” The Abolitionist Who Married A Mill Girl” by Julie Mofford

Julie Mofford, a former staffer at the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, who currently lives in midcoast Maine where she writes and works as a museum and historical society consultant, shares another story from Lowell’s past . . .

William Robinson

William Robinson

Most readers are familiar with Harriet Hanson Robinson, author of Loom & Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls 1898).  At the age of ten, this boarding-housekeeper’s daughter went to work as a bobbin girl and led her co-workers to turn-out.  However, few today remember William Stevens Robinson, the crusading journalist she married.  When he was assistant editor of the Lowell Journal & Courier he accepted a poem submitted by Harriet Hanson, later claiming he was “first attracted to his lifelong partner by a piece of poetry.” The two met monthly at Improvement Circle meetings with other Lowell Offering contributors and supporters. Harriet also visited ”My Mister Robinson’ at ‘his office by the depot.’  The journalist soon revealed his romantic nature in a valentine.

I can’t forget. I can’t forget,
The lovely gentle Harriet.
I can’t forget. I can’t forget,
Her lovely form and eyes of jet.
Those eyes which caused me first to feel
The pangs which she alone can heal…
Do not forget! Do not forget!
That I most truly love you yet
But one kind smile on me bestow
To light me through this world of woe.

On July 25, 1848 the factory worker quit her job to marry a man who “knew what it was to work and write.”

Harriet J. Hanson has been employed in the Boott Cotton Mills in a dressing room, twenty-five months, and is Honorably Discharged.
Signed: J. F. Trott.

Born in Concord, Massachusetts December 7, 1818, William Stevens Robinson attended school with the Thoreau boys, John and (Henry) David.   When Robinson was 13, his essay Why Learning Is Better Than Lands Or Houses received an award.  Too poor to attend college, he signed on as an apprentice setting type for the Concord Gazette and learning the printer’s trade in his brother’s shop and at the Norfolk Advertiser.  At 20, he returned to Concord as editor and publisher of the anti-Van Buren Yeoman’s Gazette, which soon became The Republican.  Robinson then moved to Lowell as a member of the Journal & Courier editorial staff.  For a time, he was their Washington correspondent where he became converted to abolitionism.

According to fellow political radical, Francis Bird, ‘Robinson early chose his lot with the friends of freedom; and from that day to his last, reckless of personal consequences, he devoted himself to the righting of the wrong and to the most fearless discussions of public men and measures.’  According to one biographer, Robinson’s columns offered a ‘running commentary on the precarious political scene and dramatic events and opposing points of view on the years leading up to the Civil War.’

Robinson’s anti-slavery convictions led him to quit the Lowell Courier to work for the Free Soil Party that had been organized in 1848 against the western expansion of slavery.  He moved to Boston as editor of the campaign newspaper, Boston Daily Whig but soon left the Whig party because he could not support Zachary Taylor for President as he was a slaveholder.  Robinson was unable to put down his pen and keep quiet and often alienated Lowell’s political moderates whose financial success was dependent on southern cotton.

By 1849, Robinson was back in Lowell as founder and editor of The American, one of the first Free Soil papers in the United States.  It folded in 1854 and he was ‘starved out of Lowell.’

In 1851 while still running this newspaper, William S. Robinson became Lowell’s representative to the Massachusetts House.  Always favoring workers, he supported the Ten-Hour Labor Law, although this attempt was unsuccessful.  In 1862, he was elected clerk of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.  He held this post eleven years, and was finally forced out by Lowell’s own Benjamin Franklin Butler, who was then seeking the Massachusetts governorship.  Robinson supposedly led the opposition against Butler’s bid for state governor in 1871 and 1872.

Following the demise of The American, Robinson became assistant editor of the Boston Commonwealt, a Free Soil daily renamed The Telegraph.

