The Naked Truth, or, The Situation Reviewed!
January 9, 1873 — Cooper Institute, New York City
[Immediately after the speech, federal authorities arrested her on obscenity charges.]
My Friends and Fellow-Citizens:
I come into your presence from a cell in the American Bastille, to which I was consigned by the cowardly servility of the age. I am still held under heavy bonds to return to that cell, or to meet my trial in a United State Court, upon a scandalous charge trumped up by the ignorant or the corrupt officers of the law, conspiring with others to deprive me, under the falsest and shallowest pretences, of my inherited privileges as an American citizen. In my person, the freedom of the press is assailed, and stricken down, and such has been the adverse concurrence of circumstances that the press itself has tacitly consented, almost with unanimity, to this sacrilegious invasion of one of the most sacred of civil rights. Public opinion too has been abused into concurring for a moment with this outrage.
But I have no intention of entering upon a specific defense of myself to-night. I was not unaware of what would be done when the method of social agitation, which furnished the grounds for the tyrannous exercise of power, was begun, and I am not disappointed. I was informed of the old United States statute, regarding the transmission of obscene literature through the mails, and also of the law as amended last June to specially meet this case. To suppress our paper was the only method of precedure [sic] by which the old regime could meet our argumentation; but its representatives, though wise in their own conceit, have unwittingly played directly into my hands, and for the benefit and ultimate triumph of the very thing they sought to crush.
In this, which to me, is the higher and truer sense, instead of being my enemies and persecutors, as they are in spirit and purpose, they are my active, most efficient and most effective allies; and I wish it to be distinctly understood at the very outset, that whatever I may feel called upon to say in arguing the subject upon the plane, and for the most complete understanding of the people, I here and now claim that Mr. Comstock, the characteristic agent of the Young Men’s Christian Association, acting under the inspiration of Messrs. Bowen, Claflin & Co., members of Plymouth Church; that District Attorney Noah Davis, and his assistant, General Davis, and Mr. Commissioner Osborne, backed up by those who are determined, as was stated in the Tribune, “to run her to the earth if it took every hour of his life and every dollar of his fortune,” and the United States Grand Jury; that Mr. Challis, with his hundred thousand dollars, and Mr. Justice Fowler; in a word, that all and every one of them who have had any active or passive hand in what, in the common acceptance, is personal and vindictive persecution, though personally enemies to me, are, indeed, my most esteemed friends, without whom and their recent active and well-calculated interference, no such vantage as the present revolution has attained could possibly have been gained.
Therefore, without further argument, I hold that I am justified in claiming them all as my faithful though unwilling allies in the social revolution in which I am engaged; and to whatever length their ire, their hate, their vindictiveness, their bitter foolishness, their stupidity or ignorance may push them on in their line of action, they inevitably proceed just so much the further to secure the rapid and complete success of the latest, greatest and grandest revolution of the centuries, to the inauguration and completion which I am thoroughly and entirely devoted and consecrated . . .
My sister and myself are now indicted in the United States Court on the preposterous charge of sending obscene literature through the United States mail — a charge which the officers of the Government will never dare to bring to trial, as they cannot afford themselves to be brought into complete ridicule. If anything which I can say in this address, or which I can say or write at any time, can provoke or sting them into the folly and madness of exposing the weakness and the damnable outrage of this unhallowed proceeding against peaceable and law-abiding citizens, by bringing the case to trial, I shall consider that success the most fortunate event of my life. But I now predict before you and make my forma record of that prediction for future reference and use, that I shall fail, utterly fail in the attempt. The District Attorney, and everyone concerned in this nefarious matter have either already accomplished all they aimed at, by covering my sister and me with the odium of being prisoners and accused of a scandalous offense, or they have had enough of the whole matter, seeing that it was a blunder from the start, and wish themselves fairly rid of it.
I repeat my prediction, and make it as marked and distinct as possible: the United States Government will never proceed to trial, in the case now on their court docket in the Southern District of New York, against Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennie C. Claflin, for violating the statute of Congress against transmitting obscene literature through the mails. They will never dare to to it. On the other hand, I predict that the Government will not enter a nolle prosequi, and make thereby the only honorable reparation, to some slight extent, which it would be in their power to make, for the outrage they have committed on our individual rights. And, my friends, you must not forget that, when an individual is wronged, by the superaction of law officers, the whole people is thereby outraged. I predict, however, that the course they will pursue will be to hold the case over our heads, as a threat, to delay and postpone it form time to time, to pretend that they intend to bring us to trial, and yet never to do so in fact; in the hope that fortune will favor them in getting them out of the scrape, through our death or poverty, or virtual surrender to the force of a long-continued persecution.
