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The Most Famous Man in America

The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

by Debby Applegate

Hardcover, 529 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $27.95 |


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The Most Famous Man in America
The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Debby Applegate

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Book Summary

Presents the life of the nineteenth century orator, noted for his support of the abolition of slavery and the suffrage of women, as well as his friendships with some of the century's most famous writers such as Henry Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman.

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Awards and Recognition

Pulitzer Prize (2007)

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Most Famous Man In America

Chapter 1
“Damned If You Do, and Damned If You Don’t”

One evening in late December, sometime around 1820, Henry Ward Beecher trudged through the snow, returning home from running an errand for his parents. Exactly how old he was he couldn’t say, but he was still a chubby little boy, with wide gray eyes set above apple red cheeks. As he passed up the long town common in the center of the village, he was surprised to see Litchfield’s little brown Episcopalian church lit up like a beacon in the early darkness.

Henry was far too young to follow the fine theological distinctions his father used to separate the good Protestants from the bad Protestants, but of this he was sure: The Episcopalians were on the bad side. He needed no other proof than the fact that they didn’t attend the white-steepled church where his father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, preached every Sunday. In truth, God and Lyman Beecher were so intertwined in the little boy’s mind that he did not quite grasp that Episcopalianism was a rival religion, he later recalled, “for I supposed there was no other religion except that which my father looked after.”

Henry was irresistibly drawn to the open door of the church, and as he peered in he was shocked to find candles blazing at every window; boughs of spruce, pine, and arborvitae twined around the pews; and a choir singing blissfully about the birth of Christ. He had never seen such a spectacle, certainly not in his father’s austere meetinghouse, and he could not imagine what it meant.

Although he did not know it then, this dazzling vision would be Henry’s only taste of Christmas as a child. Christmas “was not known in the house of my father, for he was a Puritan of the Puritans,” Henry said years later. “I never heard of Santa Claus when I was a boy. I never hung up a stocking. I feel bad about it to this day.”(1)

When Henry was a boy, his faith in his father was so deeply ingrained that it never occurred to him to ask why they did not celebrate Christmas. If he had, Lyman’s answer would have been unequivocal. As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact, and there was nothing in the Scriptures to suggest that Christ was born on December 25. And even if there were, the day would be an occasion for solemn prayer, not sensual frivolity. Why, the Beechers didn’t even celebrate their own birthdays.

If the Episcopalians chose to delude themselves about Christ’s birth that was one thing, as far as Lyman was concerned, but this business of filling the church with decadent appeals to the senses–with music, gaudy decorations, and gifts–was a sneaky attempt to lure the good Christians of Connecticut from the true faith of the Puritan fathers. Lyman had no patience for newfangled notions of religious tolerance or the separation of church and state. Episcopalians, Unitarians, Catho-lics–Lyman lumped them together with atheists, drunkards, thieves, and Jeffersonian Democrats, declaring each one a force of deviltry to be fought tooth and nail.
Despite his harsh dogma, Henry’s father was not a cruel man. Those who knew the famous Reverend Beecher only by rumor or from reading his sensational fire-and-brimstone sermons were often surprised to fi nd that in person he was warm and witty, fiercely intelligent, and deeply compassionate. When he invoked the terrors of the devil and the terrible judgment of God’s law, it was not out of perversity but because he was truly heartbroken that, as he saw it, so many “immortal souls are sleeping on the brink of hell.”(2)

Lyman’s devotion to God was rivaled only by his devotion to his children, and like any good parent, he wanted them to be happy. But in this age before modern medicine, when many families in New England lost at least one child to the grave, he was tortured by the fear that his children would be suddenly swept away by death before he could bring them to God. If they felt deprived by missing such pleasures as Christmas, Lyman was more than willing to trade their happiness on earth to secure their eternal happiness in heaven.

That cold Christmas Eve, Henry’s small heart swelled with conflicting emotions as he “stood wistful, and with a vague curiosity, looking in, and wondering what sort of folks these Episcopal Church people were.” He would have liked nothing better than to be in the middle of such gaiety and excitement. Yet even at this young age, he found it impossible to shake his father’s teachings. He turned away from the church and headed home, with a “feeling of mixed wonder and pity” for those people who dwelled so far outside his father’s sphere.(3)

This complex constellation of feelings colored every corner of Henry’s childhood. He idolized his father and yearned desperately for Lyman’s love and approval, yet every natural impulse in him craved forbidden pleasures. He longed to be like his older brothers and sisters, who seemed so easily to meet the high standards of Lyman and his fearsome God. But no matter how afraid he was of hell and how hard he tried to get into heaven, his desire for earthly happiness kept getting in the way.

