Hildreth, Richard

Richard HildrethRichard Hildreth (June 28, 1807-July 11, 1865) was a journalist, philosopher, historian, and antislavery activist. His 1836 novel The Slave is considered the first American antislavery novel. His History of the United States of America broke new ground with its “warts and all” portrayal of the founders of the American republic. It remained a standard work for forty years.

Richard Hildreth was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts, where his father was principal of Deerfield Academy. Hosea Hildreth (1782-1835) had trained as a Congregational minister and intended to teach only until he could be settled in a church, but was so successful as a teacher that he remained in that profession for twenty years. During most of Richard’s boyhood, Hosea taught at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, where Richard studied before entering Harvard at age fifteen.

In 1825 Hosea Hildreth was called to First Parish in Gloucester, Massachusetts. According to Richard, his father’s ordination was the last assisted by a council including both orthodox and Unitarian Congregationalists. In 1834 Hosea Hildreth was expelled by the Essex Association for exchanging with Unitarians. He served a Unitarian congregation in Westboro, Massachusetts for a short time before his death.

As a result of his father’s experiences, Richard came to hate any hint of restriction on freedom of expression in matters of religion. In 1834, the year Hosea lost his Gloucester pulpit, Richard wrote a pamphlet, Appeal to Common Sense and the Constitution on behalf of Unlimited Freedom of Discussion, defending Abner Kneeland against the charge of blasphemy. Later he opposed as intolerably creedal any attempt to set limits on acceptable Unitarian beliefs. He denounced conservative Unitarian Andrews Norton, who had insisted on his own right to hold unorthodox opinions, for condemning the Transcendentalists. “Free inquiry and ‘implicit faith’,” he wrote, “are two elements which cannot be reconciled.”

After graduation from Harvard, Hildreth taught school for a year. Unlike his father, however, he had no gift for teaching. He decided to pursue a career in law and literature, following the example of Sir Walter Scott. He studied with attorneys in Newburyport and Boston, and was admitted to the bar in 1830. He wrote fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays for magazines, articles about the Unitarian controversy for Gloucester and Salem newspapers, and a school textbook, An Abridged History of the United States, 1831.

In 1832 Hildreth received an offer which diverted him from the career he had envisioned. John Eastburn, a leading politician of the anti-Jacksonian party (then just adopting the name “Whig”), invited him to help start a new Whig newspaper. The Atlas was vigorous in its attacks on the “imbecility, venality, and corruption” of the Jackson administration. A fellow journalist said of Hildreth’s political writing, “His pen was like the sword of the Arab chieftain: ‘ornament it carried none, but the notches on the blade.'”

After two years, Hildreth sold his share in the Atlas and left Boston for Florida, the first of several trips he would make in search of a more healthful climate. He suffered from tuberculosis, and recurrent periods of depression. In Florida he stayed on a plantation, where he developed an intense hatred for slavery. During eighteen months there he wrote two books: a novel, The Slave, or Memoirs of a Fugitive, 1836; and Despotism in America, 1840, an analysis of the deleterious effects of slavery on the economic and political development of the southern states.

Richard Hildreth
“His wife, his child, his toil, his blood, his life, and everything that gives his life a value, they are not his; he holds them all but at his master’s pleasure.”

Though not the first American novel to express disapproval of slavery, The Slave was the first written specifically to present an antislavery argument. The story illustrates the many ways slavery exerted a corrupting influence over the morals of masters and slaves alike. Hildreth was one of the very few white people of his (or any) era free enough from racism to truly imagine what it would be like to be a slave. The slaves he portrays are neither brutes nor saints, but complex human beings doing their limited best to survive in an impossible situation. The Slave is remarkably free from the racist assumptions that marred many other anti-slavery works by white people, even committed abolitionists. In one of the most powerful moments in the book, the hero, Archy, who had felt superior to his fellow slaves because of his “white blood,” realizes the extent to which he has been complicit in the racism of his culture when he comes to admire the dark-skinned slave who leads a band of runaways. The abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips remarked that The Slave “owed its want of success to no lack of genius, but only to the fact that it was born out of due time.”

In 1836 Hildreth returned to Massachusetts and to the Atlas. Despite fragile health, he was unsparing in his labors for political reform. To his friend and fellow abolitionist, Maria Weston Chapman, he wrote, “I am impelled by an irresistible impulse to act—or rather to write—for the sharpened point of a goose quill is the most potent instrument in my power to employ,” adding, “To perish in the breach in the assault against tyranny and error is not the worst death a man might die.” Besides slavery, the issues occupying him were the dispossession of the southeastern Indians, the movement to annex Texas, the economic crisis of 1837, and the Massachusetts liquor license law of 1838.