But they reckon without their host. The cards of fate are shuffled for a different deal. I give notice here and now, I hope the occasion is a sufficiently public one, that the publication office of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly is at 48 Broad street, New York city, and that from that office there will soon be issued and sold to all applicants a revised edition of the suppressed number of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, containing the “Beecher-Tilton Scandal,” and that within a few weeks there will probably have been sent a million copies of it to every part of the world, so that the whole public shall be my jury and decide whether there is anything obscene in that earnest and all-important statement. . .
The issue of our paper in question, that of Nov. 2, 1872, is undoubtedly, one of the boldest we have ever issued in the war we are conducting in behalf of progress, free thought and untrammeled lives; breaking the way for future generations; but throughout all its fifty closely printed columns, there is only one passage, and that of only three lines, to be found in the article now known as the Challis article, which the most fastidious literary critic, who was honest, could by any possibility construe into obscenity; and that is not half so bad as a hundred isolated passages which might be selected from the bible, and which pious fathers and mothers and moral teachers, and perhaps they who belong to the Young Men’s Christian Association, read in the family before prayers, to youth of both sexes, morning and evening, all over the land.
But neither the zealous Comstock, nor the District Attorney, nor the Grand Jury had, as yet, got their eye on this dreadful three-line paragraph when they had my sister and me arrested and, with unseemly haste, indicted for obscenity. Their procedure was based entirely on the “Beecher-Tilton Scandal,” and its was an after-thought altogether when the Assistant District Attorney said in court that he “meant the whole paper” — an after-thought of which I am greatly obliged to him, as it puts him in my power in ways of which he is, as yet, totally unconscious.
Their action was, as they then avowed, entirely for the purpose of “protecting the reputation of revered citizens,” as if there were any part of their business to protect the reputation of anybody by instituting censorship of the press in this free country, or except in an action for libel which had not been instituted nor even thought of; as if Americans were under the paternal wing of self-constituted legal protectors, self-constituted tyrants, otherwise speaking; and finally, as if the charge of obscenity was in any way related to that of the attack on, or the defense of, “revered citizens.”
The law was open to Mr. Beecher and others for any wrong done them, and they did not move in the matter, for reasons which were alike satisfactory to them, and to us, at the time, and which are now rapidly becoming satisfactory to the whole public. What right, then, had the District Attorney, and through his agency and solicitation, the Grand Jury — the United States, in other words — through their representatives to interfere, and still, without charging an libel, to trump up another factitious and scandalous, flimsy and ridiculous, irrelevant and preposterous charge, to get, by indirection, at the result they wished to achieve — that, in a word, of simply stopping our mouths at any cost, to protect the reputations of “revered citizens,” and entirely irrespective of the question whether we were telling the truth or not, or of the other question, whether our motives were good or bad? As in the case of the slave-holders and Garrison, it was not a question of the truth, nor of the motive, but of the absolute necessity for their keeping us hush on the subject.
Now, it so happens that in another case, that of Challis against Col. Blood, entirely apart from that of the United States against my sister and me, the whole Challis article came before the public and was published in full, or, as the lawyers say, verbatim, literatim et punctatim, in the New York Herald, and various other newspapers: has been, in a word, pretty extensively circulated over the country in other newspaper columns than our own, and Mr. Comstock has not informed upon, and Mr. District Attorney Noah Davis has not presented, and the Grand Jury have not indicted the publishers of the Herald and the other papers.
Is it that men are so generally accustomed to say and print obscenity that these paragons of purity and protectors of pious and revered citizens don’t mind that? Is it that the masculine sex has the monopoly of obscenity as they have of tobacco and bad whisky? Is it that obscenity is any less obscenity when it appears in the Tribune or the Times or the Herald? Or is it that those publishers are known to be rich and powerful, while we were supposed, from our recent misfortunes, to be poor, and possibly friendless? Or is it, after all that the whole world knows that these respectable and well-to-do publishers and editors don’t’ mean anything by it, except merely to make money in the ordinary course of business, while it feels instinctively that we are in earnest, and mean to do what we can to put an end to the vicious conditions of society, obscenity among the rest of them? Is it, then, the old story that the craft is in danger, that practices and habits and modes of life exist, and are held to be respectable, and must be protected, which are so obscene in that character, that we cannot even mention them without seeming to be, ourselves, guilty of obscenity? Is it the old cry of “stop thief,” merely to turn away attention? Is it the old fear that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshipeth? Finish out the reading of the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when you go home to your homes, and inwardly reflect on it and digest the old story, and you will understand the whole subject better than by the reading of all the newspapers . . . .
I have told you that the New York Herald has boldly and unhesitatingly reprinted the most objectionable matter which was contained in the number of our paper which was suppressed by violent and illegal seizures, and for which we were arrested. Not only this, but, in our very next issue, we deliberately reprinted the language of that terrible three-line sentence, the same as contained in the Herald, repeating it several times; and we have not been complained of for doing so.
