Excerpt of Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth
(Page 10 of 14)
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In January, after deciding to run for president of the United States,
Woodhull catapulted herself to the top of the fractured womens rights
movement by becoming the first woman to address a committee of Congress.
She told lawmakers that the recently adopted Fifteenth Amendment,
which extended the right to vote to all citizens regardless of "race,
color, or previous condition of servitude," compelled them to take the
next and final step of granting suffrage "without regard to sex." Woodhulls
suspect past, unconventional home life, rapid rise, and radical
views - she believed the fight for equality began not with the ballot but
in the bedroom, and that Victorian marriage laws making divorce all
but impossible rendered women, in effect, slaves of their husbands -
scandalized traditional feminists, none more than Beechers own sisters,
two of whom, including Harriet, attacked her relentlessly in print.
Then, over a chess game, Theodore Tilton told Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
a matriarch of the suffrage movement, about his wifes secret affair,
and she repeated the story to Woodhull and to Beechers younger sister
Isabella, who in a notable act of family rebellion embraced Woodhull as a
"prophetess" and called her "my queen." Thus Woodhulls veiled statements
in the Weekly. While Beechers other sisters branded her as depraved
and immoral in the pages of Beechers newspaper, The Christian
Union, Woodhull possessed compelling evidence that Beecher practiced
the very doctrine she espoused - free love - walled within a citadel of
Victorian hypocrisy. Theodore Tilton, meanwhile, became Woodhulls
acolyte and, most likely, lover, publishing a campaign biography of her so
fawning and uncritical of her claims as a spirit medium in touch with the
ancient Greek orator Demosthenes that Julia Ward Howe, author of
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," sneered: "Such a book is a tomb
from which no author again rises."
Now, in her letter to Beecher, Woodhull shed her gloves: "You doubtless
know that it is in my power to strike back, and in ways more disastrous
than anything that can come to me," she wrote,
but I do not desire to do this. I simply desire justice from those from
whom I have a right to expect it; and a reasonable course on your part
will assist me to it. . . . I repeat that I must have an interview
tomorrow, since I am to speak tomorrow evening at Steinway Hall
and what I shall or shall not say will depend on the result of the
This time Beecher agreed to the meeting. A fleshy, carnal man
swathed in fine suits and capes, who jiggled opals in his pocket and wore
his long hair behind his ears, he enjoyed lifes pleasures, however guiltily.
His wife, Eunice, did not. At the heart of Victorian sexual morality lay
Victorian marriage, with its double standard for adulterers, and it was
standard gossip that "Beecher preaches to seven or eight of his mistresses
every Sunday evening." As Darwin illustrated in Descent, monogamy,
though socially imposed, was not mans original design, and among primitive
cultures, as among most primates, "polygamy is almost universally
followed by the leading men in every tribe." As Beecher and Woodhull
spoke privately late in the afternoon of the nineteenth, she later recalled,
he confessed that he shared her view of matrimony.
"Marriage is the grave of love," Beecher told her. "I have never married
a couple that I did not feel condemned."
Woodhull challenged him to preach that conviction. "I should preach
to empty seats," he replied; his wealthy congregants would reject such
radical ideas. "Milk for babies, meat for strong men."
Woodhull pressed him. She wanted him to introduce her at Steinway
Hall, where she planned for the first time to go beyond the issue of voting
rights to a full call for basic changes in the structure of society. She
traced all social ills - crime, drinking, poverty, abortion, disease - to bad
marriages, and she believed freedom for women would be achieved only
when women could obtain divorces without being shamed and vilified by
society. Beecher himself had almost lost his pulpit to those in his congregation
who denounced him for sanctioning bigamy, after he chose to perform
a deathbed marriage for a terminally ill man and a divorced woman
whose life was being destroyed by her drunken, abusive ex-husband.
The only way Woodhull thought she could ensure a fair hearing was if
Beecher preceded her to the rostrum. Finally, when all her arguments
failed to persuade him, she confronted Beecher with the inevitability that
word of the Tilton scandal would soon leak out. She would do it herself
if need be. "The only safety you have," Woodhull warned, "is in coming
out as soon as possible as an advocate of social freedom and thus palliate,
if you cannot completely justify, your practices, by founding them at least
on principle. Your introduction of me would bridge the way."
Excerpted from Banquet at Delmonico's
by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by
permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.