Society in America, Martineau, Harriet

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Society in America, Harriet Martineau

British journalist Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) recorded her impressions of a lengthy journey through New England, the Midwest, and the antebellum South in her 1837 work Society in America. An ardent abolitionist, she is also considered to be the first female sociologist in the history of the field. Society in America caused somewhat of a stir for the strong opinions expressed on a southern economy that was entirely reliant on forced labor, and later in her career she advocated the development of a cotton industry in India—a British colonial possession at the time—in order to reduce England's dependence on U.S. imports of the crop.

Martineau was born in 1802 in Norwich, England, where her father owned a textile manufacturing business. In poor health for much of her life, she was born hearing impaired and without her sense of smell, but was determined to complete her education and forge a career despite these challenges. She attended a school in the city of Bristol, and was drawn to Unitarianism in her teens. In the mid-1820s, her father's business failed, and she was forced to earn her own living as a result. Her hearing impairment meant that the most commonplace profession for young women of her class—teaching—was closed to her, and she turned to writing, but for many years had to support herself by taking on needlework jobs.

Martineau's first success came when she won a writing contest sponsored by the Unitarian church, and soon her essays on educational reform and other social justice issues of the day began to bring fame as well as a steady income. She moved to London in 1832, where she developed an interest in a new field of scholarship that was called political economy at the time, but was later supplanted by the more general term of economics. In her day, the first practitioners of political economy examined production and trade in industrialized societies such as Britain's, and addressed the pros and cons of what some saw as a need for vastly increased government involvement via regulation and social services.

Martineau penned a multivolume collection of fables that demonstrated various principles of the new field of study, Illustrations of Political Economy, published between 1832 and 1834. With this and subsequent titles her reputation grew, and she was a wellknown figure among London's liberal set of the 1830s, admired as much for her opinions as for the obvious challenges to an active career that her health issues presented. In 1834, she sailed for the United States, planning to take a much-needed vacation, but instead began writing her impressions of the nation and its people. The completed work, Society in America, was published in 1837, and began with an investigative premise: Was the United States fulfilling the promise of its historic constitution? She judged it to have been a success in this effort, save for two problems: slavery and the status of women.

Martineau's journey took her through the southern states of Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama, and she wrote frankly of what she saw on the plantations she visited:

The natural good taste, so remarkable in free negroes, is here extinguished … There was some relief in seeing the children playing in the sun, and sometimes fowls clucking and strutting round the houses; but otherwise, a walk through a lunatic asylum is far less painful than a visit to the slave quarter of an estate. The children are left, during working hours, in the charge of a woman; and they are bright, and brisk, and merry enough, for the season, however slow and stupid they may be destined to become (Martineau, p. 224).

Throughout Society in America, Martineau writes of the people and places she encountered through the prism of economic analysis, and opposed slavery from a fiscal standpoint. "The vicious fundamental principle of morals in a slave country, that labour is disgraceful, taints the infant mind with a stain which is as fatal in the world of spirits as the negro tinge is at present in the world of society," she asserted. She did consider it from a human rights standpoint also, writing that in her journeys in the South, "a common question put to me by amiable ladies was, 'Do not you find the slaves generally very happy?' They never seemed to have been asked, or to have asked themselves, the question with which I replied: 'Would you be happy with their means?'" (p. 121.)

On the matter of women, Martineau judged the situation of married women—with no political or property rights in many states—to be as dreadful as that of the South's slaves. Both groups, she believed, were unable to become fully contributing members of society under the present system. Society in America was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, but not met with entirely favorable reactions in either English-speaking nation. Martineau followed it with several more titles, including her first novel, Deerbrook, in 1838, and a historical romance about Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743–1803), leader of Haiti's slave revolt, but her health declined considerably in the early 1840s. She spent her final years at a house she built in England's Lake District, where she died on June 27, 1876.


Benjamin Disraeli, The Times (London), May 30, 1837.

Martineau, Harriet. Society in America, Vols. 1-3. London: Saunders and Otley, 1837.

                                 Carol Brennan

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Society in America, Martineau, Harriet