Working on the final revisions of An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy, I’ve found myself asking, “Okay, so what’s different?” As historians, we’re always making comparisons between the past and the present, even if we disagree about the ways these comparisons ought to be used. I’m writing popular history, so my approach has been that both the differences and the similarities between my subjects in their world, and my readers in ours, should be relevant and meaningful.
First, the differences. Day to day life is so much easier now, that it’s hard for readers to appreciate the sheer work that went into staying alive from year to year in the early 19th century. Ironically, I think this can make it easier for modern readers to identify with elite characters like Thomas Jefferson (who had slaves and employees to do the day to day work of basic survival for him, as we now have technology), than with the 99%.
And people generally don’t tell young men and women that exploring their sexuality will kill them or damn them. Oh, wait. Yeah, sometimes they do. Today, 182 years after Knowlton published Fruits of Philosophy, claiming that men and women had the right and responsibility to limit the number of children they bore to a number that was safe for them and reasonable for their families, many people are still being taught this is not so.
I found myself wondering, as I wrote the story of Knowlton and his friends (Frances Wright, Robert Dale Owen, Abner Kneeland) fighting to spread the word of family planning, whether people would just say, “Yeah, duh.” But then I’d read a headline about a Planned Parenthood office being picketed, about religious leaders claiming condoms are evil and people who have unauthorized sex should be punished. I’d remember that I’ve met people who don’t practice family planning because they’ve been taught it’s not their place to interfere with divine will.
Population is still a problem. The unequal division of wealth and even basic resources is still a problem. Religion is still central to social organization.
Hopefully, my story about one of the first people in American history to advocate family planning will shed some light on the issue today. Knowlton talked about women’s health, women’s rights— even women’s sexuality—in ways that were ahead of his time. Have we caught up with him yet? We take birth control for granted—those of us who accept it. Do we stop to wonder how it ever came to exist, at a time when nearly everybody followed religious authorities who told them it was wrong? What type of person would be willing to step outside the box that far and propose reproductive choice in the early 1800s? What happened when they did? As a historian, I think those are interesting questions. But I don’t think I’d have written the book if I thought I was just cataloguing interesting facts about the past.