Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Eminent Women: Mary Parker Chidester and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Part 2

Eminent Women: Mary Parker Chidester and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Part 2

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - October 24, 2012

Born into a distinguished Massachusetts family, Catharine Maria Sedgwick proceeded to distinguish herself as one of the notable American authors of her day.

Catharine’s mother was a member of a well-known New England family and her father, a lawyer, had an influential career, serving as an officer in the Revolutionary War, a member of the Continental Congress, United States Representative from Massachusetts, fifth Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, United States Senator from Massachusetts, President pro tempore of the United States Senate, and Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

One of the important incidents in Catharine’s life happened eight years before she was born. Her father defended a slave, Elizabeth Freeman, in court and helped her win her freedom. After she was freed, Elizabeth worked for the Sedgwick family and helped raise Catharine. Elizabeth Freeman is buried next to Catharine Sedgwick in the family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. [1]

When she became an adult, Catharine joined the Unitarian Society and wrote a brief tract to express her religious feelings. One of her brothers encouraged her to expand the tract and the resulting book became her first published work, The New England Tale. With The New England Tale, she began a long career as a beloved American author, publishing her works anonymously at first, then under the name “Miss Sedgwick.” Her writings were didactic, “a series of practical tales for illustrating every day life and manners with a direct moral, philanthropic purpose in the improvement of social relations and the development of individual character.”

Catharine Sedgwick’s works were much in demand during her lifetime. She knew many distinguished figures of the day. Daniel Webster respected her work, Wordsworth dismissed her as a detested “literary lady,” and she was a particular friend of actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble.

Catharine never married. She spent her adult years living with family members in Boston, New York, Europe, and Western Massachusetts. She specialized in philanthropic causes such as caring for women when they were released from prison. A friend recalled:

…she was called upon to kneel by the bedside of the sick and dying. The sweetness of her spirit, and the delicacy of her nature, felt by all who came within her atmosphere, seemed to move the unfortunate to ask this office from her, and it was never asked in vain. So tenderly shrinking was she, that she sought opportunities for such ministrations when no ear heard, no eye beheld her; and many an erring sister was soothed and comforted as she passed through the dark valley, by the heavenly voice of this angel of mercy.

Catharine’s letters are a charming read. For example, near the end of her life she wrote to a relative:

I received your last while I was in New York, … and I had an impression that I answered it immediately; but we are (I am) so apt to confuse intentions with performances, that I now do not doubt it was one of those easy letters which we write mentally and seal up in our hearts, and forget that we have not yet come to that spiritual state when we may dispense with the intervention of material signs. Your steady affection … has been, and is, one of the great blessings of my life….The shadows are fast flying, the throngs of fellow-creatures that have obstructed us through life fade away, and the real people remain, and come out brighter and brighter, like the stars as the day recedes.

Her books are rarely read now, although the historical novel Hope Leslie, has enjoyed a minor revival in recent decades. Catharine Sedgwick’s major contribution to American culture may have been her promulgation of the ideal of republican motherhood, the concept that educated, patriotic women served a vital function in raising children to be good citizens. [2]

Three of Catharine Sedgwick’s books found their way into the Utah Territorial Library: Facts and Fancies for School-day Reading, Tales and Sketches, and Means and Ends, or Self-Training. Sedgwick’s reputation and published works must have resonated with Lucy Bigelow Young, who was probably the one to select her name for Wilford Woodruff’s Eminent Women temple work project. Catharine’s proxy endowment was done by Mary Parker Chidester, a woman of old colonial heritage who raised her children to be good members of society, fulfilling the role of the republican mother so well described by Catharine Sedgwick.

[1] Elizabeth Freeman, called Mumbet or Mum-Bett, was a great-grandmother of W.E.B. Dubois, one of the notable figures of the American civil rights movement. Her curious story can be found in Catharine Sedgwick’s article “Slavery in New England.”

When she died, the family had these words engraved on her gravestone:

Elizabeth Freeman known by the name of Mumbet died Dec. 28 1829. Her supposed age was 85 years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good Mother, farewell.

[2] Mary Beth Norton explains the concept of republican motherhood as follows:

“The Revolutionary generation…became the first to define a public role for American women.

“That role, logically enough in light of the persistent colonial emphasis on maternity, was as the republican mother. Revolutionary events reinforced the trends in American family life since the initial settlement of the colonies and generated a powerful image that dominated the lives of white native-born women throughout most of the nineteenth century. The ideal American woman was to be the nurturant, patriotic mother who raised her children, and especially her sons, to be good Christians, active citizens, and successful competitors in the wider arena of life. The image of the republican mother represented a successful fusing of contradictory collective and individualistic tendencies within republican ideology itself, tendencies that quickly proved irreconcilable with respect to men. On the one hand, republicanism looked to the past and preached the necessary sacrifice of the individual will to the good of the whole. On the other, it looked to the future and sang the praises of unencumbered individualism. Such disparate elements could not be joined successfully in the person of an American male; for men, individual values soon became paramount. But women had always been more tightly linked to a collectivity (the family) than had men. Accordingly, both aspects of republicanism could be incorporated into the definition of a woman’s role as mother. Her duty was to sacrifice herself to the family, freeing her husband and sons to express their individualism to the fullest. She was also responsible for fulfilling the family’s moral obligations to the less fortunate members of society through her participation in charitable associations. Her sacrifice of self to family and society provided the essential prerequisite for the individual endeavors of her male relatives. Women became the keepers of the nation’s conscience, the only citizens specifically charged with maintaining the traditional republican commitment to the good of the entire community.” (Women and the Revolution.)



