An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans
An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans
AN APPEAL IN FAVOR OF THAT CLASS OF AMERICANS CALLED AFRICANS
An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans by Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) provoked a storm of controversy when published in 1833. A prominent Massachusetts politician hurled the book out of the window with a pair of fire tongs. The Boston Athenaeum rescinded the free library privileges the trustees had conferred on Child. Former patrons among the Boston elite slammed their doors in Child's face and cut her dead in the streets. Most disastrous for a woman who supported herself and her husband with her pen, the sales of her books plummeted. The outrage Child's Appeal aroused indicates how deeply entrenched the slave system and the racist ideology upholding it were in the nation's political, economic, and social life—and how much courage the book's thirty-one-year-old author displayed by challenging the "peculiar institution" at the risk of forfeiting her literary popularity and her livelihood.
CHILD'S CAREER BEFORE THE APPEAL
Over the nine years since she had risen to fame on the wings of her daring maiden novel, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times (1824), centering around a Puritan woman who marries an Indian and bears him a son, Child had enjoyed intoxicating success. Only a month before the Appeal came off the press, the nation's preeminent journal of letters, the North American Review, had hailed her as "just the woman we want for the mothers and daughters of the present generation" (July 1833, p. 139). Child had earned this accolade by producing works that filled widely recognized cultural needs: historical fiction that contributed to creating a distinctively American literature; a children's magazine, the Juvenile Miscellany (1826–1834), that molded a generation of New England youth; a pair of best-selling domestic advice books oriented toward women of modest means, The Frugal Housewife (1829) and The Mother's Book (1831); and a series of women's biographies that offered readers a range of role models suitable for an era of social change.
In tackling the explosive issue of slavery, Child was once again addressing an urgent cultural need, but this time, as she noted in the preface to the Appeal, she knew she could expect "ridicule and censure" rather than acclaim (p. 5). Although Child's hitherto adoring public regarded her as a defector for championing the cause of a despised people, a close reader might have discerned presages of the Appeal in the intermarriage plot of Hobomok and in her children's writings, where she expressed sympathy for all peoples of color, spoke out against slavery, and introduced ideas of racial equality. One close reader, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), even discerned the bold social criticism embedded in the essays appended to The Frugal Housewife, which he pronounced "worthy of the strongest intellect of the most sagacious politician" (Genius, p. 6).
It was Garrison who recruited Child in June 1830 to the antislavery movement he was then starting to build. As she later recalled, "He got hold of the strings of my conscience, and pulled me into Reforms" (Selected Letters, p. 558). In response, Child dedicated her literary talents to supplying what the new movement lacked: a comprehensive textbook examining the slavery question from every angle—historical, legal, economic, political, racial, and moral. Her research for the project consumed three years, during which she read a staggering array of scholarly and polemical works and mined the weekly newspaper Garrison founded in January 1831, The Liberator, for up-to-date information.
THE APPEAL AND THE GENRE OF ABOLITIONIST POLEMIC
In designing the Appeal, Child could turn to no models for the compendium she envisaged. The closest analogues, both published in 1808, the year England and the United States outlawed the African slave trade, were the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson's two-volume History of the traffic and the long campaign against it, on which Child drew extensively in her first chapter, and the French Enlightenment scholar Henri Grégoire's An Enquiry concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes, which formed the basis of her sixth chapter. Of American antislavery tracts, only a handful existed before the Appeal, all more limited in focus. The Reverend John Rankin's Letters on American Slavery (1826) provided vivid eyewitness testimony that Child quoted to illustrate the tortures to which slaves were subjected and the sadism "this diabolical system" unleashed in the "slave-owner." The African American David Walker's fiery Appeal (1829) and Garrison's Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), which together inspired Child's fifth chapter, presented thoroughgoing critiques of the scheme to send the free black population back to Africa, touted as a means of gradually ending slavery.
