"The Family in America"    Online Edition    [SwanSearch] 

Volume 23  Number 01


1st Quarter 2009



* This article will be a chapter in a forthcoming book which examines how American evangelical Protestants have responded over time to the birth control issue.  Allan Carlson is president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Political Science and History at Hillsdale College.

The only effective laws suppressing birth control information and devices in American history were pure products of evangelical Protestant fervor; nary a single Roman Catholic was involved.  In key respects, these measures were actually the construct of one man:  Anthony Comstock, a son of Connecticut, the last and—in a certain respect—the greatest of the Puritans.  He won passage of a sweeping federal measure that banned nationwide the import, sale, and distribution of contraceptive devices or information; another 24 state laws that effectively banned their possession or use: and judicial determinations that spread similar provisions to still another 22 states.  Adopted mostly during the 1870’s, none of these measures had been either repealed or significantly amended prior to his death in 1915; some residual aspects of the federal “Comstock Law” survive to this day.

Comstock’s foes commonly spoke in fulminations.  His “free love” contemporary D.M. Bennett called Comstock “a first-class Torquemada” who had shown “the same energy, the same cruelty, [and] the same intolerance” of “the envenomed persecutors of the past centuries.”  Bennett continued:  “He has evinced far too much pleasure in bringing his fellow beings into the deepest sorrow and grief,” and added:  “It is seriously doubted whether the church has ever had a cruel zealot in its employ who has labored with more resolution and zest than this active agent of the Young Men’s Christian Association.”[1]  Another “free love” advocate, Ezra Hervey Heywood, called Comstock “a religio-monomaniac” whom the United States Congress and “the lascivious fanaticism of the Young Men’s Christian Association” had empowered to suppress free thought.[2]

More recently, literary historian Robert Bremner places Comstock as a featured exhibit in his supposed “national rogues’ gallery of reformers.”[3]  Biographers Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech, while not without a certain sympathy toward their subject, find Comstock to be “naïve beyond all other” late 19th Century reformers.  Reflecting the worldview of a more sophisticated America, they are amused by:  his effort to shut down Turkish belly-dancing and “hootchie-coochie” shows at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; his attempted suppression of George Bernard Shaw’s play on prostitution, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (which led the British playwright to label “Comstockery...the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States”); his denunciation of art “which had been exhibited in the Saloons [sic] of Paris”; and his dismissal of French and Italian novels as “little better than histories of brothels and prostitutes in these lust-cursed nations.”[4]  Historian Paul Boyer finds Comstock to be “devoid of humor, lustful after publicity, and vastly ignorant.”[5] 

Even Comstock’s political “descendants” in contemporary America, the socially conservative Religious Right, are either oblivious to or somewhat contemptuous of his legacy.  This author’s own rough survey of a dozen contemporary pro-family leaders found not a one who had even heard of Anthony Comstock.  Journalist Marvin Olasky, reputed architect of President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” does briefly describe Comstock’s work in his pro-life history of abortion in America.  While the moral reformer supervised the arrest and conviction of over 90 abortionists during the 1870’s and the successful suppression of the trade in New York City, Olasky is unimpressed, complaining that the Comstock laws “unwisely included contraceptive information and devices on its forbidden list.”[6]

Who was Anthony Comstock?

The Flower of Puritanism

Biographers Broun and Leech are correct that Comstock was a man not really born for the late Nineteenth Century.  Living out of time, “[h]e was the apotheosis, the fine flower of Puritanism.”  They elaborate:

No other person connected with the cause of purity was so forthright, so colorful, so extravagant and fanatical.  The square energetic figure, the passionate, whiskered face—here, at least, was a symbol, a caricature, a physical embodiment of the entire cause of purity and puritanism.[7]

Comstock was a product of Connecticut.  During the 1840’s, this state still held the reputation of being the most socially conservative and religiously orthodox corner of the land.  Born March 7, 1844, in the village of New Canaan, Comstock claimed Puritan ancestry on both sides of his family, the first of whom had arrived in America in 1661.  His father Thomas was a successful farmer, owning 160 acres and two saw-mills, with 30 employees.  His mother—Polly Lockwood Comstock—was the real influence in his life.  Bearing ten children (seven of whom survived to adulthood), she reared them in the stern Puritan faith most recently invigorated by the spiritual enthusiasms of the Second Great Awakening.  While Polly Comstock died when Anthony was age ten, her Bible readings, morality tales, prayer life, and frequent church attendance profoundly shaped his character.  Over a half-century later, Comstock would tell an interviewer that the “whole purpose of his life” had been to honor the memory of his mother.[8]

Young Comstock attended the district school near his farm and then enrolled in the New Academy run by the New Canaan Congregational Church.  Here, he learned something of writing (he went on to author several popular books and numerous articles, although spelling would be a lifelong problem) and gained his frame of reference, his vocabulary, and his perception of duty.  Commenting on his Church’s 150th anniversary, Comstock explained:  “I carried into my daily life the lessons I learned here, and if I have accomplished anything in the cause of moral purity..., it is because I have...been true to the principles taught me here.”[9]  His faith was indeed strong.  Common to him were the sentiments he recorded in his diary in Spring 1863, then age 19:  “One of the sweetest days of my life, so near to Jesus.... Not myself, not a whit, but all, all in Christ.  His grace shed abroad in my heart.  O to praise him with a pure heart in Spirit and Truth.”[10]

Shortly thereafter, Comstock’s older brother Samuel died from wounds received at Gettysburg, and Anthony felt duty-bound to enlist in his place in the Seventeenth Connecticut Regiment.  He mostly saw occupation duty in a peaceful corner of Florida.  Appalled by “the oaths of wicked men” heard in the barracks, he recruited a circle of about 25 young soldiers who took a contrary oath that “they would not swear, drink, nor chew tobacco while we were in the army.”  Comstock became a sort of volunteer chaplain and recruited nearby clergymen to preach to his group.  He attended four to nine such services a week.  He also taught newly freed slaves how to read and spell[!].  Comstock’s lack of compassion for public sinners showed as he poured his whiskey and rum rations on the ground before his drinking comrades-in-arms.  His diary entries from this time reveal a young man struggling with his own temptations:  “If I could but live without sin, I should be the happiest soul living:  but Sin, that foe is ever lurking, stealing happiness from me.”  During the last few months of his enlistment, Comstock became an agent of the Christian Commission, a ministry to the military organized by the new and ambitious Young Men’s Christian Association.[11]

Down at the YMCA

The years immediately following the Civil War were in their own way harrowing and disturbing, nowhere moreso than in New York.  Memories of that city’s anti-draft riots of July 1863 were still vivid, when mobs roamed the streets, sacked homes, stores, and armories, and killed eighteen people.  Only the dispatch of federal troops and the deaths of 400 rioters finally brought some order.  City authorities faced the “dreadful revelations” that “a great, ignorant, irresponsible class” and “the fires of a social revolution” lay “just beneath their feet.”[12]

More broadly, the late 1860’s launched the reign of the Robber Barons within a web of rampant financial speculation; the emergence of female emancipation, personified in New York by the “wild” sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, who managed to combine stock speculation, socialism, spiritualism, and free love; widespread political corruption, seen in New York’s Boss Tweed ring and Tammany Hall; political scandals such as the Credit Mobilier affair; justice for sale, via bribe-taking police and judges; and a veritable explosion in the number of New York saloons, gambling halls (2,000 and climbing by 1870), and houses of prostitution.  As Margaret Leech has ably summarized:  “Social behavior, notoriously lax in the years succeeding war, dissolved in the easy warmth of plentiful money.  All that was vulgar in the Republic, all that was raw and crude, rose to the surface and floated there.”[13]

At the religious level, evangelical Christians faced fresh challenges as well, notably the fundamental theological problems posed by Charles Darwin and by the new historicist critics of the Bible.  All the same, the strong currents of the Second Great Awakening, launched from Yale Divinity School around 1800, continued to flow.  The number of church edifices was 38,183 in 1850; by 1890, 142,521, an increase of 272 percent.  Church membership and attendance figures also soared.  Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey, fresh from unanticipated success in Great Britain, brought their Revival Crusade back to America in 1873; Moody explained:  “I do not know of anything that America needs more today than men and women on fire with the fire of heaven.”  Millions responded.[14]

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) “was in the vanguard of the ‘evangelical empire’ in an increasingly Christian America.”[15]  Across the country, religious societies or parachurches were mushrooming, all seeking to carry the Gospel from the churches into the streets.  Among these Christian Industrial Clubs, Magdalen Homes, Purity Alliances, Reserve Midnight Missions, White Cross Clubs, Salvation Armies, and temperance societies, the YMCA and its sister, Young Women’s Christian Association, stood out as “prestigious organizations for directing the evangelistic fervor.”[16]  Launched in London in 1844, the first American YMCA organized in Boston in 1851; the New York branch came a year later.

The YMCA’s core task was to save the young males pouring into the cities from the “traps of immorality” awaiting them.  In 1866, the New York YMCA issued a report on that city, “As a Field for Moral and Christian Effort Among Young Men.”  As of 1860, males aged 15-40 formed 46 percent of New York’s population.  “Many are utter strangers from the country and Europe,” while employers no longer looked after “the social and moral interests of young men”; they “are consequently led to frequent saloons and like places, where they are exposed to the most contaminating influences.”  The YMCA report precisely counted 3,417 female prostitutes in the city (many disguised as “pretty waiter girls”), 653 billiard tables in the saloons, and bar rooms serving 600 barrels of beer a day.  Turning to “Obscene Books and Papers,” it continued:

The traffic in these is most extensive.  They are to be obtained at very many newspaper stands....[A]t one place, on a principal thoroughfare, there are openly exposed for sale two vile weekly newspapers, which can be purchased at ten cents a copy, and more than fifty kinds of licentious books, each one illustrated by one or two cuts... [T]he proprietor will [also] show [an interested buyer] a catalogue of a large number much more vulgar and atrocious, illustrated with the most obscene cuts....  The debasing influence of these publications on young men cannot be overestimated:  they are the feeder of brothels.[17]

In response, the YMCA sent lobbyists to Albany in 1866, seeking a state law for “the suppression of obscene literature.”  Two years later, such a bill passed.  However, convictions were few, and by 1871, “the traffic was more open than ever.”[18]

Into this situation stepped Anthony Comstock.  His family farm in Connecticut had been lost in the war; and his father had remarried.  Comstock moved to Tennessee and worked for a time as a construction superintendent at Lookout Mountain.  Disliking the trade, in 1866 he joined the flow of war veterans into New York City.  He took a job as a porter for Ammidon, Lane & Co., a dry goods establishment, earning $12 a week.  Later, he became a clerk.  In these early months, he spent many lonely evenings, fearing “for his soul, and for the souls of the young men he boarded with.”  He soon joined the YMCA, finding direction in its lectures and pamphlets.  Two years later, he attended a lecture on obscene literature and left very disturbed.[19]

Comstock’s early arrests as a “volunteer detective” set a pattern for his later life.  His first action took place in 1868, apparently after a friend of his had purchased a pornographic book, visited a brothel, and contracted a venereal disease.  Comstock blamed the original book merchant, Charles Conroy.  He tracked him down, made a citizen’s arrest, and turned him over to the police.[20]  Several years later, he launched a successful campaign against two saloons in his neighborhood that openly violated the Sunday closing law.  Lending him legal and financial support were Mr. and Mrs. H.B. Spelman, prominent New Yorkers whose daughter would later marry a Rockefeller.  Comstock wrote in his diary:  “They both seem so earnest....  Give me a man who dares to do right and one ready at all times to discharge his duty to the community and to God.”[21]  Throughout his career, Comstock skillfully recruited such wealthy and influential backers.

