Thanksgiving: Over the River and Through the Wood With Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Francis Child, born February 11, 1802, was an American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, opponent of American expansionism, Indian rights activist, novelist, and a journalist. Despite her many accomplishments and courageous political activities that were way before her time, she is best known today for her poem “”Over the River and Through the Wood” about Thanksgiving.

This song, written originally as a poem and published in 1844, recalls Child’s visits to her grandmother’s on the Thanksgiving holiday. The poem was eventually set to music by an unknown author. (Occasionally lyrics are substituted to make it a Christmas song.)


Lydia Child and her husband first took up the anti-slavery cause in 1831. Child believed women were also held in subjugation by men, but felt the abolition of slavery was the more important cause. Nevertheless, she began campaigning for equal female membership and participation in the American Anti-Slavery Society, an issue which eventually split the movement. (Some anti-slavery societies, it should also be noted, didn’t even admit black members.)

Child had already gained fame as the editor of a periodical for children and as the author of works for women. In 1833 she published a tract “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans” which not only called for an immediate end to slavery, but insisted that blacks were as much Americans as whites, and “intellectually equal to Europeans.”

In 1839, Child was elected to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and became editor of the society’s “National Anti-Slavery Standard” in 1841, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to edit a political newspaper. She expanded coverage beyond abolitionist news, and under her direction the subscription list grew to 6,000, more than double that of the famous newspaper “Liberator” edited by William Lloyd Garrison.

Child decided to leave the “National Anti-Slavery Standard” over a dispute about the use of violence as an acceptable weapon for battling slavery (she was against it). Eventually, however, she acknowledged the need for the use of violence to protect anti-slavery emigrants in Kansas and also sympathized with the radical abolitionist John Brown while not condoning his violent methods.

Child in 1870, reading a book

Child in 1870, reading a book

In the meanwhile, she continued to write for many periodicals during the 1840’s, speaking out against slavery and in favor of women’s rights. She also turned to the issue of Native American rights, especially after the Civil War was over, publishing a book anonymously about an interracial marriage between a white woman and a Native American man (not favorably received), and publishing a number of pamphlets on Indian rights. While most people were not much interested in doing much about the Indians except eliminating them, she did change the mind of Peter Cooper, a wealthy and prominent industrialist. Cooper organized the privately funded United States Indian Commission, dedicated to the protection and elevation of Native Americans in the United States and the elimination of warfare in the western territories. His efforts in turn led to the formation of the Board of Indian Commissioners.

Child died in Wayland, Massachusetts, at the age of 78 in October, 1880, only a month before Thanksgiving.

Texas Votes to Teach Its Own Version of History

On November 18, 2015, the Texas State Board of Education voted 8-7 against a plan to create a group of state university professors to review Texas schoolchildren’s textbooks for factual errors. As the Dallas News reports:

The push for more experts to be involved came after more than a year of controversy over board-sanctioned books’ coverage of global warming, descriptions of Islamic history and terrorism and handling of the Civil War and the importance of Moses and the Ten Commandments to the founding fathers.”

Last month, further controversy arose after the discovery that a newly approved geography text described African slaves forcibly brought to North America as “workers.”

Because Texas is one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, decisions it makes on content strongly influences books marketed in other states. Critics charge that the elected board members have politicized selection of textbook content.

Pro-science supporters rally prior to a State Board of Education public hearing on proposed new science textbooks., Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay, AP photo)

Pro-science supporters rally prior to a State Board of Education public hearing on proposed new science textbooks., Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay, AP photo)

As the Dallas News reports, some of the content approved by the board last year has been deemed of questionable veracity:

One [statement] was that Moses was much on the Founders’ minds when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that the Old Testament provided the roots of Western democracy. Others objected to a world history book’s mostly positive coverage of former Communist leaders Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong of China.”

Although school districts in Texas are free to choose whatever books they want to use, most adhere to the list adopted by the state board; it tracks the curriculum standards as well as questions asked on state achievement tests, and is undoubtedly less expensive because of the volume of texts produced.

