Lydia Maria Child's Liberty Bell Series for Children

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Lydia Maria Child's Liberty Bell Series for Children

An ardent abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child penned dozens of articles for antislavery publications along with short stories that featured sympathetic depictions of slaves and free blacks. While these Liberty Bell tales were aimed at a younger audience, they were widely read in the North in the 1840s and helped win over public opinion on the abolitionism issue: While the average Northerner might have been fearful of abolitionism's goals and the rapid societal changes emancipation would bring, readers found it somewhat easier to sympathize with the tragic plight of one of the mixed-raced heroines of Child's stories.

Child is best remembered as the author of the enduring Thanksgiving-holiday poem "Over the River and Through the Woods," an American classic dating to 1844. It refers to the farmhouse of her grandfather in Medford, Massachusetts, the community where she was born in 1802 and where her father ran a successful bakery business. Largely self-taught, she became a schoolteacher at the age of seventeen, but also began writing short stories and poems. Her debut novel Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times by an American caused somewhat of a scandal upon publication in 1824 because of its plot centering on the interracial romance between a young New England woman and a noble Native American man. Some of Child's knowledge of Native American culture came from time she had spent visiting Penobscot communities in Maine while summering there with family.

In 1826, Child founded a magazine for children, Juvenile Miscellany, that was widely read and one of the first such periodicals of its kind in the United States. Two years later, she married a Harvard-educated lawyer, David Lee Child, who was active in Massachusetts politics and shared her strong commitment to social-justice issues. Their beliefs brought them into the abolitionist movement in New England, much of which was anchored by antislavery advocate William Lloyd Garrison and his Liberator newspaper, launched in 1831. In 1833, Child wrote a lengthy work, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, which called for immediate emancipation of slaves in all U.S. states. This was considered an extremist view, for even Garrison felt that emancipation should be gradually achieved; Child is believed to be the first white person to publicly espouse such a radical notion of immediate freedom for those in bondage. To support her arguments, her book features reasoned arguments on the intelligence and moral character of Africans and African Americans, bolstered by lengthy anecdotes on African history and the obvious moral qualities and intellect of free blacks when called to service over the past few centuries. "As a class, I am aware that the negroes, with many honorable exceptions, are ignorant, and show little disposition to be otherwise," Child wrote, "but this ceases to be the case just in proportion as they are free. The fault is in their unnatural situation, not in themselves. Tyranny always dwarfs the intellect. Homer tells us, that when Jupiter condemns a man to slavery, he takes from him half his mind" (Child 1996, p. 162).

Child's radical views made her somewhat of a pariah outside the abolitionist movement, and the steady income she had earned over the past several years as author of such works as The Frugal Housewife (1829) and the pioneering tome The History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations (1835) began to diminish. She was even forced to suspend the publication of Juvenile Miscellany, but she found work inside the abolition movement. By 1840 she was living in New York City as Garrison's representative there and editing the National Anti-Slavery Standard, a weekly newspaper. She also began to have her short fiction published in what were known as gift books. These were lavishly produced annual tomes, often centered around a theme and given at the holiday season, and were routinely found in most middle-class American homes from about 1825 until the Civil War. The Liberty Bell series became the most popular of the antislavery gift books, and Child's short stories made regular appearances in them.

In "The Black Saxons," Child presented a tale of a South Carolina slaveholder named Duncan whose evening reading enjoyment on Saxon history is interrupted by his investigation into the whereabouts of his slaves. He overhears them planning a possible revolt, and realizes the situation is not unlike that of his Saxon ancestors in the British Isles during the early medieval period. "Again he recurred to Saxon history, and remembered how he had thought that troubled must be the sleep of those who rule a conquered people" Child's story reads.

A new significance seemed given to Wat Tyler's address to the insurgent laborers of his day; an emphatic, and most unwelcome application of his indignant question, why serfs should toil unpaid in wind and sun, that lords might sleep on down, and embroider their garments with pearl (Child 1997, p. 191).

While "The Black Saxons" was notable for giving voice to some common grievances of slaves and presenting them in a morally superior light, Child's next story for the series presented an example of how far into some families the laws of slavery might extend. "The Quadroons," which first appeared in 1842, recounted the idyllic bliss shared by Rosalie—the half-black daughter of wealthy New Orleans merchant and a slave named Angelique—and Edward, a young white man from a well-to-do Georgia family. They hide at a remote cottage, and Edward continues to financially support Rosalie and their daughter Xarifa even after his marriage to another. Both he and Rosalie, however, die early deaths attributed to the heartbreak of separation from one another, leaving their well-educated teenage daughter an orphan. She is captured when the family that owned Angelique, her grandmother, makes a claim on her as their property. "The gentle girl, happy as the birds in spring-time, accustomed to the fondest indulgence, surrounded by all the refinements of life, timid as a young fawn, and with a soul full of romance, was ruthlessly seized by a sheriff, and placed on the public auction-stand in Savannah," the story reads. Xarifa is bought for an astronomical sum by a man who sought to win her love, but a plan to escape with her true love—her former music teacher—is foiled and ends in the teacher's death.

In a few months more, poor Xarifa was a raving maniac. That pure temple was desecrated; that loving heart was broken; and that beautiful head fractured against the wall in the frenzy of despair. Her master cursed the useless expense she had cost him; the slaves buried her; and no one wept at the grave of her who had been so carefully cherished, and so tenderly beloved. (p. 137)

Child's story appealed to readers accustomed to fictional heroines possessed of great beauty and grace, and whose desire for a noble, purely romantic love was thwarted by unjust external circumstances. Xarifa's victimization follows such a template, and such characters began to appear more frequently in pro-abolition literature. In a third story, "Slavery's Pleasant Homes," Child adhered to this formula with her depiction of Rosa, a beautiful slave who travels to a new home with her mistress, a young bride, and then finds herself the target of unwanted attention by the husband. Predictably, a tragic end comes to both Rosa and her true love, a fellow slave, and in this plot Child attempted to show how all who lived under the system of slavery were devalued by it. The wife could not prevent her husband from dallying with the women who were deemed his property, and the male slave was powerless to defend his wife from sexual assault.

Despite the appeal of the Liberty Bell stories and their success in swaying public opinion on the evils of slavery, Child grew weary of the ideological divisions within the abolitionist movement and retreated from it. Her later writings concentrated on the plight of Native Americans. Her final years were spent in Wayland, Massachusetts, where she died on July 7, 1880.


Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Child, Lydia Maria. "The Black Saxons." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings, ed. Glynis Carr. Available from

Child, Lydia Maria, The Lydia Maria Child Reader. Carolyn L. Karcher, ed., Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Child, Lydia Maria. "The Quadroons." Available from

Child, Lydia Maria. "Slavery's Pleasant Homes." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings, ed. Glynis Carr. Available from

                                    Carol Brennan