In January 1871, Comstock married Margaret Hamilton, daughter of a Presbyterian elder whose business had failed.  At age 36, she was ten years his senior.  “Maggie” nonetheless filled him with joy.  “O so bright, so sweet,” he confided in his diary.  “O let me consecrate myself to the one who has bestowed all this upon me.  Let my home, my all, be his....  It is so bright and sweet now to live.”[22]  In December, Maggie bore a daughter, Lillie; the baby died the following summer.  “The Lord’s will be done,” Comstock wrote on the night of her death.  They had no other natural children.  However, Comstock and Maggie did soon after adopt a newborn found beside its dying mother in a Chinatown tenement.  Named Adele, Comstock’s chief biographers report (in strangely uncharitable words) that she “was never very bright.  She grew into a straggling, subnormal child.”  (Shortly after Comstock’s death, a judge placed Adele—now age 43—in an institution.)[23]  During the first years of their marriage, the Comstocks lived in a house in Brooklyn.  Later, joined by Maggie’s invalid sister, the family moved to a New Jersey suburb.

In early 1872, Comstock sought to expand his volunteer work for the YMCA.  He wrote a clumsy letter to YMCA Secretary Robert McBurney, describing his own take on the horrors of the trade in obscene books and materials in New York, and asking for the organization’s help in suppressing this business.  McBurney sent the letter back to Comstock, asking that it be rewritten.  Meanwhile, the YMCA’s new President Morris K. Jesup had seen the letter on McBurney’s desk.  Intrigued by Comstock’s spirit, Jesup visited the young man in the store where he worked.  A more thorough interview took place in Jesup’s Madison Avenue mansion.  Comstock’s career as a Christian warrior against all forms of vice, including most especially contraception, would soon commence.[24]

Obscenity and Contraception

Historian Nicola Beisel correctly argues that Comstock’s intellectual and political achievement “was to link abortion and contraception to the availability of obscene literature in city streets.”[25]  Countless observers have pointed to both aspects of this linkage—abortion equals contraception and both acts equal obscenity—as naïve, foolish, and the product of raw ignorance.  In truth, Comstock’s views on contraception were framed by his sense of the dangers facing children and by his own psychology of the human mind; and they enjoyed the full support of a new and progressive American medical leadership.

In Comstock’s mind, all his work focused on the protection of the young.  As he explained to his colleagues, children were the Devil’s first target:  “We have been assigned by the Great Commander to constantly face some of the most insidious and deadly forces of evil that Satan is persistently aligning against the integrity of the children of the present age.”[26]  In defending his “sting”-like detective practices before a hostile judge, Comstock declared that “my integrity is an essential element in the success of the defence of the twenty millions of children in this country from the moral ‘cancer planters’....”[27]  Writing for the North American Review, Comstock reiterated the number of children at risk:  “upwards of twenty million of youth and children are in the plastic, or receptive state, open to every insidious teacher, and subject to every bad influence—a period of life when character is forming.”[28]

Indeed, while using different language, Comstock would have agreed with contemporary theorists about the addictive nature of pornography, particularly when introduced to the young.  As Comstock wrote in 1880:  “The susceptible mind of the boy receives impressions that set on fire his whole nature.  His imagination is perverted.  A black stain is fixed indeliably upon it, and conscience, once a faithful monitor, is now seared and silenced.”[29]  Later, he elaborated:

In the heart of every child there is a chamber of imagery, memory’s storehouse, the commissary department in which is received, stored up and held in reserve every good or evil influence for future requisition....

If you allow the devil to decorate the Chamber of Imagery in your heart with licentiousness and sensual things, you will find that he has practically thrown a noose about your neck and will forever exert himself to draw you away from the ‘Lamb of God which taketh away sins of the world.’

If you open the door to anything, the filth will all pour in and the degradation of youth will follow.[30]

Comstock reported how one obscene book, “in thirty-six hours after it had been delivered in a sealed package from the mails to a boy to whom it had been sent, was found to have passed through thirteen different boys’ hands,” so doing “its work of destruction and defilement.”[31]  The suppression of this trade, he argued, must be thorough and complete.

It is important to note that the post-1865 surge in obscene materials was driven in large part by new technologies—notably photography and vulcanized rubber—which entrepreneurs in the sex trade quickly exploited.  Were these items truly pornographic?  Historian Richard C. Johnson says “yes”:  “the vast majority of the materials which [Comstock] found were...specifically and without question designed to take commercial advantage of pruience.”[32]  A more authoritative answer comes from James Petersen, a longtime editor of Playboy and author of that magazine’s “history of the Sexual Revolution,” entitled A Century of Sex.  He writes:  “Comstock never described the objects he suppressed, but some pictures survive.  Even today these postcards have the power to arouse.”  Among others, Petersen describes “a series from San Juan” which shows a bemused nude woman in a straw hat aiming a stars-and-stripes “rubber object” at her male partner.[33]

All the same, Comstock’s linkages of obscenity to birth control and of birth control to abortion seem to modern minds unclear and disjointed.  Broun and Leech note that “[i]n no cause did he show a more passionate zeal than in the fight against the purveyors of contraceptive remedies or devices.”[34]  And yet, there is little evidence that other leaders in the anti-obscenity campaign shared the same animus, beyond a vague association between obscene books and improper devices.  Comstock, in historian Janet Brodie’s words, was clearly “hostile to abortion and the prevention of conception, and it was largely his focused energy that secured the criminalization of reproductive control” at both the federal and state levels.  She goes on to suggest that Comstock’s own near-childlessness had a psychodynamic effect, creating “hostility toward women who could bear children but chose not to.”[35]  While this may have been a factor, simpler and more direct explanations also exist.  What were Anthony Comstock’s beliefs regarding contraception?

To begin with, Comstock had at least a rough sense of a natural law that encompassed human sexuality.  In chiding a young female journalist for seeking a decriminalization of contraception, Comstock appealed to “Nature’s law.”  He added:

The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization.  God has set certain natural barriers.  If you turn loose the passions and break down the fear you bring...disaster....  It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women, and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.[36]

Second, his own practical experience showed that dealers in obscene books and prints also commonly sold contraceptives and abortifacients.  As he wrote about one of his early arrests for the YMCA, pornographic books “were publicly advertised and sold in connection with articles for producing abortion, prevention of conception, articles to aid seductions, and for indiscrete and immoral purposes.”[37]  Other early arrests involved a mix of printed items together with immoral “rubber goods” [this phrase encompassed masturbation aids and early condoms and diaphragms] and syringes for abortion.[38]  Comstock and his allies also associated contraception with prostitution because such pleasure houses frequently sold birth control potions and devices on the side.[39] 

Third, Comstock believed that the availability of contraceptives encouraged immoral behavior.  In an early report to his backers, Comstock explained how obscene words and pictures were tied to birth control and promiscuity.  Such literature, he said, was “cunningly calculated to inflame the passions and lead the victims from one step of vice to another, ending in utmost lust.”  With victims “polluted in thought and imagination,... the authors of their debasement [then] present a variety of implements by the aid of which they promise them the practice of licentiousness without its direful consequences.”[40]  Birth control allowed the despoilers of the innocents “to minister to the most degrading appetites” and “conceal the crime which may be contemplated or per chance already committed.”[41]

Finally, Comstock linked abortion and contraception together for the common danger they posed to women’s health.  In this view, Comstock actually stood in solidarity with the cutting-edge medical authorities of his day.

During these years, the ancient practice of midwifery was giving way to the modern discipline of gynaecology.  A key figure in this transition was D. Humphreys Storer, MD, Professor of Midwifery at Harvard University.  In 1855, he gave the Introductory Lecture to the new Medical Class at Harvard.  Entitled “Two Frequent Causes of Uterine Disease,” he pointed first to the growing practice among new brides of turning “to means, readily procurable, to destroy the life within her.”  Storer underscored “the probability of there being increased detriments and irretrievable harm” to the woman’s own body.  The second cause of an upswing in uterine disease, he reported, was “the means so extensively employed to prevent conception.”  While some doctors who rejected abortion accepted contraception, Storer insisted that interference of any sort with the sexual act would produce trouble:  “If...the operations of nature are interrupted, different results must follow....  [N]umberless cases of induration, and finally of organic disease, must be the inevitable consequences.”[42]

For unclear reasons, Harvard suppressed publication of the lecture for fifteen years.  However, Storer’s son, Horatio Robinson Storer, MD, kept the issue alive.  He played a key role in guiding the American Medical Association [AMA] to a fresh condemnation of abortion, except to save a mother’s life.  In his prize-winning 1865 AMA essay, “The Criminality and Physical Evils of Forced Abortions,” the younger Storer also concluded:  “Intentionally to prevent the occurrence of pregnancy, otherwise than by total abstinence from coition, intentionally to bring it, when begun, to a premature close, are alike disastrous to a woman’s mental, moral, and physical well-being.”[43]

A year later, E.M. Buckingham, MD, writing in The Cincinnati Lancet and Observer, added his voice:  “The evil results of the whole system of avoiding offspring in the married state are so palpable and so gross, that one can scarcely find language strong enough to denounce it in suitable manner.”  He cited the “catalogue of the female diseases” caused by these practices.[44]

These architects of modern gynaecology received important support from two major works published in 1870.  In Conjugal Sins, Augustus K. Gardner—Professor of Diseases of Females and Clinical Midwifery at New York Medical College—asserted that “Local congestions, nervous affections and debilities are the direct and indisputable results of coitus imperfecti....”  Whenever contraceptives were used, “sexual congress is thus rendered but a species of self-abuse.”  Gardner concluded:  “Inquiry of any gynecologist will convince the most skeptical that the general employment of any means for the prevention of conception is fraught with injury to the female certainly, if not to the other sex also.”[45]  In The Preventive Obstacle, or Conjugal Onanism, the French physician L.F.E. Bergeret used a lifetime of clinical work to conclude that “Genesiac frauds [contraception] may provoke in [the woman] diseases of the genital organ, from simple inflammation to the most serious degenerations.”  Regarding uterine cancer, for example, he reported that “[w]hen I review in my memory all the cases of cancers of the womb which have come under my observation, I do not really recall one which was not preceded by sexual frauds [another term for birth control].”  Blurring distinctions still more, Bergeret declared that “[e]very fraud is an indirect infanticide; a germ lost and made unproductive.”[46]

Despite his dismal reports, Bergeret refused to despair.  He doubted that ancient morals had been any better than those of modern times.  Indeed, “[m]orals have undoubtedly improved with time; but there remain some ancient errors to reform.”  He called on all physicians to proclaim “that man cannot with impunity transgress that great behest of nature, that imperative law presiding over the propagation of the human race...:  ‘Crescite et multiplicamini’ [be fruitful and multiply].”[47]  In short, Comstock could see his own suppression of contraceptives as an act in line with the very best medical advice, for the protection of women’s health, and as an expression of future hope.

