Subject: American History

American Freethought – Birth Control Advocates and their Enemy, Anthony Comstock

There are two earlier lectures, Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, and Anarchism, Atheism and Emma Goldman, which discuss issues during the same time span as the current talk. It is suggested that they be read together in order to form a more complete picture of United States freethought during the Gilded Age until the beginning of the First World War. The topic of this lecture will be the continuation of a discussion begun in earlier lectures about the freethinkers in this country from just before the Civil War (1861-1865) to just before the First World War (1914-1918) and a little beyond.  Many American freethinkers were advocates of free love and of birth control. They wanted both information about birth control and devices to be made freely available to all Americans.  We shall be glancing at some of their influences, ideas and attempts to carry out their theories in the real

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Anarchism, Atheism, and Emma Goldman

This lecture will discuss the impact of anarchism, atheism, and Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) on United States culture and legal development from the Gilded Age up to America’s entry into the First World War in 1917. If you will recall from my earlier lecture on Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought in the United States, the Gilded Age’s dates were approximately from the 1870’s to 1900. (Please see Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought for a more developed view of the Gilded Age.) Emma Goldman was a Jewish Lithuanian/Russian anarchist. She had immigrated to the United States in 1886, just four months before the infamous Haymarket Riot, in which 7 policemen and 4 citizens had been killed by a bomb and the ensuing gunfire.  Eight men, all of them anarchists, were arrested and found guilty. Seven of the defendants were sentenced to death for murder and the

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Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

This lecture will be concerned with the Golden Age of American Freethought, from about 1860 to 1900, and its most famous spokesperson, Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899.)  The events and spread of freethought played out against the backdrop of a very conservative, although dynamic, period of American history. Many books about Ingersoll and freethought often merely mention the Gilded Age in passing, but I would like to talk about what conditions were like in our nation during the flowering of unbelief. Mark Twain, the irreverent novelist, wrote a book he titled The Gilded Age in 1873. The meaning of his title was that the era’s corruption was covered over with a shiny surface. Gilt is a gold overlay on a cheaper material, like silver or wood.  It is usually employed as a cheap substitute for expensive, solid gold. The period from about 1870 to 1900 was very energetic, with many new

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American Deism

Deism’s Influence on the Founding Fathers and Constitution of the United States This lecture will discuss Deism, its history, philosophy and how its meaning has changed somewhat in the present day.  We shall be focusing on the influence of Deism on many of the significant Founders of the United States in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. We shall glance at 18th Century Unitarianism, also, because it was an important influence on some of our Founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson.  I shall be speaking about the beliefs of Ethan Allen (1738- 1789) Thomas Paine (1737- 1809,) Benjamin Franklin (1706- 1790) George Washington (1732- 1799) Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826,) and James Madison (1751- 1836.)  Their thinking was nonconventional with regard to orthodox Christianity.  All of them embraced some form of Deism. Most of the Founders were influenced, as well, by their study of the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome. Reading the classics was

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American Transcendentalism and Its Liberation from Traditional Christianity

Transcendentalism was never an atheistic movement in America, but it may be seen as one precursor among many to the present secular resurgence in this country.  There is a large difference between 19th Century Transcendentalism and the deism that was embraced by many Americans in the 18th Century.  Deism is the basic belief that god set the universe in motion but no longer interferes in human affairs or this world.  The concept corresponds to a material viewpoint, or what has been called the idea of the “clockwork universe” of Isaac Newton, the scientist, and John Locke, the philosopher, both of them 17th Century thinkers.  Several of our Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, embraced deism, and it was an important factor in much of their thinking about religion, the state and the new Constitution.   We shall be returning to deism in a future lecture about the American Enlightenment. But Transcendentalism, while indebted to many

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Atheist History in the United States

Before turning to the history of free thought, agnosticism and atheism in the United States, the Preface will glance at the early religious practices of colonial America.  The ordinary Anglican American parish was between 60 and 100 miles of sparsely populated territory.  Clergymen were scarce, and women made up less than one fourth of the population.  Religious life was haphazard and irregular for most citizens.  Even in Boston, which was more highly populated and dominated by the Congregational Church, one inhabitant complained, in 1632, that “fellows which keepe hogges all weeke preach on the Sabbath.”[1] By the 1730’s and 1740’s, the English Evangelical, George Whitefield, and the American preacher, Jonathan Edwards, began the American “Great Awakening,” or born again religion, focusing on emotion rather than reason. The Great Awakening and its impact have been overemphasized, however.  American historians have found that by the end of the Colonial Period, Protestant Rationalism

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