But that is not all. George Francis Train, like a true knight-errant as he is, flew to our side as a champion, when we were in prison, and, treating the matter with his peculiar idiosyncrasy, he published and had circulated broadcast through the city and sent through the mails, several numbers of a newspaper sheet which he style the Train Ligue. In it, he repeated and paraded and rang the changes in every possible way, upon every one of the possible objectionable passages in our whole papers, being purposely, if we were obscene in a direct, simple statement of facts, ten times more audaciously obscene in reproducing us, flaunting his utterances in the very faces of those distinguished legal authorities who had arrested us, “stumping them,” as the boys say, with every insulting circumstance of provocation to arrest him on the same charge.
But the heroes of the United States law had become wary in conducting the warfare. They saw that they had already, so to speak, “put their foot in it”; or, permit me still to be homely in my expression, and “not to put too fine a point upon it,” they “smelt a rat,” after the District Attorney found that revered citizens could not be brought into court. They couldn’t afford to become utterly ridiculous, and there was something in the atmosphere, that warned them that they were becoming, just a little ridiculous, just a little odious, and just a little contemptible already; contemptible for their ignorance of the law and of the literature they assumed to judge of; contemptible for their ignorance of the American principle of the freedom of the citizen and the press; contemptible for their unconscionable usurpation of authority, and contemptible, above all, for their ungallant and ungentlemanly discrimination against women, in their exercise of their judicial functions when there were so many men who could be charged as we were charged.
You now see why the District Attorney will not have me arrested again for repeated my offense against “revered citizens” — offense, forsooth! — for exercising my simple and unquestionable rights as an editor and an advocate of social reform. He can’t arrest all the James Gordon Bennetts, all the George Frances Trains and all the Victoria C. Woodhulls; and he can’t, in the face and eyes of this exposure, arrest Tennie and me and throw us again into Ludlow-street Jail, for publishing precisely the same things which they publish, and which Train published, purposely exaggerated, to show that they dare not trouble him. He cannot arrest us unless he is ready to arrest us all, or along with us, all the other editors in the city.
The District Attorney can’t afford to arrest everybody who says a naughty word, not even to carry out his assume new office of protector of the reputation of “revered citizens.” Pushed one step too far, his procedure in that direction insure ridicule. “Come shortly off,” not impartially carried out; not applied even to those who flaunt their offense and try to get arrested, in order to bring out the absurdity, it will at a certain point provoke universal indignation. The United States District Attorney cannot afford either to have a ridiculous cognomen annexed to his name. That would stamp him in this community. “A hasty plate of soup “ tacked, to the reputation of even a great man, and in good-natured jocosity, haunted and annoyed him to his grave. The District Attorney is not even a great man, and his nickname may have real meaning in it. I warn him not to defy the stab of a steel pen! Inventive genius sometimes displays itself I other ways than in devising new offenses against the law or new offices as public protectors of the reputation of revered citizens.
Another reason why the Government cannot, very well, proceed to trial is this: Since our arrest, Attorney-General Williams, of President Grant’s Cabinet, has, at the instance and by request of Postmaster General Creswell, rendered an opinion having a direct bearing upon this case, as follows: “Post-office officials have no right to open or detail letters or other matter transmitted through the Post-office, though they may know they contain obscene matter. And Postmasters have no more authority to open letters, other than those addressed to themselves, than have other citizens of the United States.
Coupled with this, we have the denial of the officials of the New York Post-office, as to their complicity in the outrage committed upon the mails. Mr. Knapp, the special agent of the Post-office Department, said he read the paper of November 2 from beginning to end, and he would not take any responsibility, such as the District Attorney desired him to take, to hold the entire mail on account of alleged obscenity.
Therefore, under the opinion of the Attorney-General, and the disclaimer of Mr. Knapp, the District Attorney stands in the position of having, with the cognizance of somebody, robbed the mail of the package of papers upon which the charge was based. Do you not see, then, that Mr. District Attorney Davis or Mr. Assistant District Attorney Davies cannot allow to move further in this matter?
The fellow Comstock is, I think, too conceitedly egotistic to realize the position into which his action has placed him. He is also, I think, just enough fool and knave combined, to believe he can himself “put up a job” and then make others responsible for it. He it was instead of ourselves who procured the placing in the Post-office of the package complained of, by buying the papers and having them addressed and sent to the Post-office on his own account, by a person having neither right or authority to act for my sister and me . . .
I tell you, Mr. District Attorney, very frankly, I have your head “in chancery,” and I intend to punch it. I believe this is a correct use of the language of the ring, although I am not, literally, a pugilist; and I may make a mistake in the thing said, but not in the thing meant. That you may rest assured of, unless you mend your manners, and then I may have larger game to fly at and may forget my little appointment with you. In the meantime please don’t have me arrested, — forgetting my sex — for this unfortunate allusion, to the prize ring, on a charge of being a prize-fighter; for I perceive, now I have said it, that this verbal expression holds precisely the same relation to an offense against the laws prohibiting pugilistic encounters, by professional bruisers, as what we published in our paper, holds to an offense against the laws prohibiting obscene literature.