What was Comstock’s alternative to birth control for persons facing the “hard cases”?  His answer was simple:  “Can they not use self-control?  Or must they sink to the level of the beasts?”[48]  And in truth, this had been the orthodox Christian answer for about 1800 years.

The Consummate Advocate

From the initiation of his legislation through its passage and implementation, Comstock provides a textbook example of successful policymaking by a non-legislator; or better put, of highly effective lobbying.  By comparison, today’s socially conservative Religious Right has largely failed.  Why did he succeed?

To begin with, Comstock was larger than life:  a figure right out of the “dime novels” of his era that he deplored, a stirring champion of virtue against a terrible enemy.  He was physically imposing, one biographer describing him as having “Atlas shoulders of enormous breadth and squareness,” a “chest of prodigious girth surmounted by a bull-like neck,” and short legs that “remind[ed] one somewhat of tree trunks.”  Throw in his signature mutton-chop whiskers, and you have a mythic physique.[49]  Comstock employed colorful language in describing his foes and their work:  “pathways of lust,” “abortionists’ pimps,” “putrifying sores,” “diabolical trash,” and “jackals.”[50]  And he was a leader.  “Even among the righteous, zealots are few,” note Broun and Leech.  “But Comstock’s burning words kindled fires of righteous indignation.”[51]

As a leader, Comstock also believed in personal action and responsibility.  He was directly involved in almost every legal case brought under the federal and New York State Comstock laws:  from investigation through arrest to witness for the prosecution.  His office blotter can be found in the Library of Congress.  Numerous notations simply read:  “No warrant.  Arrested by Comstock in the act of violating the law.”[52] 

Two early actions on behalf of the YMCA show both his honesty and relentlessness.  Using detective methods, Comstock had identified four New York publishers largely responsible for all of the obscene books to be found in the city.  Titles included The Adventures of a French Bedstead, Lord K’s Rapes and Seductions, and Peeps into the Boraglio.  Comstock personally arrested the four in a single day; before being caught, one malefactor had sent a note to another:  “Get out of the way.  Comstock is after you.  Damn fool won’t look at money.”[53]  In a letter to his chief Congressional patron, Clinton L. Merriam, Comstock reported the results:

There was one year ago published in and about New York and vicinity one hundred and forty four different obscene books.  I have seized the stereotype plates, steel and copper plate engravings, & c for one hundred and forty-two of these books.  There were four publishers on the 2d of last March, today three are in their graves, and it is charged by their friends that I worried them to death.  Be that as it may, I am sure the world is better without them.[54]

The same qualities could be seen in his arrest of Madame Restell, the purveyor of abortions to New York’s rich and famous.  Said to have accumulated a fortune of $1.5 million, the 66-year-old woman lived in a prominent Fifth Avenue mansion.  Comstock came to her home, posing as a man who had impregnated his lover.  After Madame Restell sold him an abortion potion, he arrested her.  She offered him $40,000 to forget the matter, a huge sum for the time.  He refused the bribe.  Comstock’s notes on the case tell the result:  “[Restell] committed suicide by cutting her throat [the] morning of trial.  A bloody ending to a bloody life.”[55]

Comstock’s success also came from his single-minded focus on protecting the young from vice.  For example, he never entered into the anti-socialist agitation of his time, something that would certainly have endeared him to his wealthy supporters.  And while personally a non-drinker, Comstock had little to do with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and its crusade for prohibition.  As one WCTU leader complained:  “The trouble with Mr. Comstock is that he thinks no one has a right to work for social purity without first obtaining permission from him.”[56]

Many 20th Century accounts of Anthony Comstock cast his anti-obscenity laws as strange flukes or accidents of the legislative process, adopted against the will of the people.[57]  In truth, he should be seen as the point man for a powerful group of backers, evangelicals all, who repeatedly encouraged his work.

Following on its 1866 report, and in response to Comstock’s urging, the New York YMCA created a secret Committee for the Suppression of Vice in March 1872.[58]  The key mover here was Morris K. Jesup, the young YMCA president who was also accumulating a fortune as a merchant, banker, and railroad financier.  Jesup shared a background with Comstock.  Born into a devout Congregationalist home in small town Connecticut, Jesup too had lost a parent when young.  In later years, he became president of the New York State Chamber of Commerce, a key mover in preservation of the Adirondacks, and the founder and chief benefactor of the American Museum of Natural History.  While others backing Comstock grew cold feet at some point, Jesup supported him without reservation for 43 years.  As Comstock noted in his diary:  “Only one Man thinks as I do and that is Mr. Jessup [sic].  He is alive!”[59]

At first, Comstock served the Committee as a volunteer, while continuing to earn his living as a dry goods clerk.  However, in early 1873 he left that work to become an employee of the YMCA.  During its 22 months of operation, the Committee spent only $8,498.14.  The results, though, were impressive.  Now going public, the 1874 YMCA Report claimed the following seizures:

13,000 lbs. of bound books, containing from 150 to 300 pages each; 4,000 lbs. of the same books in process of manufacture; 199,500 pictures and photographs; 6,250 microscopic pictures; 625 negative, photographic plates; 350 engraved steel and copper plates; 501 engraved wood-cuts and electrotype plates; 14,200 lbs. stereotype plates, for printing 145 different books; 20 lithographic stones; 60,300 improper [rubber] articles; 700 lbs. of lead molds; three establishments for the manufacture of these were closed; 130,275 circulars, catalogues and songs; ...20,000 letters from various parts of the United States ordering goods, 6,000 names of dealers....[60]

Despite these imposing numbers, there was trouble within the Committee.  Jesup grew discouraged over jealousies among its members.  Some thought that Comstock had been too aggressive in several of his arrests.  McBurney, the YMCA Secretary, was distraught over publicity surrounding Comstock’s handling of the Woodhull-Claflin case (see p. 43).  In the end, the committee agreed that “...the matters with which [Comstock] had to deal were too unpleasant to be touched by persons of sensitive feeling.”[61]  Defending a civilization was a task only for extraordinary men.  The Committee resolved to spin this work off from the YMCA, creating an independent New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  The new entity received its Charter from the New York state legislature on May 16, 1873, and was operational by the following December.

This Society has gone down in American mythology as a den of fanatics.  Yet, as historian Paul Boyer has put it, if the founders of the anti-vice society “were moral fanatics, ...they were at least highly successful ones.”[62]  Joining Jesup and McBurney as incorporators were the rising financier J. Pierpont Morgan and copper magnate William E. Dodge.  Samuel Colgate, head of his family’s New Jersey soap business, became the first president of the New York Society, so serving until his death in 1898.  Other early officers were textbook publisher Alfred S. Barnes (of later Barnes and Noble fame); Killean Van Renssalear, representing one of New York’s oldest and most prestigious families; and attorney William Beecher, son of the celebrated preacher Henry Ward Beecher.  Subsequent donors to the Society included Andrew Carnegie, John Wanamaker, Mrs. Russell Sage, Louis C. Tiffany, and Joseph H. Choate.

In May 1878, Comstock spoke in Boston and enlisted equally prominent figures to create The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice (later renamed The Watch and Ward Society).  Dr. Homer P. Sprague, principal of the Girls High and Normal School, became its president.  Vice presidents of the Society included the president of Amherst College, Rev. Julius Seelye; the president of Yale University, Rev. Noah Porter; the president of Brown University, Rev. E.G. Robinson; and the president of Dartmouth, Rev. S.C. Bartlett.  The Society’s contributors’ list soon sported names such as Abbott, Beebe, Cabot, Coolidge, DeWolf, Eliot, Endicott, Fletcher, Forbes, James, Lodge, Lowell, Lyman, Peabody, Pickering, Tufts, and Wigglesworth:  “almost a roll call of the [New England] Brahmin aristocracy.”[63]

Beyond this extraordinary support from America’s most prominent families, both “old” money and “new,” there is another curiosity about the Anti-Vice Societies:  the all-male cast of leaders.  Most social reform movements of the late 19th Century were heavily dominated by women: consider the prohibition and anti-child labor campaigns.  Not in this case.  Some historians have sought to explain this by casting Comstock’s work as “a campaign to ensure the reproduction of the families and the social world of the upper and middle classes.”  Nicola Beisel argues that Comstock and company sought to keep “children and homes morally pure—a task predicated on, but not confined to, the labors of moral mothers.”[64]  Boyer suggests that these men were especially uneasy about their own offspring:  “Would the temptations of wealth seduce their children from the stern morality by which they themselves had been reared?”[65]  Stripped of neo-Marxist language regarding socio-economic class, such interpretations are probably correct—and not terribly shocking:  these were men attempting to protect their homes and children from corrupting influence.

