect, sympathy and affection,

Because Brown was a prisoner at the time, Child then wrote a second letter to Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, entreating him both to deliver her letter to Brown and to allow her to come and nurse him, and attempting to reassure Wise that she was not seeking to come to Virginia for abolitionist purposes, closing the letter with

But I should despise myself utterly if any circumstances could tempt me to seek to advance these opinions in any way, directly or indirectly, after your permission to visit Virginia has been obtained on the plea of sisterly sympathy with a brave and suffering man. I give you my word of honor, which was never broken, that I would use such permission solely and singly for the purpose of nursing your prisoner, and for no other purpose whatsoever.

Wise’s reply to her was…interesting, to say the least. He begins by saying that he has passed her letter to Brown to the Commonwealth Attorney, since Brown is in the hands of the judicial branch of Virginia’s government rather than the executive. Wise goes on to say that of course she may come to Virginia to nurse Brown, as that purpose is legal and

Virginia and Massachusetts are involved in no civil war, and the Constitution which unites them in one confederacy guarantees to you the privileges and immunities of a citizen of the United States in the State of Virginia. That Constitution I am sworn to support, and am, therefore, bound to protect your privileges and immunities as a citizen of Massachusetts coming into Virginia for any lawful and peaceful purpose.

So far so good, right? An amicable if prickly letter, formal in the accepted style of the times. But then his letter, which began so formally, ends with veiled threats against her safety, and make the tired pro-slavery argument that abolitionists merely wanted to see rapacious black men slaughtering the innocent women and children of the south:

A few unenlightened and inconsiderate persons, fanatical in their modes of thought and action, to maintain justice and right, might molest you, or be disposed to do so; and this might suggest the imprudence of risking any experiment upon the peace of a society very much excited by the crimes with whose chief author you seem to sympathize so much. . . . I could not permit an insult even to woman in her walk of charity among us, though it to be to one who whetted knives of butchery for our mothers, sisters, daughters and babes. We have no sympathy with your sentiments of sympathy with Brown, and are surprised that you were “taken by surprise when news came of Capt. Brown’s recent attempt.” His attempt was a natural consequence of your sympathy, and the errors of that sympathy ought to make you doubt its virtue from the effect on his conduct.

If ever the word dauntless might be applied to a human being, though, L. Maria Child deserves it. She responded to the governor’s letter, which she characterized as “civil but very diplomatic” (which leads one to ponder the standards of diplomacy in 1859) with a lengthy and scathing missive, her attacks ranging from the hypocrisy of Governor Wise’s dedication to the Constitution to his violent rhetoric in support of conquering Mexico. In the very opening paragraph, she writes

Your constitutional obligation, for which you profess so much respect, has never proved any protection to citizens of the Free States, who happened to have a black, brown, or yellow complexion; nor to any white citizen whom you even suspected of entertaining opinions opposite to your own, on a question of vast importance to the temporal welfare and moral example of our common country. This total disregard of constitutional obligation has been manifested not merely by the Lynch Law of mobs in the Slave States, but by the deliberate action of magistrates and legislators. What regard was paid to constitutional obligation in South Carolina, when Massachusetts sent the Hon. Mr. Hoar there as an envoy, on a purely legal errand? Mr. Hedrick, Professor of Political Economy in the University of North Carolina, had a constitutional right to reside in that State. What regard was paid to that right, when he was driven from his home, merely for declaring that he considered Slavery an impolitic system, injurious to the prosperity of States? What respect for constitutional rights was manifested by Alabama, when a bookseller in Mobile was compelled to flee for his life, because he had, at the special request of some of the citizens, imported a few copies of a novel that every body was curious to read? Your own citizen, Mr. Underwood, had a constitutional right to live in Virginia, and vote for whomsoever he pleased. What regard was paid to his rights, when he was driven from your State for declaring himself in favor of the election of Fremont? With these, and a multitude of other examples before your eyes, it would seem as if the less that was said about respect for constitutional obligations at the South, the better. Slavery is, in fact, an infringement of all law, and adheres to no law, save for its own purposes of oppression.

She didn’t let up for pages. I think my favorite quote is this: “You may believe it or not, Gov. Wise, but it is certainly the truth that, because slaveholders so recklessly sowed the wind in Kansas, they reaped a whirlwind at Harper’s Ferry.” But the whole letter is full of impassioned brilliance and unrelenting dedication to her ideals, and she ends it with

The people of the North had a very strong attachment to the Union; but, by your desperate measures, you have weakened it beyond all power of restoration. They are not your enemies, as you suppose, but they cannot consent to be your tools for any ignoble task you may choose to propose. You must not judge of us by the crawling sinuosities of an Everett; or by our magnificent hound, whom you trained to hunt your poor cripples, and then sent him sneaking into a corner to die–not with shame for the base purposes to which his strength had been applied, but with vexation because you withheld from him the promised bone. Not by such as these must you judge the free, enlightened ycomanry of New England. A majority of them would rejoice to have the Slave States fulfil their oft-repeated threat of withdrawal from the Union. It has ceased to be a bugbear, for we begin to despair of being able, by any other process, to give the world the example of a real republic. The moral sense of these States is outraged by being accomplices in sustaining an institution vicious in all its aspects; and it is now generally understood that we purchase our disgrace at great pecuniary expense. If you would only make the offer of a separation in serious earnest, you would here the hearty response of millions, “Go, gentlemen, and
‘Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once!'”

