Editing or writing (or even teaching) works meant for children has always been a balancing act, as other adults differ on what they feel is suitable and appropriate for young readers. It was an even more complex act in the early 19th-century United States, then loudly disuniting over slavery. Editors especially had a tough time, trying to keep both Northern and Southern subscribers happy. Subscribers to Robert Merry’s Museum were a lively bunch proud of where they were from and liable to fly into tantrums over insults to their regions; in fact, they “pre-fought” the Civil War in the hugely popular letters column. (The Southerners lost.) Thus, when the editor of the Museum made some extremely poor choices in 1856, Henry Clarke Wright—a fervent abolitionist—took him to task in a letter published in The Liberator. “ ‘Merry’s Museum’ the Handmaid of Slavery” is a diatribe against editorial decisions, a certain popular writer for children, and—maybe—the results of the Presidential election of 1856.

The spark was a riddle in the October 1856 issue of Merry’s Museum. At that time, the puzzle column often included a hieroglyphic rebus consisting of white figures on a black background. The October issue ended with the following riddle from “Natchez” as puzzle number 197: “Why is our Hieroglyphical Rebus like the bright side of slavery?” [p. 128] The answer was revealed in the November 1856 issue: “A little light on a dark field.” [p. 159]

The November issue also included a letter from “Black-Eyed Lillie” in the popular letters column: “My mother takes the Museum. I like it very much. I love to read the Chat, and think the ‘Famous Farm’ a very good story. I should like to know the reason of the battle now raging among your subscribers. I am only eight years old.” [p. 158] (The “battle now raging” involved an algebra problem that began a flame war just ending.)

“Black-Eyed Lillie” earned another mention in the letters column in January 1857. The editor commented, “ ‘Black-Eyed Lillie.’ must allow us to judge what is best for us to publish, and what to reject. There are some questions, which, if once admitted into our discussions, would exclude all others, and lead to a worse war than that from which Aunt Sue has just extricated us.” [p. 30] That’s the last mention of “Black-Eyed Lillie” or her letters, until Wright’s letter to the Liberator.

At a time when sectionalism was threatening the nation, ensuring that subscribers North and South didn’t feel slighted was complicated. Slavery was barely mentioned in the articles or stories published in the Museum. But the editor—Robert Newton Stearns or Stephen Allen—made some strange editing choices. During a time when slavery was an inflammatory subject, why include the riddle to begin with? In the column in which the editor takes “Black-Eyed Lillie” to task on the subject of a question which “would … lead to a worse war” appears a long letter in which a teenager describes shooting an abolitionist in effigy. The editor blanked out the abolitionist’s name, which led a Southerner to attempt again and again to learn it. Why include the original letter—so badly edited—especially since space in the letters column was notoriously limited and subscribers knew that their letters might not be printed at all? Why not simply comment on the non-inflammatory portion of the letter, as was done with “Black-Eyed Lillie”?

Wright’s rant against the Museum was a rant against its editor, which in 1856 was not Samuel Griswold Goodrich, though he had founded the magazine. But Goodrich comes under fire, possibly for a reason Wright doesn’t mention. The month the original riddle was published in the Museum, Goodrich published a piece in the New York Evening Post advocating not abolition, but the containment of slavery to the current slave states. In “Who Are the Aggressors?” [15 October 1856; p. 1], Goodrich asserts that slavery is vile, but that “in no country, anywhere, in any age, has it ever been so mildly administered, so much softened by a general feeling of kindness and humanity. … We make no war on slavery where it is established. Believing, as we do, that it has grown and increased by unconstitutional aggression, we still submit to it as it is. We accept it as sheltered by the compromise of the constitution. Within this boundary it is sacred. We desire to leave it, with all its good and evil, to those who are interested in it and responsible for it.”

Not what Wright would have been happy to read. Goodrich was campaigning for John C. Frémont, an anti-slavery candidate for President. By the time Wright wrote his letter to the Liberator, James Buchanan—who felt that slavery had to be protected, because it was constitutional—had been elected.

All this appears to come together in Wright’s enraged epistle. With an added layer: a family tree at ancestry.com hints that “Black-Eyed Lillie” and her brother could have been related to Wright by marriage. Wright married Elizabeth LeBreton Stickney, widow of Peter Stickney and mother of three. The oldest was Peter Le Breton Stickney—Wright’s stepson—who married Mary Rhea and fathered two children about the age of the ones Wright mentions: Sarah Higginson Astley Stickney, born in 1849, and Edward Rhea Stickney, born in 1847. Perhaps they were “Black-Eyed Lillie” and her brother. The “family” formed by the subscribers and editors of the Museum has some unexpected branches.

Presented here is only the part of Wright’s letter pertaining to the Museum.

“Letter From Henry C. Wright: ‘Merry’s Museum’ the Handmaid of Slavery” (from The Liberator, March 20, 1857; p. 48, col 3-4)
‘Merry’s Museum’ the Handmaid of Slavery—The Union for Man, not Man for the Union—A Northern Republic a Right and a Duty.

