The Beecher-Tilton Scandal | The Nation


The Beecher-Tilton Scandal

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You want a good sex scandal? This one from the nineteenth century had it all--and more.

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Mr. Beecher's explanation of the letters from which Tilton published extracts six weeks ago only appeared on Friday last. It ought to have appeared at the earliest immediately after Tilton's letter to Dr. Bacon; at the latest, immediately after Tilton's charges before the committee. Every day of the subsequent delay lent some force to Tilton's accusations by sapping the public faith in Mr. Beecher. This delay was, in fact, the crowning blunder of a series of blunders, the like of which we have never seen or heard of. It would only have been justifiable if the committee which was trying the case had been a body in whose discretion the public had confidence, whose judgment it was eager to hear and likely to respect. But the committee was made up in a way which from the outset deprived it of all weight. It was composed of Mr. Beecher's personal friends and adherents, selected by himself; and we think we are correct in saying that not a man of them had any experience whatever in the conduct of judicial enquiries, or any training likely to take the place of experience, or any such reputation before the world as would lead outsiders to rely on his opinion. Mr. Beecher's waiting, therefore, until such a tribunal had "got all the evidence" before he, the principal actor in the transaction, made his statement, wore to some people the appearance of child's play; to most people we fear it wore the appearance of something worse. In truth, it added one more fact to the case against him, and a fact, too, which has seriously increased the difficulties of his defense. His audience last week was by no means as indulgent as it would have been a month earlier, and the explanation which he has finally produced is not the kind of explanation which people are disposed to excuse a man for not producing hastily. It is neither a cold, careful narrative of facts, nor a technical or closely-knit argument. It is an impassioned, pathetic, somewhat effusive, and highly-wrought history of four miserable years, fall of confessions of weakness and folly, of appeals ad misericordiam, and of descriptions of states of feeling--of the kind, in short, which is most effective when it is fresh. sad over the composition of which the world does not permit a man to linger. If it is to carry conviction successfully, it must come hot from the heart at the first moment, and not after the witnesses have all been heard and the plaintiff has put in all his documents.

It must be observed, too, and we fear most people have observed, that there is not in Mr. Beecher's long paper a single good reason to be found for his not having answered the first day. None of the evidence taken has been such as to alter his line of defense since Tilton lest spoke. Moreover, considering the depth of feeling with which he has deplored the effect on public morals of the prolongation of this wretched enquiry, we do not well know how the employment of a committee which could only sit two or three hours every evening is to be excused. If there ever was a case in which the court should have sat night and day until the work was done, it was this one. As matters have gone, the committee have had the air of men who enjoyed the dirty business in which they were engaged so much that they tried to keep it hanging on as long as possible, apparently unconscious that they had opened and were sitting over a cesspool the fumes of which were poisoning the whole country.

We mention all these things to show that we are fully conscious of all the weaknesses of Mr. Beecher's position. We have refrained thus far from expressing any opinion on the merits of the case, and have confined ourselves, in such references as we have made to it, to warning him against possible mistakes in his mode of meeting his accusers. We will add that the impression we received from the "apology" contained in the Tilton letter to Dr. Bacon was, that Mr. Beecher had possibly fallen into some indiscretion in his relations with Mrs. Tilton, which, in his morbid religions sentimentality, he had fearfully magnified and described to himself in unmeasured terms. The phrase, "he would have been a better man in my circumstances than I have been," was hardly explicable on any other hypothesis. But we felt, as every one felt, on the publication of his letters by Tilton, that in them lay the gravamen of the whole charge; that the explanation of them would no doubt be an exceedingly difficult task, but that it ought, if it was attempted at all, to be attempted at once; and that there was positive blindness in supposing that it could be safely laid over for even a day. We have accordingly read over Mr. Beecher's defense, not only without prejudice in his favor, but with a good deal of not unwarrantable disposition to judge him severely; and we are bound to say that we think he does furnish an explanation of his conduct which people outside Plymouth Church can comprehend, and that it doss wholly relieve him of the graver imputations so persistently thrown on him.