More ambitious in scope than either its predecessors or its successors, Child's Appeal also differs strikingly in style and substance from other white American abolitionist tracts, including the many that bear witness to its influence. Unlike Amos A. Phelps's Lectures on Slavery and Its Remedy (1834), William Ellery Channing's Slavery (1835), Angelina Grimké's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836), and Theodore Dwight Weld's The Bible against Slavery (1837), the Appeal relies very sparingly on religious and scriptural arguments. Unlike Weld in American Slavery As It Is (1839), Child relegates incidents of cruelty to a minor place in the Appeal. Unlike Grimké, Child emphasizes rational rather than emotional persuasion, cultivates a political discourse that is more masculine than feminine, and targets a gender-mixed rather than a female audience. And unlike abolitionist tract writers generally, not excepting Richard Hildreth, whose Despotism in America (1840) amplifies the Appeal's economic and political analysis, Child looks beyond the issue of slavery to the larger imperative of ending discrimination against free African Americans. In short, the Appeal's most distinctive and enduring feature is its indictment of racism, which governs four out of eight chapters, recurs as a sub-theme elsewhere in the book, and shapes Child's argument throughout.
OVERVIEW OF THE APPEAL
Organized with flawless logic, Child's pathbreaking textbook on slavery and race moves from past to present, from history to political economy, from fact to argument, from problem to solution. It opens with a "Brief History of Negro Slavery.—Its Inevitable Effect upon All Concerned in It" (chapter 1) and continues with a "Comparative View of Slavery, in Different Ages and Nations" (chapter 2). Occupying almost a third of the volume's two hundred–plus pages, these chapters situate American slavery in a worldwide context that encompasses ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome as well as Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Through a detailed analysis of the laws regulating slavery in the civilizations she covers, Child shows that "modern slavery . . . in all its particulars, is more odious than the ancient; and . . . that the condition of slaves has always been worse just in proportion to the freedom enjoyed by their masters" (p. 36). As the most democratic society in history, the United States has the most stringent slave codes, she underscores, precisely because "slavery is so inconsistent with free institutions, and the spirit of liberty is so contagious under such institutions" that brutal repression is necessary to deter revolt (p. 70). Child also devotes special attention to the ways the laws sustaining slavery systematically "degrade" free people of color, setting them "below the level" of slaves, giving "a positive inducement to violent and vicious white men to oppress and injure people of color" and making "a negro . . . the slave of every white man in the community" (pp. 62, 50; an insight that would prove even more relevant to the post-Emancipation era, when lynching replaced slavery as a mechanism for keeping African Americans subjugated).
After her geohistorical survey Child explores the economics and politics of the slavery controversy. Chapter 3, "Free Labor and Slave Labor.—Possibility of Safe Emancipation," counters fears that emancipation would entail economic ruin and insurrectionary violence. Abolishing slavery would actually benefit the South economically, Child contends, because free workers perform more efficiently than slaves, as the North's prosperity and the South's backwardness testify. Similarly, she cites evidence that "slavery causes insurrections, while emancipation prevents them," pointing out that the abolition of slavery did not trigger a bloodbath either in the northern states or in other countries and that the notorious St. Domingo uprising had occurred only when the French had tried "to restore slavery" there (p. 80). The real threat to the nation, Child shows in chapter 4, "Influence of Slavery on the Politics of the United States," lies in the South's political dominance and determination to further its own interest at all costs. Thanks to the constitutional clause allowing states to count three-fifths of their slave population in fixing their allotment of congressional seats, the South has acquired "entire control of the national policy" and has used that control "to protect and extend slave power" (pp. 103, 104), Child asserts in an early formulation of what historians call the "slave power thesis."
Having defined the problem, Child turns to the solution. In her pivotal chapter, "Colonization Society, and Anti-Slavery Society," placed at the center of the book, Child examines the contrasting remedies the two organizations propose: gradual emancipation accompanied by repatriation to Africa versus immediate emancipation followed by the bestowal of "equal civil and political rights and privileges with the whites" (p. 130). Since colonizationists and abolitionists disagree primarily on whether prejudice against blacks can and should be overcome, Child devotes the rest of the book to answering that question. Chapters 6 and 7, "Intellect of Negroes" and "Moral Character of Negroes," demolish the rationale for prejudice—the myth of the Negro's biological inferiority and savage past—by resurrecting accounts of Africa's ancient civilizations and recalling numerous modern instances of blacks who have distinguished themselves by their talents. The final chapter, "Prejudices against People of Color, and Our Duties in Relation to This Subject," shifts the focus of critique from the South to the North and from slavery to racism. Concentrating on her native Massachusetts, Child catalogs New Englanders' "unrelenting efforts to keep the colored population in the lowest state of degradation" (p. 187) through such forms of discrimination as employment bans, segregated schools and public facilities, and antimiscegenation laws, which she calls on her compatriots to repudiate.