November 22, 1909 – Clara Lemlich Launches the Shirtwaist Makers Strike

Clara Lemlich (later Shavelson) came with her family to New York from the Ukraine in 1905 to escape the anti-Jewish massacres that were increasing in regularity. Clara’s father could not find work, but as a young girl Clara was much more exploitable, and she was able to join the legions of young girls hired as seamstresses in the garment district.

Clara Lemlich circa 1910

Clara Lemlich circa 1910

By 1909, there were approximately six hundred clothing shops operating in New York City, employing some thirty thousand workers. Clara, 23 and a Socialist, was outraged by the long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, unsanitary conditions, and humiliating treatment from supervisors. Seamstresses worked six and seven days a week for weekly wages of about $5, jammed into dim lofts and the backs of stores. Clara joined the Local 25 Union, becoming a member of its executive board. The Board called for a general strike to shut down production in the shirtwaist industry, and the Union called a meeting on November 22 to consider its recommendations.

A number of luminaries spoke, including Samuel Gompers and Meyer London, labor lawyer and future Socialist Party congressman. But in speech after speech, the speakers urged caution. Frustrated after two hours, Clara demanded the floor and delivered what the press termed a “Yiddish philippic,” declaring:

I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide is whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared — now.”

With that, according to the New York World, the gathering was on it’s feet: “Everyone shouting an emphatic affirmative, waving hats, canes, handkerchiefs, anything that came handy.”

The next day, 15,000 shirtwaist makers walked out. By that evening, there were more than 20,000 on strike. It is estimated that 70 percent of the strikers were women. Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, it was the largest strike by women to date in American history. The American Federation of Labor was forced to revise their entrenched prejudices against organizing women.


The general strike ran from November 1909 to In February 1910. Strikers were subject to harassment and arrests. Clara herself was arrested 17 times, and had her ribs broken by gangsters hired by the employers. But she would not be intimidated and returned as soon as she was able.

While the strikers did not realize all of their demands, they did get improvements in wages, working conditions, and hours for many shops, albeit not at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Sadly, the following year, there was a fire at Triangle Shirtwaist, leading to the deaths of almost 150 garment workers, who either burned to death or died jumping to escape the flames.

Clara was blacklisted from the industry after the strike, but she did not give up her fight for the rights of women and workers generally, as well as for consumers. In fact, at the end of her life, she helped organized the nursing home staff where she was residing.

Review of “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod

David Axelrod has written a paean to his favorite politician, Barack Obama. The book is also a memoir of a gifted political insider. Although the title, Believer, would imply that Axelrod has some “higher” motivation underpinning his career as a political strategist, he hasn’t always found the most worthy role models for whom to apply his skills; at one time he conducted the election campaigns of the notorious Rod Blagojevich, the former (and currently imprisoned) governor of Illinois, known for mediocrity as well as for a tendency toward graft.


Nonetheless, Axelrod contends that in Barack Obama he found a worthy object for his efforts, believing Obama’s objectives to be praiseworthy. Axelrod began working with Obama in 2002, and quickly became Obama’s éminence grise, the principal architect of the strategies that helped Obama get elected first to the U.S. Senate, and then twice to the nation’s highest office, despite the fact that Obama had very little prior experience that prepared him for the work ahead. Axelrod hoped in part that he would feel energized and inspired by Obama’s optimism and idealism; after working in Chicago politics for so long, Axelrod felt cynical.

Unfortunately, once Obama got into office, it seemed (and still does seem) as if the Republications were determined to defeat every initiative of Obama’s no matter its merits. But beyond reproaching the Republicans and pointing out that Obama inherited major problems when he took over the Oval Office, Axelrod doesn’t offer much analysis about what happened to most of the goals that were more characteristic of the confident candidate than the oft-stymied President.

President Obama with David Axelrod

President Obama with David Axelrod

About half of the book is devoted to Axelrod’s personal history, which is interesting, especially for a look at the path one might take to become an important counselor to the movers and shakers of the world. He studied politics at the University of Chicago, and then wrote a political column for the Chicago Tribune. But he realized he didn’t want just to write about the political process; he wanted to be a part of it.