Twenty-five years would pass before Henry would begin to question seriously his father’s opinion on this or any other matter. When he did, however, he quickly made up for lost time, tossing out his father’s beliefs by the bushel. By then Henry was becoming a wealthy, worldly man who shamelessly indulged his newly acquired tastes for European travel, velvet jackets, sumptuous rugs, and expensive art, spending enormous sums of money on gifts for his family and friends. Before long he would even give up his belief in hell itself.

But even when he succumbed to the Victorian craze for Christmas, celebrating it at home and in his church with all the merry trimmings, the holiday never really took hold in him. What he had yearned for all those years ago was not toys or Santa Claus, he recalled in old age–“A little love was what I wanted[.]”4

Lyman Beecher had good reason to fear for his son’s soul. Henry Ward Beecher was born in the summer of 1813, in the midst of one of the most terrifying, tumultuous periods in American history. From the distance of two centuries, we have mythologized the decades after the War for Independence as an Arcadian idyll of happy farmers and wise founding fathers. But the American Revolution was a genuine, bloody revolution, and, like all revolutions, it left a long wake of social, economic, and political upheaval. The future of the young Republic was still very much up in the air in 1813, creating an atmosphere of tremendous exhilaration and profound anxiety–a potent combination that would shape the emotional core of Henry Ward Beecher and his generation.

Relations between the United States and England had remained strained and murky since the end of the war, growing even more complex as the French Revolution of 1789 and then the invasion of Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies tore up old diplomatic alliances. Tensions peaked when England attempted to cut off sea trade between the United States and the Continent by attacking American ships and impressing almost a thousand American sailors, in essence kidnapping them and forcing them to work on British ships. Finally, in the summer of 1812, President James Madison declared war on the United Kingdom–the War of 1812 or the Second American Revolution, as it came to be known.

Eager to retake their former colony, the British invaded from all sides, from the Great Lakes in the north to the Gulf of New Orleans in the South. In the spring of 1813 eight British warships sailed into the waters of the Connecticut Sound, blockading the ports, burning wharves and trading ships, and forcing the city of New London to evacuate when the fleet tried to sail up the Connecticut River. By the summer of Henry’s first birthday, the Redcoats were marching into Washington, D.C., where they burned the Capitol to the ground and pushed the Republic to the edge of bankruptcy.

If any state should have stood firm in the midst of this chaos, it ought to have been Connecticut, the Land of Steady Habits, where clocks, granite, and schoolteachers were its chief exports, and the specter of Puritanism still stalked every crevice of its rocky hills. Long after the new federal constitution of 1788 guaranteed the separation of church and state at the national level, Connecticut proudly remained a theocracy, in which every household was taxed for support of the state-sanctioned Congregationalist Church. For more than two hundred years the same aristocratic network of merchants and ministers–“the Standing Order,” as it was known–controlled both politics and society. Federalist in their politics and Calvinist in their religion, the Standing Order considered themselves the last bulwark against the “forces of innovation and democracy,” which had led the country once again to bloodshed. So great was their animosity toward “Mr. Madison’s war” that Connecticut seriously considered seceding from the Union–an idea that the citizens of the South would revive forty years later.

But with the state’s stony, overfarmed soil, burgeoning birthrate, and dependence on European trade, no place was hit harder than Connecticut by the anxiety and turmoil of the post- Revolutionary period. So many young people were fleeing the state for the rich bottomland of the Ohio frontier that the region was designated the “Western Reserve of Connecticut.” A dangerous discontent was rising among those who remained at home. Out-of-wedlock births were skyrocketing, and drunkenness was a genuine epidemic, with the average citizen now drinking up to five gallons of cheap hard liquor a year. To top it off, a coalition of Jeffersonian Democrats, attorneys, atheists, workingmen, and “unofficial” religious sects was starting to agitate for an end to the old Standing Order. To many folks it seemed as if Lucifer was loose upon the land.