Again, This affair with Mr. Train is, to me, utterly incomprehensible. I can very well understand why the youthful zeal of the Christian Young Men should stand horrified at the doctrines of the Weekly, especially when they are accompanied by personal illustrations of the mysteries of godliness; but that their reverential piety should pretend to be shocked because Mr. Train, in his zeal to expound the Bible to the understanding of those who are not as familiar with it as they should be, considering that they account themselves as good Christians, is, as I said, simply incomprehensible. Can it be possible that he is a better Biblical scholar than are the representatives of the Young Men’s Christian Association, that he should have found a ph[r]ase of religion in their Holy Book of which they knew nothing? It seems that this must be so, since there is no other explanation for their conduct in arresting him for quoting the Bible on them, except that they are themselves actually ashamed to have the attention of the world called to the true character of the Book which they claim to be the infallible word of their God.
I speak with no feeling of disrespect for this venerable Book, or of Him whom they claim as its Author; but what must we think of a God who speaks language to his people that, when used by others than by those of their own household, even His Elect feel called upon to prosecute the intruder upon what is all their own, for obscenity? If Mr. Train is guilty of obscenity for printing extracts from the Bible, is not the American Bible Society equally guilty for printing the same in the Bible as a whole? Nor can they dodge the issue they themselves have evoked, by saying that the charge is not based upon the Bible quotations, since those quotations form, by far, the most objectionable part of the Train Ligue; and I am free to confess that, if any language can be called obscene, the extracts in question must be so considered; and it is clear that Mr. Train so considered them, since his nice sense of honor would not permit him to plead “not guilty” to the charge of obscenity . . .
I speak of myself as conducting a warfare on the present impacted mass of love and hate, of confidence and jealousy, of prudery and flippancy, of deceit and hypocrisy, marital infidelity, sexual debauchery, seduction, abortion and consequent general moral degradation, all mingled in frightful confusion, and labeled the social system. Then I think of this as being the foundation of morality, as it is called, I wonder if to the label it ought not to be added, “to be well shaken before taken.” Unfortunately, however, it is a warfare, because the world will insist on making war on me and my ideas. For myself, I love everybody; every human being, and have no desire in my soul to fight or contest with anybody; I would far rather be engaged in teaching what I know, and in learning of others who are wiser than I am, what they know. Least of all, have I any piques to gratify, or any personal hostilities to wage with any one . . .
In accordance with this determination, and for reasons which are more elaborately set forth in the article itself, we published n our issue of November 2d, the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. In that article I stated what I happened very well to know to be true, by means therein fully stated, that Henry Ward Beecher is, on conviction, a free-lover, as I am, and as many of the noblest and wisest of the representative men and women of the land, and of the world really are, whether they have or have to the moral courage — by which I mean fidelity to their convictions — to avow it; and, to make good my assertions in respect to his theory — derived, probably, as many as fifteen or twenty years ago, from the writings and counsels of Fourier, Warren, Andrews and other great socialistic thinkers — I stated, with detail and circumstances, facts which were also in my knowledge, derived in a great part from Mr. Beecher himself, in a way which dispensed me from any obligation of confidence, to the effect that he had not hesitated to live his own life of social freedom in his own way, and I added, that these facts were well known to a considerable circle of Mr. Beecher’s church and congregation, and that I had ben taken into this circle socially and intimately because they learned that I had become possessed of these facts (in the first instance through Paulina Davis and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and subsequently through Mr. Tilton himself, and others), and becaue they feared that I would publishe them, and becaue by communicating them unreservedly, they hoped to divert me from my purpose to use them in behalf of the interests of social emancipation, and the great principle of human freedom . . . .
Free love means nothing more and nothing less, in kind, than free worship, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, free trade, free thought, freedom of locomotion (without a passport system), free schools, free government, and the hundred other precious, special systems of social freedom, which the great heroes of thought have thought for, ad partially secured for the world, during this last period of the world’s growth and expansion. It is all one and the same thing, it is just freedom and nothing else. It is simply impossible that any great thinker like Mr. Beecher, if the subject is once fairly brought before his mind, can see the matter in any other light; and, if he is on the side of freedom at all, if he believes in the American principle, in the Declaration of Independence, in anything distinctly American, that he should come to any other conclusion, than that the compulsory regulation of our love affairs by statute law, is a remnant, as slavery was, of an old and opposite order of things, is simply ridiculous
Mr. Beecher believes in free worship, that is to say, in the freedom of every individual to worship God as he sees fit, or not to worship him at all; he believes also in freedom of conscience, and also, doubtless, that every act of his life should be made a matter of conscience; how then can he or could he be anything else than a free lover? How can I regulate my life by my conscience, in the most secret and sacred things, if it has already been regulated for me by the hurried and ignorant legislation of a set of crude and corrupt legislators at Albany? it is the question whether our virtue, if we have any, shall be something vital and self regulating, or whether it shall be something dead, formal and legal, merely.
