Maria W. Stewart

The collection of essays and speeches I read calls Stewart America’s First Black Woman Political Writer. Maria W. Stewart published her first piece in Garrisson’s The Liberator in October 1831, ten years before Frederick Douglass met Garrisson and gave his first abolitionist speech, and 12 years before Sojourner Truth (older than Stewart by a few years) began her career as an itinerant lecturer. Stewart lectured and wrote essays until September 1833, when she delivered her ‘Farewell Address to Her Friends in the City of Boston’, after which she travelled south and took up a career as a teacher. Forty-five years later, having succeeded in obtaining a war widow’s pension, she used some of that money to publish a book of her speeches, together with a biographical sketch, and essay called ‘Sufferings during the War’ where she wrote about her experiences teaching, some poems and letters of commendations by friends and colleagues: Meditations from the pen of Mrs Maria W. Stewart

Stewart’s first piece was published in The Liberator but in the Ladies’s Department

Stewart received very little education, having been orphaned at the age of 5 and sent to work as a servant for a cleric’s family, and none besides Sunday school. But she knew the few books she had read well, and used them in her writings so that there are references to the old and new testament, but also a now obscure book by an English John Adams, published in London in 1790 called Woman, Sketches of the History, Genius, Disposition, Accomplishments, Employments, … By a Friend of the Sex.

After her marriage to James W.Stewart, she found a mentor in the abolitionist David Walker , who died an untimely and probably murderous death in 1830, one year after James’s death. In An address delivered at the African Masonic Hall, Boston, 27 February 1833 she is referring to him when she asks: 

‘But where is the man that has distinguished himself in these modern days by acting wholly in the defense of African rights and liberty? There was one, although he sleeps, his memory lives.’

An address delivered at the African Masonic Hall, Boston, 27 February 1833.

Much of Stewart’s writings are deeply religious. But her religion is always aimed at philanthropy, and in particular, the bettering of the conditions of life of African Americans. Even in the prayer which concludes her first publication she asks God to help the ‘sons and daughters of Africa’ become more virtuous and religious so that they may carve a better place for themselves in America, and so others may recognize their value, as African Americans. 

Grant that the young man may be constrained to believe that there is a reality in religion, and a beauty in the fear of the Lord. Have mercy on the benighted sons and daughters of Africa. Grant that we may soon become so distinguished for our moral and religious improvements, that the nations of the earth may take knowledge of us; and grant that our cries may come up before your throne like holy incense. Grant that every daughter of Africa may consecrate her sons to you from the birth. And do you, Lord, bestow upon them wise and understanding hearts. […] Oh, you mothers, what a responsibility rests on you! You have souls committed to your charge, and God will require a strict account of you. It is you that must create in the minds of your little girls and boys a thirst for knowledge, the love of virtue, the abhorrence of vice, and the cultivation of a pure heart. The seeds thus sown will grow with their growing years; and the love of virtue thus early formed in the soul will protect their inexperienced feet from many dangers. O, do not say, you cannot make anything of your children; but say, with the help and assistance of God, we will try. . . 

Religion and the pure principles of morality, the sure foundation on which we must build

But progress, she says at the beginning of that same essay (as other women before and after her have said, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Julia Cooper), can only come through religion, education and virtue: 

“Never; no, never will the chains of slavery and ignorance burst till we become united as one and cultivate among ourselves the pure principles of piety, morality, and virtue.”

Although much of her writings addresses the African American population in general, and challenges them to become virtuous through education, Stewart takes particular care to address the plight of African American women who are bound not only to ignorance, but to the domestic work of their ‘ fairer sisters, whose hands are never soiled, whose nerves and muscles are never strained’ :

“Shall it any longer be said of the daughters of Africa, they have no ambition, they have no force? By no means. Let every female heart become united and let us raise a fund ourselves; and at the end of one year and a half, we might be able to lay the corner-stone for the building of a high school, that the higher branches of knowledge might be enjoyed by us; and God would raise us up, and enough to aid us in our laudable designs. Let each one strive to excel in good housewifery, knowing that prudence and economy are the road to wealth. Let us not say, we know this, or, we know that, and practice nothing; but let us practice what we do know.

How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles? Until union, knowledge, and love begin to flow among us. . . . We have never had an opportunity of displaying our talents; therefore the world thinks we know nothing.” (.)

Religion and the pure principles of morality, the sure foundation on which we must build

She also defends women’s education in general, and of her own suitability as a public speaker in her farewell address. ‘What if I am a woman?’ she asks. To answer that question, first she appeals to St Paul, who claimed women should never speak in public that ‘Did St. Paul but know of our wrongs and deprivation, I presume he would make no objections to our pleading in public for our rights.’ 

She then follows Adams’ history of remarkable women, highlighting a 13th century ‘young lady of Bologna’ who studied latin and the law, pronounced an oration in church at 23, got a doctorate in law at 26, and was given a chair at 30. This is a reference to Bettisia Gozzadini, (1209-1261).

As well as defending the rights of the African Americans, Stewart attacks white American’s treatment of Native Americans in An address delivered at the African Masonic Hall, Boston, 27 February 1833.

‘The unfriendly whites first drove the Native American from his much loved home. Then they stole our fathers from their peaceful and quiet dwellings, and brought them hither, and made bond-men and bond-women of them and their little ones; they have obliged our brethren to labor, kept them in utter ignorance, nourished them in vice, and raised them in degradation; and now that we have enriched their soil, and filled their coffers, they say that we are not capable of becoming like white men, and that we never can rise to respectability in this country. They would drive us to a strange land. But before I go, the bayonet shall pierce me through. African rights and liberty is a subject that ought to fire the breast of every free man of color in these United States, and excite in his bosom a lively, deep, decided and heart-felt interest.’

An address delivered at the African Masonic Hall, Boston, 27 February 1833.

As well as the indivudual texts linked in this post, all Stewart’s essays are collected in Maria W. Stewart, America’s first black woman political writer. Essays and Speeches. Edited and introduced by Marilyn Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

A good introduction to Stewart can be heard in Chike Jeffers and Peter Adamson’s series on Africana Philosophy for the History of Philosophy Without any Gaps podcasts:

https://historyofphilosophy.net/maria-stewart

The page for the podcast also contains a bibliography. Please don’t hesitate to send me links and titles to other works on Stewart and I will add them here.

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