In 1856 and throughout the next twenty years, Robinson published weekly letters in the Springfield Republican under the pseudonym ‘Warrington’ after a character in a novel by Thackery.  Robinson wrote to influence public opinion, referring to his columns as sermons and to readers as his ‘parish.’  He frequently took the unpopular stand on issues and was determined to expose corruption and hypocrisy in politics. ‘Ridicule was a favorite weapon…for ‘his darts fell on the just and unjust.  Only underdogs, fugitive slaves, and poor workingmen for whom he felt compassion, were safe from Warrington’s pen.’

A traveler to distant Kansas was surprised to find a man reading The Springfield Republican and asked why he subscribed to the paper way out here.  “To know what that fellow ‘Warrington’ has to say,” the man replied. “I don’t believe what he says half the time but I can’t get along without reading it.”

The Robinson marriage was a companionship of minds.  They represented a team of wordsmiths: reading, writing and using words with an aim to improve the world.  William read works-in-progress aloud as Harriet mended and patched clothing for their four children, pausing to offer her editorial suggestions.  She thought of herself as a good, poor man’s wife and admired William’s indifference to money, convinced he had taught her the ‘real meaning and duty of life.’

‘My darling and I sit in the parlor together – baby asleep in his cradle,’  Harriet noted in her journal. ‘All the rest are abed; we want no other company.  He is a good hubby to me.’

Harriet was ambitious for her husband. ‘Oh my Willie, ” she wrote.  ‘I honor you more every day.  I would have you honored in the world as much as I honor you, and no weakness of mine should ever clog your footsteps for an instant.’

Considered by many ‘the keenest political writer in America,’   Robinson knew most of the greatest men of his day.  He was close friends with Senator Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass and admired John Brown, the radical abolitionist.  Robinson also saw the Civil War as a Holy War to end slavery and chided President Lincoln for taking so long to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  From 1863 through 1868, Robinson served as Secretary of the Republican State Committee, writing speeches and memorials promoting party policy and leadership.

After the Civil Was, women’s rights became ‘Warrington’s’ battle cry.  ‘The woman’s hour is striking!’ he wrote.  ‘The suffrage question supersedes in popular interest the old anti-slavery question…women are shut out from colleges where the highest education is sought, whether by law or custom, women are under the ban of exclusion…’

In 1875, the year before he died, Robinson published Warrington’s Manual of Parliamentary Law.  Writing credits over the years included the New York Tribune, Boston Journal, Hartford Courant, Concord Monitor, Manchester American, Boston Telegraph, and the Commonwealth among others.

Following her husband’s death Harriet dutifully carried on his legacy.  She published his Memoir and edited his ‘Warrington’ columns and Pen-Portraits, capsule biographies about his contemporaries. ‘The genius of America has found a fitting chronicler,’ one reviewer said. “His wife has gotten up one of the choicest volumns…” Harriet dedicated the book “to the people, in whom ‘Warrington” believed and for whom he labored as well as to their leaders whom he censured and criticized.”

With their elder daughter, Harriette Shattuck, she organized the National Woman Suffrage Association of Massachusetts and published a chronicle entitled Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement.  In 1882, Harriet Hanson Robinson championed the suffrage cause before a     U. S. Senate committee and even supported Benjamin Butler’s next run for Governor of Massachusetts, hoping he would support the woman’s right to vote.

Nearly forgotten today, William S. Robinson was a relentless reformer whose powerful voice interpreted the major happenings of his time.  And ‘Warrington’ is well worth rereading today.  ‘Let not this class of men complain of the meanness of politics.’ he said, ‘while they sit quietly in their offices and do nothing to enable it; and let them not complain of bad measures until they have done something besides vote against their adoption.’

One colleague called W. S. Robinson the ‘bravest public man in New England – a man of convictions and fortitude – a rough and honest warrior.’ With sarcasm and sharp wit he offended many, yet never lost faith in his nation’s democratic principles.  ‘The people are to be trusted,’ Robinson claimed.  ‘They will find a way to bring order out of chaos.’