[Marxism] Review: Bradford's _D.M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker_

Mark Lause MLause at cinci.rr.com
Thu Aug 23 14:14:50 MDT 2007

Roderick Bradford. _D.M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker_.  Amherst NY: Prometheus
Books, 2006, 412 pp. Index, notes, illustrations. $32.00 (cloth), ISBN-13:
978-1-59102-430-4, ISBN-10; 1-59102-430-7.

Reviewed by Mark A. Lause, Department of History, University of Cincinnati

Freethought had always been important in early America, but it became an
organized movement in the Gilded Age.  Much of it overlapped largely with
political radicalism and with unorthodox religious views.  A list of the
known participants in the "National Liberal League" of the "American Secular
Union" is something of a "who's who" of spiritualism, abolitionism,
Greenbackism, feminism, socialism, and political radicalism generally.

Understanding the importance of freethought has not had a high priority
among trained academics, but Roderick Bradford, an independent scholar,
casts some light into this void with a biographical look at _D.M. Bennett,
The Truth Seeker_ (Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).  Having written
extensively on the history of disbelief in "revealed religion," Bradford has
every qualification to take up the life of DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett
(1818-1882).  Bennett, the editor of the _Truth Seeker_ defied the explosive
growth of Christian denominationalism to defend freedom of thought.  In the
process, he became one of those remarkable nineteenth century Americans who
became widely known and quickly forgotten, buried in a sea of robbery,
expansion, extermination, and conformity on an unprecedented scale.

Horace Greeley famously called the printing office "the poor man's college,"
and D.M. Bennett studied in several during his youth in upstate New York.
Called "chapels," these places of worship for the printed word promulgated a
faith in reason that seemed to emerge with the Enlightenment.  Freedom,
tolerance and republicanism were essential features of this belief.   The
religious corollary of that was Deism, the belief in a single deity, but
adamantly "infidel" or unbelieving in terms the Bible, the divinity of
Christ or "revealed religion.  Although few-notably Thomas Paine-made this a
public profession, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founders
were Deists in their private views.  However, Abraham Lincoln had been the
last of these to occupy the White House.

The post-Civil War Republican leadership, corporate growth, and the drive to
standardize culture defined a middle class respectability that required
church membership.  This new emphasis on uniformity and a non-denominational
insistence on denominational affiliation transformed the Christianity of the
respectable middle classes.  It never precluded a common Protestant front
against the outsiders.  Although Catholics-even Jews-might win a grudging
general acceptance, the Deism of the American "Founders" became what would
be called "Un-American" by the mid-twentieth century.  In part, the
scholarly neglect of freethought reflects an unwillingness to describe the
onslaught by the authorities in this "land of the free" against those
persistent critics of this rising new religious dogmatism.

Anthony Comstock, licensed by the Congress to police the use of the mails to
distribute "obscene" literature, defined the cutting edge of this process.
After closing a few American publishing houses that essentially reprinted
pirated versions of European pornography, the "Comstock Laws" remained in
force for decades.  In applying them, their namesake sought to suppress
everything he saw as obscene, ultimately raiding art studios for the use of
nude models.  Like Joseph McCarthy later, Comstock stretched his point of
becoming an obnoxious embarrassment, but both served as a lightening rod for
criticism of what was a broader government policy pursued by the "more
reasonable" authorities.

Sections of organized Christianity claimed the mantel of abolitionism after
the war.  Almost all of these denominations had actually supported slavery
in half of the country and most denominations in the other half took pains
to distance themselves from the abolitionists.  However, the institutional
elimination of slavery by government action provided them with a model for
Christianizing America through the eradication of alcohol consumption,
prostitution, Catholicism, and other aspects of American civilization deemed
unsavory to the self-defined Protestant mainstream.  Indeed, a National
Reform Association-not to be confused with the earlier land reform
organization of the same name-proposed amending the Constitution to declare
the U.S. a Christian society predicated on the belief in God, the divinity
of Christ, and the truth of "revealed religion."

In this climate, Comstock interpreted his authority in the broadest possible
sense and applied it not only to silence the "obscene" but the "blasphemous"
and the politically radical.  In one of his earliest moves, Comstock
arrested Victoria Woodhull, the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights
Party, whose public advocacy of women's suffrage, spiritualism and socialism
included criticisms of the institution of marriage.

There had been similar prosecutions earlier, notably the prosecution of
Abner Kneeland for blasphemy, but "Comstockery" employed the authority of
the national government under the Republican administrations of Ulysses S.
Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes.  Many freethinkers-probably most-had been
antislavery and remained sympathetic to the Republican Party.  Some wanted
to contest the very existence of the Comstock Laws, others the case-by-case
prosecutions, and some wished to avoid any conflict that might embarrass the
Grand Old Party.

On the one hand, Ezra Hervey Heywood remained so hostile to government and
loyal to the early "moral suasion" approach of the early abolitionists that
he declined to fight in the Civil War.  He revitalized the antebellum New
England Labor Reform League, launched an annually meeting American Labor
Reform League, and provided a common anti-institutional platform for a broad
spectrum of radical ideas.  Heywood's monthly, _The Word_, not only ran
against the grain of the age, but its preoccupation with women's rights
brought him into clear conflict with the insistence on the sanctity of

On the other, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll had commanded Illinois cavalry in
the war and served as Attorney-General of the state.  His open and
pugnacious advocacy of atheism demonstrated the extent to which such ideas
could "play in Peoria" prior to the tightening of corporate values and
standards.  Ingersoll had no respect for Comstock, who he regarded as a
small-minded bigot, but he did not want the appearance of defending what the
press was already labeling obscenities to distract from a sharp focus on the
shortcomings of Christian theology.

