Excerpt of Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth
(Page 11 of 14)
Printer Friendly Excerpt
Beecher pleaded with her. "I shall sink through the floor," he moaned.
He "got up on the sofa on his knees beside me," Woodhull later reported,
"and taking my face in between his hands, while the tears streamed down
his cheeks, he begged me to let him off." Whether Woodhull exaggerated
his reaction, appearing onstage with her surely would have raised grave
questions, especially among Beechers sisters and their friends. And
Beecher sought to avoid encouraging Tilton, who was drinking heavily
and openly criticizing him to powerful church members and outside
friends. He anticipated that Tilton would use any sign of cooperation
Disgusted by what she considered his cowardice, Woodhull prepared
to leave, telling the preacher: "Mr. Beecher, if I am compelled to go on
that platform alone, I shall begin by telling the audience why I am alone
and why you are not with me."
The next night, November 20, a driving rainstorm soaked Manhattan.
Sodden ten-foot red-and-gold banners reading Freedom! twisted in the
lashing wind above the stiff-hatted heads of three thousand men and
women who funneled into the grand auditorium on Union Square to hear
Woodhull lecture on "The Principles of Social Freedom." Beecher remained
in Brooklyn, leaving Theodore Tilton to introduce her.
"The basis of society is the relation of the sexes," Woodhull declared,
reading from a prepared speech. "There is no escaping the fact that the
principle by which the male citizens of these United States assume to rule
the female citizens is not that of self-government but that of despotism.
. . . Our government is based on the proposition that all men
and women are born free and equal and entitled to certain inalienable
rights. . . . What we, who demand social freedom, ask is simply that the
government of this country shall be administered in accordance with the
spirit of this proposition."
Here was the evolutionary imperative applied to sex and politics alike.
Much as with race relations, sexual relations in America collided with essential
national ideology - that is, freedom and equality for all, as in-
scribed in the Constitution. If mankind was monogenic, and if natures
universal drive was survival and improvement of the species, was it not the
job of governments to combat whatever repressed nature and sanctioned
inequality? Woodhull, though never an affirmed Darwinian, grasped the
root connection between biological evolution and social progress. As a
spirit medium in long contact with suffering souls, she believed optimistically
that humanity would eventually evolve to higher spiritual,
moral, and political states. Two months earlier she had been elected president
of the American Association of Spiritualists, which professed as
many as four million, mostly female, adherents, in a country of forty million.
"My brothers and sisters," Woodhull continued. "You are all aware that
my private life has been pictured to the public by the press of the country
with the intent to make people believe me to be a very bad woman." As
Woodhull went on to describe how divorce and property laws codified
mans rule over woman, and how laws cant regulate love, the hall erupted,
half cheers, half hisses. Challenged by the baying crowd, she departed
from her text. "I can see no moral difference," she said,
between a woman who marries and lives with a man because he can
provide for her wants and the woman who is not married but who is
provided for at the same price. . . . The sexual relation must be rescued
from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their
position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals.
Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be
trained like men, [to be] independent individuals, and not mere
appendages or adjuncts of men, forming but one member of
society. They must be companions of men from choice, never
"Yes!" Woodhull declared finally, amid deafening cries of "Whore!" and
"Shame!" that all but drowned out her confession. "I am a free lover! I have
an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to
love for as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day
if I please! And with that right neither you nor any law have any right to
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.