Health and Heresy

By Paul Theerman, Director

Because medicine deals with the human body, emotions can run high. When the issue is contraception, emotions run even higher. As part of Banned Books Week, consider two early U.S. works on birth control that shaped a congressional career, led to imprisonment at hard labor, and resulted in a conviction for blasphemy.

The first author is Robert Dale Owen (1801–1877). Son of Robert Owen, the British textile manufacturer and socialist reformer, Owen emigrated to the United States in 1825 to the utopian community that his father had founded that year in New Harmony, Indiana. There, with feminist and socialist Frances Wright (1795–1852), he published the newspaper New-Harmony Gazette, an outlet that expressed their then-radical views on women’s rights, slavery, public education, marriage, and birth control. After he and Wright relocated to New York City, they published Owen’s Moral Physiology; or, a Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question (1830), one of the first books on birth control in the United States. The book was a response to the ideas of English economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), who posited that, otherwise unchecked, population would always outpace food supply; Owen also saw birth control within a broader political and social context of personal freedom and equality of the sexes.

Title page of the Library’s copy of Robert Dale Owen’s Moral Physiology; or, a Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question, 5th edition, 1831, published through Owen’s partnership with Frances Wright.
“Alas, that it should ever have been born!” frontispiece to Owen’s Moral Physiology, showing a mother leaving a child at a foundling hospital. The engraving is by American artist and engraver Asher B. Durand, based on a work by French artist, Pierre-Roch Vigneron.
Title page from the Library’s copy of Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy; or, the Private Companion of Adult People, 4th edition, 1839. (The title varied slightly from edition to edition.)

While in New York, Owen became acquainted with Charles Knowlton (1800–1850), a western Massachusetts physician. A materialist and freethinker, Knowlton published Fruits of Philosophy; or, the Private Companion of Young Married People in 1832. Designed as an aid to the couples he attended, the book was originally published anonymously and printed in a small format so it could be readily concealed. Fruits of Philosophy was the first U.S. birth control book written by a physician and went into detail on methods and practicality.

Birth control was a contentious issue for many reasons. Besides the works’ frankness about subjects not openly discussed, contraception was opposed on moral and religious grounds. One reason was the traditional idea that sex within marriage should have procreation as its purpose. Beyond this, birth control was thought to lead to greater immorality, promoting sex outside of marriage and even prostitution, as the natural obstacle against freer sexual activity—that is, pregnancy—had been removed.

Owen’s and Knowlton’s books had consequences. Owen returned to Indiana in 1833 and became an Indiana state legislator in 1835. Twice, though, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and lost, partly on the reputation of Moral Physiology. He eventually prevailed on the strength of a Democratic electoral wave and served in the House from 1843 to 1847, helping to establish the Smithsonian Institution. His plans to remain in the House failed, though, due in part to his views on birth control, and he was defeated for re-election in 1846.

For Knowlton the consequences were far more severe. After he published Fruits of Philosophy, he was prosecuted and fined for obscenity. His booklet was then taken up by a former Unitarian minister, Abner Kneeland (1774–1844), who printed a second edition in Boston in 1832. The resulting publicity led to Knowlton’s again being convicted for obscenity and this time imprisoned for three months at hard labor. The controversy played into Kneeland’s trial for blasphemy, still a crime in Massachusetts. He was convicted in 1838 and served 60 days in jail, the last person to be imprisoned on that charge in the country. Upon his release, Kneeland moved to Iowa and set up “Salubria” (Health), a community of like-minded freethinkers.

Restricting access to contraceptive knowledge was American practice up to the mid-20th century, under the guise of anti-obscenity laws. The 1873 Federal statute known as the Comstock Law, made it illegal to use the U.S. Postal Service to distribute such information, while a 1909 act extended this ban to interstate common carriers such as railroads. Many states also had their own laws. Congress made one of the most severe laws for the District of Columbia, over which it had direct control: giving birth-control literature to another Washingtonian could result in 5 years’ imprisonment at hard labor and a $2,000 fine. Not until 1972 were all these laws overturned.

This entry was posted in History of medicine, History of public health and tagged , , by nyamhistory. Bookmark the permalink.

About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

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