Miss Martineau Speaks Out

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  • Miss Martineau Speaks OutAuthor(s): Stephen Bloore and Harriet MartineauSource: The New England Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Sep., 1936), pp. 403-416Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/360278 .Accessed: 09/12/2014 00:56

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    ON the afternoon of October 21, 1835, Miss Harriet Martineau was travelling by stage-coach from Salem to

    Providence. As the stage passed near the post-office in Boston, her curiosity was aroused by an unusual crowd in the streets. "Why were they there? " she asked the other travellers as she offered her ear-trumpet for a reply. Probably, it was sug- gested, it was foreign post day when many gathered in antici- pation of mail from abroad. There was nothing in the be- havior of the crowd to throw doubt on the plausibility of this explanation, and the stage carried Miss Martineau on to Providence.'

    Miss Martineau had come to America in search of relaxa- tion from hard literary labors. In England she was a noted writer and a great celebrity. Although handicapped by deaf- ness, poverty, and her sex, this tall, thin, large-featured woman had made herself a person of influence and importance with her pen. In her writings, moreover, she most positively placed herself on the side of the angels in the matter of morals - a position which did her no harm in the minds of many Eng- lish and American people. When she arrived in this country in August, 1834, she was greeted with typical American defer- ence to a foreign literary reputation. Since then she had travelled through the South observing people and customs -

    especially slavery. New England was next to occupy her attention.

    When she arrived in Providence on that October day, Miss Martineau soon learned the real cause of the crowds in Boston. George Thompson, her countryman and a famous - or notorious, according to which side of the fence one hap- pened to be on - anti-slavery advocate, had been scheduled to speak that afternoon at a meeting of the Boston Female

    1 Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, Maria Weston Chapman, Editor, (Boston, 1877), I, 346.


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    Anti-Slavery Society. The crowd had been assembled to break up this meeting and to indicate to the foreign meddler its proper contempt for his impertinent intrusion into things American. Although Thompson did not appear, William Lloyd Garrison, who was only less of an offense because he was native born, sat writing in his office next to the ladies' meet- ing; and the crowd recognized in him an entirely appropriate substitute. Sweeping aside the mayor's half-hearted efforts to restrain them, they drove Garrison from the building with curses and threats of serious injury. After a terrifying struggle through the streets of Boston, Garrison was finally lodged in jail for his own protection.

    Here, indeed, was food for thought for Harriet Martineau. Had she not committed herself against slavery by the publi- cation of Demerara? Moreover, when her ship had arrived at Sandy Hook, the pilot had inquired about her anti-slavery views. Upon being assured by a friend of Miss Martineau that in spite of her views she did not agitate the question in public and that the primary purpose of her visit was to see America, the pilot allowed her to land. He remarked, however, that if George Thompson had been aboard, the captain would have been forced to hide him to protect his life. All this had been kept from Miss Martineau at the time, but it was revealed to her later.2

    Because of her well known views and because of the tur- moil in the American mind at the time, this troublesome question had persistently confronted Miss Martineau. Al- though she wished to observe and to get first-hand informa- tion from both sides, she was frequently forced to take a stand, for she had previously determined " never to evade the great question of colour; never to provoke it; but always to meet it plainly in whatever form it should be presented." " There was, for example, the lady in Philadelphia who asked whether she would attempt to stop a negro and a white from

    2 Martineau, Autobiography, I, 336. 3 Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel (London, 1838) i, 139.

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    marrying. That was a favorite trap set for those who favored equality of the races. Miss Martineau answered, of course, that she would not interfere. " Then," said her questioner, " you are an Amalgamationist! " The dread news was whis- pered about the city. But when Miss Martineau learned of the marked increase of mulattoes in the South, she knew how to avoid that trap.4

    After the Philadelphia incident she had received various warnings against proceeding farther South. In Baltimore and Washington roundabout threats were made against her, and fears were expressed by her friends - all to no avail. She had letters to a number of senators, and she gladly accepted invi- tations to see slavery at first hand, not, however, without warn- ing that she would write exactly what she saw. In the course of her journey into the Carolinas and west to New Orleans she was entertained by Hayne, Clay, and Calhoun's family.5

    What she saw of slavery only strengthened her conviction of its iniquity. She observed, as she noted later in Society in America, a prevailing sectional prejudice, which she empha- sized with the remark of one southerner who told her that " the New England people are all pedlars or canting priests." 6 Along with much immorality and violence she found many examples of mercy and good treatment of the slaves. South- erners, she felt, had "a prevalent unconsciousness of the ex- isting wrong. The daily and hourly plea is of good intentions towards the slaves; of innocence under the aspersions of for- eigners. They are as sincere in their belief that they are in- jured as their visitors are cordial in their detestation of the morals of slavery." She concluded, indeed, that such an atti- tude was an indication of " grossness of morals." 7

    Of the abolitionists she knew little at the time of the Boston

    4 Martineau, Autobiography, I, 339. 5 Martineau, Autobiography, I, 340-344- 6 Harriet Martineau, Society in America (New York, 1837), I, 138. In the

    two-volume edition referred to here, Volume I is marked " second edition," and Volume ii, " third edition."

    7 Martineau, Society in America, II, 124.

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    riot. She had met a few - Dr. and Mrs. Medford, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Gray Loring, and Professor Charles Follen - dur- ing a brief stay in Massachusetts. Also, when she was in Ken- tucky, she had received a letter from Maria Weston Chapman urging her not to be taken in by the slave-holders and re- questing a hearing for the abolitionists. In spite of her appre- ciation of its literary style, Miss Martineau found this letter " rather intrusive and not a little fanatical." Later she re- gretted her answer, which, she felt certain, had been " cold, repulsive, hard." Miss Martineau attributed her resentment of Mrs. Chapman's advice to the fact that she did not then realize conditions at the North.8

    At that time the abolitionists found little sympathy any- where. Even at the North they were regarded as disturbers of the peace whose principles endangered the Union. More immediately irritating was the jeopardy in which their agita- tion placed the valuable trade between northern merchants and southern planters. Popular resentment, properly en- flamed by interested parties, burst into furious riots in New York and New England. For some time a reign of terror followed as the public mind succumbed to one of its periodic psychoses. At the South, of course, Harriet Martineau saw nothing of the true conditions in the North. She saw only the incendiary qualities of the abolitionists as the newspapers and the southerners depicted them. Fanatical was the word which summed up her impressions. " The people of New England," she had been told at Washington, " do good by mania." 9 For fanaticism, certainly, she held no brief, however much she might approve of its avowed purpose.

    William Lloyd Garrison was especially accused for the vio- lence of h