Excerpt from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Banquet at Delmonico's

Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

By Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2009,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2011,
    400 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Print Excerpt

In January, after deciding to run for president of the United States, Woodhull catapulted herself to the top of the fractured women’s 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." Woodhull’s 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 Beecher’s 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 wife’s secret affair, and she repeated the story to Woodhull and to Beecher’s younger sister Isabella, who in a notable act of family rebellion embraced Woodhull as a "prophetess" and called her "my queen." Thus Woodhull’s veiled statements in the Weekly. While Beecher’s other sisters branded her as depraved and immoral in the pages of Beecher’s 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 Woodhull’s 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 interview.

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 life’s 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 man’s 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.

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