Story type: Essay
You know how the heart is subject to freshets; you know how the mother, always loving her child, yet seeing in it some new wile of affection, will catch it up and cover it with kisses and break forth in a rapture of loving. Such a kind of heart-glow fell from the Savior upon that young man who said to him, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” It is said, “Then Jesus, beholding him, loved him.”
—Henry Ward Beecher.
The influence of Henry Ward Beecher upon his time was marked. And now the stream of his life is lost amid the ocean of our being. As a single drop of aniline in a barrel of water will tint the whole mass, so has the entire American mind been colored through the existence of this one glowing personality. He placed a new interpretation on religion, and we are different people because he lived.
He was not constructive, not administrative–he wrote much, but as literature his work has small claim on immortality. He was an orator, and the business of the orator is to inspire other men to think and act for themselves.
Orators live but in memory. Their destiny is to be the sweet, elusive fragrance of oblivion–the thyme and mignonette of things that were.
The limitations in the all-around man are by-products which are used by destiny in the making of orators. The welling emotions, the vivid imagination, the forgetfulness of self, the abandon to feeling–all these things in Wall Street are spurious coin. No prudent man was ever an orator–no cautious man ever made a multitude change its mind, when it had vowed it would not.
Oratory is indiscretion set to music.
The great orator is great on account of his weaknesses as well as on account of his strength. So why should we expect the orator to be the impeccable man of perfect parts?
These essays attempt to give the man–they are neither a vindication nor an apology.
Edmund Gosse has recently said something so wise and to the point on the subject of biography that I can not resist the temptation to quote him:
If the reader will but bear with me so far as to endure the thesis that the first theoretical object of the biographer should be indiscretion, not discretion, I will concede almost everything practical to delicacy. But this must be granted to me: that the aim of all portraiture ought to be the emphasizing of what makes the man different from, not like, other men. The widow almost always desires that her deceased hero should be represented as exactly like all other respectable men, only a little grander, a little more glorified. She hates, as only a bad biographer can hate, the telling of the truth with respect to those faults and foibles which made the light and shade of his character. This, it appears, was the primitive view of biography. The mass of medieval memorials was of the “expanded-tract” order: it was mainly composed of lives of the saints, tractates in which the possible and the impossible were mingled in inextricable disorder, but where every word was intended directly for edification. Here the biographer was a moralist whose hold upon exact truth of statement was very loose indeed, but who was determined that every word he wrote should strengthen his readers in the faith. Nor is this generation of biographers dead today. Half the lives of the great and good men, which are published in England and America, are expanded tracts. Let the biographer be tactful, but do not let him be cowardly; let him cultivate delicacy, but avoid its ridiculous parody, prudery.
And I also quote this from James Anthony Froude:
The usual custom in biography is to begin with the brightest side and to leave the faults to be discovered afterwards. It is dishonest and it does not answer. Of all literary sins, Carlyle himself detested most a false biography. Faults frankly acknowledged are frankly forgiven. Faults concealed work always like poison. Burns’ offenses were made no secret of. They are now forgotten, and Burns stands without a shadow on him, the idol of his countrymen.
Byron’s diary was destroyed, and he remains and will remain with a stain of suspicion about him, which revives and will revive, and will never be wholly obliterated. “The truth shall make you free” in biography as in everything else. Falsehood and concealment are a great man’s worst enemy.
* * * * *
Henry Ward Beecher was born at Litchfield, Connecticut, June Twenty-third, Eighteen Hundred Thirteen. He was the eighth child of Lyman and Roxana Foote Beecher. Like Lincoln and various other great men, Beecher had two mothers: the one who gave him birth, and the one who cared for him as he grew up. Beecher used to take with him on his travels an old daguerreotype of his real mother, and in the cover of the case, beneath the glass, was a lock of her hair–fair in color, and bright as if touched by the kiss of the summer sun. Often he would take this picture out and apostrophize it, just as he would the uncut gems that he always carried in his pockets. “My first mother,” he used to call her; and to him she stood as a sort of deity. “My first mother stands to me for love; my second mother for discipline; my father for justice,” he once said to Halliday.
I am not sure that Beecher had a well-defined idea of either discipline or justice, but love to him was a very vivid and personal reality. He knew what it meant–infinite forgiveness, a lifelong, yearning tenderness, a Something that suffereth long and is kind. This he preached for fifty years, and he preached little else. Lyman Beecher proclaimed the justice of God; Henry Ward Beecher told of His love. Lyman Beecher was a logician, but Henry Ward was a lover. There is a task on hand for the man who attempts to prove that Nature is kind, or that God is love. Perhaps man himself, with all his imperfections, gives us the best example of love that the universe has to offer. In preaching the love of God, Henry Ward Beecher revealed his own; for oratory, like literature, is only a confession.
