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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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 400 pages
    Apr 2011, 400 pages

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Micah Gell-Redman

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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 Beecher’s 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 against him.

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 nature’s 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 man’s rule over woman, and how laws can’t 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 from necessity.

"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 interfere."

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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