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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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