Clara Barton's Biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Clara Barton's Biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor

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Clara Barton's Biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor

The author, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, wrote her biography of Clara Barton with the intent to not only tell her life, but to use personal items (diary and letters) of Clara’s found to help fill information of how Clara felt herself about incidents in her life. Her writing style is one that is easy to understand and also one that enables you to actually get pulled into the story of the person. While other biographical books are simply dry facts, this book, with the help of new found documents, allows Pryor to give a modern look on Barton’s life. This book gave a lot of information about Ms. Barton while also opening up new doors to the real Clara Barton that was not always the angel we hear about. Pryor’s admiration for Ms. Barton is clear in her writing, but she doesn’t see her faults as being a bad thing, but rather as a person who used all available means to help her fellow soldiers and friends along in life.
Born on December 25, 1921, Clara grew up in a family of four children, all at least 11 years older than her (Pryor, 3). Clara’s childhood was more of one that had several babysitters than siblings, each taking part of her education. Clara excelled at the academic part of life, but was very timid among strangers. School was not a particularly happy point in her life, being unable to fit in with her rambunctious classmates after having such a quiet childhood. The idea of being a burden to the family was in Clara’s head and felt that the way to win the affection of her family was to do extremely well in her classes to find the love that she felt was needed to be earned. She was extremely proud of the positive attention that her achievement of an academic scholarship (Pryor, 12). This praise for her accomplishment in the field of academics enriched her “taste for masculine accomplishments”. Her mother however, began to take notice of this and began to teach her to “be more feminine” by cooking dinners and building fires (Pryor, 15). The 1830’s was a time when the women of the United States really began to take a stand for the rights that they deserved (Duiker, 552). Growing up in the mist of this most likely helped Barton become the woman she turned out to be.