“My first mother is always pleading for me–she reaches out her arms to me–her delicate, long, tapering fingers stroke my hair–I hear her voice, gentle and low!” Do you say this is the language of o’erwrought emotion? I say to you it is simply the language of love. This mother, dead and turned to dust, who passed out when the boy was scarce three years old, stood to him for the ideal. Love, anyway, is a matter of the imagination, and he who can not imagine can not love, and love is from within. The lover clothes the beloved in the garments of his fancy, and woe to him if he ever loses the power to imagine.
Have you not often noticed how the man or woman whose mother died before a time that the child could recall, and whose memory clusters around a faded picture and a lock of hair–how this person is thrice blessed in that the ideal is always a shelter when the real palls? Love is a refuge and a defense. The Law of Compensation is kind: Lincoln lived, until the day of his death, bathed in the love of Nancy Hanks, that mother, worn, yellow and sad, who gave him birth, and yet whom he had never known. No child ever really lost its mother–nothing is ever lost. Men are really only grown-up children, and the longing to be mothered is not effaced by the passing years. The type is well shown in the life of Meissonier, whose mother died in his childhood, but she was near him to the last. In his journal he wrote this: “It is the morning of my seventieth birthday. What a long time to look back upon! This morning, at the hour my mother gave me birth, I wished my first thoughts to be of her. Dear Mother, how often have the tears risen at the remembrance of you! It was your absence–my longing for you–that made you so dear to me. The love of my heart goes out to you! Do you hear me, Mother, crying and calling for you? How sweet it must be to have a mother!”
* * * * *
One might suppose that a childless woman suddenly presented by Fate with an exacting husband and a brood of nine would soon be a candidate for nervous prostration; Sarah Porter Beecher, however, rose to the level of events, and looked after her household with diligence and a conscientious heart. Little Henry Ward was four years old and wore a red-flannel dress, outgrown by one of the girls. He was chubby, with a full-moon face and yellow curls, which were so much trouble to take care of that they were soon cut off, after he had set the example of cutting off two himself. He talked as though his mouth were full of hot mush. If sent to a neighbor’s on an errand, he usually forgot what he was sent for, or else explained matters in such a way that he brought back the wrong thing. His mother meant to be kind; her patience was splendid; and one’s heart goes out to her in sympathy when we think of her faithful efforts to teach the lesser catechism to this baby savage who much preferred to make mud-pies.
Little Henry Ward had a third mother who did him much gentle benefit, and that was his sister Harriet, two years his senior. These little child-mothers who take care of the younger members of the family deserve special seats in Paradise. Harriet taught little Henry Ward to talk plainly, to add four and four, and to look solemn when he did not feel so–and thus escape the strap behind the kitchen-door. His bringing-up was of the uncaressing, let-alone kind.
Lyman Beecher was a deal better than his religion; for his religion, like that of most people, was an inheritance, not an evolution. Piety settled down upon the household like a pall every Saturday at sundown; and the lessons taught were largely from the Old Testament.
These big, bustling, strenuous households are pretty good life-drill for the members. The children are taught self-reliance, to do without each other, to do for others, and the older members educate the younger ones. It is a great thing to leave children alone. Henry Ward Beecher has intimated in various places in his books how the whole Beecher brood loved their father, yet as precaution against misunderstanding they made the sudden sneak and the quick side-step whenever they saw him coming.
Village life with a fair degree of prosperity, but not too much, is an education in itself. The knowledge gained is not always classic, nor even polite, but it is all a part of the great, seething game of life. Henry Ward Beecher was not an educated man in the usual sense of the word. At school he carved his desk, made faces at the girls, and kept the place in a turmoil generally: doing the wrong thing, just like many another bumpkin. At home he carried in the wood, picked up chips, worked in the garden in Summer, and shoveled out the walks in Winter. He knew when the dishwater was worth saving to mix up with meal for the chickens, and when it should be put on the asparagus-bed or the rosebushes. He could make a lye-leach, knew that it was lucky to set hens on thirteen eggs, realized that hens’ eggs hatched in three weeks, and ducks’ in four. He knew when the berries ripened, where the crows nested, and could find the bee-trees by watching the flight of the bees after they had gotten their fill on the basswood-blossoms. He knew all the birds that sang in the branches–could tell what birds migrated and what not–was acquainted with the flowers and weeds and fungi–knew where the rabbits burrowed–could pick the milkweed that would cure warts, and tell the points of the compass by examining the bark of the trees. He was on familiar terms with all the ragamuffins in the village, and regarded the man who kept the livery-stable as the wisest person in New England, and the stage-driver as the wittiest.
Lyman Beecher was a graduate of Yale, and Henry Ward would have been, had he been able to pass the preparatory examinations. But he couldn’t, and finally he was bundled off to Amherst, very much as we now send boys to a business college when they get plucked at the high school. But it matters little–give the boys time–some of them ripen slowly, and others there be who know more at sixteen than they will ever know again, like street gamins with the wit of debauchees, rareripes at ten, and rotten at the core. “Delay adolescence,” wrote Doctor Charcot to an anxious mother; “delay adolescence, and you bank energy until it is needed. If your boy is stupid at fourteen, thank God! Dulness is a fulcrum and your son is getting ready to put a lever under the world.”
