The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

By Debby Applegate ’89. New York: Doubleday, 2006. 544 pp. $27.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Daria D’Arienzo, Head of Archives and Special Collections.

Portrait of Henry Ward Beecher Henry Ward Beecher, Amherst College
Archives and Special Collections.

The Most Famous Man in America, by Debby Applegate, is emulating its subject. With front-page reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, among dozens of others, and a spot on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, the book has taken the country by storm.

Subtitled The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, the book is a full-fledged study of Beecher’s life. The subject graduated from Amherst College in the Class of 1834; the author in the Class of 1989. Applegate “met” Beecher at Amherst College while working in the Library’s Archives and Special Collections during her undergraduate years. She had been asked to create a small exhibition of “famous but forgotten alumni,” an exhibition that included Henry Ward Beecher. Proving the point of the exhibition, she asked, “Who’s Henry Ward Beecher?” The immediate short answer was that Beecher was the younger brother of the internationally famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the Amherst College context, this explanation was quickly followed by “and he was a college trustee who advocated for coeducation in the 1870s,” and that he was “the large, round man whose statue stands north of the Octagon.” But as Applegate herself notes in an interview on the book’s website, she was soon taken by the charismatic Beecher’s “very modern sense of humor, his irreverence, and his joyful, ecumenical approach to religion and life in general.” Twenty years later, what had been a sophomore seminar paper on Beecher that led to an Amherst College senior honors thesis and then further to a Yale American studies doctoral dissertation grew finally into this carefully researched biography.

Applegate’s lively book reveals the religious controversies and political and social upheavals of the time through a close examination of a man who was worshipped as a hero, and who later in life endured a scandal that assumed fantasti­cal proportions in a “violent, immoral and unregulated American society.” It is a riveting story with a larger-than-life protagonist who was sensational both in his celebrity and in his flaws.

“By common consensus, there were three sure paths to public acclaim in the 19th century: the Pulpit, the Platform and the Press,” writes Applegate, and Beecher followed them all. Born in 1813 in Litchfield, Conn., into a family that believed in the power of words, Beecher was the son of the famous Puritan hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Lyman Beecher and his wife, Roxanne Foote, who died when Henry was just barely three. (Lyman Beecher subsequently married two more times.) Applegate anticipates the man when she writes of the boy: “This potent triangle of influences—an idealized absent mother; a distant, critical stepmother; and a bevy of smart, strong-willed sisters and aunts who doted on the boy but had little time to spoil him—bred in him a lifelong craving for the affection of attractive, intelligent women.” Beecher himself recalled, “I needed nothing but a little attention.” This was the driving force for all his life.

Beecher chafed and rebelled against his father’s staunch Calvinism: “Henry, do you know that every breath you breathe is sin?” He escaped first to boarding school and then to Amherst College, where he took up public speaking, in the process overcoming a childhood stutter. He also studied phrenology (interpreting bumps on the head to describe a person’s character); Beecher’s own reading, made by classmate Orson Fowler, indicated that
he was “not likely to be a saint.”

After graduating from Lane Theological Seminary in Ohio, Beecher married Eunice Bullard, the sister of his college roommate, Ebenezer. Although the marriage lasted a lifetime, they were not a good match. After several years on the frontier west, Beecher became pastor of the prestigious Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, where he pragmatically left behind Calvinism in order to “tap people’s natural desires to bring them to Christ, and heaven would be just around the corner.” Applegate aptly illustrates the fundamental changes that Beecher brought about to the religious climate—things we take for granted today, but that were radical for the time: a message that “love was what God wanted for all of us”; jokes from the pulpit; plainspoken, sentimental preaching; flowers in church; a congregation that sang; communion for all; and the message that religion could bring happiness in this life, not the misery of daily sin.

People flocked to hear him, coming to Brooklyn from Manhattan by “Beecher boats.” Plymouth Church, which seated 2,000, became Beecher’s vessel. From the pulpit Beecher denounced slavery, though not as a Garrison-like radical abolitionist. The Fugitive Slave Law had sharpened his rhetoric, and the Sharpe Rifles he sent to Free-Soilers in Kansas were known as Beecher Bibles. Beecher used his public platform to articulate his graduated approach to abolition. His most dramatic action was in leading his church’s mock auction for two enslaved young women, rousing the congregation to purchase their freedom. The lithograph of Rose Ward—“Pinky”—and her “freedom ring” was the sentimental depiction of this event.

