There is something poignant in considering the writings of Harriet Martineau on the day we Americans set aside to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his tireless pursuit of racial equality. Though a full century separated Martineau and King, their writings reveal them to be kindred spirits, both motivated by the ideal of a brotherhood of man.
Toward the end of her treatise How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau stated her ultimate hopes for the human race. She said, “However widely men may differ as to the way to social perfection, all whose minds have turned in that direction agree as to the end. All agree that if the whole race could live as brethren, society would be in the most advanced state that can be conceived of” (124). For Martineau, the true measure of progress was the extent to which a particular society lived out this principle of fraternity.
The United States proved to be an interesting case study for Martineau. After all, it was (and is) a nation founded on a fundamental love of liberty, declaring its independence with a statement that all men are created equal. Martineau had much to praise about the US, calling the states “the most remarkable examples now before the world of the reverse of the feudal system” (26). However, she was also diligent to point out America’s flaws. She said, “The people of the United States have come the nearest to being characterized by lofty spiritual qualities. The profession with which they set out was high,—a circumstance greatly to their honour, though (as might have been expected) they have not kept up to it” (66). Chief among America’s sins, in Martineau’s mind, was the institution of slavery.
Early in her treatise, Martineau cautioned careless travelers against judging the practices of other nations too harshly. While she pointed out that some customs and practices are carried out in ignorance and will likely be outgrown eventually, she said, “they are very different from the wickedness which is perpetrated against better knowledge” (21). Included in her list of such practices was “the Georgian planter” who “buys and sells slaves,” going “on the supposition that he is preserving the order and due subordination of society” (21). She emphasized the importance of recognizing the larger circumstances that cultivate such practices.
In her travel writings in Society in America and in her autobiography, however, Martineau condemned the institution of slavery much more forcefully. While acknowledging that some slaveholders showed great mercy and patience, she could not help but point out the injustice of slavery as a system. She declared, “The personal oppression of the negroes is the grossest vice which strikes a stranger in the country. It can never be otherwise when human beings are wholly subjected to the will of other human beings” (Society in America). She noted the irony of a country that professes freedom and equality of men upholding such an institution. Regardless of the larger circumstances which led to the practice, the principle of slavery flew in the face of Martineau’s ideal of the fraternity of man.
In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau acknowledged that no one country had yet achieved a state of social perfection where all men lived as brethren, but her writing remained hopeful. She said, “Far off as may be the realization of such a prospect, it is a prospect” (125). One hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a similar hope, exclaiming, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” He added, “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”