Mr. Comstock Goes to Washington

The United States government entered the anti-vice business through the Tariff Act of 1842, which empowered the Customs Office to seize and bring suit to destroy “obscene or immoral” prints and pictures.  In 1857, Congress added obscene “images,” including photographs and daguerrotypes, and “obscene articles” to the prohibited list.  Reports of nasty materials being mailed to soldiers led Congress in 1865 to ban obscene publications from the U.S. mails.  Comstock complained that only items “obscene on their face” were stopped by this measure.  Amendments adopted in 1872 strengthened the law only slightly.[66]

In early 1873, few members of the still extant YMCA Committee for the Suppression of Vice wanted to pursue the matter further.  Comstock, though, insisted.  He wanted the law extended to outlaw obscenity in newspapers and advertisements and—notably—to ban contraceptive devices and abortifacients.  As he explained in a letter to Congressman Merriam:

...there are scores of men that are supporting themselves and families to-day by sending out these rubber goods, &c, through the mails that I cannot touch for want of law.  There are men in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in Boston and other places who are doing this business, that I could easily detect and convict if the law was only sufficient.[67] 

To an unusual degree, then, the law that emerged was Comstock’s work.  As Bremner puts it, “no one else had the wile and experience to devise such a cunning, wide-mouthed trap for evil-doers.”[68]  Historian Carol Flora Brooks reports that “[a]ll accounts agree” about the validity of Comstock’s claiming the bill was his own.[69]

Comstock’s first task was to blend together his proposed measure with two other pending bills, one dealing with the possession of obscene items in the District of Columbia and the federal territories and a second that would increase penalties under the existing act. Attorney Benjamin Vaughan Abbott, the brother of theologian and Christian journalist Lyman Abbott, performed this task.  The result became what Comstock always called “my bill.”

He traveled to Washington in January 1873, with his bill and a cabinet of horrors as evidence:  a collection of recently seized obscene prints, postcards, books, and “rubber items” used to educate members of Congress on the nature and scope of this national emergency.  As Comstock reports in a diary entry for February 3:

About 11:30 went up to the Senate with my exhibits.  [Journalist] A.H. Byington of Norwalk very kindly aided me by securing the Vice-President’s room and inviting Senators out to see me.  I spent an hour or two, talking and explaining the extent of the nefarious business and answering questions.  [Senators] Buckingham, Pratt, Ames, Ramsey, Cole and numerous others were present.  All were very much excited, and declared themselves ready to give me any law I might ask for, if it was only within the bounds of the Constitution.  I also saw the Vice-President.[70]

As this extract suggests, Comstock worked the Washington system in extraordinary fashion.  Connecticut Senator (and wartime Governor) William A. Buckingham was his chief Senate sponsor; Congressman Merriam of New York took that role in the House of Representatives.  Astonishingly, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William Strong helped Comstock to refine the language of his bill and served as a liaison with friendly Congressional elements.[71]  Another powerful Senator, William Windom of Minnesota, used his position on the Committee on Appropriations to secure $3,425 for a special postal agent to enforce the pending law, on the promise of the Postmaster General that Comstock would be so appointed.  Comstock had several meetings with James C. Blaine, the Speaker of the House.  At a key point in the deliberations, Blaine received personal telegrams from Mr. Jesup and Mr. Dodge in New York, stressing their “personal interest” in Comstock’s bill.  Comstock’s diary records Blaine promising that he would “put my bill through sure tonight.”  During these weeks, Comstock even attended a reception at the White House, where he met President Grant (the young New Yorker was unimpressed by the women of Washington, though, finding them “brazen—dressed extremely silly—enameled faces and powdered hair—low dresses—hair most ridiculous [sic] and altogether most extremely disgusting to every lover of pure, noble, modest woman”).[72]

The key innovation in Comstock’s bill were passages that banned the import and distribution through the mail of:

Every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print or other publications of an indecent character, and every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use; and every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose.  [Emphasis added.]

More broadly, Section One of the bill prohibited the distribution by any means of such materials in Washington, DC, and the federal territories.  Section Two prohibited the use of the U.S. mails for such distribution.  The third section prohibited the importation of contraceptive devices and provided for their confiscation.  Section Four created sanctions for officials who knowingly aided such trade.  And the fifth section authorized writs for search and seizure.[73]  As journalist Mary Alden Hopkins would later put it, the measure “covers—well, everything.”[74] 

Birth control advocate Mary Ware Dennett, in her sharply critical 1926 book on the Comstock laws, describes legislative action on the federal bill.  “There was practically no discussion on the subject matter,” she notes.  “There were no speeches delivered, until after the bill was passed.  The measure was granted unanimous consent action in the Senate, and was passed under a suspension of rules in the House.  It slipped under the wire for the President’s signature on the very last day of the session.”  And, she adds:  “the control of conception was not once mentioned by any member on the floor of either House.”[75]  This account is essentially true.  Comstock’s bill was part of a flood of legislation that Congress considered in a push toward adjournment by March 1, and the bill’s chief sponsors—particularly Congressman Merriam—ably manipulated the resulting, but all too common, confusion.

Several odd things did occur.  On February 11, the Vice President referred Comstock’s bill to the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.  In committee, an amendment was adopted that would have granted an exception to the ban on selling contraceptives and abortifacients in the District of Columbia and territories, through “a prescription of a physician in good standing.”  The bill reported to the Senate on February 18 included this change.  When one Senator asked for time to read the measure, Senator Buckingham agreed to put off consideration for a while.  It appears that Comstock lobbied frantically to strike the exception.  In any case, on February 20 the bill was called up again, with the physicians’ provision gone.  When Senator Conkling asked what changes had been made, Buckingham replied “that there is no material alteration in the section.  It is rather to strengthen it than otherwise.”  When pressed, he noted that the “words in the thirteenth line are stricken out.  I cannot give the details without looking at the bill.”  While at least one other Senator urged caution here, the missing words were not identified, and the amendment to the Amendment was approved.  A day later, “the bill was read the third time, and passed,” with no actual vote recorded.[76]

On the House side, meanwhile, Rep. Merriam bided his time, much to Comstock’s frustration.  Finally, on the last day of the session, Merriam moved for a vote on the Senate bill, which did not have the physicians’ exemption.  Congressman Kerr tried to refer the bill back to the Committee on the Judiciary, arguing that “[i]ts provisions are extremely important, and they ought not to be passed in such hot haste.”  A curious exchange followed:

MR. COX:  Is debate in order?

THE SPEAKER:  It is not.

MR. MERRIAM:  I move to suspend the rules and pass the bill with my amendment.

MR. KERR:  Is my motion in order?

THE SPEAKER:  Not under that motion.

The House divided; and there were—ayes 52, noes 79, no quorum voting

MR. KERR demanded tellers.

Tellers were ordered; and MR. KERR and MR. MERRIAM were appointed.

The House again divided; and the tellers reported—ayes 100, noes 37.

So (two-thirds voting in favor thereof) the rules were suspended, and the bill as amended was passed.[77]

President Grant signed the measure the same day.

It has been said that law-making, like sausage making, is a process best not closely observed.  In any case, Comstock got his law.  Referring to the ongoing Credit Mobilier bribery scandal, The New York Times declared that Congress could now be forgiven its improprieties, since it had “powerfully sustained the cause of morality....  Those wretches who are debauching the youth of the country and murdering women and unborn babes, will soon be in the strong grip of government.”[78]  Later that week, Comstock received his Commission as Special Agent of the U.S. Post Office, charged with enforcing his own law.

The “Mini-Comstocks”

In subsequent years, Comstock carried his advocacy to the states.  In his home of New York, Comstock and his YMCA associates drafted a bill, and he appeared in Albany in 1873 along with his cabinet of obscenities.  The measure’s chief innovation would be to ban the sale, gift, or exhibiting of contraceptives and abortifacients.  Only one assemblyman appears to have opposed the bill:  “a Methodist exhorter” in the import business.  Comstock privately charged that “obscene rubber goods were among the articles in which he traded,” which the reformer threatened to reveal.  Several assemblymen intervened to spare their colleague “disgrace and exposure.”  Opposition dissolved, and the bill passed.[79]

The push for a “mini-Comstock” law in Massachusetts coincided with the founding of the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1878, noted earlier.  Legal historian Thomas Dienes reports that like the federal law, this measure “was sweeping in character and passed with maximum dispatch.”  Also prohibiting the sale, gift, or exhibiting of contraceptives, the bill was introduced in the Assembly on February 5 and approved on February 28.  There is no extant evidence of either debate or dissent.  The Senate approved the measure on March 20, and six days later the Governor signed it into law.  Comstock’s “free love” foe Ezra Heywood fulminated again:  “No citizen of Massachusetts asked for the passage of the ‘law’; it was slyly worked through by Comstock himself....  What do the Republican Party and Governor Talbot mean by importing this pious scamp from Brooklyn to ‘regulate’ morality in Massachusetts?”[80]

The push for a new law in Connecticut appears to have been sparked by still another speech by native son Anthony Comstock.  The whole purpose of the measure was to add an anti-contraceptive provision to the state’s existing obscenity statute.  The key provision reads:

Every person who shall...use any drug, medicine, article or instrument whatsoever for the purpose of preventing conception, or causing unlawful abortion, shall be fined not less than fifty dollars nor more than one hundred dollars, or imprisoned not less than sixty days, nor more than one year or both.

Amazingly, The New York Times reported that no less a figure than Phineas T. Barnum, the celebrated showman, was responsible for moving Comstock’s bill through the legislature.  Recently the mayor of Bridgeport, Barnum now served in the Connecticut House, where he chaired the Committee on Temperance.  The actual legislative history is sparse, but this was the Committee which did report out Comstock’s bill.  While somewhat at odds with the Congregationalism of his day, Barnum was “a religious and God-fearing” man, noted for his opposition to tobacco and alcohol and for an earlier campaign against prostitution.  Sympathy for Comstock’s work would have come naturally.  Deemed by a House colleague to be “in the interest of the highest morality and against crimes of the worst sort,” the measure passed without apparent opposition.[81]

By 1885, mini-Comstock laws which went beyond the federal statute had emerged in about half the other states.  Twelve of these—Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wyoming—made illegal the verbal transmission of information on contraception and abortion.  Eleven states deemed the possession of instructions for preventing conception a criminal offense.  Four states—Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, and Oklahoma—legalized search and seizure for contraceptive information.  Connecticut’s law alone criminalized use.  In another twenty-two states, existing obscenity laws were interpreted in light of the federal statute.  By 1900, about 75 percent of anti-vice arrests nationwide occurred through these state laws.[82]

A Man of His Time

D.M. Bennett, twice jailed by Comstock for publishing obscene works, complained in 1878 that passage of the federal Comstock law took place in the closing hours of the Congressional session, “when the House was in the wildest state of confusion, [when] numbers of the members were under the influence of ardent spirits, [and when] some two hundred and sixty acts were hurried through without inquiry or consideration.”  The state Comstock laws, he continued, had passed “by a similar style of tactics,” with little debate and considerable backroom political maneuvering.[83]  All of this was, in a way, true.  Yet the fact remains that attempts to repeal “the Comstocks,” or even amend them in a meaningful way, repeatedly failed.  On his death in 1915, Comstock’s legal empire was intact.  Indeed, a significant weakening of the anti-contraceptive clauses came only in the 1930’s, and then only through court decisions.  How can this durability be explained?

