Abolition of Slavery and Attitudes Towards Childhood
September 15, 2014 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I have lately and coincidentally been reading (American) pre-Civil War history and also some Transcendentalist work and fiction from the era. One thing I've noticed is how often prominent abolitionists and Transcendentalists are noted as being unusually indulgent towards their children; the point is often echoed in fiction of the era. Can you point me to any studies or commentary on the relationship between abolitionist thought and attitudes towards childhood? (Any country is okay!)

As I've been reading these histories, I've noticed how very many of these Republicans and abolitionists have, by the standards of the time, notably warm, close, loving, and/or indulgent attitudes towards their children (Lincoln, Seward, Bates, etc.). They tend to lavish education and attention on their children and often tend towards "rational" discipline (explaining, cajoling, remonstrating) rather than physical discipline. This is echoed in Transcendentalist writings about childhood, and in some contemporary fiction relating to children (such as Louisa May Alcott). These attitudes are enough outside of the norm that they're mentioned in correspondence by acquaintances and in contemporary biographies as unusual.

It seems intuitively reasonable to me that a growth of belief in the intrinsic humanity of each person would lead to both abolitionist beliefs AND gentler attitudes towards children (as well as greater emphasis on women's rights, as per many Transcendentalists). But I have no idea if this is actually so, or if it's just confirmation bias, or if there are just a lot of Quakers running around the latter half of the 19th Century, or if gentler attitudes towards children were generally coming into vogue across the United States in the North AND South while abolitionism was failing to gain hold in the South; and I assume given the prominence of abolitionism and Transcendentalism in American history, someone must have studied this before now and one of you MeFites must know! It could very well be that I've just happened to read a coincidental set of child-friendly, abolitionist, late-19th-century books all at once and there's no relationship at all!

While it's the American abolitionist movement that has piqued this interest, I'm totally interested in whether abolitionism in other countries coincided with other "hey these people are humans too!" ideas like gentle parenting, women's rights, etc. (Or even animal protection!) The same general point in history (European and American abolition) or any other points in history are fine; this is 100% my intellectual curiosity about how people think and how cultures move, and doesn't have to meet any standards outside "interesting to my personal brain."
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You might want to read Growing Up Abolitionist.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:47 PM on September 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is an interesting chapter in Steven Pinker's all-around-thought-provoking book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined called "The Humanitarian Revolution", and it takes a good look at this. He mentions the philosopher Peter Singer's concept of "the expanding circle": that humans have, over the course of history, "enlarged the range of beings whose interests they value as their own" (Pinker actually suggests that this was accelerated by literacy). Another chapter in the book is called "The Rights Revolution" and he discusses how the civil and women's rights movements got going in the 19th century, and cascaded through the 20th century into children's rights, gay rights, and animal rights (this makes a lot more sense once you become more familiar with the "expanding circle of empathy" idea). I'm not doing the writing justice in my disorganized description here, but it's a great read with lots to chew on, and I think you'd find it very interesting.
posted by lovableiago at 8:12 PM on September 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Brief article, name-checking some abolitionist educators and their teaching idol Johann Pestalozzi (and while I remember he was involved with the reformist Helvetic Society and the plight of the poor, I don't know his specific views on slavery).
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:13 PM on September 15, 2014

Best answer: Confessedly somewhat tangential to your question, but since you're interested in the era and its views on child-rearing, particularly among the Transcendentalist intellectual set, you might like Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, Nathanial Hawthorne's own diary of a brief period he spent caring for his five-year-old son by himself while his wife was off visiting relatives.
posted by Diablevert at 8:40 PM on September 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've studied antebellum education and educational reformers in depth. There was a shift away from viewing children as innately evil and toward viewing them as innately good. Calvinists promoted the former, Unitarians the latter. Look at transcendentalists' connections to Unitarianism. And then there were the Quakers, many of whom were leaders int he abolitionist movement. Quakers look for the good in everyone. I have to go to work now....
posted by mareli at 3:39 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some interesting lesser-known people you might look into: Abby May Alcott and Bronson Alcott, parents of Louisa May Alcott; Abby May's brother Samuel J. May, abolitionist and educational reformer; Harriet Coffin Peirce and Cyrus Peirce, Harriet grew up with her contemporary cousin Lucretia Coffin Mott, started a school for illiterate adults, and Cyrus became the principal of the first state-funded teacher training school (or Normal School) in the US. Cyrus was also the teacher of Maria Mitchell, astronomer.

The people above were generally opposed to corporal punishment of children and that was a highly controversial stance to take.
posted by mareli at 5:06 AM on September 16, 2014

Best answer: Your intuitions are spot on. I know most about British Abolitionists but I think the same is true in the North America and rest of Europe: abolitionism was a progressive position, frequently (but not exclusively) adopted by people who were had progressive views on other subjects - e.g. those supportive of the women's movement, opposed to vivisection, interested in the prevention of cruelty to animals, committed to vegetarianism, Pestalozzianism and Froebelianism.

These beliefs often intersected with a Romantic conception of childhood. It was Romantic not in the sense of roses and chocolates, but in the sense of the late 18thC movement which saw godliness in nature and emotion and rejected rationalism - cf Rousseau, Wordsworth, Coleridge. In the eyes of these Romantics, children were closer to nature, naturally innocent, and - for the religious among them - therefore closer to God. A child's nature should therefore be respected and nurtured rather than curbed. This stood in contrast to what was the more traditional view in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century - that children were inherently sinful (as a result of original sin) and must be severely disciplined and directed so that they might be directed away from their naturally sinful impulses. From the 1780s, the belief in original sin gained new strength with the Evangelical Revival but from the 1830s, the Romantic idea was increasingly influential, particularly among those who were distancing themselves from hardline Evangelical dogma - e.g. Transcendentalists and Unitarians like the Alcotts in the US, and Radical Unitarians like the Howitts and Harriet Taylor (JS Mill's partner) in Britain.

The Unitarians are particularly interesting to me because, as you deduce, there is a connection between their perception of childhood and their general conception of humanity - they believed (and may still believe) in the humanity of Christ and the perfectibility of man/womankind - and as a result are disproportionately numerous among those campaigning for all sorts of social reform / improvements in British and US society.

For the record, I would be pretty sceptical of the narrative of ever-expanding progressivism and the lines of inheritance implied by the Pinker expanding circle of empathy argument. Not because there aren't connections between these various ideas and movements (see above, there are lots) but because of the linearity/evolution that idea implies. The history of how these (and other ideas) arose and spread is much more choppy, messy, contingent and influenced by vested interests than Pinker's narrative suggests.

For more info on the British context, try the following:
On childhood - Hugh Cunningham's gives a good overview of the emergence of Romantic notions of the child The invention of childhood
On animal protection, try Kathryn Shevelow, For the love of animals
On the abolitionist movement in Britain, I recommend: Clare Midgely, Women against slavery
And on progressive Unitarians in Britain, try: Kathryn Gleadle, The early feminists
posted by melisande at 5:56 AM on September 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Steven Mintz's Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood gets into some of this stuff, and is just a really interesting read regardless. It covers the Puritan era to the present, so not specifically about abolitionists and Transcendentalists.
posted by mskyle at 9:16 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

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