Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 16

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 16

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This is the grave of Henry Ward Beecher.

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Beecher was the most prominent minister in mid-19th century America. The son of Lyman Beecher, one of the most important ministers of his generation, Beecher started his ministerial career in 1837 in Indiana. He rejected his father’s neo-Puritan teachings for a doctrine that emphasized joy, pleasure, and reform, fitting for the Second Great Awakening. He became a major social activist, an abolitionist, an temperance advocate, and a supporter of women’s suffrage. He attacked the Fugitive Slave Act and became a leading national voice against it. He also raised funds to send arms to anti-slavery forces in Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas period. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sent Beecher to Europe to speak against the Confederates, helping turn the tide of European public opinion to supporting the United States.

After the Civil War, he was one of the abolitionists who quickly turned to attacking workers and their unions and to feeling that the government should stay out of the South. He supported Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plans, was close to the capitalists building their monopolies, and vociferously anti-union. During the Great Railroad Strike, Beecher stated, “Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.” He became hated by unionists around the country. To his credit, he did embrace Darwin’s theory of evolution and opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

He may have thinketh no evil, but he definitely thinketh lust, as Victoria Woodhull notoriously exposed. Beecher was a notorious womanizer, with rumors about his affairs extending to well before the Civil War. So when he spoke out against Woodhull’s ideas about free love, she decided to write an exposé of Beecher’s hypocrisy, detailing his latest affair in her newspaper. Beecher then had her tried for obscenity, launching a series of trials that dominated national headlines for two years, including Beecher himself going on trial for adultery. He was exonerated in 1875 and died in 1887.

Henry Ward Beecher is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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  • wjts

    The Sharps repeating rifles he helped send to Kansas were colloquially known as “Beecher’s Bibles“.

  • socraticsilence

    Way OT, but the sidebar ad I’m currently getting is a JEB ad (not surprising I’m in NH and was in IA last week) which um… Its a picture of Dubya with the message “Jeb will unite us and keep our country and keep us safe”

    • Warren Terra

      I’m in NH and was in IA last week

      Is this a freakish coincidence (not to mention bad planning) or are you involved in working on/for or reporting on politics?

      • socraticsilence

        Working on/in politics.

  • Brett

    That’s so strange, that he supported Andrew Johnson after the end of the war despite being an ardent abolitionist. Was he some type of Dictionary Abolitionist? I can understand being a Republican with the whole “free labor” ideology, but supporting Johnson and the black codes?

    Speaking of Victoria Woodhull, that reminds me of how much I loved reading The Scarlet Sisters (about her and her sister)*. They’re the central characters, but it also broadens into a broader discussion about sex, women’s rights, and contraception in the Gilded Age. Salon has an excerpt.

    * And how much I loathe Anthony Comstock.

    • Warren Terra

      I wondered if maybe he was one of those “back to Africa”/colonization abolitionists, people who abhorred slavery but also didn’t welcome Black Americans – but at least a quick Google result would indicate he wasn’t.

    • LeeEsq

      Beecher was the real deal abolitionist. He even helped shipped guns into Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas struggle and said that it this situation a rifle has more moral agency than the Bible.

  • West

    This post is yet another nudge that I need to go back for the umpteenth time and try to sort out so much of my poor understanding of American history. Especially the whole post Civil War era. An abolitionist and women’s suffrage supporter being a pro-capitalist union-hater; I know it’s not unique, I realize it fits patterns that have internal coherence once you delve into them. But it’s such a tangled mess.

  • BGinCHI

    Anti-union but also anti-slavery.

    I think we’ve found our GOP moderate.

    Still, too Progressive for the GOP primaries, where I’m guessing slavery is polling pretty well.

    • CP

      He actually sounds more like a Joe Lieberman style ConservaDem than a “moderate Republican.” Liberal on civil rights (for black people at the time, for gay people in Lieberman’s case) but still an economic royalist.

  • Hogan
    • mch

      Indeed. Whenever I refer to H. W. Beecher, I tend to add Stowe and then have to retract it….

      Also interesting, though, Woodhull. Not all that radical by today’s standards, interestingly. (Even her notion of “free love” addressed mainly reasonable divorce laws.) The “trial of [that] century.” For all his virtues (heaven forbid, God as a god of love? abolition), Victoria went further, and without the hypocracy. I think of her most when I think of Beecher.

  • Jack Canuck

    Thanks for this! I’d always meant to find out more about Beecher because of a bit of literary trivia: in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (which I love and have reread many times), Dr Watson has a ‘unframed portrait’ of Henry Ward Beecher in their rooms at 221b Baker Street, and there’s a reference to Watson’s ‘passionate indignation’ about the way Beecher was ‘received by the more turbulent of our people’ at the time of his ‘mission which he undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the Civil War’.

    • CP

      You don’t remember which story that was in, do you?

      From what I recall, Beecher’s politics would actually line up with those in Sherlock Holmes rather well. These books were, IIRC, unfavorably disposed towards the Southern cause (“The Five Orange Pips” includes the Ku Klux Klan, and decidedly not in the favorable light that was all too popular in America in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century), but also unfavorably disposed towards the American union movement (the villains from “The Valley Of Fear” are Molly Maguires, portrayed as a crime syndicate that indulges in socialist rhetoric). Although I don’t know if that was supposed to be a diss against the entire union movement or simply an admission that some unions were just the mob by another name, which in fairness wouldn’t be exactly wrong.

      Also – maybe I just notice it more because I’m American, but Conan Doyle seemed to really enjoy his Americana. The very first Holmes story was rooted in the U.S. Mormon church – like “The Valley Of Fear” the first half is a regular London mystery, but the second half is the backstory to that mystery, in which Holmes doesn’t feature at all where ACD gets to delve pretty deeply into an American phenomenon. I don’t remember any other foreign country ever getting as much attention.

    • CP

      Addendum: for another European author writing about the Civil War, there’s always Jules Verne and “Nord Contre Sud.”

      I actually still haven’t read it. I just remember reading the first chapter or two in a bookstore and being struck by an introduction in which he talks about the politics of it a little. Two things that he notes:

      1) Yes, of course it was about slavery. People who say otherwise are full of shit.

      2) The interesting breakdown of the Southern population into black people, slave owners, and white people who didn’t own slaves… with the point made that the latter, against all common sense, sided with the slave owners because it was better than to suffer the indignity of being equal with the black population.

      The latter is actually oversimplifying the white population’s place in the Civil War, but it’s interesting nevertheless that a hundred and fifty years ago, a man who wasn’t especially politically minded and who wasn’t even American had pretty much perfectly identified the mentality behind the Southern Strategy.

  • Bruce Vail

    I visited Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights many years ago. It’s exquisite:

    http://www.plymouthchurch.org/history/article388258.htm?links=1&body=1

  • steverinoCT

    Unfortunately my introduction to, and until recently main knowledge of, Beecher was this.

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