65: Nicola Beisel’s Imperiled Innocents

In Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America, Nicola Beisel links Anthony Comstock and moral reform crusades to class formation and nativist fears regarding increased immigration in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in the Gilded Age.  Working from mostly published primary and secondary sources on anti-vice campaigns against abortionists, ‘free love’ advocates, gambling halls, and obscenity, as well as archival sources like the Josiah Leeds papers, Beisel argues that “moral reform movements… are properly seen as struggles over class reproduction.”  In other words, anti-vice reformers were far less interested in the well-being of the people they tried to reform than they were in keeping vice and corruption from polluting their children and endangering their elite status.  By extension, vice reform revealed fears about both declining parental authority and an increased immigrant presence.

Beisel divides her argument into three sections.  First, she compares the anti-vice campaigns and political environments in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to see if she can discern any patterns regarding the success or failure of the campaigns; Boston, with its strong, unified elites, has no trouble passing anti-vice laws, while the fragmented elites in New York and the native Republicans in Philly don’t buy the reformers’ arguments.  However, Beisel finds that in all three cities, a campaign’s success depended on how well anti-vice concerns regarding children could be mobilized against immigrants.  Second, she examines circumstances where concerns regarding children led to anti-vice crusades, and she finds that changing gender roles and sexuality lead to concerns about children because they seem to threaten upper and middle class social positions.  And third, she reads the moral purity crusades as just one of many efforts to police the boundaries of the upper middle class, express elite anxieties, and control mass behavior.

From what I can tell, Anthony Comstock may have been truly interested in moral reform, but he was also keenly aware of the impact of mass media on his scare campaign.  He was famous for his entrapment schemes, where he would buy a scandalous book and then have a dealer arrested.  The YMCA liked these schemes so much that they created a Committee for the Suppression of Vice in 1872 and secretly funded him.  In 1874 he created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and accepted large donations from wealthy backers.  The success of his campaign was his ability to tap into Gilded Age parents’ concerns about childrearing; this is important because it informs his famous attack on birth control: he was trying to control the conduct of adolescents, not adult women.

Beisel’s approach of taking historical actors at their word is rather refreshing, and her book has a host of new details showing the sexism of anti-vice reform and a host of new archival sources.  While she could expand her analysis of Comstock to explore the implications for women and for the relationship between federal and state power, hers is still a fascinating and very clear argument about the rhetoric of anti-vice in the Gilded Age.

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