The Free Love Movement and Radical Individualism in the 19th Century
By Wendy McElroy
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
Free love was the movement which sought to separate the state from sexual matters such as marriage, birth control, and adultery. It insisted that such matters were properly the concern of the individuals involved, and no one else.
The relationship between radicalism individualism and free love was similar to that between individualism and freethought. Free love advocates, who sometimes traced their roots back to Josiah Warren and to experimental communities, viewed sexual freedom as a clear, direct expression of an individual's self-ownership. Free love particularly stressed women's rights since most sexual laws discriminated against women: for example, marriage laws and anti-birth control measures. Although Tucker agreed with the goals of free love, significant differences of strategy distanced him from that movement as a whole. The free love movement, for example, tended to use civil disobedience as well as education.
The free love periodical with which Tucker was most closely associated was Ezra and Angela Heywood's The Word (1872-1890, 1892-1893), issued first from Princeton and then from Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the Civil War, the abolitionist Ezra Heywood had turned his attention toward the labor movement and, eventually, toward free love. The Heywoods' The Word -- subtitled "A Monthly Journal of Reform," -- was connected to radical individualism both through its editors and through its contributors, who included Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker, and J.K. Ingalls. Initially, The Word presented free love as a minor theme which expressed within a dominant labor reform format. But the publication later evolved into an explicitly free love periodical. Its prospectus (1872) exemplified the nineteenth century individualist blending of civil liberties with the labor theory of value:
"THE WORD favors the abolition of speculative income, of woman's slavery, and war government; regards all claims to property not founded on a labor title as morally void..."
Through his association with Ezra Heywood and The Word, Tucker acquired much of the background from which Liberty sprang. In April 1875, he became an associate editor of The Word, but as the paper de-emphasized economics to stress free love he grew dissatisfied. Finally, Tucker resigned in December 1876 and established the Radical Review, a quarterly that published Stephen Pearl Andrews, Heywood, Ingalls, Greene, and Spooner.
It is probable that Tucker's long-term friendship with freethinker and individualist-anarchist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) began during the Radical Review. Tucker's admiration for Spooner was immense. One of the most moving articles to appear in Liberty was Tucker's eulogy to his deceased friend entitled "Our Nestor Taken From Us." In it, Tucker described the elderly Spooner on one of his daily visits to the Boston Library:
"Had the old man chanced to raise his head for a moment, the visitor would have seen, framed in long and snowy hair and beard, one of the finest, kindliest, sweetest, strongest, grandest faces that ever gladdened the eyes of man. But however impressed by the sight, few realized that they had been privileged with a view of one whose towering strength of intellect, whose sincerity and singleness of purpose, and whose frank and loving heart would endear him to generations to come ..."
In contrast, Tucker's relationship with Heywood grew more distant. Yet, when Heywood was imprisoned for his pro-birth control stand from August to December 1878 under the Comstock laws,Tucker abandoned the Radical Review in order to assume editorship of Heywood's The Word. After Heywood's release from prison, The Word openly became a free love journal; it flouted the law by printing birth control material and openly discussing sexual matters. Tucker's disapproval of this policy stemmed from his conviction that "Liberty, to be effective, must find its first application in the realm of economics, and nowhere has that view been emphasized more continually than in this journal."
This difference of emphasis did not prevent Heywood from welcoming Tucker's Liberty into the radical individualist movement. In response to the first issue, Heywood wrote:
"Liberty is intelligent and vigorous, has opinions, character and will command attention from its first issue; a bright, smart, timely journal to which live people will find it unsafe not to subscribe."
Another free love influence was the notorious Victoria Woodhull who edited the Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly with her sister Tennessee Claflin. Tucker and Woodhull became acquainted when town authorities tried to prevent her from lecturing on "The Principles of Social Freedom" and Tucker, among others, came to her defense. Literally seduced by Woodhull, he joined the circle of male admirers surrounding her. He traveled to Europe with her, but became disillusioned, presumably upon discovering that lectures and articles bearing her name were ghost written, often by the individualist Stephen Pearl Andrews.
The most important American free love journal was Lucifer the Light Bearer (1883-1907) edited by Moses Harman first from Valley Falls, Kansas, then from Topeka (1890), and finally from Chicago (1896). Tucker's relationship with Lucifer started well. At one point, he exclaimed:
"I say, Messrs. Harman and Walker, editors of 'Lucifer,' I wish you wouldn't make absolutely every number of your paper so good and true and live and keen and consistently radical ... since your advent, you have kept me in a state of perpetual doubt and anxiety lest Liberty's light be dimmed by Lucifer's. In mercy's name, let up a little, and give a toiling torch-bearer an occasional chance to recuperate."