At Amherst, Henry Ward stood well at the foot of his class. He read everything except what was in the curriculum, and never allowed his studies to interfere with his college course. He reveled in the debating societies, and was always ready to thrash out any subject in wordy warfare against all comers. His temper was splendid, his good-nature sublime. If an opponent got the best of him he enjoyed it as much as the audience–he could wait his turn. The man who can laugh at himself, and who is not anxious to have the last word, is right in the suburbs of greatness.
However, the Beechers all had a deal of positivism in their characters. Thomas K. Beecher of Elmira, in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six, declared he would not shave until John C. Fremont was elected President. It is needless to add that he wore whiskers the rest of his life.
When Henry Ward was nineteen his father received a call to become President of Lane Theological Seminary at Cincinnati, and Henry Ward accompanied him as assistant. The stalwart old father had now come to recognize the worth of his son, and for the first time parental authority was waived and they were companions. They were very much alike–exuberant health, energy plus, faith and hope to spare. And Henry Ward now saw that there was a gentle, tender and yearning side to his father’s nature, into which the world caught only glimpses. Lyman Beecher was not free–he was bound by a hagiograph riveted upon his soul; and so to a degree his whole nature was cramped and tortured in his struggles between the “natural man” and the “spiritual.” The son was taught by antithesis, and inwardly vowed he would be free. The one word that looms large in the life of Beecher is Liberty.
* * * * *
Henry Ward Beecher died aged seventy-four, having preached since he was twenty-three. During that time he was pastor of three churches–two years at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, six years at Indianapolis, and forty-three years in Brooklyn. It was in Eighteen Hundred Thirty-seven that he became pastor of the Congregational Church at Lawrenceburg. This town was then a rival of Cincinnati. It had six churches–several more than were absolutely needed. The Baptists were strong, the Presbyterians were strenuous, the Episcopalians were exclusive, while the Congregationalists were at ebb-tide through the rascality of a preacher who had recently decamped and thrown a blanket of disgrace over the whole denomination for ten miles up the creek. Thus were things when Henry Ward Beecher assumed his first charge. The membership of the church was made up of nineteen women and one man. The new pastor was sexton as well as preacher–he swept out, rang the bell, lighted the candles and locked up after service.
Beecher remained in Lawrenceburg two years. The membership had increased to one hundred six men and seventy women. I suppose it will not be denied as an actual fact that women bolster the steeples so that they stay on the churches. From the time women held the rope and let Saint Paul down in safety from the wall in a basket, women have maintained the faith. But Beecher was a man’s preacher from first to last. He was a bold, manly man, making his appeal to men.
Two years at Lawrenceburg and he moved to Indianapolis, the capital of the State, his reputation having been carried thither by the member from Posey County, who incautiously boasted that his “deestrick” had the most powerful preacher of any town on the Ohio River.
At Indianapolis, Beecher was a success at once. He entered into the affairs of the people with an ease and a good nature that won the hearts of this semi-pioneer population. His “Lectures to Young Men,” delivered Sunday evenings to packed houses, still have a sale. This bringing religion down from the lofty heights of theology and making it a matter of every-day life was eminently Beecheresque. And the reason it was a success was because it fitted the needs of the people. Beecher expressed what the people were thinking. Mankind clings to the creed; we will not burn our bridges–we want the religion of our mothers, yet we crave the simple common-sense we can comprehend as well as the superstition we can’t. Beecher’s task was to rationalize orthodoxy so as to make it palatable to thinking minds. “I can’t ride two horses at one time,” once said Robert Ingersoll to Beecher, “but possibly I’ll be able to yet, for tomorrow I am going to hear you preach.” Then it was that Beecher offered to write Ingersoll’s epitaph, which he proceeded to do by scribbling two words on the back of an envelope, thus: “Robert Burns.”
But these men understood and had a thorough respect for each other. Once at a mass-meeting at Cooper Union, Beecher introduced Ingersoll as the “first, foremost and most gifted of all living orators.”
And Ingersoll, not to be outdone, referred in his speech to Beecher as the “one orthodox clergyman in the world who has eliminated hell from his creed and put the devil out of church, and still stands in his pulpit.”
Six years at Indianapolis put Beecher in command of his armament. And Brooklyn, seeking a man of power, called him thither. His first sermon in Plymouth Church outlined his course; and the principles then laid down he was to preach for fifty years: the love of God; the life of Christ, not as a sacrifice, but as an example–our Elder Brother; and Liberty–liberty to think, to express, to act, to become.