  1. Another great post. Thanks, Amy.

    One other famous, but slightly more distant, relative (1st cousin, once removed) of Catharine Sedgwick was Major General John Sedgwick, an American professional soldier with a Utah connection (almost)–he was a Major in the 1st Cavalry in 1857, and was ordered to join Col. Albert Sidney Johnston at Fort Kearney to become part of the Utah Expedition. However, before reaching Fort Kearney, Major Sedgwick received further orders to return to Fort Leavenworth to rejoin the rest of the regiment.

    Rising quickly in rank during the Civil War, he was promoted to Major General on July 4, 1862, and was commanding the 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May 9, 1864. Trying to rally his troops in the face of Confederate sniper fire, Gen. Sedgwick told them that “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Those were, ironically, his last words–he was struck almost immediately in the face by a sniper’s bullet and died shortly afterwards.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 24, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

  2. Thanks, I am enjoying these “eminent women” posts very much.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — October 24, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

  3. Do you know if they sealed her to a husband?

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — October 24, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  4. This is a great series, i’m enjoying it very much.

    Comment by kevinf — October 25, 2012 @ 12:40 am

  5. That’s an interesting question, Jeff. So far I don’t think I’ve seen evidence that any of the women in this project were sealed to their husbands or parents at the time.

    There are only a few single women in the project. Off the top of my head they are Miss Sedgwick, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and Matilda Hoffman. We discussed Matilda Hoffman previously since she was sealed to Washington Irving sometime in the 1890s, but I just looked in NewFamilySearch (since Family Tree doesn’t seem to be operating correctly) and don’t see that any of the other three were sealed to anyone then or later.

    Comment by Amy T — October 25, 2012 @ 5:01 am

  6. Oh, and thanks everyone for your comments. Interesting notes about the general, Mark B. The name Sedgwick didn’t mean anything to me before starting this biography, but it’s quite a family. One of the descendants acted in one of my favorite movies, Something the Lord Made.

    Another descendant wrote a book about the family a few years ago, In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family. The author gave an interview and mentioned, among other things, the set-up of the family burial plot in western Massachusetts. From the interview:

    WERTHEIMER: Somewhere around the beginning of the 19th century, the Sedgwick Pie came into being. I wonder if you could just tell us what that is and why it’s important.

    Mr. SEDGWICK: The Sedgwick Pie is located in the back of the Stockbridge Cemetery. It’s a private graveyard that takes a very unusual shape. It’s a series of concentric circles of grave stones, all ringing a common pair of ancestors – Judge Theodore Sedgwick and his wife Pamela, who was the mother of all of his children. Those children, seven of them, are buried in a circle at their parents’ feet. And their children are buried behind them, and so on out it goes six generations to the place where I, ultimately, will go behind my father and mother on the eastern slice of this pie.

    All the other graveyards, at least in Stockbridge, are oriented to the east, to the place of resurrection. But here, the graveyard is oriented towards these presiding parents as if they are the Gods here.

    WERTHEIMER: So when the Sedgwick’s rise up what they see – that’s the joke, the old joke isn’t it? Is other Sedgwicks?

    Mr. SEDGWICK: That is the old joke….

    Here’s a guide to the graveyard if you’re interested in such things. (Sedgwick Family Plot.) You can see Catharine Sedgwick buried in B2, with Elizabeth Freeman next to her in B1.

    Comment by Amy T — October 25, 2012 @ 5:17 am

  7. Anne Bradstreet, the first published poet in America, had on of her grand-daughters marry a Sedgewick, but I can’t remember which one, and all of my books by and about her are in storage. If my body cooperates, I will try to find my mini-thesis on her, and see if I included the five generations that came from her that I made in the version on my computer.

    It was such a small world at that time, in the America’s, I am pretty sure that Catherine would have had copies of Anne’s books, and may have been influenced by Anne’s view on raising children who were literate, compassionate to those less fortunate, and committed to a dynastic family. If she never married, I am guessing Anne’s views on equally passionate spouses, working towards domestic and public affection, were not view Catherine got to experiment with. 😉

    Comment by Julia — October 25, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

  8. Thank you for writing these essays. They are enjoyable, informative, and appreciated.

    Comment by Sharon Tomlinson — October 7, 2013 @ 10:23 am

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