To begin with, Comstock’s values and initiatives were wholly in line with the right-thinking and progressive currents of his age.  Essentially, Comstock and his allies had learned how to repackage the moral values of the Seventeenth Century in the language of “Reform.”

Among the progressive social and educational elites of his day, Comtock’s work drew repeated praise.  In 1898, Harvard Professor Francis G. Peabody, famed for his course on social reform, favorably compared the anti-vice associations with the abolitionist crusade:  both were typical of “the American way of social reform.”  In 1911, former Harvard President Charles William Eliot declared Boston’s Watch and Ward Society to be a “thoroughly scientific charity.”  In his presidential address to the new American Social Hygiene Association three years later, Eliot urged that the organization “should always be ready to take part in the persecution of men or women who make a profit out of obscene publications.”  In 1903, settlement house leader Robert A. Woods praised the anti-vice societies as “a sort of Moral Board of Health” which made a “profound contribution to the work of every uplifting agency.”  Other contemporaries saw Comstock standing shoulder to shoulder with Jane Addams and Jacob Riis as reformers battling the poverty, crime, and violence of the city.[84]

The anti-vice groups were particularly adept at framing their mission as “preventive social policy,” then the rage among progressives.  The Watch and Ward Society explained:  “The old idea of ‘charity’...has gradually given way to a larger conception...to prevent the moral diseases which lead to misery and crime.”  As the organization stated elsewhere:

[W]hile others endeavor to remedy the effects of crime, we strive to remove the causes....  [E]very successful blow at immoral literature, the brothel, or the gambling hall goes far to remove the necessity for the hospital, the asylum, and the charity ward.[85]

The suppression of obscenity fit in neatly with other campaigns for poor relief, the protection of children, prison reforms, and labor laws to prevent the exploitation of women.  Three months before Comstock’s death, The New Republic—a fresh journalistic voice for the Progressive cause—ran an editorial praising the old reformer.  It described the post-Civil War flow of obscene books into schools, adding:  “[t]he idea of giving up your life to suppressing these dirty trades probably would not ever occur to you.  Anthony Comstock is the exceptional man to whom this idea did occur and who acted on it.”  Only those who knew the magnitude of the problem fifty years before and “how difficult and risky this trade has been made nowadays, can realize the vast amount of good Mr. Comstock has accomplished.”[86]

Progressive supporters for Comstock’s work also included the feminists of his day.  Figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton never publicly opposed the Comstock laws, largely because they themselves disapproved of contraception, seeing the practice as a threat to their vision of “voluntary motherhood.”[87]  Historian Nicola Beisel effectively refutes allegations that Comstock’s “real aim was the control of women.”  She notes that neither his laws nor the rhetoric behind them ever reflected this goal.[88]  In fact, Comstock carefully avoided any criticism of the women’s suffrage movement.  And some prominent feminist voices at least indirectly endorsed his campaign.  For example, the first American woman to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, shared Comstock’s view about the effects of “vicious literature” on the young:  “The permanent and incalculable injury which is done to the young mind by vicious reading, is proved by all that we know about the structure and methods of growth of the human mind.”[89]

Moreover, Comstock enjoyed the quiet support of America’s literary establishment.  As Paul Boyer notes in Purity in Print, the great American publishing houses between 1865 and 1915 practiced a form of self-censorship, which sought elevating themes while condemning the “bad book.”  This censorship “was simply the sum total of countless small decisions by editors, publishers, booksellers,...critics, and—occasionally—vice societies, all based on a common conception of literary propriety.”  Authors and journalists joined in as well.  The feminist writer Julia Ward Howe argued that literature “must bring pure and beautiful ideals to...the human mind” while avoiding “the brutal, the violent, [and] the excessive.”  Princeton English Professor Henry Van Dyke stated in 1905 that the only enduring literature “is that which recognizes the moral conflict as the supreme interest of life, and the message of Christianity as the only real promise of victory.”  Writing in 1913, Paul Elmer More, editor of The Nation, condemned writers who did not realize that readers “still require such old themes as home and mothers and love’s devotion.”

Even librarians worked relentlessly to keep “bad books” off their shelves.  In 1908, American Library Association President Arthur Bostwick called for the suppression of books of an “immoral tendency.”  Facing a “menacing tide” of obscene literature, each librarian must declare: “This far shalt thou go and no further.”[90]

Comstock also enjoyed uniform support from America’s Christian churches.  It is true, as Brooks notes, that American religious bodies took no formal part in passing or enforcing the Comstock laws between 1873 and 1900 and that leading theological journals rarely mentioned the birth control question during these years.[91]  Yet this was at least partly because evangelical “para-churches”—the YMCA and its spin-off anti-vice societies—were effectively attending to the question.  Johnson is closer to the truth when noting that “Protestant and Catholic churches were united in their common concern over public immorality” in this era.  Indeed, on the specific issue of contraceptives, Roman Catholics, conservative Evangelical Protestants, and even the emerging “Social Gospel” Protestants stood in effective harmony.  “This broad front of religious concern could hardly be called narrowly sectarian.”[92]

The “Free-Love” Liberals

Of equal importance, perhaps, Comstock faced no important opposition.  His most vociferous foes tended to be in the small “free love” movement, a campaign essentially seeking the abolition of marriage laws.  Such repeal, advocates held, would promote the “nobility of sexual love, individual health, social purity, and harmony.”[93]  Early on, Comstock tangled with Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, bringing an indictment against their Weekly newspaper for publishing the details of an adultery charge leveled against the sainted preacher Henry Ward Beecher.  The sisters denounced Comstock as “this illiterate puppy,” relabeled the YMCA the “Young Mules’ Concubine Association,” and stated that “the new order of Protestant Jesuits, called the Y.M.C.A., is dubbed with the well-merited title of the American Inquisition.”  The two eventually left for England (where they did make good marriages!).  Comstock also suppressed Ezra Heywood’s 1876 volume, Cupid’s Yoke, essentially a manifesto for “free love.”

The reformer had a low opinion of these foes.  As he wrote in his diary regarding the April 1873 trial of George Francis Train:  “There were present the most disgusting set of Free-lovers.  The women-part, thin-faced, cross, sour-looking, each wearing a look of ‘Well, I am boss’ and ‘Oh, for a man.’  The men, unworthy the name of men, licentious looking, sneakish, mean, contemptable [sic]....”[94]

On June 25, 1878, Heywood received a sentence of two years at hard labor and a $100 fine for mailing copies of Cupid’s Yoke.  In early August, Heywood’s supporters held an “Indignation Meeting” in Faneuil Hall, Boston.  Nearly 6,000 persons attended.  The presiding officer denounced Comstock as the lying employee of a “bigoted and aggressive religious sect.”  A letter from Theron C. Leland, read into the record, called Heywood’s punishment “the work of the Christian church,” adding:  “The Church owns Comstock and he runs the United States Courts.”  A.L. Rawson said from the podium that the YMCA was “as sincere as were the managers and tools of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church, who believed that by roasting one man they evangelized many others.”  To roaring applause, he concluded:

...if there is an endless hell, where the devil reigns because he is the greatest sinner that ever lived—when Anthony goes to that place, his Satanic Majesty will arise, doff his hat, make his lowest bow, and say, “Mr. Comstock, you have beaten me; please take the chair.”

The meeting endorsed by acclamation a resolution calling for Comstock’s dismissal from government employment, citing his repeated attempts “to suppress free thought, free speech, and free press” and his “despicable and immoral methods.”  The meeting also launched the National Defense Association, to give legal support to those charged under the Comstock laws.[95]  Comstock kept his job and the National Defence Association proved ineffective.

Another Comstock opponent was the National Liberal League, formed in 1870 to advance secularism.  Its original causes included the repeal of Sunday closing laws and the abolishment of official religious holidays.  Within a few years, though, the League routinely took on Comstock.  In his book, Frauds Exposed, the reformer wrote:  “It is not a strange thing, then, that of all the different religious or irreligious bodies...the only ones that shield and defend the smut dealers, and oppose the laws for their suppression and punishment, are the National Liberal League, its auxiliaries, and the Free Lovers.”[96]  Comstock’s successful prosecution of Heywood actually split the League.  A radical faction led by Bennett sought not only the dismissal of Comstock, but also a repeal of his various laws.  A conservative faction, led by Francis Abbott and the famed atheist Robert Ingersoll, opposed repeal.  The radicals prevailed, Abbott and Ingersoll resigned from the organization, and the League circulated a petition to Congress, eventually gaining 50,000 signatures demanding repeal.  A House of Representatives panel rejected the petition, stating:  “In the opinion of the committee, the post office was not established to carry instruments of vice or obscene writings, indecent pictures, or lewd books.”[97]  This was the last serious effort at repeal that Comstock would personally face.

An Exercise of Power

The reformer also knew how to accumulate power and to use it toward his ends.  As special agent for the U.S. Post Office, Comstock refused for thirty-three years to take his appropriated salary.  “Give me the Authority that such an office confers,” he confided in his diary, “and the Salary and honors may go to the Winds.”  His paycheck actually came from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, giving him a certain independence in his public actions.  As postal inspector, he held a document requiring all mail-carrying American railroads to give him free passage on demand.  During his first ten months in office alone, he traveled 23,000 miles.  Comstock had the power to “make searches for mailable matters transported in violation of law,” to “open pouches and sacks to examine the mail therein,” and to “seize all letters and bags, packets or parcels, containing letters which are being carried contrary to law.”[98]

Comstock also served as secretary and chief operating officer of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  Its legislative charter essentially made police departments within the state of New York subordinate to the Society:

The police force of the city of New York, as well as of other places,...shall, as occasion may arise, aid this corporation, its members or agents, in the enforcement of all laws which now exist or which may hereafter be enacted for the suppression of the acts and offenses designated in Section 3 of this Act.

Moreover, agents of the Society duly recognized by the sheriff of any New York county “may...make arrests and bring before any court...offenders found violating...any law for the suppression of the trade in and circulation of obscene literature...and articles of indecent or immoral use.”  Remarkably, the same charter declared that “One half of the fines collected through the instrumentality of the Society, or its agent, for the violation of the laws in this act..., shall accrue to its benefit.”[99]  Virtue now had a financial incentive.

