Free Love

Robert Shaplen


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McNally Jackson Books
16 April 2024
ISBN: 9781946022912
264 pages

From the publisher

Foreword by Louis Menand

A wry, instructive, and hugely entertaining account of “one of the most sensational trials in American history” (New York Times Book Review), one that echoes our own ongoing social and political battles.

On the night of July 3, 1870, Elizabeth Tilton confessed to her husband that she’d had an affair with their pastor, Henry Ward Beecher. This secret would soon transfix America, for Beecher was the most famous preacher of the day, founder of the most fashionable church in Brooklyn Heights, a presidential hopeful, an influential supporter of Abolition, and a supporter of the campaign for women’s suffrage. When Beecher tried to silence the Tiltons, it was a whisper network of suffragists, notably Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who spread news of the affair, and it was the radical Victoria Woodhull—an outspoken proponent of “free love”—who seized on it, as political dynamite, to blow up the myth of monogamy among the political elite. Her public accusations led to even more public trials, which shocked the country and divided the most progressive thinkers of the era.

In 1953, the journalist Robert Shaplen revisited the Tilton-Beecher affair in a series of articles for The New Yorker, relying on 3,000 pages of contemporary accounts—court transcripts, love-letters, newspaper reports and illustrations, even political cartoons—to reanimate a scandal that shook the American reform movement and to expose a strand of America’s cultural DNA that remains recognizable today.

“One of the most sensational trials in American history . . . Shaplen tells the story with unvarnished realism against a background of circumstantial detail . . . In reviving what the author calls the ‘passion drama’ of the period he has brought a celebrated case into contemporary focus and has done it tellingly, assembling the record with stark precision and linking it closely to the moral and religious attitudes of the day.” —Ishbel Ross, New York Times

“Remarkably level-headed and absorbing . . . Shaplen does not render a verdict, but he gives us the facts we need to reach our own.” Louis Menand, from the Foreword

“A fascinating account by a ‘far-flung correspondent’ follows every nuance of the Henry Ward Beecher adultery scandal of 1870 . . . Shaplen’s account of Beecher and his ‘Gospel of Love’ is a wonderfully spirited portrait of this ‘powerful symbol of the times’ . . . An utterly engaging historical excavation of a passion play both farcical and resounding.”Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

Free Love came out in 1954, and it’s fun to view this much older affair through the lens of Shaplen’s durable midcentury elegance—looking back in time twice. And yet we may as well be in the present . . . To be sure, Shaplen knows how to draw the preacher and his cohort into the currents of their time.”—Dan Piepenbring, Harper’s Magazine

“This droll and waggish chronicle of an American media frenzy from journalist Shaplen revels in the eccentricity of 19th-century elites . . . Shaplen’s eye for detail creates a vision of sweaty, prurient absurdity in postbellum America. This enthralls.”Publishers Weekly

“A fascinating account of the great scandal.”TIME