It would have been worth going miles to see this man as he appeared at Plymouth Church those first years of his ministry. Such a specimen of mental, spiritual and physical manhood Nature produces only once in a century. Imagine a man of thirty-five, when manhood has not yet left youth behind, height five feet ten, weight one hundred eighty, a body like that of a Greek god, and a mind poised, sure, serene, with a fund of good nature that could not be overdrawn; a face cleanly shaven; a wealth of blond hair falling to his broad shoulders; eyes of infinite blue–eyes like the eyes of Christ when He gazed upon the penitent thief on the cross, or eyes that flash fire, changing their color with the mood of the man–a radiant, happy man, the cheeriest, sunniest nature that ever dwelt in human body, with a sympathy that went out to everybody and everything–children, animals, the old, the feeble, the fallen–a man too big to be jealous, too noble to quibble, a man so manly that he would accept guilt rather than impute it to another. If he had been possessed of less love he would have been a stronger man. The generous nature lies open and unprotected–through its guilelessness it allows concrete rascality to come close enough to strike it. “One reason why Beecher had so many enemies was because he bestowed so many benefits,” said Rufus Choate.
Talmage did not discover himself until he was forty-six; Beecher was Beecher at thirty-five. He was as great then as he ever was–it was too much to ask that he should evolve into something more–Nature has to distribute her gifts. Had Beecher grown after his thirty-fifth year, as he grew from twenty-five to thirty-five, he would have been a Colossus that would have disturbed the equilibrium of the thinking world, and created revolution instead of evolution. The opposition toward great men is right and natural–it is a part of Nature’s plan to hold the balance true, “lest ye become as gods!”
* * * * *
I traveled with Major James B. Pond one lecture season, and during that time heard only two themes discussed, John Brown and Henry Ward Beecher. These were his gods. Pond fought with John Brown in Kansas, shoulder to shoulder, and it was only through an accident that he was not with Brown at Harpers Ferry, in which case his soul would have gone marching on with that of Old John Brown. From Eighteen Hundred Sixty to Eighteen Hundred Sixty-six Pond belonged to the army, and was stationed in Western Missouri, where there was no commissariat, where they took no prisoners, and where men like Jesse James lived, who never knew the war was over. Pond had so many notches cut on the butt of his pistol that he had ceased to count them.
He was big, brusk, quibbling, insulting, dictatorial, painstaking, considerate and kind. He was the most exasperating and lovable man I ever knew. He left a trail of enemies wherever he traveled, and the irony of fate is shown in that he was allowed to die peacefully in his bed.
I cut my relationship with him because I did not care to be pained by seeing his form dangling from the crossbeam of a telegraph-pole. When I lectured at Washington a policeman appeared at the box-office and demanded the amusement-license fee of five dollars. “Your authority?” roared Pond. And the policeman not being able to explain, Pond kicked him down the stairway, and kept his club as a souvenir. We got out on the midnight train before warrants could be served.
He would often push me into the first carriage when we arrived at a town, and sometimes the driver would say, “This is a private carriage,” or, “This rig is engaged,” and Pond would reply, “What’s that to me?–drive us to the hotel–you evidently don’t know whom you are talking to!” And so imperious was his manner that his orders were usually obeyed. Arriving at the hotel, he would hand out double fare. It was his rule to pay too much or too little. Yet as a manager he was perfection–he knew the trains to a minute, and always knew, too, what to do if we missed the first train, or if the train was late. At the hall he saw that every detail was provided for. If the place was too hot, or too cold, somebody got thoroughly damned. If the ventilation was bad, and he could not get the windows open, he would break them out. If you questioned his balance-sheet he would the next day flash up an expense-account that looked like a plumber’s bill and give you fifty cents as your share of the spoils. At hotels he always got a room with two beds, if possible. I was his prisoner–he was despotically kind–he regulated my hours of sleep, my meals, my exercise. He would throw intruding visitors downstairs as average men shoo chickens or scare cats. He was a bundle of profanity and unrest until after the lecture. Then we would go to our room, and he would talk like a windmill. He would crawl into his bed and I into mine, and then he would continue telling Beecher stories half the night, comparing me with Beecher to my great disadvantage. A dozen times I have heard him tell how Beecher would say, “Pond, never consult me about plans or explain details–if you do, our friendship ceases.” Beecher was glad to leave every detail of travel to Pond, and Pond delighted in assuming sole charge. Beecher never audited an account–he just took what Pond gave him and said nothing. In this Beecher was very wise–he managed Pond and Pond never knew it. Pond had a pride in paying Beecher as much as possible, and found gratification in giving the money to Beecher instead of keeping it. He was immensely proud of his charge and grew to have an idolatrous regard for Beecher. Pond’s brusk ways amused Beecher, and the Osawatomie experience made him a sort of hero in Beecher’s eyes.
Beecher took Pond at his true value, regarded his wrath as a child’s tantrum, and let him do most of the talking as well as the business. And Beecher’s great welling heart touched a side of Pond’s nature that few knew existed at all–a side that he masked with harshness; for, in spite of his perversity, Pond had his virtues–he was simple as a child, and so ingenuous that deception with him was impossible. He could not tell a lie so you would not know it.
