Victoria arrives late at the struggle for women’s rights, and from a different direction than Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony. James Blood isn’t simply a military hero, a dashingly handsome man and a sensitive spiritualist; he is also a radical exponent of individual liberty and social equality. The aspect of his radicalism to which Victoria responds most enthusiastically is his conviction that women are the equals of men inherently and ought to be their equals legally and economically.
She starts on the economic side, in finance. Since the beginning of the Civil War, Wall Street has hummed with the hopes, dreams and fears of investors and speculators trying to convert the promise of industrial capitalism into pocketable cash. One entrepreneur after another comes to New York’s financial district seeking capital to initiate or extend operations; one speculator after another finagles to profit from the ups and downs of the unpredictable market in shares that results. The quietly beneficent projects contribute to the overall growth of the American economy and the general elevation of American living standards; the noisily questionable chiefly shift profits from one cabal to another. Cornelius Vanderbilt challenges Daniel Drew, Jay Gould and James Fisk for control of the Erie Railroad; the battle threatens to paralyze passenger and freight traffic between New York City and the Great Lakes, to destabilize the economy as a whole, and to disgrace those involved—those that aren’t beneath disgrace, anyway. “Nothing is lost save honor,” the shameless Fisk chortles after emerging a winner.
Gould and Fisk proceed to a grander scheme: an attempt to corner the nation’s gold market. They bribe federal officials and at least one member of President Grant’s family, and they come within a whisker of putting the nation’s money supply at their mercy. Grant intervenes to break the corner, but not before Wall Street suffers a jolt like none it has ever experienced. The day—September 24, 1869—is remembered as “Black Friday”; mobs of angry speculators and investors threaten to hang Gould and Fisk, who take refuge in their fortress headquarters behind a cordon of thugs hired for security. This time Fisk is at least mildly chastened. “It was every man drag out his own corpse,” he observes as the smoke clears.
Amid the uproar Victoria and Tennie enter the financial world. During Tennie’s private moments with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Commodore drops valuable hints about certain corporate issues; Tennie shares the intelligence with Victoria and the two invest accordingly. Victoria observes the tumult of Black Friday from a carriage outside the Gold Room, where the speculation is most intense. She profits from the travail by purchasing shares caught in gold’s sudden downdraft. By Victoria’s own reckoning she pockets several hundred thousand dollars that autumn.
Yet she knows she could profit more if she didn’t have to pay a broker. Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony have been calling for women to step forward in the commercial world; Victoria does precisely that. Tennie persuades Vanderbilt to stake them in establishing a brokerage. Wall Street has never seen a female firm; most denizens of the financial district can scarcely imagine such a thing. Victoria interprets the inability and the accompanying disbelief as an opportunity.
Woodhull, Claflin & Co. opens its doors at 44 Broad Street in February 1870, while the gloom from Black Friday still lingers in the darker recesses of the financial district. The brightening effect of the new brokerage on Wall Street spirits is immediate, although observers can’t decide whether the venture is a stunt or something serious. “Wall Street Aroused,” the New York Times snickers. “Wall, Broad and New streets have another sensation.…The scene at their office yesterday beggars description. The place was thronged from early morning until late at night by a crowd of curiosity hunters, who gazed at the females and besieged them with questions.…It was reported that Commodore Vanderbilt was assisting them to carry on the business, but this assertion the Commodore’s friends stoutly deny.”
The professionals on Wall Street take the measure of the new brokers. Local sharps, after getting an eyeful of the proprietresses, lay traps for them. A good-looking gentleman arrives with a certified check for $5,800, with which he wishes to purchase gold required in certain of his business transactions. Victoria takes the check, retreats to her office and returns to say she’ll have to clear it with the bank on which it has been drawn. This will require a few minutes; will the man care to wait? He nods assent—only to disappear as soon Victoria turns away. In her office, Buck Claflin—part of the silent “& Co.” of the firm—isn’t surprised at the disappearance, or at the certifying bank’s confirmation of his suspicion that the check has been altered since certification. The $5,800 check is good for only $58. What might have passed the eye of an honest clerk can’t fool an old forger.
In time the novelty of the new firm wears off. But its profitability persists. Victoria Woodhull turns more New York heads than ever, complementing the ranks of those who admire her for beauty with a phalanx of respecters of business acumen.
Henry Ward Beecher preaches on all manner of topics to his congregation at Plymouth Church. He preaches on the need to build moral strength. “Where men are languid, where they have no habit of resistance, no course, no current, no victorious oncoming tendency, the temptations that fall upon them become far mightier than they would need to be if they had moral constitutions,” he says. “Ah! when the eagle goes out an airing, a tempest seems to the beat of his strong wings to be but a zephyr. It is the strength of wing that measures the power of the wind.”