As Comstock’s foes knew all too well, most federal and state courts actually stood behind the anti-vice crusader.  Comstock had his favorite judges:  Federal District Judge Charles L. Benedict of New York, “in whose court Comstock claimed to have never lost a case”;[100] and Federal Judge Daniel Clark of Boston who, in giving his charge to the jury in the Heywood case, stated in characteristic manner that the defendant’s free love ideas would transform Massachusetts into a brothel.[101]  In this case, as in many others dealing with obscenity, the judge refused to let the jury even see the offending items, deeming them “too obscene.”  Accordingly, the sole issue before the jury was whether the defendant had indeed mailed the item in question.  By mid-1915, Comstock had won a total of 3,873 arraignments, with 2,881 guilty pleas or convictions.  His greatest successes came with obscenity arrests, which were successfully prosecuted in over nine of ten cases.  His least success came with charges dealing with gambling, where juries tended to be more forgiving.[102]

The U.S. Supreme Court indirectly affirmed the constitutionality of the federal Comstock Act through an arbiter decision in Ex Parte Jackson (1877).  The case actually involved the dispatch of lottery materials in the mails.  In its decision, though, the Court cited Comstock’s law as a positive example of Congress’ authority to police the mails, so confirming its validity.  The Supreme Court considered the Comstock law directly in the case Rosen v. United States (1896).  In sustaining the act, the Court adopted “the Hicklin standard,” articulated by Britain’s Chief Justice Cockburn in the case Queen v. Hicklin (1868):  the test of obscenity is “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort might fall.”[103]  Indeed, it was with scant exaggeration that Assistant District Attorney William P. Fiero, in the trial of Mr. Bennett, could declare:

Now, gentlemen, this case is not entitled “Anthony Comstock against D.M. Bennett”; this case is not entitled “The Society for the Suppression of Vice against D.M. Bennett”....  It is the United States against D.M. Bennett, and the United States is one great society for the suppression of vice.[104]

The sexual morality of Evangelical Protestantism, including its opposition to birth control, had triumphed.

The Old Prophet

In 1892, on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the YMCA Committee for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock’s admirers feted him at Carnegie Hall.  As a gift, they presented the culture warrior with an elegant dinner service of hand-painted china.  According to The New York Mail and Express:  “It was a testimonial of admiration for his splendid career and of respect for the intrepidity, sincerity and self-sacrifice of the man who twenty years ago set out almost single-handed to fight the battle for purity and cleanly lives.”  Five years later, a second celebration occurred at Carnegie Hall.  “Crowds filled the edifice,” while Jesup and his business friends presented Comstock with a gift of $5,000.  As his biographers conclude, “he had seen his dream fulfilled—the dream of an ambitious Puritan, if ever there was one.  He was recognized as the champion of purity....  Good folk were on his side, the Christian laymen, many of the clergy, mothers and fathers, school teachers—all right thinking people, in fact.”[105]

Later, there would be rumors that he was about to fall from grace.  The unfortunate suicide of a scatter-brained author under indictment, Ida Craddock, hurt his reputation.  So did a raid in 1906 to seize pamphlets with nude sketches from the Art Students League, which made him a laughing-stock.  Enemies whispered that he was about to lose his commission from the Post Office.  Instead, Postmaster-General George B. Cortelyou publicly praised Comstock’s “war upon impurity and obscenity,” declaring that “[h]e has stood as a barrier between the youth of the land and a frightfully demoralized traffic, and I want him to know that... he has had and will continue to have the hearty support of this department.”  In 1913, the New York Society appeared to pressure him to cede day-to-day operations of the anti-vice campaign to a younger, more flexible man, John S. Sumner.  Yet in early 1915, President Woodrow Wilson named Comstock to lead the American Delegation to the International Purity Conference, held that year in San Francisco[!].  As historian Paul Boyer concedes, of the 4,000 delegates present “there were probably not two persons who did not unreservedly share his point of view.”[106]

Indeed, Anthony Comstock—the aging Prophet and moral advocate—could bask in the sunlight of almost complete success in the realm of public policy.  Regarding the suppression of contraception, historian (and later federal judge) John T. Noonan notes that the Comstock laws, in penalizing the trade in birth control devices and information, “went further than any Pope or canonist.”[107]  According to historian James Reed, Comstock made it dangerous “to discuss contraception in print.”  Even medical books written prior to 1873 edited out discussions of birth control in subsequent editions.  One volume simply left blank pages.  Comstock’s work also “exacerbated tensions in the [modern] companionate family” focused on the adult relationship, so reinforcing the preservation of the more traditional, procreative family form.[108]  Mary Ware Dennett, a fierce critic of Comstock’s work, correctly notes that under the federal and state Comstock laws, not even parents could lawfully advise their married children on how to space babies; nor could doctors lawfully study the control of conception, or advise their patients on the matter.  Federal law, in particular, made no exceptions.[109]  Comparing results to goals, then, Comstock’s achievement was huge.

So, too, regarding abortion.  Despite Marvin Olasky’s fairly dismissive treatment of Comstock, the record shows that between 1873 and 1877, this reformer “probably prosecuted more abortionists...than any other person in the United States.”  After his five years of aggressive action, “abortion-related advertising declined precipitously throughout the nation.”  Indeed, historian James Mohr concludes that because of Comstock’s work, “[a]bortion’s period of commercial visibility, which had lasted since the 1840’s, was over.”[110]  Another historian of the abortion issue, Leslie Reagan, concludes that abortion was off the agenda of organized religion until the late 1950’s simply because, “for nearly a century, abortion was a crime and no social movement suggested otherwise.”[111]  Again, for Comstock, this was a large achievement.

Almost single-handedly, Comstock also shut down the American trade in hard-core pornography.  Early on, Comstock had learned that “to attack a book or paper, and not carry through the prosecution to success in the courts, was to secure...a large ground of free advertising for the offensive material.”  On such matters, Comstock rarely lost.  In 1888, he took 103 of these cases to trial, with 101 convictions; the next year, 127 cases and 125 convictions; in 1890, 156 cases and 155 convictions.[112]  These came on top of earlier, more local successes.  As noted before, the New York City “porn library” of 1872 numbered 144 books.  By 1880, only two were still in print.  The next year, the New York Society could report but 20 pounds of seized books, and a mere 25 improper pictures to be destroyed.[113]  Up in Boston, the Watch and Ward Society reported in 1885 that the trade in obscene books had been “substantially suppressed.”  By 1899, the Society declared that “nothing further” was needed except for “constant watchfulness.”[114]

Comstock could count other policy achievements, as well.  By 1877, he had ended the corrupt black market lottery, or numbers game, in New York City.[115]  In an era with little consumer protection, Comstock’s successful campaign against medical quacks and the purveyors of patent medicines even drew the praise of his most vociferous opponents.  Indeed, virtually all of the “contraceptives” and “abortifacients” on the open market in 1872 were, at best, ineffective; at worst, poisons.  Comstock insisted that “such a mighty medium, power, and agency” as the newspapers “ought not to become the tool of the villain, the vampire, nor the ghoul, to rob the simple-minded, honest laborer; or oppress, curse, and destroy the sick and afflicted.”[116]  More than anyone else of his generation, he put teeth into such words.[117]

A Last Crusade

Anthony Comstock died at the right time:  1915, the last year of the old world order.  The Great War in Europe was just turning into the senseless slaughterhouse that would bring vast political and moral revolutions.  Even so, there had already been signs of a culture in flux:  art such as Cubism which abandoned classical forms; the music of Igor Stravinsky and the choreography of Rudolf Nijinsky, combined in The Firebird (1912), which mocked Western ideals of beauty; and the emergence of “sexology” among writers such as England’s Havelock Ellis.

Prior to 1915, these changes were more obvious in Europe than in America.  Yet in retrospect, one can see an aging Comstock and his allies struggling to comprehend these new challenges.  It was the Watch and Ward Society which explained in 1909 that:  “As the twentieth century swings into its second decade, the tone of much of its clever fiction is depressing; it is unbelieving; it seems to be written in a spirit of revolt against the old ideals of chivalry and chastity.”[118]  Past foes such as “free lover” Ezra Heywood were actually chaste in comparison to those now emerging.  Heywood and his wife, despite their rejection of marriage, were apparently faithful to one another throughout their lives and produced four children; and they actually opposed contraception as degrading.  Broun and Leech note that “the advocates of birth control had always evoked Comstock’s wrath.  In his old age he saw these people growing more numerous, more brazen.”[119]

This new threat was soon embodied in the person of Margaret Sanger.  In symbolically rich manner, Comstock’s last campaign was an attempt to put this woman in prison.

Historian Janet Brodie actually suggests that it was Comstock’s very success in suppressing contraceptive information that had turned Sanger, a nurse, into a birth control advocate.  Following the reputed death of a pregnant woman in her care, through a botched self-abortion, Sanger launched in 1913 a search in the Library of Congress, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the Boston Public Library for information on how to control reproduction.  As she wrote in her autobiography, “At the end of six months I was convinced that there was no practical medical information on contraception available in America.”[120]  Brodie drives home the point:  “the most dramatic legacy of the new social and legal policies of Comstockery was the void Margaret Sanger found where once there had been information.”[121]

Sanger soon published a pamphlet, Family Limitation, which described the relative merits of various contraceptive techniques.  Comstock went after her.  Using a fake passport, she left her husband and children behind and fled the country through Canada.  Sanger eventually arrived in England, where she became a protégée (and perhaps a lover) of Havelock Ellis.  In January 1915, a secret agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice approached her husband, William, who gave the agent the offending pamphlet.  Arrest followed.  Comstock tried to use the threat of prison to bring William Sanger to divulge his wife’s location.  He refused, and stood trial in September.  In perhaps his last appearance as a court witness, Comstock testified against Sanger.  The judge in the case told the jury that “[i]n my opinion, this book is contrary not only to the law of the state, but to the law of God.”  The jury found Sanger guilty.  Despite his earlier protest that he was the father of “three lovely children,” he chose to spend 30 days in jail rather than pay a $150 fine.[122]

According to some accounts, Comstock took a chill at the Sanger trial, which turned into pneumonia.[123]  Others attribute the initial cold to his trip to California to attend the International Purity Conference.[124]  Whatever the case, Anthony Comstock died quite suddenly on the evening of September 21, 1915.  He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Brooklyn, beneath the epitaph, “In memory of a fearless witness,” and words from Hebrews 12:  “Lay aside every weight—looking unto Jesus—despising the shame.”

Back to the Future

If it were possible to whisk the aging Anthony Comstock forward to the year 2009, what would he think?  Most likely, he would find both his own worst fears and his own opinions fully confirmed:

• He would note that allowing married couples to gain legal access to birth control had inevitably resulted in the same access being extended to unmarried adults, then to youth, and finally to children.

• He would point out that legalizing birth control would never have been enough for the sexual modernists; they must also have, and so did gain, legalized abortion.

• He would show how deliberately separating sexuality from procreation, through birth control and intentionally childless marriages, had cleared the path to a normalization of homosexuality, bisexuality, transexuality, &c.