But what, in the next place, is freedom? Folks talk and think — I fear, my dear hearers, that you yourselves still think — that freedom means merely the license to do something bad. Is there, then, no need of freedom equally to do good things and right things? How easily you understand all this subject if we take it into any other sphere than just this one of love. We Americans believe in the freedom of worship, which is eminently an American doctrine. It is already secured, for at least this country. Does it follow that all Americans rush at once into devil worship? Do they as a matter of fact, erect altars and churches to the devil? Is it true, even, of the majority, that they do so? You know it is not; and yet anybody is perfectly free here — anywhere from the broad Atlantic to the broader Pacific — to erect altars and churches to the devil; and if they did so, you and I, Mr. Beecher, and the utmost conservative and orthodox divines, all over the land, would stand staunchly up together, as one many, in defense of their perfect (civic) right to do so; for if anybody can say, arbitrarily, that anybody else, shall not worship the devil, that same somebody may next say, in the same arbitrary way, that nobody shall worship God.
If anybody have the right to prohibit the erection of a Chinese Joss temple on our shores, he might have equally the right to prohibit baptism by immersion or by sprinkling, or the elevation of the host, or the saying of mass.
As the condition of our freedom, therefore, we as Americans insist on the freedom of others, on the right of others, to do even that, and jus that, which we, as individuals, believe to be wrong. Nay, more, I hope that the doctrine reaches far deeper; that it is not because it is the condition of our own freedom, that we assent to all this, but that it is that THAT itself is our religion; not merely or chiefly that, in certain times, it favors and secures us, which is still a selfish and insecure basis for freedom, but that we penetrate to the divine essence of the idea, and see and know that this ultra, radical idea of freedom is the profoundest of moral truths and of sound solutions; and hence that we are devotees for its maintenance and defense, because it is intrinsically true, and whether it works well or ill for our individual predictions at the time.
I know that this is a fearful and tremendous doctrine. I know that it is the most searching and testing of all doctrines, of the fidelity and honestly of our own love of truth. I doubt if one in a million of this great American people, who have nevertheless founded their institutions on the idea, have yet penetrated to the full significance of the idea. I doubt whether you, any of you, fully realize the profundity of the moral convictions, on which this Government was founded. And yet in this matter of worship, we have substantially realized the ideal. A hundred churches lift their spires to heaven, side by side, in the same city, dedicated to as many different orders of worship and creed, and all the congregations, peacefully and with mutual respect, pursue, from Sabbath to Sabbath, their various attractions and convictions; and all this, simply because we have wisely concluded (after thousands of years or bloodshed and strife over the subject) to say “hands off”’ and to remit the whole subject to the conscience, to the judgment, to the good taste (or the bad taste), in a work, to the individuality of the individual — which is freedom.
Now let us return to the matter of love. The real thinkers believe, that this same principle will work the same harmonious and beautiful results, in this sphere also, and will completely and divinely regulate in the end, and, coupled with all other good influences, all our social disharmonies. They believe that our social disharmonies, those, I mean, of the family, are prolonged and aggravated, by the futile attempts of legislation to regulate them, just as the religious strifes of the past were fomented by a similar outside interference; and that, left entirely to themselves, they will regulate themselves. . . .
But now see, again, how you, and the people at large, misunderstand us on this subject. I have said sometimes and often, that I live my own free life in accordance with my doctrine; and I said in my Steinway Hall speech, something to the effect, that I have the right to change my love every day or every night if I choose to do so; and the public press, and the public itself, cry out in chorus, Mrs. Woodhull confesses that she lives an utterly abandoned life; she lives and sleeps with two or three or five hundred or some other egregious number of men.
Now all this is very absurd, and the public will come, at some early day, to be very much ashamed of it. Let us return to the matter of worship; and supposed I had been engaged in fighting the battle for that freedom; and suppose I said, I go to church or not, as I please, and I have a right to go to a different church, and worship God in a different way, every Sunday of my life, and suppose on the strength of this, the public said, Mrs. Woodhull confesses that she has no religious convictions whatever, and that she is an out-and-out infidel, or that one church is no better than another, and all are equally bad, etc. Why, the merest tyro in reasoning would see how utterly inconsequential were these conclusions, and would set down their holders as the stupidest of asses.
