The New York Times obituary writer minimized
Bennett’s free-speech advocacy, writing that he had "obtained some notoriety in 1878 by reason of his arrest upon the
charge of sending indecent publications through the mails… and was tried and convicted and served 11 months of his sentence
in the penitentiary." The Times, like most "secular" newspapers in the nineteenth century, was Christian, conservative,
pompous, and essentially a guardian of repressive Victorian morality.
1879 obscenity trial was a travesty of justice. The Hicklin standard, based on a landmark British case from 1868, was
an ambiguous test for obscenity that permitted work to be judged by introducing only isolated passages and not the intention
of the author. In the nineteenth century, a charge of obscenity was considered as severe and odious as child molestation is in today’s culture. The Bennett conviction and appeal denial was a landmark decision that became
the foundation for obscenity law for more than half a century. Bennett’s trial transcript (that he originally
published) has been reprinted and is still studied by law students and legal scholars.
I was initially surprised
that no one had written a biography about such an enigmatic, controversial, and influential nineteenth-century American.
Further along in my research, I discovered that Bennett’s free-speech campaign was never fully examined and most of
what was previously written about him was based largely on Anthony
Comstock’s biased writings. With access to archival material only recently made available, we are able to get
closer to the truth about Bennett’s arrests, conviction, imprisonment, and monumental petition campaign. Bennett
was aware of his archenemy’s hostility toward him and his beloved journal but not to the extent revealed in the twentieth
century. Rutherford B. Hayes’s personal diaries shed light on Bennett’s unjust conviction and expose the
president’s prejudice and his admittedly flawed decision not to pardon the editor of The Truth
self-righteous fight-for-the-young battle cry has often been retooled in America by self-serving moralists to fit their agenda.
There have been numerous censorship campaigns and celebrated obscenity cases since D. M. Bennett’s 1879 New York trial.
And if the past is prologue, there will be more attacks on free speech. "No Liberals! The morals of children first," was one
of Comstock’s favorite edicts – an expression that sadly might always sound contemporary.
A century after
Bennett’s death, the Dictionary of American Biography described him as "an amalgam of quack, crank,
and idealist," and added, "The quack and crank are somewhat excused by the hard conditions of his early life; the idealist,
in spite of faults of taste and mistakes of judgment, was for almost a decade an effective popular spokesman for liberal ideas
in religion and ethics." The source of the quack remark is Anthony
Comstock’s highly biased and often repeated notation in his arrest blotter. In the 1870s reformers like Bennett
had plenty of issues to be cranky about. The editor and many of his Liberal colleagues were in the vanguard of the women’s
rights movement and promoting birth control. Freethinkers fought for the separation of church and state and protested
against monopolies, puritanical censorship laws, and Sunday laws that prevented working people from rightfully enjoying life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Bennett was certainly guilty of being an idealist – as was his hero
"Biographies are not
written by neutrals," one biographer aptly asserted. I have given as complete and truthful a portrait of D. M. Bennett
as I could; this is why I chose to include a great many of his own words. I found that his voice and human frailties
made his story all the more compelling. I have come to greatly appreciate Bennett’s courageous struggle against
religious and/or state-sponsored intrusion, coercion, and censorship – a battle that is just as noble and needed today
as it was over a century ago. DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett’s contribution to American civil liberties has yet to
be rightfully acknowledged. Hopefully this biography will help the founder of The Truth Seeker finally gain the recognition
that he deserves.
"Mr. D. M. Bennett was
a man wholly extraordinary, and his career was not less so," James Parton wrote a few days after his friend’s death.
The biographer added, "He was not a perfect character as he well knew and
frankly acknowledged; but his merits, considering all things, were very
great and very rare; and they were his own while his faults were due in
great measure to the grossly false and profoundly immoral religion from
which he had the courage and the mental force to escape. His wonderful
labors have made the escape of others easier than he found it. He
embraced an unpopular cause; he made it less difficult for others to do
James Parton’s heartfelt
summation is, in my opinion, an eloquent and accurate assessment of the nineteenth century’s most controversial publisher,
American free-speech martyr, and quintessential truth seeker.