He served Beecher with a doglike loyalty, and an honesty beyond suspicion. They were associated fourteen years, traveled together over three hundred thousand miles, and Pond paid to Beecher two hundred forty thousand dollars.
* * * * *
Beecher and Tilton became acquainted about the year Eighteen Hundred Sixty. Beecher was at that time forty-seven years old; Tilton was twenty-five. The influence of the older man over the younger was very marked. Tilton became one of the most zealous workers in Plymouth Church: he attended every service, took part in the Wednesday evening prayer-meeting, helped take up the collection, and was a constant recruiting force. Tilton was a reporter, and later an editorial writer on different New York and Brooklyn dailies. Beecher’s Sunday sermon supplied Tilton the cue for his next day’s leader. And be it said to his honor, he usually gave due credit, and in various ways helped the cause of Plymouth Church by booming the reputation of its pastor.
Tilton was possessed of a deal of intellectual nervous force. His mind was receptive, active, versatile. His all-round newspaper experience had given him an education, and he could express himself acceptably on any theme. He wrote children’s stories, threw off poetry in idle hours, penned essays, skimmed the surface of philosophy, and dived occasionally into theology. But his theology and his philosophy were strictly the goods put out by Beecher, distilled through the Tilton cosmos. He occasionally made addresses at social gatherings, and evolved into an orator whose reputation extended to Staten Island.
Beecher’s big, boyish heart went out to this bright and intelligent young man–they were much in each other’s company. People said they looked alike; although one was tall and slender and the other was inclined to be stout. Beecher wore his hair long, and now Tilton wore his long, too. Beecher affected a wide-brimmed slouch-hat; Tilton wore one of similar style, with brim a trifle wider. Beecher wore a large, blue cloak; Tilton wrapped himself ’round with a cloak one shade more ultramarine than Beecher’s.
Tilton’s wife was very much like Tilton–both were intellectual, nervous, artistic. They were so much alike that they give us a hint of what a hell this world would be if all mankind were made in one mold. But there was this difference between them: Mrs. Tilton was proud, while Tilton was vain. They were only civil toward each other because they had vowed they would be. They did not throw crockery, because to do so would have been bad form.
Beecher was a great joker–hilarious, laughing, and both witty and humorous. I was going to say he was wise, but that isn’t the word. Tilton lacked wit–he never bubbled except as a matter of duty. Both Mr. and Mrs. Tilton greatly enjoyed the society of Beecher, for, besides being a great intellectual force, his presence was an antiseptic ‘gainst jaundice and introspection. And Beecher loved them both, because they loved him, and because he loved everybody. They supplied him a foil for his wit, a receptacle for his overflow of spirit, a flint on which to strike his steel. Mrs. Tilton admired Beecher a little more than her husband did–she was a woman. Tilton was glad that his wife liked Beecher–it brought Beecher to his house; and if Beecher admired Tilton’s wife–why, was not this a proof that Tilton and Beecher were alike? I guess so! Mrs. Tilton was musical, artistic, keen of brain, emotional, with all a fine-fibered woman’s longings, hopes and ideals.
So matters went drifting on the tide, and the years went by, as the years will.
Mrs. Tilton became a semi-invalid, the kind that doctors now treat with hypophosphites, beef-iron-and-wine, cod-liver oil, and massage by the right attendant. They call it congenital anemia–a scarcity of the red corpuscle.
Some doctors there be who do not yet know that the emotions control the secretions, and a perfect circulation is a matter of mind. Anyway, what can the poor Galenite do in a case like this–his pills are powerless, his potions inane! Tilton knew that his wife loved Beecher, and he also fully realized that in this she was only carrying out a little of the doctrine of freedom that he taught, and that he claimed for himself. For a time Tilton was beautifully magnanimous. Occasionally Mrs. Tilton had spells of complete prostration, when she thought she was going to die. At such times her husband would send for Beecher to come and administer extreme unction.
Instead of dying, the woman would get well.
After one such attack, Tilton taunted his wife with her quick recovery. It was a taunt that pulled tight on the corners of his mouth; it was lacking in playfulness. Beecher was present at the bedside of the propped-up invalid. They turned on Tilton, did these two, and flayed him with their agile wit and ready tongues. Tilton protested they were wrong–he was not jealous–the idea!
But that afternoon he had his hair cut, and he discarded the slouch-hat for one with a stiff brim.
It took six months for his hair to grow to a length sufficient to indicate genius.