Now, probably there are not ten in this audience — in many an audience that I address there is not one — who know or have any right to assume to know, from anything I ever said, or from anything they know of my life, whether I live the life of a nun, or whether I live as the exclusive wife of one man, or whether I am what the cry indicates. Mrs. Hooker and several other of my anxious female friends, who have had the opportunity to know most about my life, whether I live the life of a nun, or whether I live as the exclusive wife of one man, or whether I am what the cry indicates. Mrs. Hooker and several other of my anxious female friends, who have had the opportunity to know most about my life, have on various occasions, taken the pains to assure the public that I am one of the most exclusive and monogamic of matrons. For my own part I have been perfectly willing that the world should think just the other way, if that same public chose to humbug itself into whatever preposterous idea — bot to accustom the world to accept the idea of freedom for others, who might want a broader social sphere than I do, and also to give the world just this lesson — that it is no of its business (except for very special occasions) what my private life is, as it is none of my business (except for very special occasions) what the private life of anybody else is.
Do you now now begin to understand that whosoever believes in the better policy, for society. Of leaving the love affairs of the community to regulate themselves, instead of trusting to legislation to regulate them, is a free lover; and that being a free lover no more determines that one is low or promiscuous in one’s habits, than believing that people shall have the right to choose their own food, determines that the person who believes so, has the personal habit of living on rotten meat or bad eggs . . .
Our old habits, under the marriage regime, now happily coming to an end, have made us all intolerably impertinent; until our social order is an impacted conspiracy of mutual spies and informers, so dense, so tyrannous, so awful, that if it were political, no civilized community would or could endure it; and such that the socially enfranchised communities of the future will look back upon it, with the same horror with which we regard the atrocious despotisms of Commodus or Caligula. Mrs. Grundy has a despotism, a million times more overwhelming and degrading, over the entire populations of England and New England, and generally, of all other countries, than ever any Nero or Tarquin had over Rome. Like slavery hers is a despotism, which reaches every homestead, and is all pervading, and utterly terrific, to all but the stoutest hearted heroes and heroines; and religion, which seldom establishes anything, but only consecrates what is, has consecrated this severe despotism. Better, a thousand times say, with nonchalance, like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” than to belong to this hellish conspiracy to keep our brothers and sisters, so hugged by the iron arms of false morality and custom, that the life and spontaneity is all pressed out of them. Anybody, with half an ear, who knew the meaning of logic, who has listened to Mr. Beecher’s stirring sermons on individuality, interspersed along through the last twenty years, would have heard in them the whisperings of social emancipation.
If, therefore, Br. Beecher, in being true to the new doctrine of freedom, has been infidel and false to the old, that is none of our business, except to rejoice, if it com incidentally to our knowledge; and if he has on any ground been unwise, he is the one to learn the fact, and to improve in the use of freedom, by availing himself of the privileges which it alone confers, to improve. Ad if we had any business to now, yet, how could we know? Solomon says, “The heart of man knoweth its own bitterness.” Are any of us competent to tell what domestic sufferings have been endured by the man and the woman in the two involved households; or by the man and the woman in any households; and what consolidations must come, or the heart must break! I know nothing of promiscuity by Mr. Beecher. I suppose variety is not necessarily promiscuity by Mr. Beecher. I suppose variety is not promiscuity, any more upon the social keyboard, than it is upon the keyboard of the piano; and every soul must find for itself, the harmony of its own chords . . . .
The public has stood aghast, with anxious expectation, for some denial from some quarter, of the truth of these allegations; but days passed into weeks and weeks rolled into months, and not a word of denial, nor even of explanation has been volunteered from any source; until the conviction has not gradually settled won upon the public mind, that there is no answer or explanation which can possibly be made. The whole case has been suffered to go by default. The admission has virtually been made; or, in any event, has been assumed by the people to have been made, that which I stated, and all that I stated was a simple narrative of the truth, which both pastor and congregation, have been compelled, in this tacit way, to admit . . .
They have said to him almost unanimously: Whether these allegations be true or not, we do not feel bound even to inquire; whether they be true or not, we believe in you, Henry Ward Beecher; we accept you as our teacher, and you as our instructor, in any new and higher truth; and if there be any truth, which you have felt bound to withhold from us, and yet, which you have not felt required to forego in your own life, we wait in confidence — we abide in faith, until the circumstances, and the growth in public opinion, shall enable us to come to a better understanding of that which you have already learned.
The scene has been, from the first, sublime. Mr. Beecher has gone forth, preaching, praying and pouring forth his great soul of inspiration, as if nothing had happened. His elders and deacons have gathered around him as a solid phalanx, saying: “Make no explanation — not even to us; we ask none; we will see that the church and congregation accept and maintain the same tacit league of acquiescence.” And they have done so; and church, and congregation, and the public — to a large extent — have quietly subsided into the acceptance of his position, whatsoever it may be.