In all but one respect—her promotion of free labor as an alternative to slavery—Child challenges her readers' deepest cultural assumptions. Here, however, the economic ideology she shares with middle-class northerners blinds her to the parallel tendency of capitalist industry and agribusiness to oppress workers and plunder the environment.
The rhetorical strategies Child devises to win over hostile readers are as varied as the topics she addresses. She herself describes her principal strategy of letting facts speak for themselves: "I . . . state the evidence, and leave [readers] to judge of it, as their hearts and consciences may dictate" (p. 187). The words "evidence" and "judge" indicate that Child seeks to persuade through reason, by bringing readers' "minds . . . to reflect" on the truths she presents (p. 187). "Think of these things wisely," she typically exhorts readers (p. 185). As in this example, Child frequently resorts to direct address, an approach that personalizes her relationship to readers and engages them in a dialogue with her, especially when framed as rhetorical questions: "Let me ask you, candid reader, what you would be, if you labored under the same unnatural circumstances?" (p. 182). By characterizing readers as "candid" or "kind-hearted," she simultaneously disarms them and appeals to their best instincts. Conversely, she admits to having earlier held the very misconceptions and biases she asks readers to renounce: "I once had a very strong prejudice against anti-slavery;—(I am ashamed to think how strong—for mere prejudice should never be stubborn,) but a candid examination has convinced me, that I was in error" (p. 134). If she can change, she implies, so can her readers.
These three extracts from chapter 6, "Intellect of Negroes," illustrate how Child both refutes racist theory and contests racist practices. First, by showing that the ancient Greeks, regarded as the forebears of western civilization, recognized Africa as the source of their religious and scientific knowledge, Child overturns the commonly accepted belief in white European superiority and African inferiority. Second, she predicts that Africans themselves will eventually seize from their European conquerors the power to write their own history and thus negate the racist stereotypes used to denigrate them. Third, she exposes the racial discrimination African Americans face as unjust and ultimately detrimental to the society that wastes their talents.
Why did the ancients represent Minerva as born in Africa,—and why are we told that Atlas there sustained the heavens and the earth, unless they meant to imply that Africa was the centre, from which religious and scientific light had been diffused? . . .
By thousands and thousands, these poor people have died for freedom. They have stabbed themselves for freedom—jumped into the waves for freedom—starved for freedom—fought like very tigers for freedom! But they have been hung, and burned, and shot—and their tyrants have been their historians! When the Africans have writers of their own, we shall hear their efforts for liberty called by the true title of heroism in a glorious cause. . . .
A colored man, however intelligent, is not allowed to pursue any business more lucrative than that of a barber, a shoe-black, or a waiter. . . . It is unjust that a man should, on account of his complexion, be prevented from performing more elevated uses in society. Every citizen ought to have a fair chance to try his fortune in any line of business, which he thinks he has the ability to transact.
Child, Appeal, pp. 141, 161–162, 198.
Child further disarms readers through humor, as in her complaint that by refusing to act against slavery, New Englanders are behaving like "the man who being asked to work at the pump, because the vessel was going down, answered, 'I am only a passenger'" (p. 120). Her humor often shades into irony, which she uses to question readers' ideological assumptions and expose the absurdity of proslavery arguments. Thus, replying to the claim that slavery has served to Christianize Africans, she comments: "To be violently wrested from his home, and condemned to toil without hope, by Christians, to whom he had done no wrong, was, methinks, a very odd beginning to the poor negro's course of religious instruction!" (p. 9). Witticisms, anecdotes, metaphors, and analogies punctuate the text, serving not only to enliven a grim subject but to reeducate readers by breaking down accustomed modes of thought and undermining distinctions between white Americans and cultural Others.
Perhaps the most pervasive of the rhetorical strategies Child uses in the Appeal are quotations. She deploys them to bolster her own authority, enlist testimony from credible witnesses, advance controversial views through the mouths of reputable spokesmen, and to give voice to the slaves themselves.