* * * * *
Beecher’s great heart was wrung and stung by the tangle of events in which he finally found himself plunged. That his love for Mrs. Tilton was great there is no doubt, and for the wife with whom he had lived for over a score of years he had a profound pity and regard. She had not grown with him. Had she remained in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and married a well-to-do grocer, all for her would have been well. Beecher belonged to the world, and this his wife never knew: she thought she owned him. To interest her and to make her shine before the world, certain literary productions were put out with her name as author, on request of Robert Bonner, but all this was a pathetic attempt by her husband to conceal the truth of her mediocrity. She spied upon him, watched his mail, turned his pockets, and did all the things no wife should do, lest perchance she be punished by finding her suspicions true. Wives and husbands must live by faith. The wife who is miserable until she makes her husband “confess all” is never happy afterwards. Beecher could not pour out his soul to his wife–he had to watch her mood and dole out to her the platitudes she could digest–never with her did he reach abandon. But the wife strove to do her duty–she was a good housekeeper, economical and industrious, and her very virtues proved a source of exasperation to her husband–he could not hate her.
It was Mrs. Beecher herself who first discovered the relationship existing between her husband and Mrs. Tilton. She accused her husband, and he made no denial–he offered her her liberty. But this she did not want. Beecher promised to break with Mrs. Tilton. They parted–parted forever in sweet sorrow.
And the next week they met again.
The greater the man before the public, the more he outpours himself, the more his need for mothering in the quiet of his home. All things are equalized, and with the strength of the sublime, spiritual nature goes the weakness of a child. Beecher was an undeveloped boy to the day of his death.
Beecher at one time had a great desire to stand square before the world. Major Pond, on Beecher’s request, went to Mrs. Beecher and begged her to sue for a divorce. At the same time Tilton was asked to secure a divorce from his wife. When all parties were free, Beecher would marry Mrs. Tilton and face the world an honest man–nothing to hide–right out under the clear, blue sky, blown upon by the free winds of heaven!
This was his heart’s desire.
But all negotiations failed. Mrs. Beecher would not give up her husband, and Tilton was too intent on revenge–and cash–to even consider the matter. Then came the crash.
* * * * *
Tilton sued Beecher for one hundred thousand dollars’ damages for alienating his wife’s affection. It took five months to try the case. The best legal talent in the land was engaged. The jury disagreed and the case was not tried again.
Had Mrs. Beecher applied for a divorce on statutory grounds, no court would have denied her prayer. In actions for divorce, guilt does not have to be proved–it is assumed. But when one man sues another for money damages, the rulings are drawn finer and matters must be proved. That is where Tilton failed in his lawsuit.
At the trial, Beecher perjured himself like a gentleman to protect Mrs. Tilton; Mrs. Tilton waived the truth for Beecher’s benefit; and Mrs. Beecher swore black was white, because she did not want to lose her husband. Such a precious trinity of prevaricators is very seldom seen in a courtroom, a place where liars much do congregate. Judge and jury knew they lied and respected them the more, for down in the hearts of all men is a feeling that the love-affairs of a man and a woman are sacred themes, and a bulwark of lies to protect the holy of holies is ever justifiable.
Tilton was the one person who told the truth, and he was universally execrated for it. Love does not leave a person without reason. And there is something in the thought of money as payment to a man for a woman’s love that is against nature.
Tilton lost the woman’s love, and he would balm his lacerated heart with lucre! Money? God help us–a man should earn money. We sometimes hear of men who subsist on women’s shame; but what shall we say of a man who would turn parasite and live in luxury on a woman’s love–and this woman by him now spurned and scorned! The faults and frailties of men and women caught in the swirl of circumstances are not without excuse, but the cold plottings to punish them and the desire to thrive by their faults are hideous.
The worst about a double life is not its immorality–it is that the relationship makes a man a liar. The universe is not planned for duplicity–all the energy we have is needed in our business, and he who starts out on the pathway of untruth finds himself treading upon brambles and nettles which close behind him and make return impossible. The further he goes the worse the jungle of poison-oak and ivy, which at last circles him round in strangling embrace. He who escapes the clutch of a life of falsehood is as one in a million. Victor Hugo has pictured the situation when he tells of the man whose feet are caught in the bed of bird-lime. He attempts to jump out, but only sinks deeper–he flounders, calls for help, and puts forth all his strength. He is up to his knees–to his hips–his waist–his neck, and at last only hands are seen reaching up in mute appeal to heaven. But the heavens are as brass, and soon where there was once a man is only the dumb indifference of Nature.
The only safe course is the open road of truth. Lies once begun, pile up; and lies require lies to bolster them.
Mrs. Tilton had made a written confession to her husband, but this she repudiated in court, declaring it was given “in terrorem.” Now she had only words of praise and vindication for Beecher.
Mrs. Beecher sat by her husband’s side all through the long trial. For a man to leave the woman with whom he has lived a lifetime, and who is the mother of his children, is out of the question. What if she does lack intellect and spirituality! He has endured her; aye! he has even been happy with her at times–the relationship has been endurable–’twere imbecility, and death for both, to break it.
Beecher and his wife would stand together.
Mrs. Tilton’s lips had been sanctified by love, and were sealed, though her heart did break.
The jury stood nine for Beecher and three against. Major Pond, the astute, construed this into a vindication–Beecher was not guilty!