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Barton grew up with her older brothers and male cousins being her main companions of her younger life. Quickly adapting to their style of play, she was not interested in the dolls that most young girls were interested in. She wanted to become involved in school and have adventurous activities rather than doing the house work (Pryor, 15). The age of romanticism was around this era as well. Clara could have been influenced by the literature and the overall help she received from her family in her studies. Clara loved being outside, especially when it came to dealing with riding her horse over the land. She
Clara’s first contact with really serving others came at the age of 11 when her older brother David became ill and became his “bedside nurse”. She tended to all of David’s needs and became adapt at handling the leaches that was part of his treatment for nearly two years. Once David’s treatments changed however, Clara was left with what she felt was wasted time, she began to take on more responsibilities with the farm they lived on, as well helping both her sister out with taking care of the children, but helping tutor the poorer children and care for the sick in her community. (Pryor, 17)
About the age of eighteen, Clara began her first job teaching and quickly found that she had a natural talent to conduct the attention of her students. She turned around the “social outcast” view of her as she blossomed into an ambitious teacher full of ideas for the classroom. One of her larger projects occurred during the early 1940’s. It was becoming apparent to Clara the need to “redistrict the schools in the town of Oxford” due to the population of the town growing so rapidly. There was simply not enough room to fit all the children nor were there enough books (textbooks of the same brand/issue) or school supplies to go round. After several attempts at trying to convince the town that schools needed to be redistricted, Clara and her brother Stephen were able to win over the population, and went on to help design the new schools where she continued to teach until around 1860 when she began her work at the Patent Office.
During this time as a teacher and working in the patent office, tensions between the northern and southern states increased to a turning point. On April 12, 1961, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter which signaled the beginning of the Civil War. President Lincoln called for a volunteer army to protect the national capital. Barton was immediately present to help tend to the soldier’s needs. She quickly took a collection of the people who lived in the area and distributed food and other useful articles that was donated. She also wrote to her home community of Worcester asking for supplies for their sons and brother (Pryor, 80). While she got what she felt was an overwhelming amount of items, the materials she needed to aid these thousands of men was not yet present. Using an advertisement appealing to people’s Christian religion, she received so many boxes of supplies that she had to rent a warehouse to keep it all. And what was not sent was bought out of her own pocket money to help “her boys” (Pryor, 81). Barton moved from battlefield to battlefield, always helping wherever she could and bringing along much needed supplies, earning herself the title of “angel of the battlefield (Pryor, 99). After the war ended, she was enlisted to help identify and find missing soldiers for the waiting families (Pryor, 134).
In 1970, Barton, under doctor’s orders, was recommended to take a break from the never ending work in Europe to get well from her own cold. While in Europe, Barton first learned of the International Convention of Geneva, otherwise known as the Red Cross. Leaders of this group had heard of her deeds in the Civil War and congratulated her on a job well, done, but questioned her as to why the United States never consented to the Geneva Convention articles. Barton herself had never heard of this Geneva Convention or of the Red Cross, but was surprised at the idea that United States never signed such a commendable idea (Pryor, 157). While visiting the Red Cross storages, she found that such preparedness could bring a great deal of relief to the soldiers quicker. During her time in Europe, the Franco-Prussian War both began and ended, and through it all, Barton was able to see the workings of the Red Cross (Pryor, 159). Upon returning to the United States, Barton was hoping to rally the U.S to sign the Geneva Convention, but was simply struck sick, progressing to the state of a “helpless invalid” for about two years.
In presenting the idea of the Red Cross to the U.S government, Barton found out that most of the government officials knew nothing about the rejected treaty, but one man, Henry Bellows, had tried for years to convince the U.S to sign the Geneva Convention, but had no success. The secretary of state, William Seward, had considered the treaty impossible to sign while the country was going through the Civil War, and also pointed out that the Monroe Doctrine was the main idea behind U.S foreign affairs (idealizing noninterference and isolation) (Pryor, 190). After years of rallying to get the Geneva Convention pushed through the Senate, on March 16, 1981, the senate unanimously ratified the treaty and the branch of the Red Cross in America was born (Pryor, 210).
Clara was raised in a family based in Universalism. Her father, originally a Baptist, was strongly influenced by events in the Universalist church that he was converted and raised his family as such. The teachings Clara learned through this family church was that “God encourages all men and women to accept him and charged them to grasp the opportunity to earn salvation-an opportunity open to all”. The Universalist church encouraged being aware of the social happenings around them; to support the education of all youth as well as the idea of charity in the community (Pryor, 6). While the social teachings of the church were imbued in her, she was never able to fully grasp hold of the actual religion. Clara immersed herself in church work to “keep busy” and help the community around her but never had “deep religious feelings” towards Universalism. She had trouble in the idea of the joy there should be in life with the amount of grief that was present in the lives of those around her. Although Barton never claimed to have no faith, she described herself as being more of a “well-disposed pagan” (Pryor, 28). By Barton’s own standards of living up to her religious morals, I believe that she did as she thought was right. The words of her father while on his deathbed seems to be what I felt Barton lived by in her life; “As a Patriot he bade serve my country with all I had, even my life if need be; as the daughter of an accepted Mason, he bad me seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere, and as a Christian he charged me to honor God and love mankind” (Pryor, 82). She of course had her faults as everyone does, but they did not always have bad effects. While she was not keen with others surpassing her, it helped her to also go farther than she would have most likely imagined. By standards of today’s idea of Christianity, it would depend on how you look at it. She accomplished a great deal of good in the United States, and in the world itself, but is the question would be if what she did was good enough to “redeem” her in the eyes of others. She would not have been looked upon well after having gone into having jobs full time during this era, but women would and did make her out to be the woman whom they should strive to be. Strong and able to be hold her own opinions without having to be supported by a man throughout her life. Barton was an independent woman who decided early on in her life that she wouldn’t marry. Barton realized that being an independent woman during this era required some sacrifice, that being in her case the opportunity of finding a man who was (in her mind) her equal; not one who would be her friend and simply be in awe of her.
Clara Barton became the idealized woman to be during women’s movement towards gaining equal rights and showing that women are capable of amazing things, however, she never got into the women’s rights movements. She was kept busy with the Red Cross organization up until her resignation on May 14, 1904 at the age of 82(Pryor, 354).


Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, (1987).
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