The true story of the affair, when disentangled from the curious web of rhetoric in which he has enveloped it--and of which his comparing Mrs. Tilton on her bed, when he went to her to get her to sign her retraction, "to some forms carved in marble that he had seen upon monuments in Europe," is a striking and suggestive illustration--we take to be substantially this: Tilton's ill-treatment of his wife, combined with her own religiosity and Mr. Beecher's strong sympathy, led her gradually to contract an affection for the latter, which after a while presented itself to her own conscience as unlawful and as she was frequently quarreling with Tilton and then making up, she used a confession of this over-fondness for Mr. Beecher as the means of cementing one of her numerous reconciliations with her worthy husband, and at the same time of giving a little spice to the pietistic gush with which she appears to have been in the habit of deluging him, and of which he was doubtless, as he was a wayward gentleman, getting a little tired. This confession appears to have found Tilton in a bad way. He was losing his professional position, losing his credit with his friends, and his not very strong head was completely bemuddled by the multitude of new and strange doctrines which had risen on his path after his anti-slavery occupation was gone. In these great straits, being desperate and apparently shameless, the idea of turning his wife's relations with Beecher to worldly account seems to have taken possession of him, and for four years he treated it as a vein to be worked the more assiduously the more his fortunes were failing. To enable him to do this effectively, a go-between was of course necessary, and this was found in the person of Mr. Francis Moulton, an old classmate of Tilton's, of about the same amount of mental and moral culture , but a shrewd, smart business man of the Butler school--fond of intrigue--loving, like Butler, to do plain things in crooked, underhand ways--mixed up more or less in doubtful transactions, not at all scrupulous, making no pretense to be a Christian, and no more of a gentleman than the great Ben himself--a sort of person, in short, whom men of honor and refinement of feeling avoid and fear. Finding Tilton in trouble, and being fond of him, this person appears to have undertaken to extricate him by the means which had suggested itself to Tilton's own mind-viz., by exploiting, or, to use the slang of Butlerite circles, "striking" Beecher. In Beecher, it must be confessed, they found a easy prey. His story of Moulton's operations on him hears the unmistakable impress of truth, and it has never been our lot to read anything more pitiful. The two confederates appear to have kept the unfortunate man on the rack for four long years, harrowed by the most horrible terrors and anxieties, Tilton standing in the background as an injured and threatening husband, and Moulton running to and fro as a "mediator" and pacificator, extracting confessions and letters of contrition from Beecher by the handful, making him believe that his communications were all strictly "confidential," and then showing them or repeating their contents or giving copies to half the town, pretending to him that this or that cause of fear had passed away or was "buried in oblivion," and then setting it afloat among the friends and confederates of the pair ass rumor, in such shape and with such an air of authenticity as to plunge Beecher into fresh alarm and bring him once more to his knees.