Gradually, however, the relationship between the two periodicals became strained over disagreements which largely revolved around the question of what was the proper strategy in advancing liberty.
Tucker became increasingly hostile to civil disobedience as a strategy. Early in Liberty's history, Tucker had been so outraged by the post office's refusal to carry Walt Whitman's book of poems Leaves of Grass due to its alleged obscenity that he published his own edition and flaunted its sale. Addressing the post office and District Attorney Stevens, Tucker wrote:
"You are hereby distinctly notified -- all of you in general, and you, Oliver Stevens, in particular that I have now in my possession, and do now offer for sale, copies ... Yours, disrespectfully."
But gradually, Tucker's attitude changed and he became firmly committed to the strategy of education rather than civil disobedience, especially when that disobedience was likely to guarantee martyrdom or more stringent and repressive laws. With the Chicago Haymarket incident (May 4, 1886) and the hysterical repression of radicalism which followed it, Tucker observed first-hand the disastrous consequences of a rash act and concluded that the cost outweighed any benefit.
In contrast, Harman's Lucifer pursued a consistent long term policy of baiting the law, particularly the Comstock postal obscenity law. Harman established an "open word" rule for Lucifer whereby no contributions would be edited because of explicit language. Accordingly, Lucifer published the Markland letter which analyzed forced sex within marriage as rape and graphically described the plight of a woman whose life was imperiled by her husband's refusal to leave her alone after an medical operation.
For this and two other letters, the staff of Lucifer were jointly and separately charged with 270 counts of obscenity; subsequently, the charges were dropped against all but Harman. The rebellious acts of which Tucker disapproved were exemplified by Harman's reprinting of Genesis 38 within Lucifer while he was awaiting trial. By reprinting this portion of the Bible depicting Onan's coitus interruptus and adultery, Harman tried unsuccessfully to goad the court into declaring the Bible obscene. Moses Harman was imprisoned for the Markland letter. This was the first of a series of imprisonments for obscenity; he suffered through the last imprisonment of one year at hard labor when he was in his seventies.
Many individualists rushed to support Harman. Most notably, Ezra Heywood republished one of the offending articles from Lucifer and was also arrested for doing so. Tucker did not feel able to support Harman with enthusiasm. However, he decried the injustice of Harman's imprisonment and solicited money for the Harman Defense Fund, which originated in and was advertised by Liberty. "Obscene or not," Tucker declared, "it was Mr. Harman's right to print it ..." Nevertheless, Tucker continued by observing that "to precipitate a struggle on the issue of liberty to print the most extreme obscenity and suffer defeat on it, would be to lay a foundation for more serious invasions of the liberty of printing that would be likely to interfere with the achievement of economic liberty." Tucker believed that Harman's rash actions imperiled the freedom of radicals to discuss anarchism and economic reform, which were two far more important issues than the freedom of sexual expression.
A number of Liberty's contributors were quite critical of Tucker for this stand on strategy. A.H. Simpson wrote an article which concluded: "I shall be sorry and disappointed if I do not hear of your sallying forth to the aid of any comrade, who makes a clear fight for liberty, whether he be rash or timid." This was one of the few occasions upon which Tucker's position on an important matter was not in the mainstream of the though of individualist anarchism.
An earlier incident had also created distance between Harman's and Tucker's periodicals. The non-state, non-church wedding of E.C. Walker and Lillian Harman (Moses Harman's sixteen year old daughter) resulted in the couple's imprisonment. Their union had been an explicit test of the marriage laws, and Tucker firmly disagreed with the tactic. He later offered Harman an ambiguous apology: "I wish my readers to learn that I have done the 'Lucifer' people great injustice in underrating their intellectual capacities and cleanness of perception and in making out that they fail to understand the absurdity of their position ..." The "apology" was not well received.
The relationship between E. C. Walker and Tucker improved with time, perhaps because Walker also disagreed with Harman's "open word" policy. Walker resigned from Lucifer and used his new periodical Fair Play, a four page weekly at 75 cents per year, to attack what he perceived to be Lucifer's determined martyrdom. Although E.C. Walker continued contributing to Lucifer, it is significant that when Fair Play ceased (1891) he transferred the current subscriptions to Liberty.
"A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner."
A Juror's Creed: As an American juror, I will exercise my 1000 year old duty to arrive at a verdict, not just on the basis of the facts of a particular case or instructions I am given, but through my ability to reason, my knowledge of the Bill of Rights, and my individual conscience.
-- L. Neil Smith
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