By this magnanimous system of tactics, which could not have been carried out at any former period of the world’s history — which could not have been carried out, probably, in any other church and congregation in the world — which marks grandly and sublimely the exalted influence which the great preacher has rightly acquired, during all these years, over the minds of his people — what otherwise would have been a disastrous fall, has been broken, opinion has been modified, adverse judgement of the conduct itself, mollified, and the way prepared for the ulterior acceptance, by the whole world, of that which, but a few weeks before, it would have been seem impossible to have projected, in any form, into the public thought, in such a way, as to secure acceptance . . . ,
Socialism, the belief that just as great changes are impending, and must be effected for the ultimate good of mankind, in the relation of the sexes — in the more widespread influence of love — in the elevation of love out of its lower forms of mere passional excitement, of its purification, without repression or destruction of any part, however, of the sentiment; the belief that the construction of our homes must be radically changed, to accommodate these new ideas; that industry must be organized around the great composite home or hive of people; that women must be cared for and sustained, not in domestic bondage, but in complete freedom, and all that stands connected and related with these beliefs — in a word, Socialism is no longer confined to the few agitators and radical thinkers — is no longer to be traced home to French infidelity or free-thinking, but is widely diffused, even in the most religious circles, and where the sentiments of piety most profoundly prevail.
John H. Noyes and the Oneida Community, with their system of complex marriage or practical Free Love, were the outbirth, not of French Socialism, but of New England Revivalism, and of the more vital interpretation of the spirit and letter of the New Testament. Prof. Upham, who has recently died, and who stood for fifty years at head of Ne England theology, a vital pietist of the Madame Guion school, was for many years a full convert, through his study of the Scripture, to the belief that unlimited freedom in the relations of the sexes would, in the Millennial order, supersede our present marital restrictions. These doctrines were taught by him, in a subdued and partial sense, to the hundreds of young men who have gone forth from Bowdoin College to preach, and to pursue the various professions, during the past generation.
During the last twenty years Prof. Upham has steadily visited, from year to year, and communed with Noyes and Andrews and all the other leaders of the most advanced social d doctrines. He has encouraged and upheld them by his great words, filled with religious auction and sound philosophy. He has believed that men and women were to be lifted to higher and still higher excellencies, through the deepest and most varied experiences of the heart, and that the doctrine of Love divine, as promulgated by Christ, meant nothing less, and nothing else, than the ultimate introduction upon the earth of a complete social emancipation.
I have heard Mr. Andres that he has been closeted, at his own house, with no less than five or six of the leading Doctors of Divinity of the country, during a single year, in the closest and most confidential consultation in respect to these great subjects; and I might occupy the remaining portion of my hour in detailing to you the simple evidences of what I can now only reaffirm as the fact; and which is, that the whole public sentiment of the great Republic is permeated and honey-combed with the belief in, and expectation of, an early and complete overturn of the existing social order, and the introduction of a higher type of morality and social truth. . . .
But let us consider for a moment, what it is which constitutes obscenity or indecency or indelicacy. Where is the line to be drawn between what it is proper to discuss, or speak of, or put in type, and what ought to be, or may rightly be suppressed by the law? And in reply I would say, that nothing said with an earnest purpose and for a good end, is or can be obscene. If any other standard that this be erected the very first book to be condemned and burned for obscenity is the Bible itself. The next books will be the law books. No ta book on medical jurisprudence can be permitted to be printed or sent through the mails. The next will be the medical books. I have in my library an anatomical atlas and other works of the kind which must be instantly repressed.
I am having, at this time, an exhaustive collection made of all the passages in the bible which may be considered, by this mode of interpretation, obscenity; and I am having, through counsel, a similar collection made, of the prints, discussions and expositions to be found in the legal and medical books. I am having a similar research made throughout the literature of the world; although, in this respect, I have been nearly saved from the necessity of labor, by a remarkable work which has already performed this service.
Near the end of the war, Mr. Secretary Harlan, of the Department of the Interior at Washington, moved by spasm of piety, remove the distinguished poet and philanthropist, Walt Whitman, from an office which he held in his department, on the ground of the obscenity of his poems. Having no appreciation of the legitimate license of genius to deal with the most delicate subjects, and reading the sublimest passages of inspiration, with the bleared ignorance of uncultured stupidity, he thought it belonged to him, as the Young Men’s Christian Association, through its pious agent, think it belongs to them to oversee the morals of the community, and he removed Whitman from office. Unaware of the fact that Rabelais, Montaigne, Hudibras, Sterne, Burns, Byron and Shakespeare himself, and fully a thousand other great poets and philosophers, fill the libraries of the most refined people in all countries, and that their works abound in pictures and allusions which, in the mouths of vulgar people, would be vulgar and obscene, the pious Secretary made his ridiculous raid upon the most representative and characteristic of American poets.