He preaches on the practicality of virtue. “God made the course of nature so that it is more profitable to be right than to be wrong. Nature is on your side. God made the absolute nature of human society such that righteousness profits better in the long run than wickedness.”
He preaches on the optimal distribution of wealth. “Society is better off when riches are not concentrated, but diffused. Society needs great riches, but it needs them in a great many hands. It is average wealth that determines their economic power and blessing in civilized society.”
He preaches on the proper roles of the sexes. “A woman’s nature will never be changed. Men might spin, and churn, and knit, and sew, and cook, and rock the cradle for a hundred generations and not be women. And woman will not become man by external occupations. God’s colors do not wash out. Sex is dyed in the wool.”
He preaches on the hazards of religious smugness. “The danger lies in an intense spiritual conceit, in an arrogant morality, in an overweening estimate of your goodness and safety. You do not feel that you need a Physician, and therefore you will die in your sins. You do feel that you need a Deliverer, and therefore Christ is nothing to you. You are not conscious that you need bread, and therefore the Bread of Life is not brought to you.”
And he preaches, at length and in detail, on the importance of truthfulness. Faith, hope and charity are keys to happiness, he says, but nothing is more essential than truth, without which human life can hardly be human. “Truth is the backbone of honor. It is the backbone of trustworthiness. It is the backbone of manhood itself. A man who does not care for the truth is no better than a jellyfish.…Human society cannot cohere where a man cannot trust his fellow man. As soon as selfishness teaches the young how to interpret their duties, and how to discharge them, so soon that decay will have begun which will, like dry rot in timber, bring down the whole fabric of society itself. …Are grocers trustworthy? Are market-men trustworthy? Are merchants trustworthy? Are manufacturers trustworthy? …Is cloth cloth? Is silk silk? Are colors real? Can a man procure the medicine that is to save his own life, or his child’s life, and not have it adulterated?”
Where truth and trust fail, the social compact is broken. “When you drink milk, you do not drink milk. When you eat bread, you do not eat bread. When you drink coffee, it is not coffee.” Dishonesty breeds dishonesty. “Men thrive on deception, and it scarcely enters into their conception that it is inconsistent with manhood, or with their relations with society.” The corrosive power of untruth is ubiquitous and growing. “We are all of us at fault.…We are living in an age when the temptations to untrustworthiness will not diminish. They will increase.”
Everyone must struggle against deception. “Let every parent take heed. Let every school-teacher take heed. Let every minister of the Gospel take heed.”
Theodore Tilton is twenty-two years younger than Henry Beecher and looks up to the famous minister like a father. “I thought he was the most charming man I ever saw,” Tilton says later. “Mr. Beecher was my man of all men.”
Tilton first meets Beecher through the woman who becomes Mrs. Tilton. Elizabeth Richards attends Plymouth Church, and when the rugged, handsome Tilton and the petite, pretty Lib are married, the Reverend Beecher officiates. Bride, groom, guests and minister anticipate a happy life for the newlyweds. “I had strong sympathies for their future,” Beecher recalls.
Tilton aspires to a career of journalism and public influence. He lands a job with the Independent, a Brooklyn religious paper that carries Beecher’s weekly columns; soon Tilton is ghostwriting for the minister when Beecher’s busy schedule keeps him from meeting the paper’s deadlines. The two become fast companions, with Tilton seeing Beecher as the model of mature accomplishment and Beecher thinking Tilton the epitome of youthful vigor and zeal. “I loved him next to my father,” Tilton says later. Beecher chimes: “He seemed like a son to me.”
But fathers and sons quarrel. Tilton learns abolition from Beecher, yet as the nation careens toward civil war, Tilton presses forward while Beecher pulls back. Beecher chides John Brown for the abortive raid on Harpers Ferry that is supposed to spark a slave rebellion; Beecher has been willing to arm antislavery settlers in Kansas but he isn’t ready to bathe the South in blood. Tilton, by contrast, embraces Brown’s cause and almost his wife, scooping the regular press by interviewing Mrs. Brown while her condemned husband is on his way to the scaffold.
Tilton likes the attention his uncompromising stance wins him, and he slowly starts to emerge from Henry Beecher’s shadow. He becomes the editor of the Independent and adds political columns to the paper’s religious reporting and commentary. He begins lecturing on the controversies of the day, attracting large audiences in the New York area and beyond by his forthright assertion of radical positions on slavery and, after the war, Reconstruction. By the late 1860s his lecture tours take him from home each autumn and winter for months at a stretch.
They meanwhile leave Lib lonely and confused. She tolerates her husband’s radicalism as the price of his ambition, to which she dutifully yields. But she wonders where it all will lead. And she finds greater comfort in the softer gospel of Henry Beecher, whose church she faithfully attends whether her husband is at home or not. She discovers, to her pleasure, that the pastor pays house calls. The visits make her less lonely but, as they become more frequent and more personal, no less confused.