Milford, N. H., March 9, 1857.

Dear Garrison:

Are you conversant with Merry’s Museum? It is the successor of Peter Parley, by Goodrich. It is designed for the instruction and amusement of the children of the North, who are soon to be men and women, to enter the conflict with slavery, to sweep it from the earth, or to die in the attempt. How important that these children should know the character and designs of that enemy of God and man, with whom they are soon to grapple in a death-struggle! The parent who cruelly neglects to have his children taught on this subject is grossly unmindful of their welfare, by leaving them at the mercy of a monster, of whose nature and tactics they are ignorant.

In the number for October, 1856, is a question put forth to be solved by children—‘Why is —— like the bright side of slavery?’ On reading this, a little girl—a dearly-loved friend and playmate of mine—at once wrote the following letter:—

Dear Mr. Merry:

My mother takes the Museum. I like it very much. I love to read Chat, and think the Famous Farm a very good story. I send an answer to question 197—I never knew slavery had any bright side.

I should like to know the reason of the battle now raging among your subscribers. I am only eight years old.

Yours, truly, -------’.

This letter was published in the November number of the Museum, but the sentence I have Italicised was omitted—the editor, Mr. Goodrich, or whoever he may be, not being willing that his young readers should have an intimation that slavery had other than a bright side.

The same little girl then wrote the following to the editor:—

Dear Mr. Merry:

Though it may seem hard to begin a letter with a complaint, it must be so. I ask why you did not publish the whole of my letter? In my opinion, you left out the best part of it. Then why did you say any thing to me on the other page, when the other subscribers knew nothing about it?

Mother says a magazine which is helping to educate the children of this country should speak out

col 4

plainly against so great an evil as slavery. Do try to save your Southern subscribers from being slaveholders, and your Northern ones from being slaves.

Yours, truly, -------.

P. S. You put in pleas for animals. Why don’t you for human beings?’

This kind and respectful note of the little girl, Merry refused to publish. But, instead, made the following remarks about it in the January number of 1857:

‘------- must allow us to judge what is best for us to publish, and what to reject. There are some questions which, if once admitted into our discussions, would exclude all others, and lead to a worse war than that from which Aunt Sue has just extricated us.’

Thus Merry’s Museum can talk to the children of the North of ‘the bright side of slavery,’ and use its influence to make them feel and think that slavery is all bright and beautiful, but not one word can the editor say in his columns to show them slavery as it is, ‘the sum of all villanies,’ and slaveholders, in fact and of necessity, the blackest of all villains—for fear of offending his Southern subscribers.

A brother of the little girl who wrote the above, who is ten or eleven years old, then wrote the following:—

‘February 4, 1857.

Dear Mr. Merry:

I am the brother of -------, and heartily coincide in her opinion on the great question of slavery, which controls the destiny of our country. I think a magazine intended for the instruction of youth should speak about the great questions of the day, and not exclude any articles, but let there be an equal hearing on both sides of slavery. Because it is always best to do right, whatever may be the disadvantages; and we may be sure it will come out right in the end.

I think it is quite time that the American youth should be made acquainted with the horrible deeds perpetrated every day upon four millions of innocent men and women by slaveholders, which are sanctioned and sustained by the government and churches of this country.

Yours, &c., -------.’

This correct and truthful letter of the little girl’s young brother could find no place in Merry’s Museum, lest it should offend the children and parents of the South, who take the Museum. Merry’s Museum can outrage the children and youth of the North by talk about ‘the bright side of slavery’—all to please its slaveholding readers of the South. Merry (alias Mr. Goodrich, or whoever the present editor may be,) can, to please the children of the South, seek to dazzle and bewilder the children of the whole nation by talking about ‘the bright side of slavery’, but not one word can he say about the dark side of slavery—about slaveholders stealing children from mothers to sell them, and about their thefts, robberies, murders, and their cruelties to mothers and children. All these crimes, and ‘horrible deeds perpetrated every day be slaveholders upon innocent men, women and children,’ must be concealed from Northern children and youth, lest the children and youth of the South should cease to take the Museum.

How affecting comes the prayer from the loving, noble heart of the little girl to Mr. Merry, and to all men and women—‘Do try to save your Southern subscribers from being slaveholders, and your Northern ones from being slaves.’ To Mr. Merry she might say—‘Do, Mr. Merry, save yourself from being a slave.’ Who can help but love and honor the little girl and her young brother, who thus consecrate their young hearts to sympathy with the slaves, and to eternal enmity to all oppression, and to all apologies for oppressors?

But, Merry’s Museum does but imitate Northern editors, Northern priests, and Northern politicians generally, when it throws its influence on the side of kidnappers, and tries to make the children of the North believe that slavery has a bright side—that kidnapping is a good thing—and that stealing children, whipping women, and shooting and burning men, for trying to be free, are al bright an pleasant doings. Is such a periodical fit to be the companion of Northern children? Assuredly not. If Merry prefers slavery to liberty, as he seems to, let him go South, and be sustained by man-stealers. …

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