• He would explain that “modern” marriage focused on sexual companionship, rather than procreation, must have resulted in the effective abolition of true marriage, through easy divorce, the rough equation of cohabitation with marriage, and an end to the legal concept of “illegitimate.”

• He would show that by allowing “free speech” and a “free press” in sexual matters, pornography of the worst sort had quickly found its way into most households, most recently—and effectively—through the Internet.

• He would identify a strange new sentimentality among 21st Century Americans, which made it impossible for them to comprehend, let alone enforce, the historic Christian sexual code.

• He would excoriate 20th Century Evangelical leaders for spinelessness in legitimating birth control, rather than holding firm to the ancient Christian consensus regarding the practice as immoral and a danger to society.

• He might be grimly amused to see 21st Century social conservatives making their last stand over the odd issue of “same-sex marriage.”

And he would certainly conclude that he now stood in a very different country.


1 D. M. Bennett, Anthony Comstock:  His Career of Cruelty and Crime (New York:  Liberal and Scientific Publishing House, 1878):  1009-1011.

2 From:  Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock:  Roundsman of the Lord (New York:  The Literary Guild, 1921):  172.

3 Robert Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Anthony Comstock, Traps for the Young, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967 [1883]):  vii.

4 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 21, 228-229, 240-241.

5 Paul Boyer, Purity in Print:  The Vice-Society Movement and Book Censorship in America (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968):  2.

6   Marvin Olasky, Abortion Rites:  A Social History of Abortion in America (Washington, DC:  Regnery, 1992):  191-192.

7 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 89, 189-190.

8 In Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 36.  Also:  Richard Christian Johnson, “Anthony Comstock:  Reform, Vice and the American Way,” Doctoral Dissertation, The University of Wisconsin, 1973, p. 17.

9 From Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 19.

10 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 39.

11 Ibid., pp. 26, 33, 45-47; and Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1994):  259.

12 Boyer, Purity in Print, p. 4.

13 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 75; also C. Thomas Dienes, Law, Politics, and Birth Control (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1972):  27-28.

14 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, pp. 30-31.

15 Mark Noll, et al, Eerdman’s Handbook to Christianity in America (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans, 1983):  284.

16 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, p. 31.

17 A Memorandum Respecting New-York as a Field for Moral and Christian Effort Among Young Men; Its Present Neglected Position; and the Fitness of the New-York Young Men’s Christian Association As a Principle Agent for Its Due Cultivation (New York:  Published By the Association, 1866):  pp. 3-6.

18 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 81-82.

19 Anna Louise Bates, Weeder in the Garden of the Lord:  Anthony Comstock’s Life and Career (Lanham, MD:  University Press of America, 1995):  50-53.

20 Bates, Weeder in the Garden, p. 53.

21 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 69-73.

22 Ibid., p. 64.

23 Ibid., p. 67.

24 Bates, Weeder in the Garden, pp. 58-59.

25 Nicola Beisel, Imperiled Innocents:  Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1997):  37.

26 Quoted in Mary Alden Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” Harper’s Weekly 60 (May 22, 1915):  490.

27 Anthony Comstock, Defense of Detective Methods.  An Open Letter to Judge Jenkins of Milwaukee, Wis. (New York:  The Christian At Work, 1892):  3.

28 Anthony Comstock, “Vampire Literature,” North American Review 153 (August 1891):  164.

29 From the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Sixth Annual Report (New York, 1880):  11; in Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, p. 33.

30 Quoted in Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 490.

31 Comstock, A Defence of Detective Methods, p. 16.

32 Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 79.

33 Petersen, The Century of Sex, p. 12.

34 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 148.

35 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America, pp. 262-263, 274.

36 Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals, p. 490.

37 In Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 489.

38 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, p. 45

39 James Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue:  The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830 (New York:  Basic Books, 1978):  39.

40 The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Second Report (1876); in Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, p. 40.

41 Ibid., p. 41.

42 D. Humphreys Storer, “Two Frequent Causes of Uterine Disease,” The Journal of the Gynaecological Society of Boston 6 (March 1872 [1855]):  195-203.

43 Horatio Robinson Storer, MD, “The Criminality and Physical Evils of Forced Abortions [Prize Essay to Which the American Medical Association Awarded the Gold Medal for MDCCCLXV],” Transactions of the American Medical Association 16 (1866):  741.  Emphasis added.

44 E.M. Buckingham, “Criminal Abortion,” The Cincinnati Lancet and Observer 10 (1867):  139-143.

45 Augustus K. Gardner, Conjugal Sins Against the Laws of Life and Health (New York:  J.S. Redfield, 1870):  230-31.  Emphasis added.

46 L.F.E. Bergeret, MD, The Preventive Obstacle, or Conjugal Onanism:  The Dangers and Inconveniences to the Individual, to the Family, and to Society, of Frauds in the Accomplishment of the Generative Functions, trans. By P.    DeMarmon, MD (New York:  Turner and Mignard, 1870):  13, 43, 158.  Emphasis added.

47 Bergeret, The Preventive Obstacle, pp. 8, 165.

48 In Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 490.

49 In Bates, Weeder in the Garden, p. 56.

50 From Mary Ware Dennett, Birth Control Laws:  Shall We Keep Them, Change Them or Abolish Them (New York:  The Grafton Press, 1926):  37.

51 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 86.

52 Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xvii.

53 Bates, Weeder in the Garden, pp. 58-59; Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 84.

54 Appendix to The Congressional Globe, Third Session, Forty-Second Congress, March 1, 1873, p. 168.

55 As related in Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, pp. 46-47.

56 In Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xxvii.  Also:  Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” pp. 119, 125.

57 For example, see:  Dennett, Birth Control Laws, p. 7.

58 L.L. Doggett, Life of Robert R.   McBurney (New York:  Association Press, 1917):  108.

59 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 152.  Comstock never did learn how to spell his patron’s name correctly.

60 Twenty-First Annual Report of the Young Men’s Christian Association of the City of New York, Presented January, 1874 (New York:  Published by the Association, 1874):  15-16.

61 From William Adany Brown, the biographer of Morris K. Jesup; noted in Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 153.

62 Boyer, Purity in Print, p. 5.

63 Ibid., p. 8; and Carol Flora Brooks, “The Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive Laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut,”  American Quarterly 18 (Spring 1966):  6

64 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, pp. 49, 57.

65 Boyer, Purity in Print, p. 8.

66 Hal D. Sears, The Sex Radicals:  Free Love in Victorian America (Lawrence:  The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977):  70.

67 Congressional Globe, Third Session, Forty-Second Congress, Appendix, March 1, 1873 (Washington:  Office of the Congressional Globe, 1873):  168.

68 Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xiii.

69 Brooks, “The Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive Laws,” p. 5.

70 In Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 131.  Emphasis added.

71 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, p. 34.

72 From his diary, in Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 134, 139.

73 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, pp. 35-36.

74 Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 490.

75 Dennett, Birth Control Laws, pp. 21, 24.

76 Congressional Globe.  Third Session, Forty-Second Congress, 20 February 1873:  1525.

77 Congressional Globe.  Third Session, Forty-Second Congress, 1 March 1873:  2005.

78 New York Times (8 Mar 1873), p. 7, col. 2.

79 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 148; Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, p. 44.

80 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, pp. 44-45.

81 Brooks, “The Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive Laws,” pp. 10-13; and Neil Harris, Humbug:  The Art of P.T. Barnum (Boston:  Little, Brown, & Co, 1973):  14-15.

82 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America, pp. 256-258.  And James P. Petersen, The Century of Sex:  Playboy’s History of the Sexual Revolution (New York:  Grove Press, 1999): 13.

83 Bennett, Anthony Comstock:  His Career of Cruelty and Crime, p. 1017.

84 Boyer, Purity in Print, pp. 13, 22, 24, 27-28; Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 130.

85 Boyer, Purity in Print, pp. 13-14, 25.

86 “Editorial,” The New Republic 3 (June 19, 1915):  100-101.

87 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 280.

88 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, p. 39.

89 In Boyer, Purity in Print, p. 17.

90 Ibid., pp. 16-17, 20-21, 30-32.

91 Brooks, “Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive Laws,” p. 20.

92 Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 106.

93 Sears, The Sex Radicals, p. 158.

94 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 112.

95 Proceedings of the Indignation Meeting held in Faneuil Hall, Thursday Evening, August 1, 1878, To Protest Against the Injury Done to the Freedom of the Press By the Conviction and Imprisonment of Ezra H. Heywood (Boston, MA:  Benj. R. Tucker, 1878):  4, 6, 47-48, 53, 62.

96 Anthony Comstock, Frauds Exposed, or How the People Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted (New York:  J. Howard Brown, 1880):  446.

97 In Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, pp. 92-95; and Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America, p. 279.

98 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 136-137; Dennett, Birth Control Laws, p. 30.

99 Dennett, Birth Control Laws, pp. 31-32.

100 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 87.

101 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, p. 91.

102 Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 489.

103 Sears, The Sex Radicals, pp. 71-72.

104 Quotation in Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 89.

105 Ibid., pp. 213-214.

106 Boyer, Purity in Print, p. 28; and Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 219-220, 258-259.

107 John T. Noonan, Contraception:  A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986):  412.

108 Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue, pp. 38-39.

109 Dennett, Birth Control Laws, pp. 3-4, 7, 42.

110 James C. Mohr, Abortion in America:  The Origin and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1978):  197-199.

111 Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime:  Women, Medicine and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1997):  6-7.

112 Comstock, “Vampire Literature,” p. 161.

113 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 186-87.

114 Boyer, Purity in Print, p. 11.

115 Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xviii.

116 Comstock, Frauds Exposed, p. ____.

117 See also:  Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 161; and Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” pp. 101-102.

118 In Boyer, Purity in Print, p. 42.

119 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 249.

120 Margaret Sanger, My Fight for Birth Control (Fairview Park, Elmsford, NY:  Maxwell Reprint Co., 1931):  58.

121 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 288.

122 Reported in Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 249.

123 Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue, p. 97

124 This is the view of Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock, pp. 258-259.






Expanding Child-Care Choices for All Families  

By Allan C. Carlson, Ph.D.*

Address to the Conference on Parental Child-Care and Employment Policy Convened by the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU, Prague, 5-6 February 2009

My academic training is as a social historian, and it is with history that I wish to begin.  Contemporary issues surrounding family life, gender roles, and child care usually generate controversy.  Accordingly, it is important to remember that the “collision” between home and work — in its origins at least — was not the result of ideological conflict.  The child care problems facing the member states of the European Union and other economically developed nations all derive from a common event:  what the Hungarian-born economic historian Karl Polanyi called “The Great Transformation.”[1] 

Prior to the breakthrough of industrialism, the normal human condition had been the unity of work and home.  For the vast majority of persons, over thousands of years,  men and women lived and worked in the same place, be it on the peasant or family farm, in the artisan’s shop, or around the fisher’s cottage.  While subsistence was certainly at a much lower level, this unity of life around the home economy had advantages.  There was no real conflict over gender roles in such homes; male and female, husband and wife both worked so that the small family enterprise might succeed, specializing in tasks according to their relative strengths and skills.  Moreover, children were usually welcomed into these productive homes as potential little workers, and their “care” fit into the normal rhythms of life.  Viewed over the broad sweep of time, human nature was conditioned to this model...perhaps it still is.