Tilton and his friend finally connected themselves with Woodhull, Moulton inviting this woman to his house as a guest; and then they compelled or seduced their unhappy victim into meeting her, and there he was at first flattered and then actually threatened by her. They crowned his humiliation by trying to get him to preside at the meeting in Steinway Hall at which she proclaimed the gospel of lechery. In this they failed, and Tilton took Beecher's place. Tilton got his wife to sign a paper accusing Beecher of having made improper proposals to her, having apparently not at first made up his mind that it would be necessary to accuse her of actual adultery; and this he showed or talked of. In fact, throughout the whole transaction he appears to have been in constant danger of spoiling his own game through the pride and satisfaction he took in the éclat of having his wife's chastity assailed by so distinguished a man as lecher. He was so eager in proclaiming this that be was frequently on the point of driving his victim to the wall, and causing a complete exposure before he had got all he needed out of him. Moulton appears to have backed him up with extraordinary skill and daring. When Beecher, almost driven crazy by the news that Mrs. Tilton had accused him in writing, made his way into her room and obtained her written withdrawal of the charge, Moulton actually pursued him to his own bedroom, and then and there extorted the paper from him, "opening his overcoat, and, with some emphatic remarks, showing a pistol, which afterwards he took out and laid on the bureau near where he stood." We suppose no decent man has read Mr. Beecher's statement without feeling his pulse quicken when be learnt that Mr. Beecher, instead of sending out for a policeman, or taking his friend by the throat and kicking him down-stairs, pistol and all, "gave the paper to him." After this incident, Beecher appears to have been on as friendly terms with Moulton as ever, and beslavers him in all his letters with expressions of affection and admiration. To sum up, they got all the "papers" they wanted from him and $7,000 in money, and then, by way of tightening the screw, raised the charge from improper solicitation to actual adultery, and at last, finding the orange was squeezed dry, they produced their budget of filth to the public. Moulton, then, though released from all obligation of secrecy by both parties, declined to testify on grounds of honorable delicacy, but at the same time told most of what be said he knew--and this most damaging to Beecher--to the reporter of the Chicago Tribune, for publication in that paper, Tilton at the same time furnishing his wife's letters to the same journal, to show how happy his married life used to be before it was ruined by his pastor. A more revolting tale, as far as these two are concerned, is not to be found in the literature of crime.

The main question of interest for the public, however, is of course the possibility of accounting for Beecher's mental agony, as described by himself in his letters, by the circumstances of the case as he recounts them. We do not think this would have been possible if the letters had stood as Tilton produced them and there had been no ethers in existence; but the additions Mr. Beecher makes show clearly enough that the offense he had in his mind was much less grave than the one with which he was charged, and that he never get over the demoralization caused by learning that Mrs. Tilton, the "beloved Christian woman," as he described her, had not only confessed that she had given him too much affection, but that he had sought to seduce her, This clearly unmanned hint, and we think had a great deal more to do with his subsequent misery than he admits. He is now evidently anxious to make it appear, and doubtless honestly believes, that what preyed most on him was his having helped to ruin Tilton by denouncing him to Bowen, his employer. But, odd and weak as he appears in the transaction, the fear of this last fact becoming known can hardly have reduced him to despair.

To make his conduct appear rational is no part of our present business. Nor need we add one word to the condemnation which he himself passes on it in his statement to the committee. He speaks of himself, as far as regards his dealings with Tilton and Moulton, as severely as any one else could desire to speak. But then he evidently fails to see, what most other thinking people see, that the calamity which has overtaken him, and bids fair to cloud his declining years, is the not unnatural result of his philosophy of life. He acknowledges that he acted in some sort as a father to Tilton after this man had left college, and he was mainly instrumental in pushing him into prominence. But in doing this he showed the same lamentable lark of judgment and discrimination which has in a higher degree marked his course in his late troubles, and has surrounded him with the noisome and unclean crowd of busybodies who have figured in the "Scandal." He found Tilton a smart young reporter, with little or no outfit in the way of knowledge or training of any kind, with a lively fancy, and the seeds of an inordinate vanity. He at once took him under his patronage, pushed him into a position on the Independent which, small as were its demands, was probably above his resources, made him at the age of twenty-six his confidential friend and companion, and then went off to Europe leaving him in what he calls "one of the proudest editorial chairs in the world." If Tilton's brain in this position was seen addled by vanity and ambition, and if when the abolition of slavery left him without a subject for his rhetoric he went crazy after novelties, we think Mr. Beecher more than any other man was to blame; for we greatly doubt it when Tilton was humble and obscure and docile, he was ever honestly told by his Mentor that knowledge, study, and bard work are more necessary to fill editorial chairs than gaudy sentimentality. We will add that it was net until Mr. Beecher had rushed down to the Astor House with the impetuosity of a youth of twenty, and married a couple who did not belong to his church and had no legitimate claim on him, one of whom was dying from a wound inflicted by a jealous husband, and the other of whom was if lawfully, not truly divorced, that Tilton began the publication of those strange articles on marriage in the Independent which foreshadowed his present ruin. They appeared immediately after the Richardson tragedy, and in fact they grew out of it, and with characteristic fatuity the author allied himself on this occasion with John Milton. He was by this time separating himself from Mr. Beecher, and, in fact, had come to look on himself as the greater man of the two; but it was soon painfully evident that he had not enough substance in him to stand alone. Yet Mr. Beecher, who knew him as nobody else knew him, seems never to have found him out. Nay, at a still earlier period, in 1863, when Mr. Beecher was in England, one of the foremost men in America, with a fame that filled both worlds, he bad, it appeared, nobody to whom to pour forth his inmost soul on this side of the water but this flighty and half-taught boy. His letter to Tilton on that occasion has been published; so has a later one of Tilton's to him. They read like epistles of Hattie to Minnie, and Minnie to Hattie, from two distant boarding-schools, and they make one wonder that Mr. Beecher should have an long filled the position he occupies without falling into some such serape as the present, and prepare one for his friendship with Moniton, and with certain of his adherents in Brooklyn whose manoeuvres in his behalf have so disgusted the public during the past year.

