Monday, April 13, 2009

Harriet Martineau (June 12, 1802 – June 27, 1876)


Her childhood

Harriet Martineau was born on June 12, 1802 in Norwich. She was born in a family of eight children and she was the sixth child. Her father Thomas Martineau was a textile manufacturer in Norwich and her mother Elizabeth Rankin Martineau was a daughter of a sugar-refiner of the new castle. Harriet Martineau’s childhood was not a happy one. She was raised by a foster mother and neglected by her mother. She was deaf since childhood and suffered frequently from health problems. Harriet was never able to smell and taste. She suffered from digestion problems during her childhood. She was a nervous, fearful child and felt isolated by her family. She often felt that her mother and siblings did not like her and felt singled out for criticism. She felt isolated and believed that her mother did not give her all the care she needed. Harriet described her mother as a domestic tyrant and believed that her tyrannies stemmed from her perceived social inadequacies.

During her childhood, Harriet had a very strong passion for justice just to herself and other oppressed people. She felt incapacitated to fully express herself due to her physical disability. During her childhood, she did not go to school because education was for the boys. However, she was taught at home by her older brother and sisters. Therefore, she was exposed to subjects taught to only males. University education was for the boys at the time, but Harriet maintained a regime of intense, self directed investigation throughout her life. Harriet advocated for fairness and justice and wanted all children, boys and girls to be treated and educated equally.

During her early youth, religion was the source of her happiness. Her parents were Unitarians, who passed on the trait to Harriet. Harriet’s theology was of a mild type, lacking a hell, a personal devil and a theory of original sin. She did not fear God, while she feared almost all human beings, and her devotion was thus a source of great joy and little misery. Her religious sentiments were increased by the ministerial influence of the great Unitarian preacher, the Rev. Dr. Carpenter, while at Bristol Boarding school. Dr. Carpenter taught her to interest herself in mental and moral philosophy.

She was inspired by the books of Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Thompson and Milton. She was also greatly inspired by the works of Thomas Malthus. By the age of 15, Harriet had started becoming a political economist. She thought in sociological and political manner. At the age of 16, she increasingly became deaf but devised ways to handle her physical disability. She described her condition as ‘very noticeable, very inconvenient, and excessively painful. Harriet’s great influence started during the time of her youth at the age of 18 when her inability to hear continued.


When her father died in 1825, her family went into economic decline. Martineau got involved in several activities to sustain herself. She got involved in popular journalism, mainly focusing on political economy. Her Illustrations of political Economy were her first successes (1832-1934). In the Illustrations, she described the works of Thomas Malthus, James Mill, David Ricardo, and Adam Smith. Sell of these writings earned her a lot of money which she used to move to London in 1832 (Hoecker-Drysdale 1992).

Martineau also published writings on ‘Morals of Slavery’ in the United States. She strongly criticized slavery and considered it a waste of capital and labor. It was a violation of human freedom and constrained slaves from doing what they desired. She argued that ‘social virtues’ cannot prevail in injustice society. She advocated for justice for the colored people, women and children. She advocated for immediate rather than gradual emancipation. She rejected her youthful laissez-faire economic philosophy and strongly urged governmental action to end chattel slavery, wage slavery, and class oppression (Fladeland 1982:73-74).

She wrote a letter to the deaf, published in 1844, appealing to people who suffered like herself to be patient and persevere in all depriving condition which loss of sense brings. She encouraged them to consider first the convenience and happiness of others instead on their own.


Hoecker-Drysdale, S. (1992). Harriet Martineau: First Woman Sociologist New York: Berg.

Fladeland, Betty, '"Our Cause Being One and the Same": Abolitionists and Chartism', in Slavery and British Society, 1776-1846, ed. James Walvin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), pp. 69-99

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