Anthony Comstock emerged in the 1870s as a reformer seeking to restrict materials and information about human sexuality. The legislation that he influenced, often referred to as the “Comstock Laws,” limited the availability of erotica, birth control devices, sexualized literature, and abortion at the state and federal levels. Comstock combined a middle-class, evangelical sensibility with a desire for fame and prestige into a life-long career of vice suppression. Although he worked primarily in urban areas such as New York City, his ideas about limiting birth control information and abortion later appealed to those worried about “race suicide”
among white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Comstock's ability to consolidate power from federal, state, and private interests helped make him one of the most outspoken advocates for Victorian morality.
In Brooklyn, New York, Comstock became the neighborhood enforcer of rules about prohibiting saloons from opening on Sunday, and he reported shops selling materials he deemed inappropriate. Repeatedly he investigated and reported such happenings to officials and became involved with the prosecutions of cases. Thanks to his relationship to the YMCA and his desire to involve himself in neighborhood business, Comstock ultimately found himself working on behalf of the YMCA to shut down stores and publishers of erotic material.
His partnership with the YMCA came in the first years of the 1870s when he requested funds to purchase and eliminate from the marketplace erotic photograph plates from a well-known purveyor of adult materials. After this successful effort he received a salary from the YMCA to remove obscene material from the marketplace in New York City. The evangelical zeal with which the YMCA pursued this course reflects, in part, the large numbers of young men who poured into the city looking for new opportunities. Surrounded by brothels, saloons, and the sporting culture, members of the YMCA did not want middle-class men to fall victim to the ills of pornography and vice. Comstock and other members of the YMCA believed that long-term health problems could be caused by using or viewing sexualized materials. In addition to written and printed materials Comstock's campaign also sought to destroy rubber devices used for birth control and masturbation. They intended for their efforts to help women, men, and children maintain their traditional family roles in the face of the temptations of modern American life.
In 1872, Comstock led efforts to prosecute publishers Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, who printed a newspaper that he believed to be circulating obscene information about free love and gossipy indiscretions. When the court acquitted the sisters because the federal law used for prosecution did not include newspapers, Comstock began working on stronger federal legislation. His backers, not only at the YMCA but also independently wealthy New Yorkers concerned about the spread of vice, sent him to Congress to lobby for an improved bill regarding obscenity law.
Comstock soon discovered that arresting and confiscating offenders proved easier than getting a conviction. In some New York courts, cases did not reach the punishment phase because prosecutors and judges were not receptive to Comstock, his methods, and his ideas. In New York City Comstock possessed powerful upper-class patrons who aided his efforts, but away from those backers, he struggled to implement the laws. Opposition formed, using the First Amendment to argue that such stringent limitations destroyed the right to free speech and freedom of the press. Comstock could not keep up with the massive flow of information despite destroying tens of thousands of pieces of “obscenity.” During the late 1800s, Comstock continued his work in the face of increasing immigration. These new Americans heightened reformers’ concerns about lewd behavior, loose morals, and corruption. Comstock and his supporters believed that eradicating sexualized material could save young men from frequenting brothels, young women from premarital relations, and children from harmful sexual influence.
The Comstock Laws of the 1870s reflected a larger concern among Americans about the influences of modernization on young people. Using these concerns Comstock tried to ban certain books, such as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and art displays at various museums. Other reform campaigns—directed toward familial behaviors such as the campaign to prohibit alcohol and efforts to intercede in families on behalf of women and children through social workers and charity agencies—took hold in the decades following the Comstock Laws. Helen Leftkowitz Horowitz referred to Comstock's message as “evangelical rhetoric,” which can be seen in populist uprisings of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Notions about appropriate middle- and upper-class influences in government can be seen in Comstock's antivice crusade and social movements demanding government intervention in regards to women and children. Comstock's influence on the U.S. legal system lasted well into the twentieth century, when the Supreme Court ruled that refusing access to birth control (Connecticut v. Griswold, 1965) and abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973) violated privacy rights.
When Comstock began his work in the 1870s, his ideas about appropriate sex and class roles aligned with dominant white, middle- and upper-class interests. Comstock, a vigilant social conservative, understood the power of preserving the assumed moral vigilance of white middle-class Americans, and he did so with the aid of powerful patrons and politicians. His rejection of progressives such as Sanger and radical ideas such as the free love movement foreshadow the social conservatism and family-values emphasis of later periods. Comstock's success came from his ability both to shape the laws and to enforce them himself, becoming in many ways a one-man army against information he believed to be damaging to prevailing American values. Although perhaps not justly deserved, the late 1800s hold a reputation for sexual prudery that stems, in part, from the campaigns of Anthony Comstock.
See also: Progressivism ; Sanger, Margaret (1879–1966) ; Whitman, Walt (1819–1892) ; YMCA/YWCA
Abrams, Richard M. America Transformed: Sixty Years of Revolutionary Change, 1941–2001. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Beisel, Nicola. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Grossberg, Michael, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Leftkowitz Horowitz, Helen. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.