Immediately, however, a storm of indignation arose. The Secretary of another department conferred on Whitman a higher office, and Whitman’s literary friend, William O’Connor, wrote in defense, a pamphlet, called “the Good Gray Poet,” which is the most exhaustive display of the freedom which has been accorded to genius, in this direction, which is to be found anywhere in literature. The work itself is a credit to the literary craft.
My counsel have taken this whole subject tin hand; and, in case the Government of the United States ever dare, which I have assured you they will not, to prese the case against me and my sister for trial, the count house, the public press and the country will be flooded with such oceans of reading matter of an unusual character from all these sources, from the Bible down to the last novelette, that those who have moved in this business will, it is hoped, be fully satiated with the results.
Such are some of the great words of the great poets found in defense of the free scope and untrammeled career of genius in literature. I recur, now, for one moment, in conclusion, to the direct and far more weighty purpose of this discourse. I stand here to make my defense of the spirit of this age; of that drift toward social freedom, which is now bursting all bounds, and insisting upon the complete enfranchisement of the human affections.
The head and the hand are already free. Free-thinking and free-acting within the just limits which inhibit encroachment, are now grandly tolerated in the world, except in that one department of human affairs, which includes the sentiment of love. In that local centre of our lives we are still slaves. The land mourns with the bitterness of its bondage. The reverend clergymen who have labored earnestly and honestly to fasten still on the community their traditional ideas of morality, never permitting themselves even to ask if there is anything wrong in their methods; or if there is, perchance, some better way, have felt the reaction of the vital forces within their own persons and within the community and the age in which they life, as severely as any other class. The old fear of hell-fire has lost its repressive terrors, even over their consciences and lives. Somebody, it is said, has gathered the names of no less than seven hundred preachers of all sects and denominations, who have been driven from their pulpits within the four years, and in this country alone; their congregations and the public scandalized, and themselves and their families disgraced and socially ruined by their sexual offences against the effete and false systems of their own moral teachings.
All the other classes of society suffer no less terribly. There is a skeleton in every house. There is hardly a family of ten persons in the land which does not contain in its numbers, some one or more poor, wretched, heart-broken or tortured victim of our ill-advised laws and perverted notions of purity and prosperity; and sometimes every adult person in the entire household is such a victim of repression or compression, or else of starvation, or else, still, or gorging and satiety of their sexual nature.
Every third person of the audience I am now addressing is a conscious, and to some extent a rebellious slave under this tyrannical social system, begotten of other ideas than those that now prevail, and which was, perhaps, well enough adapted to other times, wub which now has become a galling tyranny over their domestic lives and they know that what I say is true. Most of the remained of my audience, and they are simply representatives of the country at large, if not so consciously, are still unconsciously dragging out a miserable social existence of domestic wretchedness, a common lot of the homes of the people, derived from the same bad brood of pernicious causes.
Repulsions, discontent, and mutual torment, haunt the household everywhere. Brothels and social hells crowd the streets and avenues; passional starvation, enforced by law and a factitious public opinion on the one hand, and sickly and weary wives, and even husbands, on the other hand, overwrought, disgusted, and literally murdered, in their utter incompetency, to meet the legitimate demands of healthy natures, coupled with them; ten thousand forms of domestic damnation cropping and bursting out in ten thousand ways, through all the avenues of life; and everybody crying, “Peace! peace! when there is no peace”’ and the few who dare to speak of these evils and to call for a remedy, hounded to the death by the same old persecuting spirit, which, from the earliest ages, has met and martyred every new and struggling reformatory idea.
But there is, nevertheless, a brighter side to the picture. The dawn of the better day is already shining over the hill-tops of the gorgeous orient. Sexual freedom, the last to be claimed for man, in the long struggle for universal emancipation — the least understood and the most feared of all the freedoms, but destined to be the most beneficent of any — will burst upon the world, through a short and share encounter with the forces of evil. We who are assembled in this very hall to-night, will, many of us, meet in a few months or years, to celebrate the glorious incoming of the age of a rounded-out and completed Human Freedom. The passions, instead of being regarded as we have been taught to regard them, as merely satanic or malign forces to be repressed or enslaved, will be recognized for what they are; as the voice of God, in the soul; as the promptings of our best nature; as the holy premonitions of a divine harmony in society; so soon as they shall be understood and adjusted under the beneficent influences of freedom.
Rising up out of our false notions of propriety and purity; coming to know that everything is proper which enhances happiness and injures no one; and that everything, whatsoever, is pure that is healthful and natural, we shall greet each other on that joyous occasion with smiles of a benign joy, while looking back with a touch of sadness through the past hours of the long night of social bondage; and shall prepare, from that day, for the perfect and pure blessedness of the coming millennium of the absolutely liberty of the Human Heart.
Source: Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, January 25, 1873.
Also: Selected Writings of Victoria Woodhull: Suffrage, Free Love, and Eugenics, ed. Cari M. Carpenter (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press) 2010, pp. 125—146.