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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

157 Years Ago Today: Lydia Maria Child Writes to John Brown

157 Years Ago Today--
Lydia Maria Child Writes to John Brown

One hundred and fifty-seven years ago today, Lydia Maria [pronounced "Mariah"] Francis Child (b. 1802) penned a letter to John Brown, now a prisoner awaiting sentencing in Charlestown, Virginia. She was only two years younger than 59-year-old John Brown, and grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, making a name for herself in her twenties as the author of a successful novel that featured a female protagonist and a romantic relationship between a white woman and a Native American character.  Lydia became a well known author of novels, essays, and juvenile literature, but married a less successful lawyer and editor, David Lee Child in 1826.  

While Child was firmly committed to the antislavery cause, he was dependent upon his wife's writing for a consistent income. The progressive couple became supporters of the pacifist abolitionist editor, William Lloyd Garrison, in the 1830s, and Lydia was duly pressed into the service of the antislavery cause, which she already supported with conviction, along with her husband.  In the later 1830s, David Lee Child wrote famously against the annexation of Texas by slaveholders, and likewise published a series of antislavery articles.  Though financially strapped and struggling, the Childs were something of a power couple in abolitionist terms, particularly Lydia's season of activity and successful writing in New York during the 1840s, when she was the editor of The Antislavery Standard.

In the heightening tensions of the 1850s, the Childs were quite concerned about matters in the Kansas territory like the rest of the abolitionist set.  According to Child's biographer, the late Deborah P. Clifford, the Garrisonian abolitionists worried over the fact that antislavery militancy in Kansas might undercut their pacifist "moral suasionist" views.  But the Childs seem to have sympathized with militant antislavery people, and Lydia even published an extended essay in 1856 called "The Kansas Immigrants," which was serialized in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.  Clifford wrote that Lydia herself believed that "if emancipation was only obtainable through force, then force must be used."1 

In early 1857, when John Brown was canvassing the east for support for the Kansas cause, he somehow met David Lee Child.  Although the time and place of their meeting is unclear, it was probably in March, most likely in Massachusetts.  Brown and Child evidently had a brief conversation and Brown seems to have been taken aback by something Child asked, triggering his famous cautionary reticence.  It may be that Child frankly asked him about the killings at Pottawatomie, although it is not known why Brown later acknowledged that he had not told Child "all the truth."  If the matter in question was related to Pottawatomie, it may be that Brown had been put in an awkward position before a group of people and preferred not to give the full details of the incident.  Whatever the case, Child wrote to Brown on March 20, and Brown responded on April 1 from Springfield, Massachusetts.  According to the letter, Child had sent some "'document'" to Brown, which the latter acknowledged and then suggested a meeting in Boston later that month.2

It is not clear if the two met again in Boston as suggested by Brown, but likely the latter hoped that Child might prove a source of financial support, as part of the larger network that the abolitionist soldier hoped to build in New England.  If so, then he was hoping in vain to receive support from the financially troubled lawyer and editor.   On the other hand, it may be that Child, too, had hoped to gain firsthand information about Kansas, including information about Brown himself, who had become a heroic figure in the North following the 1856 battle at Osawatomie.  Whatever Child's intentions, whether to gain this information for himself or for his wife's writing, there was some exchange between the two men in 1857.   

Whether or not they met in early April 1857, Brown had occasion to write a short note to him on April 27, stating that he was being prevented from departing (apparently from New England) until early (apparently) May.3  By the end of May 1857,  Brown was in Akron, Ohio, where he wrote to George Luther Stearns back in Massachusetts, expressing regret that he was not accompanied by Child and another man.4  Perhaps Brown had reason to think that Child was going to travel with him back to Kansas; whatever he meant, however, Brown was disappointed in his hopes as he was overall with the New England set. Throughout the period of their association in early 1857, Child managed to get some information from Brown about the struggle in Kansas.  When Katherine Mayo did her memorable research to assist Oswald Villard in 1909, she located a manuscript in Brown's hand, given to David Lee Child, in which the former provided details about the Kansas conflict.  The document is verified by Lydia Maria Child as having been composed by "old Brown at the request of my husband."5

Whether or not the Childs intended to produce a contemporary story about Brown is not clear, but it may be that Lydia herself hoped to write further on Kansas, focusing on Brown.  If so, the question is raised as to why she did not expedite the work.  It might be that her designs to write on Brown as a Kansas hero were undercut by other journalists, especially James Redpath, who was on the ground in Kansas and had access to Brown.   Regardless, Lydia Child apparently sustained admiration for Brown which, after Harper's Ferry, gave birth to her plan to write his authorized biography.