He founded a political consulting firm, and he was awarded the job of running the re-election campaign of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. The expertise he gained in building cross-racial coalitions would eventually lead to his successful campaign management of the nation’s first black president. And it is that story, more than just Axelrod’s own, that is the most compelling.

Evaluation: Axelrod seems affable, unaffected, and still wide-eyed, in spite of his fear of having been made jaded by Chicago politics. He isn’t totally uncritical of Obama, but is definitely supportive of him and what he has tried to accomplish. Most importantly, Axelrod has been an insider during a pivotal moment in American history, and thus has a very interesting story to tell.

As a side note, he continues to push for higher ends through the nonpartisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago that he founded in 2012. His stated mission is “to ignite in young people a passion for politics and public service.” We have attended a number of his programs [most of them being open to the public], in which prominent speakers discuss current events and political life, generally in an interactive format. It is truly inspirational to observe the idealism and enthusiasm with which participants engage in the exchange of ideas. Axelrod is continuing to make a difference, and is providing many others with opportunities to learn to make a difference as well.

Rating: 3.5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narration is done by the author, who is a decent reader. It’s nice to listen to an author read his or her own book as long as the narration is capable, and Axelrod certainly is.

Published unabridged on 15 CDs (19 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Group, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015

November 18, 1872 – Susan B. Anthony is Arrested for Voting

Susan Brownell Anthony was an American social reformer who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

On this day in history, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the election that previous November 5. She pled not guilty, and traveled around giving a lecture entitled “Is It A Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote? (You can read the text of her speech here.) On January 24, 1873, a grand jury of twenty men returned an indictment against Anthony charging her with “knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully” voting for a member of Congress “without having a lawful right to vote,….the said Susan B. Anthony being then and there a person of the female sex.”  The trial was set for May.

Susan B. Anthony, sometime around the mid 1850's

Susan B. Anthony, sometime around the mid 1850’s

She was tried in Canandaigua, New York. Her lawyer, Henry Selden, argued that Anthony cast a legal vote pursuant to the recently enacted Fourteenth Amendment. After both sides completed their arguments, Judge Ward Hunt drew from his pocket a paper and began reading an opinion that he had apparently prepared before the trial started, and reading aloud, declared:

The Fourteenth Amendment gives no right to a woman to vote, and the voting by Miss Anthony was in violation of the law.”

Further, the judge directed a verdict of guilty:

Upon this evidence I suppose there is no question for the jury and that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty.”

Anthony was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 plus court costs. She refused to pay, submitting a petition to Congress asking that the unjust fine be remitted. Congress never acted on her petition, but no serious effort was ever made by the government to collect the money.

Two years later, in Minor v. Happersett (88 U.S. 162;  21 Wall. 162, 1874), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the 14th Amendment did not give the right to vote to women.  It reasoned that although the Amendment applied to women, the phrase “privileges and immunities” did not include the right to vote.  It agreed that women were “citizens” but found that the fact that a person was a “citizen” did not imply she had the right to vote.  The Court pointed out that prior to the enactment of the Amendment, all the states considered women to be citizens, but none of them had granted them the right to vote.

It was not until the passage of The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified on August 18, 1920) that it was prohibited for any United States citizen to be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex.

November 15, 1811 – Nomination of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story

On this day in history, Joseph Story was nominated by President James Madison to take the Supreme Court seat vacated by William Cushing. (He was the longest-serving of the Court’s original members, sitting on the bench for 21 years.) Story was confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission on November 18, 1811. At age 32, he was the youngest person ever appointed to the Court.

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story, in office November 18, 1811 – September 10, 1845

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story, in office November 18, 1811 – September 10, 1845

Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He went to Harvard, where he graduated second in his class, and practiced law in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1801 to 1811. Politically, he was a member of Jefferson’s Republican-Democrat Party, and so Madison assumed he was appointing an ally when he nominated Story to the Supreme Court in 1811.

