An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans

By Heaman, Patricia B. | MELUS, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans


Heaman, Patricia B., MELUS


An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Lydia Maria Child. Edited with an Introduction by Carolyn L. Karcher. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1996. 1xi + 207 pages. $40.00 cloth; $15.95 paper.

Carolyn Karcher's new edition of Lydia Maria Child's 1833 groundbreaking study of slavery and racial prejudice in the United States provides an invaluable text for students of American history and literature, African American studies, women's studies, and the history of political reform movements. Important in its own time as a work that gave impetus and credibility to the developing abolitionist movement, Child's Appeal met with renewed interest in the twentieth century when an extended section of its final chapter, "Prejudices Against People of Color, and Our Duties in Relation to This Subject," was republished in Louis Ruchames's The Abolitionists: A Collection of Their Writings in 1963. Shortly thereafter, in response to new scholarship focusing on the recovery of texts rendered marginal by the canonical preferences of the New Criticism, the entire work was made available by the Arno Press and New York Times reprint series.

Child's analysis of the slavery question is remarkable for its depth and comprehensive treatment. By examining American slavery in historical and contemporary contexts, by documenting the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies the system created between federal and state laws, and by demonstrating the far-reaching social consequences of slavery on Americans of all regions and races Child, whose previous literary reputation had rested on her authorship of novels, children's literature, and books of domestic advice, provided a central document of the abolitionist movement. In contrast to later literature that fueled the struggle for abolition--the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet A. Jacobs (1861), Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-2), and tracts like Angelina Grimke's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836)--which rely on personal testimony, sentiment and pathos, or moral appeals to garner public support, Child deploys traditionally "masculine" rhetorical strategies to provide the rational objective, intelligent reader with documented factual evidence of the corrupting effects of slavery on the political and moral principles on which the United States was founded.

Child developed the fully articulated abolitionist ideology of the Appeal gradually. The Unitarian traditions of her Massachusetts family predisposed her to adopt liberal religious and political views, and her formative adolescent years spent living with her married sister in Maine, where she came in contact with Abenaki and Penobscot Indians, provided experiential exposure to non-white races and cultures that formed the basis of her understanding of racial prejudice. Her first novel, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times (1824), featured an interracial marriage between a Puritan woman and an Indian, and her first children's book, Evenings in New England (1824), addressed the issue of slavery. Her marriage in 1828 to David Lee Child, editor of the Massachusetts Journal, led to her association with William Lloyd Garrison, who had worked briefly as a journeyman printer in David Child's offices. At the time of her meeting with Garrison in 1830, she had little thought of becoming an activist in the developing, yet still largely unpopular abolitionist movement. As editor of The Juvenile Miscellany, the first successful children's magazine in America, and author of The Frugal Housewife, a book of domestic advice that sold thirty-three editions, Child was revered as a model for women and children and regarded as an expert practitioner of popular modes of feminine discourse. Garrison, she wrote, "got hold of the strings of my conscience, and pulled me into Reforms." She spent three years studying the moral, legal, economic, political, and racial aspects of the slavery issue, synthesizing facts and arguments from a wide array of sources to construct what Karcher calls a "textbook" on slavery that was both unprecedented and unsurpassed in the history of the abolitionist movement.

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