The first lecture after the trial was given at Alexandria Bay. Pond had sold out for five hundred dollars. Beecher said it was rank robbery–no one would be there. The lecture was to be in the grove at three o’clock in the afternoon. In the forenoon, boats were seen coming from east and west and north–excursion-boats laden with pilgrims; sailboats, rowboats, skiffs, and even birch-bark canoes bearing red men. The people came also in carts and wagons, and on horseback. An audience of five thousand confronted the lecturer.
The man who had planned the affair had banked on his knowledge of humanity–the people wanted to see and hear the individual who had been whipped naked at the cart’s tail, and who still lived to face the world smilingly, bravely, undauntedly.
Major Pond was paid the five hundred dollars as agreed. The enterprise had netted its manager over a thousand dollars–he was a rich man anyway–things had turned out as he had prophesied, and in the exuberance of his success he that night handed Mr. Beecher a check for two hundred fifty dollars, saying, “This is for you with my love–it is outside of any arrangement made with Major Pond.” After they had retired to their rooms, Beecher handed the check to Pond, and said, as his blue eyes filled with tears, “Major, you know what to do with this?” And Major Pond said, “Yes.”
Tilton went to Europe, leaving his family behind. But Major Pond made it his business to see that Mrs. Tilton wanted for nothing that money could buy. Beecher never saw Mrs. Tilton, to converse with her, again. She outlived him a dozen years. On her deathbed she confessed to her sister that her denials as to her relations with Beecher were untrue. “He loved me,” she said; “he loved me, and I would have been less than woman had I not loved him. This love will be my passport to Paradise–God understands.” And so she died.
* * * * *
Tilton was by nature an unsuccessful man. He was proudly aristocratic, lordly, dignified, jealous, mentally wiggling and spiritually jiggling. His career was like that of a race-horse which makes a record faster than he can ever attain again, and thus is forever barred from all slow-paced competitions. Tilton aspired to be a novelist, an essayist, a poet, an orator. His performances in each of these lines, unfortunately, were not bad enough to damn him; and his work done in fair weather was so much better than he could do in foul that he was caught by the undertow. And as for doing what Adirondack Murray did–get right down to hardpan and wash dishes in a dishpan–he couldn’t do it. Like an Indian, he would starve before he would work–and he came near it, gaining a garret-living, teaching languages and doing hack literary work in Paris, where he went to escape the accumulation of contempt that came his way just after the great Beecher trial.
Before this, Tilton started out to star the country as a lecturer. He evidently thought he could climb to popularity over the wreck of Henry Ward Beecher. Even had he wrecked Beecher completely, it is very likely he would have gone down in the swirl, and become literary flotsam and jetsam just the same.
Tilton had failed to down his man, and men who are failures do not draw on the lecture platform. The auditor has failure enough at home, God knows! and what he wants when he lays down good money for a lecture-ticket is to annex himself to a success.
Tilton’s lecture was called, “The Problem of Life”–a title which had the advantage of allowing the speaker to say anything he wished to say on any subject and still not violate the unities. I heard Tilton give this lecture twice, and it was given from start to finish in exactly the same way. It contained much learning–had flights of eloquence, bursts of bathos, puffs of pathos, but not a smile in the whole hour and a half. It was faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, dead perfection–no more. It was so perfect that some people thought it great. The man was an actor and had what is called platform presence. He would walk on the stage, carrying his big, blue cloak over his arm, his slouch-hat in his hand–for he clung to these Beecher properties to the last, even claiming that Beecher was encroaching on his preserve in wearing them.
He would bow as stiffly and solemnly as a new-made judge. Then he would toss the cloak on a convenient sofa, place the big hat on top of it, and come down to the footlights, deliberately removing his yellow kid gloves. There was no introduction–he was the whole show and brooked no competition. He would begin talking as he removed the gloves; he would get one glove off and hold it in the other hand, seemingly lost in his speech. From time to time he would emphasize his remarks by beating the palm of his gloved hand with the loose glove. By the time the lecture was half over, both gloves would be lying on the table; unlike the performance of Sir Edwin Arnold, who, during his readings, always wore one white kid glove and carried its mate in the gloved hand from beginning to end.
Theodore Tilton’s lectures were consummate art, done by a handsome, graceful and cultured man in a red necktie, but they did not carry enough caloric to make them go. They seemed to lack vibrations. Art without a message is for the people who love art for art’s sake, and God does not care much for these, otherwise he would not have made so few of them.
* * * * *
Lyman Abbott sums up his estimate of the worth of his lifelong friend and literary associate, Henry Ward Beecher, in the following words:
“It was in the pulpit that Beecher was seen at his best. His mastery of the English tongue, his dramatic power, his instinctive art of impersonation, which had become a second nature, his vivid imagination, his breadth of intellectual view, the catholicity of his sympathies, his passionate enthusiasm, which made for the moment his immediate theme seem to him the one theme of transcendent importance, his quaint humor alternating with genuine pathos, and above all his simple and singularly unaffected devotional nature, made him as a preacher without a peer in his own time and country. His favorite theme was love: love to man was to him the fulfilment of all law; love of God was the essence of all Christianity. Retaining to the day of his death the forms and phrases of the New England theology in which he had been reared, he poured into them a new meaning and gave to them a new significance.
