U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Maria Stewart, Black Prophet and Black Feminist (Guest Post by Chris Cameron)

[The following is a guest post from our frequent guest blogger, Chris Cameron — BA]

Last week on the blog I discussed Phillis Wheatley and the origins of the black prophetic tradition. I would like to continue that discussion this week by exploring the ideas of another prominent black female thinker in early America, Maria Stewart. Unlike Wheatley, Stewart has received little attention from either literary scholars or historians, although her work continues the same prophetic tradition that Wheatley initiated and adds a sharp critique of the intersection of racism and sexism so prevalent in antebellum America.

Stewart was born free in Hartford, Connecticut in 1803 and found herself in Boston in the mid-1820s, where she joined Thomas Paul’s African Baptist Church and made the acquaintance of antislavery activists such as her neighbor David Walker. Stewart’s first publication, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, appeared shortly after Walker’s death in 1831 and built on many of the themes from his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Here she argued most forcefully for black unity and a focus on education, noting that “the day on which we unite, heart and soul, and turn our attention to knowledge and improvement, that day the hissing and reproach among the nations of the earth against us will cease.”[1]

Her argument here was certainly not a novel one. African American intellectuals in the revolutionary and early national periods, including Thomas Paul and Primus Hall, had called for increased access to education as a means of racial uplift. What was new about Stewart was the fact that she said these things in public, before audiences of men and women, becoming the first American woman, white or black, to do so.

In taking her stand against slavery and racism, and in favor of black unity, Stewart saw herself as an instrument of God sent to aid in the reformation of the black community. “It was God alone who inspired my heart to publish the meditations thereof,” she proclaimed in a speech before the African-American Female Intelligence Society. “And it was done with pure motives of love to your souls, in the hope that Christians might examine themselves, and sinners become pricked in their hearts.”[2] Unlike Phillis Wheatley or David Walker, Stewart’s jeremiads do not predict the destruction of the United States, but they do predict that of the black community should African Americans fail to heed her warnings.

Stewart also became the first woman in the United States to lecture on women’s rights. She despised the fact that black girls and women could generally attain to no higher employment than being domestic servants, a job which she had done for 20 years. And she argued that the future of the race lay in the hands of black women: “O woman, woman! Upon you I call; for upon your exertions almost entirely depends whether the rising generation shall be any thing more than we have been or not.”[3] Her reasoning behind this was that black men had failed in their obligations to the race. In a bold speech before the African Masonic Lodge of Boston she asked the assembled men “Where can we find among ourselves the man of science, or a philosopher, or an able statesman, or a counsellor at law?” If the black Masons truly are men, she noted, they need to convince others that they “possess the spirit of men.”[4] This statement did not go over very well, of course, and Stewart had relocated to New York City within two years, where she became an educator and journalist. Despite this fact, Stewart’s brief career in Boston, spanning the years 1831-1835, made her the first black feminist in the country and continued the important black prophetic tradition begun in revolutionary America.[5]

Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement.

[1] Maria Stewart, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” in Marilyn Richardson, ed. Maria Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 37.

[2] Maria Stewart, “Address Delivered before the African-American Female Intelligence Society,” ibid, 52.

[3] Ibid, 55.

[4] Maria Stewart, “An Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall,” ibid, 57.

[5] I discuss Maria Stewart and other antebellum black female abolitionists in To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2014), Ch. 7.

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  1. This is fantastic stuff. Her combination of prophetic work and feminism is really, really intriguing. Once again, a reminder of thinking about ideology differently in the past.

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