During the next four years, while serving as court reporter and Washington correspondent for the Atlas, Hildreth turned out numerous articles and pamphlets on political issues, wrote two books on the banking crisis, and founded a short-lived temperance newspaper. In 1839 he ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives as a Temperance Whig, losing by eight votes. He supported the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison with speeches, pamphlets and a campaign biography, The People’s Presidential Candidate, 1839. By election day, exhausted and ill, he had left Boston for British Guiana.

Hildreth’s three years in South America were among the happiest in his life. His health improved so much that, he wrote in a letter home, he knew for the first time in his life what it was to be well. Editing two newspapers and a local guidebook freed him from financial worries and left time for an ambitious project he called the Science of Man. He intended “to apply to the philosophy of man’s nature the same inductive method which has proved so successful in advancing what is called natural philosophy.” In Guiana he wrote two of a projected six volumes: Theory of Morals, 1844, and Theory of Politics, 1853.

In Theory of Morals Hildreth attempted to identify the source of morality and explain why different cultures have different moral codes. He argued that moral distinctions grow out of the desire to help others and, especially, to spare them pain. He thought this “sentiment of benevolence” a universal of human nature, though different individuals and cultures might disagree as to which actions would embody it. He thought the most important part of the book was his analysis of why people fail to act in accordance with the sentiment of benevolence. “While men are tormented with hunger, thirst, fatigues, bodily diseases . . . it is absurd to expect them to grow virtuous.” He concluded, “To make men better, we must begin by making them happier.”

Hildreth considered Theory of Morals a technical work of philosophy, and a deeply religious undertaking. “My idea of God is, the Cause of . . . those distinctions which we call moral distinctions, and which may indeed in this sense be called the laws of God—just as the laws of chemistry may be called so.” He was unprepared for the critical response to the book. He was accused of licentiousness and atheism for locating the source of morality in “the constitution of man” rather than the word of God. He may have provoked hostility by his harsh criticism of churches for preaching morality without working to relieve human suffering.

The review which most distressed him was by Francis Bowen, a conservative Unitarian who had taught philosophy and political economy at Harvard and had recently published his own philosophical treatise, Critical Essays, 1842. In a series of vituperative articles and pamphlets, Bowen and Hildreth accused each other of atheism and immorality. “There are indeed among the Unitarians, two parties, the Channing party, and the Norton, or Cambridge party,” Hildreth wrote. In Bowen’s wish to preserve for Unitarians the consolations of Christianity, Hildreth saw only intolerant dogmatism. “It is utterly impossible for a person gifted with the smallest power of thought . . . long to remain a Cambridge Unitarian. He must go backward, or go forward.” Hildreth was also deeply disappointed by Unitarians’ lack of zeal for reform, particularly in the matter of slavery.

Hildreth did not relish church attendance. He wrote, “A Sunday walk or a ride into the country, enlivened by the company of sympathizing friends, would inspire more of gratitude, more of love . . . and of desire to do good, than all the sermons that were ever preached.” Nevertheless, the depth of his emotional attachment to Unitarianism can be seen in the intensity of his hurt when Unitarians, especially the clergy, disappointed him.

Hildreth’s closest associates and co-workers in literary and abolitionist endeavors were all Unitarians. He worked for the antislavery cause with George Bradburn, Maria Weston Chapman, Caroline Weston, and John Pierpont. He greatly admired Theodore Parker‘s militant antislavery stance. He worked with Parker on legal challenges to the Fugitive Slave Law, and was part of the Unitarian literary community clustered around the Massachusetts Quarterly Review, edited by Parker.

In 1844, Hildreth married Caroline Gould Negus (1814-1867), a member of a distinguished family of artists, well known in Boston for her work as a portrait painter. A reformer with an interest in utopian communities, she was at one time a director of the Boston branch of the American Union of Associationists. For eight years Caroline supported the family so Richard could spend his time in research and writing. After the revolutions of 1848, he revised Theory of Politics, adding new material on the relationship between capitalism and democracy and incorporating ideas from utopian socialism introduced by his wife. “This socialist question of the distribution of wealth, once raised,” he warned, “is not to be blinked out of sight.”

