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Maria W Stewart

(1803—1879)


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(1803–1879), essayist, lecturer, abolitionist, and women's rights activist.

Maria Stewart was the earliest known American woman to lecture in public on political themes and leave extant copies of her texts. Her first publication, a twelve-page pamphlet entitled Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality (1831), revealed her distinctive style, a mix of political analysis and religious exhortation. Her message, highly controversial coming from the pen of a woman, called upon African Americans to organize against slavery in the South and to resist racist restrictions in the North. She invoked both the Bible and the Constitution of the United States as documents proclaiming a universal birthright to freedom and justice.

Influenced by the militant abolitionist David Walker, Stewart raised the specter of armed rebellion by African Americans. In a lecture at Boston's African Masonic Hall in 1833 she declared, “[M]any powerful sons and daughters of Africa will shortly arise,…and declare by Him that sitteth upon the throne that they will have their rights; and if refused, I am afraid they will spread horror and devastation around.”

She further advocated the establishment of strong, self-sufficient educational and economic institutions within African American communities. In particular, she called upon women to participate in all aspects of community life, from religion and education to politics and business. “How long,” she asked in Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, “shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?”

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, orphaned at the age of five, Stewart grew up as a servant in the home of a white clergyman. As a young woman she went to Boston, where she married James W. Stewart, a successful ship's outfitter. Widowed after barely three years of marriage, Maria Stewart was left penniless through the legal machinations of unscrupulous white businessmen. An 1830 religious conversion led her to proclaim her distinctive social gospel.

During her public career in Boston, Stewart also published a collection of religious meditations (1832), delivered four public lectures (1832–1833), and saw her speeches printed in The Liberator. After moving to New York City, she published her collected works, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1835). During the Civil War, Stewart moved to Washington, D.C. There she established a school for children of families that had escaped from slavery during the war, and she later became head matron at Freedmen's Hospital. Her expanded 1879 edition of Productions includes an autobiographical sketch, “Sufferings During the War.”

Writing to William Lloyd Garrison in March of 1852, historian William C. Nell remarked, “In the perilous years of‘33–’35, Mrs. Maria W. Stewart [was] fired with a holy zeal to speak her sentiments on the improvement of colored Americans… [H]er public lectures awakened an interest acknowledged and felt to this day.” Stewart's essays and speeches presented original formulations of many ideas that were to become central to the struggles for African American freedom, human rights, and women's rights. In this she was a clear forerunner to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and generations of the most influential African American activists and political thinkers.

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Subjects: Literature — United States History.


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