Time does not permit me to engage the interesting topic of Child's intended biography of Brown, which is discussed in Bonnie Laughlin Schultz's fine book, The Tie That Bound Us.   Whether or not this was Lydia's second time thinking about a John Brown narrative, the 1859 effort was her best hope at both serving the antislavery cause (including raising money for Brown's family) and providing a much needed cash flow for herself and husband.   As the record shows, however, Child was disappointed in this effort. 

Not only did the imprisoned Brown refuse her solicitation to come to Virginia to nurse his wounds and support him in his last days, but he turned the issue of finance back on her, asking instead for her to persuade her friends to make donations to his family.  To cap off her disappointment, the radical abolitionist journalist James Redpath upstaged her completely by winning the support of the Brown family as the authorized biographer of the Old Man.  Lydia's hopes were dashed, and her dream of supporting the cause she loved (and a windfall of profit) ended quite abruptly with Brown's kind rejection.   Those interested in Brown's angle on this episode should also consult my Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.

Both Lydia Maria Child's letter to Brown and his response on November 4, 1859 follow below.  I would refer the reader to my book, John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown, for further contextualizing information on the Brown-Child letter.--LD


     1 Deborah P. Clifford, "Lydia Maria Child," Poetry Foundation [Chicago].  Retrieved from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/lydia-maria-child

     2 John Brown to David L. Child, 1 April 1857.  Transcribed by Katherine Mayo in Box 4, Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection [OGV].

     3 John Brown to David L. Child, 27 April 1857.  Transcribed by Katherine Mayo in Box 5, OGV.

     4 John Brown to George L. Stearns, 23 May 1857.  Transcribed by Katherine Mayo in Box 5, OGV.

     5 Katherine Mayo's transcription of undated 1857 description by John Brown, written for David Lee Child and verified by Lydia Maria Child, OGV.


Mass'ts Wayland, Oct 26th, 1859 

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 U.S.
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 your cruel bereavements, your sufferings and your wrongs. In brief, I

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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 strong heart. I long to nurse you, to speak to you sisterly words of sympathy and consolation. I have asked permission of Gov. Wise to do so. If the request is not granted, I cherish the hope that these 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 his 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.

L. Maria Child.

Source: Kansas State Historical Society,  John Brown Collection, #299, Box 2, Folder 4.

Charlestown Jefferson Co. Va. 4th Nov. 1859.

Mrs L Maria Child

Wayland Mass

My Dear friend

(Such you prove to be though an entire stranger) Your most Kind letter has reached me; with your Kind offer to come here & take care of me. Allow me to express my gratitude for your great sympathy: & at the same time to propose to you a different course; together with my reasons for wishing it. I should certainly be greatly pleased to become personally acquainted with one so gifted; & so Kind: but I cannot avoid seeing some objections to it under present circumstances. First I am in [the] charge of a most humane gentleman who with his family have rendered me every possible attention I have desired or that could be of the least advantage: and I am so far recovered from my wounds as no longer to require nursing. Then again it would subject you to great personal inconvenience, & quite a heavy expense; without doing me any good.
Now allow me to name to you another channel through which you may reach me with your sympathies much more effectually. I have at home a Wife & Three young daughters the youngest of whom is but little over Five years old; the oldest is nearly Sixteen. I have also Two daughters in law whose Husbands have both fallen near me here. One of these is a Mother & the other like to become so. There is also another Widow a Mrs Thompson whose Husband also fell here. Whether she is a widow Mother or not I cannot say. They all (my Wife included) live at North Elba, Essex Co. New York. I have or suppose I have a middle aged Son who has been in some degree a cripple from childhood who would have as much as he could well do to earn a living. He was a most dreadful sufferer in Kansas; & lost all he had laid up: & has not enough to clothe himself for the Winter comfortably. I have no Son or Son in law living: who did not suffer terribly in Kansas.
Now dear friend would you not as soon contribute Fifty Cents now: & a like sum yearly for the relief of those very poor; & deeply afflicted persons to enable them to supply themselves, & Children with Bread: & very plain clothing; & to enable the children to receive a common English education: & also to devote your own energies to induce others to join you in giving a like or other amount to constitute a little fund to the purpose named? I cannot see how your coming here can possibly do me the least good: & I feel quite certain you can do me immense good where you are. I am quite cheerful under all my afflicting circumstances; & prospects, having as I humbly trust “the peace of God which passeth all understanding, to rule in my heart.”[Philippians 4:7, New Testament]. You may make just such use of this as you see fit. 

{God Almighty bless; & reward you a Thousand fold.}

Yours in sincerity; & truth.

                                                                                                            John Brown

Source: Boyd B. Stutler John Brown Collection, West Virginia History [Charleston], MS02-0045.  Some emendations by me--LD.

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