We will not say all that might be said of the tendency which this affair has clearly revealed in Mr. Beecher to prefer the society of his inferiors to that of his equals, for it is a fault into which all clergymen are more or less liable to fall. A very successful minister becomes inevitably an object of homage to a large body of women and of uneducated men; and it is a homage so sweet even to the strongest heads that nothing but great vigor of character prevents a man from gradually avoiding all circles in which he is not likely to receive it, and to which his sayings are likely to meet with irreverent handling. And yet no position is more full of moral and intellectual danger than that of "king of one's company." Nothing is more necessary for moral and mental health and discipline than the society of one's equals; and anybody who finds that he shrinks from it may he sure that he carries within him the seeds of decline, and he may be thankful if some fine day he do not find that he has, like Mr. Beecher, passed into the hands of crowd of religions harpers, ready to trade on his fame and get distraction out of his agony.

This tendency has been aggravated in Mr. Beecher's case by peculiar views of social obligation, to which we have had occasion to make some reference once or twice before. He has long held a theory, and has, we believe, honestly tried to live up to it, that it is man's duty, as be expresses it, "to look at the world as God looks at it," or, in other words, to govern himself, in his dealings with his fellows, by inferences of his own as to the manner in which God would act under similar circumstances. As his God is wholly love, and is no respecter of persons, attempts to imitate Him result simply in the deliberate and systematic suppression of all discrimination touching character and conduct, and the cultivation of a purely emotional theology, made up, not of opinions, but of sighs and tears and aspirations and unlimited goad-nature. As God loves and forgives the sinner, why should not we? In his sight there is after all little or no difference between Bishop Potter and Bill Tweed, why should we, His creatures, try to make any? As Christ associated freely with publicans and sinners, why should we attempt to indicate the existence of moral superiority on the part of one man over another? Moreover, since our religious life consists largely of expression--that is, the communication by one to another of what he or she feels about death and judgment-and in fact the church exists for the promotion of this expression, ought we not to take each person's account of his moral condition, and not look too nicely into the conduct of his life ? We do not think we exaggerate when we say that Mr. Beecher has tried this system fully and faithfully in Brooklyn, and we do not fear to add that the events of the last three months were not necessary to satisfy people of its failure. It makes a state of society in which the self-respect of the honest, the manly, and pure-minded is lowered or destroyed, and in which that of the foul, the unscrupulous, the shallow and tricky, is raised and strengthened; and in which the good and bad and indifferent, by "pooling" their character, as the railroad men say, produce a mass of corruption, indecency, and vulgarity which has to be periodically washed away by some such tempest as we are now witnessing.

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