INFLUENCE AND LEGACY OF CHILD'S APPEAL
The Appeal's broad sweep, scholarly thoroughness, intellectual depth, and rhetorical power won it an influence unparalleled for an abolitionist tract. It converted to the abolitionist cause a panoply of opinion makers and future political leaders, among them the Unitarian ministers William Ellery Channing and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the North American Review editor John Gorham Palfrey, the orator Wendell Phillips, and the Massachusetts senators Henry Wilson and Charles Sumner. The Appeal also emboldened women to assume public roles in anti-slavery ranks, whether by producing tracts of their own, as did Angelina Grimké with her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836) and, much later, Harriet Beecher Stowe with her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), or by defying taboo to lecture to "promiscuous" (gender-mixed) audiences, as did Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Abby Kelley, and Lucy Stone. In less direct ways, the Appeal and Child's example generally helped encourage literary figures who had been keeping aloof from the abolitionist movement—such as the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau and the poets James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—to speak and write against slavery. The commitment to eradicating racism that Child expressed in the Appeal and acted on in her life encouraged African American writers as well: Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Charlotte Forten, Harriet Jacobs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins all acknowledged Child as an inspiration. "Were she living to-day," wrote Hopkins in 1903, when white supremacy once again ruled the nation, "her trenchant pen would do us yeoman's service in the vexed question of disfranchisement and equality for the Afro-American" (p. 454).
As Hopkins's eulogy suggests, Child's contributions to the struggle against racism extend beyond the Appeal and beyond her own time. Over a career of advocacy that lasted until her death in 1880, Child published countless other works for the abolitionist cause—tracts, biographies, newspaper articles, letters to politicians. stories, a novel advocating intermarriage as the solution to America's race problem (A Romance of the Republic, 1867), and a primer for the emancipated slaves featuring readings by and about people of African descent (The Freedmen's Book, 1865). One of these works, her Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia (1860), reached a circulation of 300,000. In addition, Child edited both a major abolitionist newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard (1841–1843), and a slave narrative now considered a literary classic, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).
The full measure of Child's achievement only becomes apparent, however, in the light of recent scholarly trends she anticipated in the Appeal: comparative approaches to the history and sociology of slavery and race, legal analyses of slavery's centrality to the American Constitution and political system, Afrocentric methodologies and studies of European culture's African origins. New research in these fields has confirmed many of Child's key insights, revealing her to be a pioneering scholar as well as a courageous activist for racial equality. Through the Appeal, in sum, Child both wrote history and made history—the ultimate mark of a text's cultural significance.
Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of That Class ofAmericans Called Africans. 1833. Edited by Carolyn L. Karcher. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Child, Lydia Maria. Correspondence between Lydia MariaChild and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia. Boston: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860.
Child, Lydia Maria. The Freedmen's Book. 1865. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Child, Lydia Maria. A Lydia Maria Child Reader. Edited by Carolyn L. Karcher. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Reprints extracts and full texts of many otherwise unavailable articles, editorials, pamphlets, and stories by Child.
Child, Lydia Maria. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters,1817–1880. Edited by Milton Meltzer, Patricia G. Holland, and Francine Krasno. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
Child, Lydia Maria. A Romance of the Republic. 1867. Edited by Dana D. Nelson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Garrison, William Lloyd. Editorial preface to Child's "Comparative Strength of Male and Female Intellect." Genius of Universal Emancipation, 30 October 1829, p. 60.
Hopkins, Pauline E. "Reminiscences of the Life and Times of Lydia Maria Child." Colored American Magazine 6 (February, March, and May 1903): 279–284, 353–357, 454–459.
[Mellen, G.] "Works of Mrs. Child." North American Review 37 (July 1833): 138–164.
Clifford, Deborah. Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
Crapol, Edward P., ed. Women and American Foreign Policy:Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Goodman, Paul. Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Hartnett, Stephen John. Democratic Dissent and theCultural Fictions of Antebellum America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic:A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Mills, Bruce. Cultural Reformations: Lydia Maria Child and the Literature of Reform. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Nelson, Dana D. National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.
Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition,Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Sorisio, Carolyn. Fleshing Out America: Race, Gender, and the Politics of the Body in American Literature, 1833–1879. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Carolyn L. Karcher