But Connecticut Yankees were a wily, peculiar breed, according to early American folklore, with a slippery shrewdness that could confound even Satan himself. They were filled with contradictions–in turn slyly funny and profoundly grave, aggressively innovative and doggedly conservative, “a rare combination of philosopher and fi ghter,” as Frederick Law Olmsted once remarked.(5) At the same time, they were absolutely, infuriatingly, convinced of their own superiority, and obsessed with converting the world to their way of thinking. In a contest of wit and will, the devil and the Connecticut Yankee were considered nearly an even match. If there was any truth in this stereotype, it was sure to be found in Litchfield, Connecticut, and in the Beecher clan.

Perched high up in the Berkshire hills, the village of Litchfield gloried in its paradoxical reputation as a bastion of both progressive intellectual culture and staunch religious orthodoxy–“half Hebrew theocracy, half ultra- democratic republic,” as Lyman’s daughter Harriet described it.(6) It possessed two claims to national fame: its outspoken minister, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, and its pioneering schools, Miss Sarah Pierce’s Litchfi eld Female Academy, one of the nation’s fi rst serious schools for girls, and Judge Tapping Reeve’s Litchfield Law School, the country’s first school devoted solely to the study of the law. Together the two institutions attracted students from as far away as Ohio, South Carolina, Canada, and the West Indies, graduating scores of future congressmen, ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, and political wives, who extended the town’s reputation to London and Paris.

In June 1813 Litchfield looked much as it does today, laid out along four broad tree- lined streets that crossed to form a long, grassy town common. In its habits, however, it was more akin to an English colony than to contemporary America. Indeed, Litchfield clung more tightly to the old ways than most New England towns. Villagers still rose with the sun and shut their houses up tight with the tolling of the nine o’clock bell. Many of the clothes were still homespun and homemade, and children went barefoot all days but Sunday. The older “respectable” men of the town still strolled the streets in outdated colonial garb, clad in short breeches buckled at the knee, tricornered hats, cutaway coats, and the occasional powdered wig. Only Democrats and infidels, it was said, wore pantaloons, or trousers as they came to be called. With deliberate symbolism the Congregational meetinghouse stood in the dead center of the common at the very summit of a hill, and from its old- fashioned swallow’s-nest pulpit the Reverend Beecher ruled over the manners and morals of the town.

Most folks here took religion seriously. From hardscrabble farmers to the town gentry, they lingered at Buell’s general store or on the steps of the courthouse, debating Parson Beecher’s Sunday sermon, or whether it was God’s will to install a woodstove to warm the meetinghouse in winter. Surely, some argued (out of piety or stinginess it was hard to say), such an indulgence would send them down a slippery slope to decadence. After years of fruitless debate seven progressive young men finally purchased a stove on their own and, after more wrangling, were allowed to install it on a trial basis. It made its debut on an unusually warm November day. As they entered the meetinghouse, the townspeople stared suspiciously at the contraption, sitting smack dab in the broad middle aisle.

Old Deacon Trowbridge, a firm opponent of the stove, scornfully gathered up the tails of his long coat as he passed it, as if the devil himself would send out a spark to singe it. Uncle Noah Stone, a wealthy farmer, scowled and muttered about the uncomfortable heat. Mr. Bounce, editor of the village paper and a stove advocate, warmed his hands over the stove with a satisfied air, tucking the skirts of his coat safely between his knees.

The climax of the conflict came during the sermon, when the Reverend Beecher began warning of hell’s “heaping coals of fire.” Pious Mrs. Peck, wife of an antistove deacon, felt so overcome by the unfamiliar heat that she fainted dead away. Mrs. Peck quickly recovered her wits, if not her dignity, when the young men, barely containing their laughter, informed the congregation that because the day was so warm they had not lit a fi re. The stove stayed, a small victory for progress.

The Reverend Lyman Beecher was an eccentric, contradictory character, the spitting image of the canny Connecticut Yankee. At Sunday services strangers to his church were often startled to see a short, wiry man clad in a shabby black tailcoat, his shoulder- length gray hair tied in a simple ponytail, bound down the aisle of the sanctuary, toss his dusty hat on a chair, and leap up the steps of the pulpit. With his tattered clothes, brusque manners, and thick country accent he was often mistaken for an uneducated farmer, but when he spoke listeners quailed before his aggressive arguments and maddening self- assurance.