Hildreth’s major work of these years was his six-volume History of the United States of America, 1849-1853. He was one of the first American historians to adopt the model of “scientific” history, attempting to present the past “exactly as it was” rather than as an edifying story with a patriotic moral. Less popular in its day than the work of romantic historians such as George Bancroft, it was greatly respected by the next generation of historians. His reputation has declined during the late 20th century, however, with the rejection of the idea of “objective” history. Most now believe, as Francis Bowen said in his 1851 review, that “it is impossible to write history without seeking, either avowedly or stealthily, or unawares, to verify some hypothesis, or establish some theory, which furnishes a reason and guide for the selection and arrangement of materials.”

Bowen claimed that Hildreth used his history to express his dislike for the established church in Massachusetts. However, Theodore Parker praised it for setting forth “the good and evil qualities of the settlers of the United States, with the same coolness and impartiality.” A century later, the Oxford Companion to American History, 1966, described it as “notable for its accuracy and candor, and its acute insights into the relationship between politics and economics.”

His History won Hildreth enough respect to make him a candidate for the professorship of history at Harvard in 1849. He was passed over in favor of his old antagonist, Francis Bowen. He applied again when Bowen resigned in 1851, but his intemperate attacks on the “Cambridge party” probably precluded any real chance for the appointment.

After completing the History, Hildreth turned to various forms of “literary drudgery” to earn money for his family, only to lose most of it in the financial crisis of 1857. He returned to full-time journalism as a writer and editor for Horace Greeley‘s New York Tribune, an influential opponent of slavery and voice of the emerging Republican party. In his last years, plagued by illness, discouragement, poverty, and deafness, Richard Hildreth at last reached an audience interested in what he had to say.

By 1860, Hildreth was too ill to work. Hoping that a warmer climate would help, Caroline enlisted the aid of Senator Charles Sumner and the governor of Massachusetts to get her husband appointed to the largely honorary position of consul to Trieste. Hildreth’s friend William Dean Howells, visiting him in Italy, described him as “a phantom of himself, but with a scholarly serenity and dignity amidst the ruin.”

Richard Hildreth died in Florence in July, 1865, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery, near the grave of Theodore Parker. Caroline remained in Italy, where she had long wanted to travel and study art. She died of cholera in Naples in 1867.

Most of Hildreth’s papers have been destroyed. Some that were available to his biographer have since been lost. A few have been preserved in published secondary works. There is an archive containing correspondence, portraits, diaries, biographical sketches, genealogies, etc. of the Negus family, including material on Hildreth’s wife Caroline Negus, at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Library in Deerfield Mass.

Some of Hildreth’s many publications were written in his capacity as a reporter. One of these is interesting for its religious connection: Report of a Public Discussion between the Revs. Adin Ballou and Daniel D. Smith; on the question, “Do the Holy Scriptures teach the doctrine, that men will be punished and rewarded subsequently to this life, or after death, for the deeds done in this life?” (1834). Significant among his other works not mentioned in the article above are “National Literature,” American Monthly Magazine (1829); Letter to Andrews Norton on Miracles as a Foundation of Religious Faith (1840); Banks, Banking, and Paper Currency (1840); A Joint Letter to Orestes A. Brownson and the Editor of the North American Review (1844); What Can I Do for the Abolition of Slavery? (1844); Native-Americanism Detected and Exposed (1845); and “A Plea for Sunday Freedom,” Liberator (1845). Hildreth wrote a biographical sketch of his father for Annals of the American Pulpit (c.1860).

The only biography of any length is Donald E. Emerson, Richard Hildreth, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science 64 (1946). Articles on Hildreth appear in many nineteenth-century biographical dictionaries; the most substantial is by William S. Thayer in Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1856). Hildreth is not included in American National Biography, though he was in the 1932 Dictionary of American Biography. There were a number of articles on Richard Hildreth in the mid-20th century, which was a time of renewed interest in his work. Among the most significant are Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. “The Problem of Richard Hildreth,” New England Quarterly (1940) and Louis S. Friedland, “Richard Hildreth’s Minor Works,” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America (1946). Martha M. Pingel, An American Utilitarian: Richard Hildreth as a Philosopher (1948) contains otherwise unpublished fragments of two unfinished volumes of his “Science of Man” series, and letters to Andrews Norton and Francis Bowen. A recent reference to Hildreth is in Nancy Bentley, “White Slaves: The Mulatto Hero in Antebellum Fiction” American Literature (Sept. 1993). This article examines Hildreth’s The Slave along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, and several works by Frederick Douglass.

Article by Lynn Gordon Hughes
Posted February 9, 2001 – HathiTrust.org links added February 2016