“He probably did more than any other man in America to lead the Puritan churches from a faith which regarded God as a moral governor, the Bible as a book of laws, and religion as obedience to a conscience, to a faith which regards God as a father, the Bible as a book of counsels, and religion as a life of liberty in love.”
As a sample of Beecher’s eloquence, this extract from his sermon on the death of Lincoln reveals his quality as well perhaps as anything he ever said:
The joy of the Nation came upon us suddenly, with such a surge as no words can describe. Men laughed, embraced one another, sang and prayed, and many could only weep for gladness.
In one short hour, joy had no pulse. The sorrow was so terrible that it stunned sensibility. The first feeling was the least, and men wanted to get strength to feel. Other griefs belong always to some one in chief, but this belonged to all. Men walked for hours as though a corpse lay in their houses. The city forgot to roar. Never did so many hearts in so brief a time touch two such boundless feelings. It was the uttermost of joy and the uttermost of sorrow–noon and midnight without a space between. We should not mourn, however, because the departure of the President was so sudden. When one is prepared to die, the suddenness of death is a blessing. They that are taken awake and watching, as the bridegroom dressed for the wedding, and not those who die in pain and stupor, are blessed. Neither should we mourn the manner of his death. The soldier prays that he may die by the shot of the enemy in the hour of victory, and it was meet that he should be joined in a common experience in death with the brave men to whom he had been joined in all his sympathy and life.
This blow was but the expiring rebellion. Epitomized in this foul act we find the whole nature and disposition of slavery. It is fit that its expiring blow should be such as to take away from men the last forbearance, the last pity, and fire the soul with invincible determination that the breeding system of such mischiefs and monsters shall be forever and utterly destroyed. We needed not that he should put on paper that he believed in slavery, who, with treason, with murder, with cruelty infernal, hovered round that majestic man to destroy his life. He was himself the lifelong sting with which Slavery struck at Liberty, and he carried the poison that belonged to Slavery; and as long as this Nation lasts it will never be forgotten that we have had one Martyr-President–never, never while time lasts, while heaven lasts, while hell rocks and groans, will it be forgotten that Slavery by its minions slew him, and in slaying him made manifest its whole nature and tendency. This blow was aimed at the life of the Government. Some murders there have been that admitted shades of palliation, but not such a one as this–without provocation, without reason, without temptation–sprung from the fury of a heart cankered to all that is pure and just.
The blow has failed of its object. The Government stands more solid today than any pyramid of Egypt. Men love liberty and hate slavery today more than ever before. How naturally, how easily, the Government passed into the hands of the new President, and I avow my belief that he will be found a man true to every instinct of liberty, true to the whole trust that is imposed in him, vigilant of the Constitution, careful of the laws, wise for liberty: in that he himself for his life long, has known what it is to suffer from the stings of slavery, and to prize liberty from the bitter experience of his own life. Even he that sleeps has by this event been clothed with new influence. His simple and weighty words will be gathered like those of Washington, and quoted by those who, were he alive, would refuse to listen. Men will receive a new access to patriotism. I swear you on the altar of his memory to be more faithful to that country for which he perished. We will, as we follow his hearse, swear a new hatred to that slavery against which he warred, and which in vanquishing him has made him a martyr and conqueror. I swear you by the memory of this martyr to hate slavery with an unabatable hatred, and to pursue it. We will admire the firmness of this man in justice, his inflexible conscience for the right, his gentleness and moderation of spirit, which not all the hate of party could turn to bitterness. And I swear you to follow his justice, his moderation, his mercy. How can I speak to that twilight million to whom his name was as the name of an angel of God, and whom God sent before them to lead them out of the house of bondage? O thou Shepherd of Israel, Thou that didst comfort Thy people of old, to Thy care we commit these helpless and long-wronged and grieved.
And now the martyr is moving in triumphal march, mightier than one alive. The Nation rises up at every stage of his coming; cities and States are his pall-bearers, and the cannon beat the hours in solemn progression; dead, dead, dead, he yet speaketh. Is Washington dead? Is Hampden dead? Is David?
Four years ago, O Illinois, we took from your midst an untried man from among the people. Behold! we return him to you a mighty conqueror; not thine any more, but the Nation’s–not ours, but the world’s. Give him place, O ye prairies! in the midst of this great continent shall rest a sacred treasure to myriads who shall pilgrim to that shrine to kindle anew their zeal and patriotism. Ye winds that move over mighty spaces of the West, chant his requiem! Ye people, behold the martyr whose blood, as so many articulate words, pleads for fidelity, for law, for Liberty!
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