Excerpts from Lydia Maria Child's Letters to Marianne Silsbee, 1857-1866

Excerpt from Lydia Maria Child's Letter to Marianne Silsbee, Feb. 1st, 1857:

My dear Mrs. Silsbee,

I will not answer your letter in detail, because you have particularly requested me not to do so; and because I could hardly do so, with my natural frankness, without interrupting, by many vexatious snags, your smooth sailing through my epistle. I will, therefore, merely say, in general terms, that the pervading tone of your letter, though very kind in its spirit, and carefully restrained in expression, made me feel, more distinctly than I had previously felt, how very difficult it is to throw even a plank bridge over the chasm that separates my habits of thought and feeling from those who trace the outrages in Kansas to the Emigrant Aid Society, who ascribe the reckless violence of slaveholders to the provocations of abolitionists, and impute the misery and degradation of the European peasantry to the bad influence of the radicals.

The different points of view, from which we habitually look at things, is manifested by the fact that I have seldom been with you, for more than an hour, without hearing some hit at my especial favorites; and I dare say that I, without thinking of it, run against your predilections in the same way. Theodore Parker, Samuel Johnson, O. B. Frothingham, T. W. Higginson, &c. are the chosen sons and brothers of my soul. You dislike them all exceedingly. I agree with you in not being partial to satirical speaking, or writing. But with some men, satire is a natural talent. I do not quarrel with J. Parker. or Garrison, for using it, though it is not according to my taste; first, because it is a weapon born in their hands, and secondly, because they never use it from personal spite, but always against the practice, or the advocacy of principles and institutions, which they deem bad. You say you "like Garrison, and detest Parker." Yet Garrison is a great deal more severe and satirical than Parker. The thunderbolts he hurls are often hissing hot. I have but little natural turn to satire, and that little I often restrain. If I did indulge in it, I should certainly turn its sharpest edge on those ministers who preach according to the prescription of their parishioners.But if they consider it an object worth living for, to manifest in their own persons what a beautiful relations may exist between kind masters and contented slaves, I am very willing to leave them to the enjoyment of their lot.

With regard to Charles Sumner's being "chief architect of the wall," I think you forget that difficulties on this subject drove us apart a few days after you returned from Europe; though we had met a few hours before with the strongest personal affection. Mainly by the agency of a man drunk with Southern wine, and bribed by promises of Southern votes for the presidency, a diabolical law was passed, by which the citizens of Massachusetts were converted into slave-catchers; and when my soul was boiling over with shame and indignation, that my native Commonwealth should, by tyrants and their base tools, be converted into a slave hunting-ground, you called it "making a ridiculous fuss about one nigger." How hard I tried not to enter into a pitched battle, then and there, up to the hilt of the knife, you will never know, or imagine; because you have never realized how very strongly I feel on all subjects connected with human freedom and equality. When the next 11th of February came round, you did not write a letter of good wishes, as had been your custom for several years; though you afterward wrote to me that you were "thinking of me all day." I knew very well what snag was in the way; and I took no offence. I was sorry for the wall between us; but I saw that neither you nor I could help it. It is possible for strong personal attachment to exist without the possibility of mutual pleasure in intimate intercourse. This is one of the saddest experiences, as we drift down the stream of life, to see how many boats are parted from our side by counter-currents; boats into which we would gladly throw all the flowers we have; though it is out of our power to keep them company.

And now let us turn to more pleasant themes. . .

Believe me, dear friend, when I say that you have a warm corner in my heart, where you will always be cherished with grateful and sincere affection, whether we meet often during our pilgrimage or not. Mr. child unites with me in cordial greetings, and kindly wishes.

Your truly attached friend,

L. Maria Child

Excerpt from Lydia Maria Child's letter to Marianne C. D. Silsbee, September 11, 1857:

Wayland, Sep. 11th, 1857

Dear Friend,

A letter from Dolores informs me that your note to her contained an invitation for "Papasite" and I to accompany them to Salem. She seemed very grateful for her share of the kind attention; and I certainly am for mine.

You behave so magnanimously about my anti-slavery scolding, that you compel me to love you better than I ever did before. Very few people, in the relative social position which you have to me, would have done anything toward picking up the dropped stitches of our friendship. It shows a large nature and a kind heart. I appreciate it, and I thank you for it.

