Children’s Independence Day: July 4, 1862, Part 1.

Children have long been neglected throughout the world and the concept of childhood is relatively recent.  In the Middle Ages, children were often depicted as dwarfish, misshapen adults.  Children were considered incomplete, in need of constant correction.  So it should come as no surprise, that one of the first English pieces written for children in the Middle Ages was how to sit at the table.  Other instructional verse followed.  During the Puritan era, many parents thought that the best thing their children could do would be to die and thus be spared a world of unending temptations and troubles.  And many obedient children did just that.  Imagination in the minds of children could only lead them astray.  They had to be reminded of the torments they would suffer if they didn’t behave properly.  The Bible, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were obligatory reading and the alphabet was stuffed down children’s throats.  Chapbooks from hawkers provided an escape into the worlds of Robin Hood, The Arabian Nights and other landing places for the imagination.  But such reading was not dignified by parents; it was an underground literature.  Novels for children drew clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad children.  They were written to inculcate moral values in children and to glorify and affirm parental authority.  One contemporary scholar called such writers “The Monstrous Regiment.”  The following excerpt from Mary Martha Sherwood’s The History of the Fairchild Family is sufficient:

Lucy:  …  I do not wish to take Miss Augusta’s things from her, or to hurt her.  Emily and I only wish to be like her and to have the same things she has.

Mrs. Fairchild:  What you now feel, my dears, is not exactly envy, though it is very like it.  it is what is called Ambition.  Ambition is the desire to be greater than we are.  Ambition makes people unhappy and discontented with what they are and what they have.  Ambition is in the heart of every man by nature;  but, before we can go to heaven, it must be taken out of our hearts, because it is a temper that God hates–though it is spoken of, by people who do not fear God, as a very good thing.

The novel ends with a “child’s” prayer: ” …  I know that my heart is full of sin and that my body is corrupt and filthy, and that I must soon die and go down into the dust;  and yet I am so foolish and so wicked as to wish to be great in this world…”

And then, on July 4, 1862, a man of thirty with dark wavy hair, sensitive eyes and a soft complexion started speaking and everything changed.