And he supported Abraham Lincoln, who visited Plymouth Church and called Beecher “the most influential man in America.” There was no more “productive a mind” than Beecher’s, Lincoln thought. It was Beecher who spoke at Fort Sumter at the symbolic end of the Civil War.

Applegate’s exhaustive research and careful use of primary sources help support new discoveries. She convincingly postulates, for example, that in January 1867, Beecher’s love affair with Chloe Beach, wife of Beecher’s friend Moses Beach, produced a daughter named Violet. As Applegate writes, “Henry adored children, but his devotion to Violet went beyond normal boundaries.” She concludes, “The most compelling evidence is the photographs.”

There was trouble ahead for Beecher. And here Applegate maintains the suspense in her story through to the end. The details of the 1874 “Scandal Summer” had their roots in earlier years, when Beecher allegedly had an affair or, as described at the time, “criminal conversation” with Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Beecher’s protégé, the radical journalist Theodore Tilton. Beecher had a pattern of inappropriately close emotional ties with women in his congregation, and
the Tilton affair was just one in a series of alleged incidents.

During the trial of 1874, Elizabeth Tilton contradicted herself several times. But it was the cover-up that caught Beecher. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, the spiritual clairvoyant and presidential candidate, had wanted Beecher’s support. He refused it. She retaliated with an electrifying address to the American Association of Spiritualists in which she declared that Beecher was the “king of free love” and exposed his affair with Elizabeth Tilton. The event brought only further attacks on her own character, while Beecher’s still seemed secure. At that point, Tilton decided, “Very well, I will make it hotter on earth for Henry Ward Beecher than Hell is below.” She made good on her pledge with an article about the affair in her publication Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. Her vengeance was red hot, a media circus followed, and the scandal grew. Had Beecher’s “gospel of love” crossed the line?

On January 11, 1875, Theodore Tilton’s suit against Beecher in civil court for “criminal conversation” was heard. It was a masterful piece of theater, with the black-clad, upstanding Eunice playing a key role for the defense, and, Applegate says, “not for one moment did Eunice Beecher doubt her husband.” But others did. The trial ended in a hung jury.

Though Plymouth Church had early exonerated Beecher and membership remained strong, Beecher himself “never recovered his old buoyancy.” Applegate shows that Beecher “survived an ordeal that might well have killed a lesser man.” Desperate for money after the expense of the trial, Beecher reinvented himself and went on the lecture circuit. As she observes of this successful venture, “even those who believed Beecher guilty were willing to pay for the opportunity to judge the great libertine for themselves.” In picking up the pieces of his life, Beecher adopted Darwinism and the theory of evolution and was pretty nearly undone by politics again, with his support of Grover Cleveland for president. (People noted the parallels in their reputations: Cleveland had fathered a child outside marriage.)

Beecher died of a stroke on March 8, 1887. It was the way he wanted to go. “I would rather die with the harness on and be dragged out by the heels,” he had said in reference to his own father’s lingering illness. Henry Ward Beecher was still a celebrity—50,000 mourners waited in line to view his casket.

In summary, Applegate ponders Beecher’s legacy and asks: “Was Beecher a great man?” Her answer: “Beecher’s own legacy has been uneven.” However, “what Beecher brought to American culture in an era of bewildering change and fratricidal war was unconditional love so deep and so wide that the entire country could feel his warmth, like it or not.” The things that Beecher gave us are now so thoroughly ingrained in our culture that we don’t even think about the source—it is as though they were always there. In this way, his legacy is a surely a lasting one.

Henry Ward Beecher remarked that “life is a kind of zig-zag,” an apt characterization of his life, as well as of the story of this biography. Applegate wrote, “My aim is to restore [Beecher] to his rightful place in history without whitewashing his sins.” With The Most Famous Man in America, this she has done.