CDB Abstract

To Be “Rational, Responsible, and Self-Depending Beings”: Catharine Sedgwick’s Contributions to Early American Philosophy

Lucinda Damon-Bach, Salem State University


Throughout her forty-year career, Catharine Maria Sedgwick addressed issues of morality, ethical behavior, civic responsibility, economics, education and self-improvement, aesthetics (including appreciation of nature), reform, faith, and religious tolerance in her fiction and non-fiction. Her works popularized rather conservative thought in politics, and more progressive Unitarian thought about self-improvement and religion. Above all they demonstrate her keen interest in philosophy as it might shape morality and moral social behaviors. Among the philosophers and theologians Sedgwick alludes to or cites are: Sir Francis Bacon, John Locke, Francois Fenelon, Isaac Watts, David Hume, Edmund Burke, William Paley, Jean-Charles-Leonard Simonde de Sismondi, and William Ellery Channing.  Sedgwick’s interest in self-education, her conversion to Unitarianism in 1821, and her lifelong reverence for nature as a source and reaffirmation of God’s presence suggest her importance as a transitional writer whose works bridge the gap between Calvinism and Transcendentalism. This essay examines some of the philosophical cross-fertilizations among Sedgwick’s friendships—for instance with Eliza Cabot Follen, who translated Fenelon’s works, and with William Ellery Channing, whose relationship with Sedgwick spanned thirty years—her extensive reading, and her writing, particularly in the ways that her early novels A New England Tale (1822) and Redwood (1824) and her later work Means and Ends, or Self-Training (1839) promote the multi-faceted education that young women need to acquire to become “rational, responsible, and self-depending beings” (269). Sedgwick’s characters illustrate her sustained belief in the possibility of change and growth through education, which she held was five-fold: religious, physical, moral, intellectual, and economic (Means and Ends, Ch. 1).