Societal Progress

Anthony Comstock was born in 1844 in Connecticut. Through his experience serving with the Union Army in the Civil War, he became obsessed with what he considered to be the low state of morals among his fellow soldiers.

Returning from the war, he worked at a number of low-level jobs. As a Republican, he was able to acquire a position as a special agent of the U.S. Postal Service. This position gave him the power to carry a gun and make arrests. His views on morality and his virtual police powers allowed him to exert his morality on others. He opposed obscenity, abortion, masturbation, contraception, prostitution, gambling, and even patient medicines.

In his position as a special agent, he proudly proclaimed that he destroyed books, printing plates, and objectionable pictures. One of the consequences of his crusade was that medical schools could not obtain anatomy books for the training of doctors. He made thousands of arrests and was proud of the suicides resulting from his morality efforts.

Anthony Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Through this society, he was able to influence Congress to pass what became known as the Comstock Laws. The U.S. Postal Service essentially became a policing agency for censorship. The society also opposed women’s right to vote.

Comstock authored three books on his view of morality as well as newspaper articles. One of his devotees was J. Edgar Hoover, future head of the FBI. Hoover was attracted not only to Comstock’s views on morality but also to the methods he used to impose those views on the American public.

The New York Times coined the turn comstocking as a derisive condemnation of censorship and overzealous morality. The U.S. had become a joke to Europeans based on Comstock’s moral obsessions.

Just imagine how far our society has advanced from the Comstock days. Or has it?

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“Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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