CIRCULAR: Addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the United States

How does Beecher’s letter illuminate the intersections and connections between race, gender, religion, justice, and liberty? What does it reveal about the political engagement of women in the late 1820s?
Does Beecher’s stance against woman suffrage contradict her arguments in favor of women’s political activism here? Why or why not?

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Catharine Beecher was already a well-known educational reformer when she met Jeremiah Evarts (1781–1831), secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), in 1829. The ABCFM had been supporting missionary work among the Cherokees since 1812 and was vocal in leading the opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s plan to forcibly relocate Native tribes in the Southeast in order to accommodate white settlement. Evarts convinced Beecher to draft a letter urging American women to petition the U.S. Congress to stop Jackson’s “Indian removal” policy. The plan was for the letter to be circulated among Beecher’s friends and then forwarded to their contacts, and so on. Unsigned copies of the text were also published in various newspapers—including the Christian Advocate and Journal and Zion’s Herald, which had a circulation of approximately twenty thousand. Using this approach, the letter was widely distributed throughout the Northeast and old Northwest. Ultimately, more than 1,500 women affixed their signature to petitions sent to Congress, leading Martin Van Buren to say that “a more persevering opposition to a public measure has seldom been made.”

—Sarah A. Morgan Smith

Source: CIRCULAR: Addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the United States . . . [Boston]: [Printed by Crocker & Brewster], [1829].

The present crisis in the affairs of the Indian Nations in the United States, demands the immediate and interested attention of all who make any claims to benevolence or humanity. The calamities now hanging over them, threaten not only these relics of an interesting race, but if there is a Being who avenges the wrongs of the oppressed, are causes of alarm to our whole country.

The following are the facts of the case. This continent was once possessed only by the Indians, and earliest accounts represent them as a race, numerous, warlike, and powerful. When our forefathers sought refuge from oppression on these shores, this people supplied their necessities, and ministered to their comfort; and though some of them, when they saw the white man continually encroaching upon their land, fought bravely for their existence and their country, yet often too, the Indian has shed his blood to protect and sustain our infant nation.

As we have risen in greatness and glory, the Indian nations have faded away. Their proud and powerful tribes are gone, their noble sachems and mighty warriors are heard of no more, and it is said the Indian often comes to the borders of his limited retreat to gaze on the beautiful country no longer his own, and to cry with bitterness at the remembrance of past greatness and power.

Ever since the existence of this nation, our general government, pursuing the course alike of policy and benevolence, have acknowledged these people, as free and independent nations, and has protected them in the quiet possession of their lands. In repeated treaties with the Indians, the United States, by the hands of the most distinguished statesmen, after purchasing the greater part of their best lands, have promised them “to continue the guaranty of the remainder of their country FOREVER.” And so strictly has government guarded the Indian’s right to his lands, that even to go on to their boundaries to survey the land, subjects [one] to heavy fines and imprisonment. . . .

Can any difficulty or danger arise from allowing this small remnant of a singular and peculiar race to exist in the midst of us? Why should they not stand, the cherished relic of antiquity, protected and sustained in their rights, and becoming a free and Christian people, under their own laws and government? Can the millions of our nation, fear any evil from their numbers or their power? Can anything be feared but that their helplessness should be made the prey of the avaricious and the unprincipled?

But they are beginning to be oppressed and threatened, and when they have looked for protection and help, it has been refused. Already we begin to hear them lamenting, that they must leave their home, their country, the land of their fathers, and all that is dearest to them on earth. . . .

It cannot but seem a matter of grief and astonishment, that such facts exist in this country; in a nation blessed with wealth, and power, and laws, and religion; and whose possessions reach from ocean to ocean. But humiliating as is the reflection, the Indian must perish unless their destruction can be averted by a most decided and energetic expression of the wishes and feelings of a Christian nation addressed to the Congress now assembling and which is soon to decide their doom.

Have not then the females of this country some duties devolving upon them in relation to this helpless race? They are protected from the blinding influence of party spirit, and the aspirates 1 of political violence. They have nothing to do with any struggle for power nor any right to dictate the decisions of those that rule over them. But they may feel for the distressed, they may stretch out the supplicating hand for them, and by their prayers strive to avert the calamities that are impending over them. It may be, that female petitioners can lawfully be heard, even by the highest rulers of our land. Why may we not approach and supplicate that we and our dearest friends may be saved from the awful curses denounced on all who oppress the poor and needy, by Him, whose anger is to be dreaded more than the wrath of man; “who can blast us with the breath of his nostrils,”2 and scatter our hopes like chaff before the storm. It may be, this will be forbidden; yet still we remember the Jewish princess, who being sent to supplicate for a nation’s life, was thus reproved for hesitating even when death stared her in the way. “If thou altogether hold thy peace at this time, then shall deliverance arise from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.” To woman, it is given to administer the sweet charities of life, and to sway the empire of affection; and to her it may also be said, “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a cause as this?”3

In the days of chivalry, at the female voice, thousands of lances would have been laid in rest to protect the helpless and oppressed. But these are days of literature, refinement, charity, and religion; and may we not appeal to nobler champions than chivalry could boast? Will the liberal and refined, those who are delighted with the charms of eloquence and poetry; those who love the legends of romance and the records of antiquity; those who celebrate and admire the stern virtues of Roman warriors and patriots; will these permit such a race to be swept from the earth? A nation who have emerged from the deepest shades of antiquity; whose story, and whose wild and interesting traits are becoming the theme of the poet and novelist; who command a native eloquence unequaled for pathos and sublimity; whose stern fortitude and unbending courage exceed the Roman renown? Will the naturalist, who laments the extinction of the mammoth race of the forest, allow this singular and interesting species of the human race to cease from the earth? Will those who boast of liberty, and feel their breasts throb at the name of freedom and their country, will they permit the free and noble Indian to be driven from his native land, or to crouch and perish under the scourge of oppression? And those whose hearts thrill at the magic sound of home, and turn with delightful remembrance to the woods and valleys of their childhood and youth, will they allow this helpless race to be forced forever from such blessed scenes, and to look back upon them with hopeless regret and despair? You who gather the youthful group around your fireside and rejoice in their future hopes and joys, will you forget that the poor Indian loves his children too, and would as bitterly mourn over all their blasted hopes? And, while surrounded by such treasured blessings, ponder with dread and awe these fearful words of Him, who thus forbids the violence, and records the malediction of those who either as individuals, or as nations shall oppress the needy and helpless.

“Thou shalt not vex the stranger nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land. If thou afflict them, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.4

P.S. Should the facts alluded to in the preceding be doubted, they can be fully substantiated by consulting the communications signed “William Penn,”5 and the statements made and signed by many of the most distinguished philanthropists of our country, which are to be found in the recent numbers of our public prints.

This communication was written and sent abroad solely by the female hand. Let every woman who peruses it exert that influence in society, which falls within her lawful province and endeavor by every suitable expedient to interest the feelings of her friends, relatives, and acquaintances in behalf of this people, that are ready to perish. A few weeks must decide this interesting and important question, and after that time, sympathy and regret will all be in vain.

  1. 1. An aspirate is a particle that one inhales, leading to choking; Beecher was suggesting that women are protected from the ill effects of political turmoil because of their lack of formal political participation.
  2. 2. Job 4:9.
  3. 3. For this and previous quotation, Esther 4:14.
  4. 4. For this and previous quotation, Esther 4:14.
  5. 5. A pseudonym used by Beecher’s colleague Jeremiah Evarts.
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