This post is part of our Revealing Voices blog series.
My writing on Lydia Maria Child was inspired by the United States’ 2016 election. I had been writing on classical German philosophy, Hegel especially, for most of my career. But now, in the face of America’s new reality, I resolved to turn to my own country, and to women. I decided to focus on the nineteenth century and to ask how women had confronted the moral emergencies of their day. Foremost among these was surely the fact that for most of that century, millions of human beings were enslaved in the American South. I had heard that women had been important voices in the abolition of slavery. Those women, I thought, must have been thinking philosophically. They must have been asking big questions. What is justice? What is equality? What does it mean to be a human, and to demand to be treated as such?
A moment of serendipity in a Harvard University library led me to discover Child, a woman who sacrificed an early career as a popular writer to embrace the claim—still radical, also in the North—that slavery was a moral atrocity and should be ended immediately, without compensation to enslavers. Child was ostracized from polite Boston society for this belief and endured decades of poverty and isolation as a result. But she had, in true Socratic fashion, determined that the unexamined life was not worth living: in her case, that continuing to live as a white Northerner, ignoring the kidnapping, trafficking, torture, and family separation that American slavery sanctioned, was indefensible.
Child was an intensely philosophical thinker. I mean this in several ways. First, she was a champion at argumentation. Her 1833 book An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans is one sustained attempt to clear the underbrush of bad arguments that kept most white Americans from recognizing that enslaving other humans was evil. It marshals evidence from economics, history, politics, and religion, culminating in an appeal to her fellow Northerners to see their complicity in slavery’s existence. She was ingenious at finding ways to call her fellow Americans to consistency. She demanded that they see that their pride in American democracy was misplaced if that democracy held others in bondage. She exhorted them to recognize that admiring Revolutionary War heroes for their resistance to taxation on the one hand but condemning enslaved people for fighting for freedom on the other was hypocritical. In the Appeal and dozens of other antislavery publications, she displayed argumentative skills that would make any philosopher proud.
It also turned out, to my astonishment, that Child herself was deeply influenced by German philosophers of the period I had been studying. She regularly quotes Schiller, Herder, Lessing, and Jean Paul Richter; she was familiar with both Kant and Hegel. Even more astonishing to me (although, in retrospect, it should not have been): she was influenced by women philosophers I had only recently been learning about through Kristin Gjesdal and Dalia Nassar’s work, such as Germaine de Staël and Bettina Brentano von Arnim. Child adored Die Günderode, a book written by von Arnim about the philosopher Karolina von Günderrode and translated from German by Margaret Fuller; Child herself wrote an popular biography of Staël.
Child grounded her activism in a philosophical yearning for answers to the big questions. Early in her life, Child turned to the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist, theologian and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg for insights. Swedenborg taught that God was a god of love who expressed that love through the world, especially through nature and poetry. Through Swedenborg, Child embraced a holism in which all truths, and all humans, were essentially connected. That unified truth, she also believed, was best expressed through actions that replicated the love God had for his creation. Swedenborg led Child to a Platonic belief that reality as we know it was an emanation of the divine, although humans could see that truth only dimly. Child shared this deep admiration of Swedenborg with founding members of the emerging transcendentalist movement; her close contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson counted Swedenborg as one of humanity’s “representative men.” Early in her life and during one of the abolitionist movement’s most volatile periods, Child channeled her understanding of Plato and Swedenborg into a novel called Philothea, which included historical characters such as Plato, Anaxagoras, and Alcibiades as well as the eponymous Philothea, granddaughter of Anaxagoras and a woman deeply formed by philosophical ideas.
Philosophical themes recur through her other works as well. While editing the National Anti-Slavery Standard in New York, she published a series of epistolary articles, called Letters from New York and later published as a collection, in which she blends lively observations about the city’s teeming neighborhoods with speculations about free will and necessity, the infinite and the finite, and the ages into which history is divided. She maintained throughout her life that music somehow reflected the structure of reality. A manuscript she reports writing about music has, unfortunately, been lost. Philosophy also recurs in her correspondence with a wide range of her contemporaries, including spirited ruminations on the tension between reason and imagination, the contrast between feeling and intellect in the motivation of moral action, and the question of what drives historical change.
Despite all these philosophical musings, Child was reluctant to call herself a philosopher. “Mrs. Child disclaims the character of a philosopher,” one reviewer wrote of her early work, “but she knows how to teach the art of living well, which is certainly the highest wisdom.” Perhaps this reluctance had to do with the examples of philosophers she had around her: Emerson, whose reluctance to condemn slavery she lamented, or Bronson Alcott, whose obfuscation and impracticality exhausted her. Then as now, philosophy could seem disengaged, abstract, and impotent in the face of the change our world desperately needs.
But Child, to my mind, is a brilliant example of a philosophical mind dedicated to good. Her philosophizing challenges us to imagine how we can turn philosophical thinking into moral action. That alone is reason enough to take her seriously as a philosophical thinker. To my mind, philosophy needs more examples like hers to meet the Socratic challenge of making our lives worth living and philosophy as a discipline worth pursuing.
Lydia Moland is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Philosophy at Colby College. She is the author of Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life and has written about Child in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and American Scholar. She is also the author of two books and multiple articles on Hegel and German Idealism. Together with Alison Stone, she is co-editing the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of American and British Women Philosophers of the Nineteenth Century. She is a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the ACLS, and the American Academy in Berlin.