18th century lust and punishment, harriet taylor mill, illustrated wallpaper

The lede to this article ( based on a book written by the same writer) sounds like such an appeal to the sensational I almost did not read it. I gave the first paragraph a shot and it turned out to be well grounded in history and sociology – The first sexual revolution: lust and liberty in the 18th century

The reformation brought a further hardening of attitudes. The most fervent Protestants campaigned vigorously to reinstate the biblical death penalty for adultery and other sexual crimes. Wherever Puritan fundamentalists gained power, they pursued this goal – in Geneva and Bohemia, in Scotland, in the colonies of New England and in England itself. After the Puritans had led the parliamentary side to victory in the English civil war, executed the King and abolished the monarchy, they passed the Adultery Act of 1650. Henceforth, adulterers and incorrigible fornicators and brothel-keepers were simply to be executed, as sodomites and bigamists already were.

If you look closely enough many notorious groups in history you can usually find something good. I happen to have tremendous respect for people with a strong work ethic – people in everyday jobs – frequently referred to as the nameless faceless masses – who take pride in their work are the under appreciated force that keeps everything brace up the thin veneer of what we call civilization. So if you’re looking to find something positive about Puritans you could start with their work habits. It kind of ends there as well.

So pervasive was this ideology that even those who paid with their lives for defying it could not escape its hold over their minds and actions. When the Massachusetts settler James Britton fell ill in the winter of 1644, he became gripped by a “fearful horror of conscience” that this was God’s punishment on him for his past sins. So he publicly confessed that once, after a night of heavy drinking, he had tried (but failed) to have sex with a young bride, Mary Latham. Though she now lived far away, in Plymouth colony, the magistrates there were alerted. She was found, arrested and brought back, across the icy landscape, to stand trial in Boston. When, despite her denial that they had actually had sex, she was convicted of adultery, she broke down, confessed it was true, “proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin … and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice”. On 21 March, a fortnight after her sentence, she was taken to the public scaffold. Britton was executed alongside her; he, too, “died very penitently”. In the shadow of the gallows, Latham addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting other young women to be warned by her example, and again proclaiming her abhorrence and penitence for her terrible crime against God and society. Then she was hanged. She was 18 years old.

Let’s stand and cheer for the role of organized religion in early American history. The Puritans were as tolerant of the religious beliefs of others as they were of their personal behavior. Run by Puritans, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed three founders of the Quaker religion (Society of Friends) Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson and Mary Dyer by hanging. Other members of the Quaker faith were merely horse whipped.

The full article contains a lot more history of the history of sexual attitudes. The subject is so vast that it was bound to not include some perspectives. One is that it does not go back to Ancient Greece and the relatively tolerant traditions of that society. Also the birthplace of the concept of democracy. It also comes at the subject from a western civilization centric view. Thus leaving out the history of social and sexual attitudes as they have developed throughout Asia and north Africa. Asia and India in particular with have made interesting additions. While many of the west’s hypocritical, often bizarre and repressive attitudes can only be understood in terms of religion and its emphasis on a masculine centered society, what happened to India ( and what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan). For centuries India has a stronger matriarchal element to their culture than the west. To this day many Hindu goddesses are considered very powerful and venerated along side male gods. Yet India has its own brand of Puritanism and struggles with women’s rights, especially towards the lower caste.

illustrated lilly wallpaper

That article lead me to wondering about Harriet Taylor, who was mentioned in one of several recounting of famous scandals. She might be better known to some as Harriet Taylor Mills (1807 – 1858),

Harriet Hardy was born in October 1807 in Walworth, south London, the daughter of a surgeon. Educated at home, she enjoyed writing poetry. In 1826, she married John Taylor, a prosperous merchant and together they had three children. The Taylors became active in the Unitarian Church and in 1830 a Unitarian minister introduced Harriet to the philosopher John Stuart Mill. Their affair was to last for more than 20 years, and was generally tolerated by Harriet’s husband. From 1833, the couple largely lived apart, enabling Harriet to see Mill more easily. Their behaviour scandalised society and as a couple they were socially isolated. But they inspired each other intellectually and often worked together.

Mills’ ‘The Principles of Political Economy’ (1848) has a chapter attributed to Harriet called ‘On the Probable Future of the Labouring Classes’ in which she argues for the importance of education for all in the future of the nation, both economically and socially. Her essay, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ (1851), considered one of her most important works, was published under Mills’s name. The essay strongly advocated that women be given access to the same jobs as men, and that they should not have to live in ‘separate spheres’ – views more radical than those of Mills himself.

Mill and Taylor were only married briefly before she died of complications due to tuberculous. In a letter written by John Stuart Mill in 1854 he seems to point to the contributions ( real written ones, not just inspiration) that Taylor was responsible for, “I shall never be satisfied unless you allow our best book, the book which is to come, to have our two names on the title page. It ought to be so with everything I publish, for the better half of it all is yours”. There is no doubt that Taylor made some contributions, but some scholars have suggested that John may have been overly sentimental and thus anxious to give Taylor too much credit. That said there is no doubt that she made significant contributions of her own, not just in the way of women’s rights, but what we think of today as basic human rights.

I mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson as being a paleo-99 percenter recently. John Stewart Mill wasn’t just a progressive liberal, he was one of the founders.

Mill’s On Liberty addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. One argument that Mill develops further than any previous philosopher is the harm principle. The harm principle holds that each individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as these actions do not harm others. If the action is self-regarding, that is, if it only directly affects the person undertaking the action, then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. He does argue, however, that individuals are prevented from doing lasting, serious harm to themselves or their property by the harm principle. Because no-one exists in isolation, harm done to oneself also harms others, and destroying property deprives the community as well as oneself.

The careful weighing of personal liberty against harm is why conservatives and libertarians tend to poach a half and idea here and there, than lay claim to be the true representatives of liberty. Mill did not get everything right, conservatives have embraced his defense of capital punishment in their sweaty little hands and rung it dry.

On the level you’re a little devil (But I’ll soon make an angel of you) [music] / words by Joe Young ; music by Jean Schwartz

 

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