If I have in aught done you any injustice, or done Mr. Silsbee any injustice, P pray you pardon me.

I feel keenly and deeply on the subject of slavery, not merely from motives of justice and humanity toward the colored race, but because I see so clearly that all the fair prospects of this broad and beautiful land have for years been driving toward an inevitable wreck on that rock so carefully concealed beneath a smooth surface.

Feeling thus, and seeing so many drawn aside from their duty on the subject, by the fear of offending those who are influential in society, or by an amiable desire to keep on good terms with friends who were looking at the subject from a more distant point of view, I have watched over myself with great jealousy. Again and again, I have said to myself, "Take care! Maria Child! Take care! Don't allow this pleasant friendship, and these kind attentions, to draw you away from the advocacy of an unpopular cause. Let no one mistake, for a moment, your willingness to lay upon that altar anything and everything that render life agreeable.

Such has been my normal state of mind for twenty five years. But the capture of Burns, the outrages in Kansas, and the attack upon Charles Sumner, roused from the depths of my nature feelings, of whose existence I was not aware. The Puritan metal within me was struck, and rung a loud tocsin through my soul. For the first time in my life, I understood Charlotte Corday. For the first time in my life, I felt that I might be driven to deeds of blood, when all hopes of justice from the laws, and aid from public sympathy was denied to the fugitive slave.

You could not understand this state of mind, dear friend; for, in the first place, the subject has not been kept so near to your large kind heart, by frequent interviews with fugitives during twenty-five years; and you had been long abroad among sunny vineyards, and galleries of beauty.

I did not remember this; as I ought, and I pray your forgiveness, if I seemed to strike against you with a sharp collision in return for your many proofs of love. I love you truly, and that's a face.

I have been hindered from making my intended visit to Salem, by the illness of Mr. Child. He has suffered dreadfuly from rheumatism, and I pack him in wet sheets and blankets every day. this process ha relieved him a good deal, and I now hope to visit Susan Clapp next Wednesday, and you the following day. Mr. Child thanks you for his part of the invitation, but he feels too stiff to go away from home. He unites with me in respects to Mr. Silsbee, love to Mary, and cordial greeting to yourself.

Your affectionate and grateful friend,

L. Maria Child.

Excerpt from Lydia Maria Child's Letter to Marianne Silsbee, February 6, 1864:

By the way, did you see that a Frenchman had invented a process by which the bust of a person is taken at the same time with his photograph? I have a perfect passion for photographs; from the largest specimens down to the little ninepenny cards, which re always tempting my soul to sin by buying them, while sick soldiers need goodies, and poor Freedmen need light let in upon their benighted minds. I think the moral arithmetic of human life is a hard thing to cipher out. I can't make my sums prove, I know; and as for the repeating decimals, they go on ad infinitum; there is no getting rid of them.

Excerpt from Lydia Maria Child's Letter to Marianne Silsbee, February 16th, 1865:

Dear Mrs. Silsbee:,

I wish in my soul you had asked me to do something that I could do; for few things in this world would give me more pleasure than to comply with a request of yours. But my mind is too anxious about the future of my country, for me to be in a state to write glorifications. Moreover, a premature peace is what we have most to dread; and good feelings and selfish feelings alike make people prone to consent to it.

But even if I could write a peace idyl, all blooming with roses, and full of the songs of nightingales, I do not think it would prove a success at your social gathering. The aspect of the times is so portentous, that such flowery prophecies would not harmonize with the state of feeling. . .

Excerpt from Lydia Maria Child's Letter to Marianne Silsbee, February 5, 1866:

Tell me about Mary's children; who they look like, and what sort of characters are being developed in them. If ever I should purchase the elegant bonnet that I've had in contemplation these twelve years, I should be tempted to pop in and take a peep at them some day; but as I keep deferring the purchase till the Freedmen all have homes and spelling-books, I shoudn't wonder if the aforesaid bonnet were never bought till I reach the kingdom, where I trust bonnets are not in fashion; at least not u bonnets as the Empress Eugenie prescribes. How my spirit has been vexed with the nonsensical scraps of tinsel!


American Antiquarian 
Society logo

An American Antiquarian Society Online Exhibition
Curated by Lucia Z. Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College

All primary sources in this exhibit are in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society.
This site and all contents © 2006 American Antiquarian Society