The rise and rapid spread of factory production, starting in Europe around 1800, had one massive effect on family life:  it severed market work from the home.  The demands of steam and water power required large, centralized facilities.  Following the new incentives, the husband/father would be pulled into one factory; the wife/mother into another; older children perhaps into a third.  With little time left in the day, and increasingly separated from tillable land as the cities grew, most families also abandoned traditional forms of subsistence, such as the growing of vegetables.  They turned instead to industrially produced goods, which accelerated the broad move toward the factories.

Industrialism had several great flaws:  it made no natural accommodation for pregnancy, child bearing, maternal breastfeeding, and the care of small children.  Indeed, in the short run at least, the existence of children became a liability, a problem for — rather than an asset to — their parents.  One result was a sharp decline in fertility:  following rational economic incentives, adults increasingly turned away from child rearing.

Another result was a search for new structures or policies that would provide the needed child care.  During the late 19th Century, most central and western European nations turned to “family wage” systems, marked by the withdrawal of married women from the labor market and the delivery — through custom and/or law — of a family sustaining wage to married men.[2]  During the early decades of the twentieth century, European policymakers experimented with various forms of child allowances, informally seen as ways of supporting a mother at home.  More recently, the favored solution to industrialism’s child-care problem has been collective or group care, subsidized directly or indirectly by the state.  Finally, programs of paid parental leave, or parents’ insurance, also emerged.

However, none of these responses has been entirely satisfactory.  The “family wage” system — while delivering many positive results — rested on certain restrictions against women in education, employment, and pay.  It also failed to give adequate support to homes without a male “breadwinner.”  Family allowances were rarely of sufficient size to compensate a full-time parent for the net income lost by staying out of the labor market.  Meanwhile, collective child care has proven to be less than optimal for the full development of children.  Finally, parents’ insurance programs of sufficient scope have proven to be quite expensive.

Complicating policy making in this area are two related problems.  First, accounting schemes used by businesses and governments to measure economic activity give too little attention to investments in human capital.  This term encompasses the knowledge, practical skills, health and character traits of persons, which enable them to participate in the broader economy.  Long-term economic growth depends on this form of investment.  Nobel laureate Gary Becker also underscores that “[n]o discussion of human capital can omit the influence of families on the knowledge, skills, health, values, and habits of their children.”[3]  Indeed, social research shows that full-time maternal care has an especially positive effect on developing the human capital of children.  For example, such care is tied to better performance by children in schools.[4]

Second, the same forms of economic accounting provide misleading measures of economic growth or decline.  Although the “home economy” has been sharply diminished within industrial society, it has not disappeared.  Indeed, according to one American analysis, if we translate unpaid work done in the home into its market equivalent, the value of home production in the average modern household is still 70 percent of the family’s money income after taxes.  This figure is highest for families with young children cared for at home.  Another attempt to measure home production, this time  in Australia and called the Gross Household Product, found it to be roughly equal to that of the goods and services produced in the market economy, or 340 billion Australian dollars each.[5]

However, since market production is counted in public accounts and home production is not, the movement of a child from home-care to institutional care is recorded as economic “growth”; the opposite movement becomes economic “decline.”  At best, this is deeply misleading; at worst, it indirectly discourages parents’ investment in their children’s human capital.  In addition, this practice unfairly values the work of parents at home.

Among the EU member states, family policies have recently favored expanding paid parental leaves, with the most extensive system found in Sweden.  Thereafter, the form of child care most favored by the member states is group day care.  Neither of these systems gives help to parents at home.

However, eleven EU states — Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia — provide some support after maternity and paternity leaves for parents caring for their own small children full time.  Such policies recognize the value of full-time parental care as enhancing human capital.

The model program here is found in the Czech Republic.  Following maternity and paternity leaves, a father or mother choosing to provide “care of the child personally and full time” can apply to receive “parental benefits” until the child turns four, or if the child has a disability, until the child turns seven.  Depending on the length of support, the benefit ranges between about 300 and 450 Euros per month.  Only one parent at a time can receive this benefit.[6]

Another example of innovative policy was the law adopted in Sweden in 1994.  It created a Child Maintenance Allowance providing 2,000 kronor (or about 250 Euros) per month for each child cared for fulltime at home, up to age three.  This annualized allowance of 24,000 kronor compared to the average 80,000 kronor annual cost to the public for placing a child in day care.  (A smaller allowance was paid to parents who used day care for 30 hours per week or less.)  The measure proved highly popular among Swedish parents.  Between July 1, 1994, and January 1, 1995, or a mere six months, the relevant proportion of children in regular collective day care fell from 56 percent to 30 percent.  Over 167,000 parents signed up for the benefit, 70 percent of all Swedish families with children between the ages of one and three. Clearly, this measure met a real need. At the same time, it reduced overall public expenditures.  Unfortunately, a change in government led to a repeal of this law in early 1995.[7]  All the same, it remains a model program for future application.

Most existing parental benefit systems in the EU have a common limitation.  The benefit comes through the nation’s social security system, and the claimant must have been working and so paying taxes to receive the aid.  In consequence, even for those governments which are most generous in this area, full time child care does not exist as a long-term alternative to work in the market economy.[8]  A clear solution is simply to recognize full-time child care (say, through age five of the youngest child) within a marital union as valued work, consider such labor as creating eligibility for the parental care benefit, and fix the benefit at some proportion (perhaps 35 percent) of the nation’s average monthly wage.  The latter provision should guard against the moral hazard of abuse of the benefit.

Another example of innovative policy comes from the United States.  Currently, parents who place their young children in substitute day care can claim a credit against their income taxes of up to $2400 per year.  The proposed Parents’ Tax Relief Act, drafted by Senator Sam Brownback and Representative Lee Terry, would extend the same tax credit to parents caring full time for their children at home.  In addition, this model legislation would restore full “income splitting” to the American income tax, a technique that gives indirect recognition to the full-time parent at home.  It would double the existing income tax deduction for each child, so leaving families with more of their earned income while raising children.  And it would grant pension credit to the parents caring for small children in their home.

The conditions of the 21st Century require both more flexibility and more creativity in reconciling the demands of work and home.  Throughout the EU, fertility remains well below the replacement level.  Surveys routinely show “actual fertility” to be below “desired fertility,” suggesting that existing policies are inadequate to the challenge.

Family autonomy is the new imperative, which all policies should respect.  Paid and unpaid parental leaves, child allowances, tax deductions and tax credits rising with the number of children, child-care support ranging from group care to home parental care, part-time work:  all these have places in flexible family policies that expand the child care choices of all parents in Europe.

The truly exciting prospect is that new technologies will help heal, to some degree, the divide between work and home caused by the old industrial imperative.  The economy of the future will, I believe, be increasingly decentralized.  The personal computer has already delivered enormous economic power to the home.  Telecommuting as a form of work is still in its infancy and has huge potential for the future.  The economic democracy of the Internet gives small, home-based businesses a potential global market where vast corporate size can be countered by personal creativity.  Millions of jobs in the market economy have already moved home, so restoring the productive household.  Such a shift also reduces the carbon footprints of all persons involved.  Public policy should encourage this historic shift, for it can only benefit families. Measures contemplated in America include simplified, favorable tax treatment for home offices and tax credits for businesses which experiment in telecommuting initiatives. 

Moreover, this partial closing of the great divide between home and work should also help close the fertility gap, which threatens European social and political cohesiveness and fiscal stability.


1 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (New York:  Farrar & Rinehart, 1944).

2 See, as examples:  George Alter, “Work and Income in the Family Economy:  Belgium,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 15 (Autumn 1984), 225-276; Kari Skrede, “Familjeokonomi og forsorgerlonn,” Tidskrift for Samfunnsforskning 25 (1984), 359-388; Harold Benenson, “The ‘Family Wage’ and Working Women’s Consciousness in Britain, 1880-1914,” Politics and Society 19 (March 1991), 230-239; and Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, “Class Struggle and the Persistence of the Working Class Family,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 1 (1977), 243-244.

3 Gary Becker, “Human Capital,” The   Concise Encyclopedia of Economics; at http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/    HumanCapital.html (24/1/2009).

4 See:  Wendy A. Goldberg, Ellen Greenberger, and Stacy K. Nagel, “Employment and Achievement:  Mothers’ Work Involvement in Relation to Children’s Achievement Behaviors and Mothers’ Parenting Behaviors,” Child Development 67 (1996), 1512-1527; Matthijs Kalmijn, “Mothers Occupational Status and Children’s Schooling,” American Sociological Review 59 (1994), 257-275; Chandra Muller, “Maternal Employment, Parent Involvement, and Mathematics Achievement Among Adolescents,” Journal of Marriage and Family 57 (1995), 85-100; Frank P. Stafford, “Women’s Work, Sibling Competition, and Children’s School Performance,” The American Economic Review 77 (1987), 972-980; Valerie Kincade Oppheimer, “Women’s Rising Employment and the Future of the Family in Industrial Societies,” Population and Development Review 20 (1994), 293-336; and Jennifer Roback Morse, Love and Economics:  Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work (Dallas, TX:  Spence, 2001), 3-22.

5 Reuben Gronau, “Home Production - A Forgotten Industry,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 62 (1980), 408-16; John Devereux and Luis Locay, “Specialization, Household Production, and the Measurement of Economic Growth,” The American Economic Review 82 (1992), 399-403; and Duncan Ironmonger, “The Domestic Economy:  $340 Billion of G.H.P., in The Family:  There Is No Other Way (Melbourne:  Australian Family Association, 1996), 132-146.

6 José Manuel Valle, “Report on Family Policy in EU Member States,” privately commissioned research paper, 5 January 2009.

7 Tuve Skånberg, “An International Child-Care Policy Model:  The Swedish Child Maintenance Allowance of 1994,” Family Policy Review 1 (Fall 2003), 71-80.

8 Valle, “Report on Family Policy in EU Member States.”





Copyright © 1997-2012 The Howard Center: Permission granted for unlimited use. Credit required. | contact: webmaster