D. M. Bennett, like the readers of his _Truth Seeker_ neither courted test
cases nor fearful of damaging the Republican officeholders, occupying a
certain "mainstream" of freethought.  However, this definition is rooted in
his strategic approach in response to repression rather than his ideas.
Although Bennett started his paper in Paris, Illinois, he quickly moved it
to New York City and occupied No. 141 Eight Street, which he renamed
"Science Hall," after the nearby publishing operation of the Owenites half a
century earlier.  From the last half of the 1870s, local Greenbackers, land
reformers, and other labor political groups published notices that they were
meeting there, as well as the local freethinkers.

As these meeting indicate, a series of mass insurgencies challenged the
two-party system, and the theological and political motives of Federal
prosecutions for obscenity became particularly apparent.  Comstock's
equation of obscenity with unorthodoxy of any sort became apparent in his
first arrest of D.M. Bennett in November 1877.  At issue was Bennett's
publication of his "Open Letter to Jesus Christ" and of Arthur Bradford's
_How do Marsupials Propagate their Kind_.  The "dangers" posed by the former
had nothing to do with pornography or obscenity and Bennett's arrest for the
latter certainly raised serious questions about what Comstock and other
Federal agents found titillating.

More famously, at the time, Comstock arrested Heywood as the author and
publisher of a tract on human love, humorously named _Cupid's Yokes_.
Opossum lusts aside, Heywood's tract sought to convey birth control
information and included information where to obtain devices useful for
having sex without serious risk of, as they say, "issue."
Bennett and others argued public meetings and petitioning campaigns on his
behalf, while Ingersoll and others pleaded behind the scenes to encourage
the newly seated President Hayes to pardon Heywood.  This the president did,
but without undercutting the idea and motives behind the Comstock Laws.

However, Comstock not only refused to accept defeat on Heywood but had
focused clearly on Bennett, the editor of the most prominent freethinkers'
publication in the country.  In August 1878, Bennett offered copies for sale
of Heywood's _Cupid's Yokes_, resulting in a second arrest, followed by a
third in December.  In the end, Comstock not only imprisoned both Bennett
and Heywood, but arrested a succession of figures whose work had been
anything but obscene, including, much later, Margaret Sanger, the feminist
promoter of sex education and birth control.

Moreover, President Hayes had gained nothing politically by his pardon of
Heywood.  Getting out of prison an unjustly convicted radical writer could
not counterbalance the fact that Hayes had pulled the last of the Federal
troops out of the former Confederacy, and sent the U.S. army instead against
the railroad strikers.  Treating these as purely political decisions, an
administration that pardoned one man for having written a book, sent to
prison another for having sold it.

DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett languished in prison from June 1879 into April
1880, serving eleven of his thirteen-month sentence.  The editor emerged a
martyr to freedom of thought in a country that professed it, even as it
demonstrated greater intolerance than many European nations.  Like Heywood,
Moses Harmon and some of the other political prisoners of Victorian America,
Bennett never actually recovered his health after prison.

After his release, Bennett represented America's self-described "infidels"
at the 1880 international congress in Belgium. A genuine cosmopolitan,
Bennett took to international travel very quickly, and planned what amounted
to a world tour the following year.  He returned from Japan in May 1882 and
seemed to have started his decline with a cold that fall.  Bennett was dead
by December, and his admirers buried him in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery,
commemorated by a large monument.

To the end of his life, Bennett remained a seeker after truth.  Bradford's
book hinted that Bennett's unorthodox views extended to his assumption of
human equality and, more explicitly, to an ecumenical world view.  He
associated with black radicals such as Frederick Douglass, and defended the
presence of the Chinese in America.  Always sympathetic to spiritualism,
Bennett also became personally interested in Buddhism and Theosophy.  In the
1880s, his successors hired a Hindu compositor, who also wrote for the
paper, confronting and challenging the chauvinistic assumptions of American
Missionary groups.   However, this respect for universal humanity was no
more unique than Bennett's freethought.

Since readers will take different things from Bradford's book, depending on
their interest, it seems only fair that this reviewer point out how the book
rightly emphasizes the continuities rather than the discontinuities of
radicalism in the United States. Those knowledgeable about antebellum
radical movements will find a number of familiar names in _D.M. Bennett, The
Truth Seeker_, including, among others: Stephen P. Andrews, Theron C.
Leland, Ernestine L. Rose, and Lucy N. Coleman.   Bennett's circle included
numerous contemporaries better known in other contexts, such as Susan B.
Anthony, and George Francis Train.

Persons of real importance to the later history of the working class Left
are mentioned repeatedly in association with Bennet.  There is the
printer-turned-doctor Edward Bliss Foote and his son, Dr. Edward Bond Foote,
the latter later prominent in fund-raising for the free speech fights of the
Industrial Workers of the World.  When they visited the U.S., Edward
Averling and Eleanor Marx visited the _Truth Seeker_.  Contemporary
socialists included Charles Sotheran, Albert L. Rawson, Edwin Cox Walker, as
well as Moses Hull and Benjamin F. Underwood, who became identified with the
socialists later in the century.  After the turn of the century, Bennett's
old publication also became an important vehicle for the writings of Louis
C. Fraina ("Lewis Corey"), a founding member of the Communist Party.

Rod Bradford's purpose in _D.M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker_ was less to argue
a particular thesis than to call attention to the neglect of freethought in
the study of American religion and culture and to place the neglected record
of an important figure before his readers, both a singular example of
resistance to contemporary Christian jihad on secular values.  In these, he
has succeeded very well.

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