But I never got there, having been providentially sidetracked by an extraordinary essay by Martineau entitled “The Martyr Age of the United States”. There are not too many obscure nineteenth-century journal articles that every thoughtful American ought to have read, but I dare suggest this is one of them. Martineau published it in the December, 1838, number of the London and Westminster Review. She had made a long visit to the United States in the 1830s, her fame preceding her. Her fabulously successful Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) was a great international best-seller, which in its sales left the novels of Dickens in the dust.
While is it historically inspiring that a woman of Martineau’s moral character could so praise a large group of our American forebears, there is a cascade of less welcome news around the edges. Some of the sobering facts that a reader picks up incidentally in reading the essay include the following. She entitles her piece “Martyr Age” because of the great physical danger that faced public opponents of slavery not in Charleston or New Orleans but in Boston and New York. Abolitionist meetings in the North were frequently barracked and mobbed, sometimes with lethal violence.