Wright, Henry Clarke (1797–1870)

Henry Clarke Wright devoted his life to overturning structures of domination, including those within the family. His support for the rights of children challenged parental power at a time when American law and society still recognized the complete authority of parents within the domestic sphere. He had no children of his own, having married a wealthy older widow in 1823, but he had a wonderful rapport with the many youths to whom he ministered during his decades of reform work.

Wright was born in Connecticut to a farming family. When he was four, his parents moved the family to western New York, a region swept so often by religious revivals that it was known as the Burnt-Over District. His mother died a couple of years after the move, a loss he always felt. In his teens he trained briefly as a hat maker, before British imports crippled the American trade. Afterwards Wright decided to become a minister. He attended Andover Seminary from 1819 to 1823, then served as minister to the Congregationalist church in West Newbury, Massachusetts. In 1833 Wright left his ministry to become an itinerant reformer, representing a series of causes over the next forty years.

An interest in education first led Wright to become involved in the network of antebellum reform groups known collectively as the Benevolent Empire. Initially he expressed the standard conservative support for schools as an instrument of social order. But his experiences as a reformer soon radicalized him, and he began to question the justice of the order he had hoped to ensure. In a few years, Wright progressed from raising money for Amherst College (1833), to serving as an agent for the American Sunday School Union (1833 to 1834), to ministering to the poor children of Boston (1834 to 1835), and finally to organizing juvenile antislavery societies for the American Anti-Slavery Society (1836 to 1837). He was dismissed from the AASS for endangering the cause with his radical social views after he published a series of "domestic scenes" that challenged parental dominion over children. Later Wright would extend his critique of force within the family to the conjugal relationship, depicting sexual intercourse itself as a form of violence. He advocated that married couples limit their conjugal relations to procreative instances, directing their energies into loving sentiment instead of passion.

In 1837 Wright helped William Lloyd Garrison establish the New England Non-Resistance Society, a radical pacifist organization that opposed any use of force. As an official agent for the society, and later under his own auspices, Wright traveled in the United States and Europe lecturing for his many causes. These included the antislavery movement, Christian anarchism, marriage reform, temperance, and healthy living. However, childhood remained his core concern. In 1842 he published A Kiss for a Blow, a collection of anecdotes intended to teach children not to quarrel. He instructed children to suppress their anger, and to answer aggression with love. In Wright's later books including Marriage and Parentage (1854), The Unwanted Child (1858), and The Empire of the Mother (1863), he revised his views to stress the importance of the uterine environment in shaping children's personalities. If fetuses were subjected to passions, resentments, or other negative influences in the womb, then no amount of behavioral training might later be able to reform them.

See also: Anger and Aggression; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Children's Rights; Discipline.


Perry, Lewis. 1980. Childhood, Marriage, and Reform: Henry Clarke Wright 1797–1870. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Walker, Peter. 1978. Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolitionism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.