Much to the chagrin of Jefferson and Madison, however, Story aligned himself with Jefferson’s nemesis, Chief Justice John Marshall, just as their other appointments had done.

In his later years of his career on the Supreme Court, Justice Story was the author of two of the Court’s most important decisions related to slavery. Though personally opposed to slavery, Story believed the Constitution recognized and legitimized the institution. Nevertheless, he tried to construct his decisions in ways that might aid the cause of abolition.

The 1841 Amistad case (40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826) stemmed from a 1839 incident in which Spanish slave traders had forcibly taken more than 500 captured Africans to Spanish-ruled Cuba. Spanish law prohibited the transportation of African slaves to Cuba. But Spanish officials in Cuba largely ignored that law; there was much money to be made in Cuba for the provision of labor for sugar planters.

At a slave sale in Havana, some of these slaves were purchased and transferred to the schooner Amistad for delivery at plantations along the coast of Cuba. But the slaves revolted, took over the ship, and tried to go back to Africa. They stopped at Long Island Sound in New York to get provisions. A U.S. Navy brig learned of the situation and took custody of the Amistad, requesting a hearing. The case moved up through the courts, reaching the Supreme Court in 1841.

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

Justice Story, speaking for the Court, declared that the men on the Amistad were seized illegally in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain. They were not slaves; they were “kidnapped Africans.” Moreover, “… in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves.” Thus, he declared them free, to be dismissed from the custody of the Court without delay.

In the 1842 case Prigg v. Pennsylvania (41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 1842), the majority opinion, again written by Justice Story, affirmed the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Justice Story maintained that the fugitive slave clause was in fact essential to the formation of the Union, but only federal agents could enforce it. His decision seemed to say that on the one hand, states had no right to protect its free citizens from being kidnapped and enslaved. But on the other, states did not have any obligation to assist in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The resulting uproar contributed to the insistence by the South of a new fugitive slave law, which they got in 1850, and which played a large role in precipitating the Civil War.


Story’s decisions also helped shaped early American commercial and admiralty law. Moreover, while sitting as a justice of the Supreme Court, he began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1829 and in 1833 published his Commentaries on the Constitution, which became an essential guide for American lawyers.

Story served on the Supreme Court until his death on September 10, 1845.

November 13, 1787 – Jefferson Writes of Liberty’s “Natural Manure”

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to William Stephens Smith, then working as Secretary of the American Legation in London. The Legation was headed by John Adams, who had been appointed in 1785 as the first American ambassador to Great Britain, serving in that capacity thirty days short of three years.

Jefferson wrote to report about Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. This was an armed uprising that took place in central and western Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. It was named after one of the leaders, Daniel Shays, who was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. The rebellion arose out of protests over taxes and debt collection. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Massachusetts suffered from an economic depression, a credit squeeze, and insistence by many merchants for payment in hard currency only (of which there was a continent-wide shortage). Making matters worse was the fact that war veterans had difficulty collecting pay owed them by both the state and the Continental Congress. The protesters became radicalized after the Massachusetts state government arrested some of the leaders.

Portraits of rebellion leaders Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck from Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack of 1787

Portraits of rebellion leaders Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck from Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack of 1787

The insurgents tried to attack the federal armory in Springfield, but were met by the militia. Four Shaysites were killed and twenty wounded. Several other skirmishes ensued but the outmatched resistance petered out. Hundreds of people were indicted for charges related to the rebellion, and two men were hanged. Shay himself was pardoned but shunned and vilified, eventually dying in poverty.

Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as ambassador to France at the time, was not alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion.

He wrote:

We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale

Incidentally, William Smith went on to marry Abigail “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of President John Adams, and so was a brother-in-law of President John Quincy Adams, and an uncle of Charles Francis Adams. He had quite a distinguished career as well. He was appointed by President Washington to be the first United States Marshal for the District of New York in 1789, and later supervisor of revenue. He was one of the originators of the Society of the Cincinnati, and served as its president from 1795 to 1797. He was appointed by President John Adams surveyor of the Port of New York in 1800.

William Stephens Smith

William Stephens Smith


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