At that point, we receive proof that correspondance assholery is not limited to the present day and the anonymity of the internet, because it was then that someone in Virginia chose to send Child’s letters to the governor to the New York Tribune, which published them. They caused a stir, and Child wrote a letter to the editor, enclosing Brown’s reply to her own letter. She had decided not to go to Virginia to nurse him after all, a result of his reply and fears for her own safety, but drew comfort from the fact that his wife had reached him and he was healing from his wounds.

In Brown’s reply, he tells her that he has no need of her services, and that her efforts would be better spent collecting money to support members of his family who are experiencing hardship as a result of what we will term Brown’s militant abolitionist actions. He suggests the sum of fifty cents a year, collected from Child and any she can convince:

Now, dear friend, would you not as soon contribute fifty cents now, and a like sum yearly, for the relief of those very poor and deeply afflicted persons, to enable them to supply themselves and their children with bread and very plain clothing, and to enable the children to receive a common English education? Will you also devote your own energies to induce others to join you in giving a like amount, or any other amount, to constitute a little fund for the purpose named?

The newly public discussion was not yet over, though. On the 11th of November, a Mrs. Mason of Alto, in King George County, Virginia, penned a missive addressing Child and her abolitionist sympathies. Unsurprisingly, Mason was not impressed by them.

Do you read your Bible, Mrs. Child? If you do, read there, “Woe unto you, hypocrites,” and take to yourself with two-fold damnation that terrible sentence; for, rest assured, in the day of judgment it shall be more tolerable for those thus scathed by the awful denunciation of the Son of God, than for you. You would soothe with sisterly and motherly care the hoary-headed murderer of Harper’s Ferry! A man whose aim and intention was to incite the horrors of a servile war–to condemn women of your own race, ere death closed their eyes on their sufferings from violence and outrage, to see their husbands and fathers murdered, their children butchered, the ground strewed with the brains of their babes. . . .

Now, compare yourself with those your “sympathy” would devote to such ruthless ruin, and say, on that “word of honor, which never has been broken,” would you stand by the bedside of an old negro, dying of a hopeless disease, to alleviate his sufferings as far as human aid could? Have you ever watched the last, lingering illness of a consumptive, to soothe, as far as in you lay, the inevitable fate? Do you soften the pangs of maternity in those around you by all the care and comfort you can give? Do you grieve with those near you, even though the sorrows resulted from their own misconduct? Did you ever sit up until the “wee hours” to complete a dress for a motherless child, that she might appear on Christmas day in a new one, along with her more fortunate companions? We do these and more for our servants, and why? Because we endeavor to do our duty in that state of life it has pleased God to place us . In his revealed word we read our duties to them–theirs to us are there also–“Not only to the good and gentle, but to the forward.”–(Peter 2:18.) Go thou and do likewise, and keep away from Charlestown. If the stories read in the public prints be true, of the sufferings of the poor of the North, you need not go far for objects of charity.

Child refused to be silenced by a governor, a slaveowner wasn’t going to talk her down, either. She responds to the citation of Peter 2:18 with references to Hebrews 13:3; Isaiah 16:3-4, 58:1, 58:6, and 10:1-2; Deuteronomy 23:15-16; Proverbs 28:8-9; Matthew 23:8, 23:10, and 7:12; Joel 3:3; Jeremiah 22:13; Ephesians 4:28; Job 31:13, 14, 22:9-11; and James 5:4. She followed this scriptural onslaught with quotations both contemporaneous and historical regarding the horrors of slavery, including the following:

[Thomas] Jefferson said: “One day of American Slavery is worse than a thousand years of that which we rose in arms to oppose.” Alluding to insurrections, he said: “The Almighty has no attribute that can take side with us in such a contest.”

And then in response to Mason’s personal inquiries, Child comes back with a paragraph I cannot possibly do justice in summation, and thus quote in full here.

To the personal questions you ask me, I will reply in the name of all the women of New England. It would be extremely difficult to find any woman in our villages who does not sew for the poor, and watch with the sick, whenever occasion requires. We pay our domestics generous wages, with which they can purchase as many Christmas gown as they please; a process far better for their characters, as well as our own, than to receive their clothing as a charity, after being deprived of just payment for their labor. I have never known an instance where the “pangs of maternity” did not meet with requisite assistance; and here at the North, after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.

If you weren’t at least a little bit in love with L. Maria Child before, how could you fail to be now? Her letter goes on to assert the best mind of the age are assailing slavery the world over, but really, how could she have ever improved on that last line? The rest of the letter, while no less filled with passion and wit, is an anti-climax.

And there the matter rested. L. Maria Child never did meet John Brown, who was hanged on the second of December. She did, however, remain an active abolitionist, to the end of her days.



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  1. […] Virginia Senator James Mason’s wife would later get into an argument in print with L. Maria Child over John Brown. […]

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