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.