Gates of Freedom: Voltairine de Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind

Gates of Freedom: Voltairine de Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind

by Eugenia C. DeLamotte


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ISBN-13: 9780472068678
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 09/15/2004
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Eugenia C. DeLamotte is Associate Professor of English, Arizona State University.

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Voltairine de Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind With Selections from Her Writing

By Eugenia C. DeLamotte
The University Of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2004

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09867-5


... not in demanding little, not in striking for an hour less, not in mountain labor to bring forth mice, can any lasting alleviation come; but in demanding much-all. -Voltairine de Cleyre, "The Eleventh of November, 1887"


"The history of intellectual progress is written in the lives of infidels," freethinker Robert Ingersoll proclaimed in 1894 ("Voltaire" 177). In the hundreds of works Voltairine de Cleyre published from the 1880s until her death in 1912-poems, sketches, essays, lectures, pamphlets, translations, and short stories-she was proud to count herself among the infidels. De Cleyre defined freethought broadly as "the right to believe as the evidence, coming in contact with the mind, forces it to believe. This implies the admission of any and all evidence bearing upon any subject which may come up for discussion" ("Economic Tendency" 3). Among the many subjects that came up routinely in late-nineteenth-century free-thinking circles were marriage, sexuality, birth control, women's rights, race relations, labor relations, evolution, the existence of God, and the relation of the individual to the state. The names of freethought periodicals reflected their commitment to follow truth wherever it led: the Boston Investigator, the Truth Seeker, the Open Court, the Liberal, and at the far left end of the spectrum Lucifer, the Light Bearer. As a young freethinker in 1886, de Cleyre wrote for and then edited a now lost periodical, the Progressive Age, presumably of a similar nature (Avrich, AA 40).

The ideas espoused by such periodicals, and by the various "secular" and "liberal" organizations for whom de Cleyre lectured, had their origins in eighteenth-century French rationalism, to which de Cleyre, of course, owed even her name. American freethinkers traced their more recent heritage to American revolutionaries whom the French writers influenced, especially Thomas Paine, an object of near idolatry among some of de Cleyre's peers. Paine had vehemently opposed "the adulterous connection of church and state" and rejected all religious creeds, the divine authority of all religious texts, and all forms of organized religion. In The Age of Reason, the sensationally controversial book of 1794-95 that led Teddy Roosevelt a century later to call him a "filthy little atheist" (S. Warren 111), Paine announced his belief in "one God, and no more," his hope for "happiness beyond this life," his belief in "the equality of man," and his concept of religious duty: "doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy." Saying, "My own mind is my own church," he set about systematically, and with an acerbic contempt for anything that cannot be rationally demonstrated, to disprove almost every tenet on which Christian churches were founded (948-49 and passim). In de Cleyre's day as in ours there was a society named for Thomas Paine, and his books were regularly advertised in the freethought periodicals to which she contributed. American freethinkers often copied both his style and his ideas; indeed de Cleyre imitates his method in an early lecture, "The Economic Tendency of Freethought" (1890), which opens with a quotation from Paine but proceeds immediately to a systematic attack on the one aspect of religious thought he had not rejected, the existence of God.

De Cleyre's terse deconstruction of deism in "The Economic Tendency of Freethought," so indebted to Paine's own methods, bespeaks-even in her ability to go beyond him-the liberatory effect he must surely have had on her life as she struggled out of the spiritual and intellectual crisis of her late adolescence. This effect is evident in a diptych of poems she wrote in 1887, "The Christian's Faith" and "The Freethinker's Plea," which she introduced with a note: "The two following poems were written at that period of my life when the questions of the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus had but recently been settled, and they present the pros and cons which had been repeating themselves over and over again in my brain for some years" ("Christian's Faith" 18). The form of the second poem, heroic couplets, announces the kinship of "The Freethinker's Plea" with eighteenth-century rationalism, reflected strongly in the deist view that grounds its argument: "Then learn the law if thou woulds't live aright; / And know no unseen power, no hand of might, / Can set aside the law which wheels the stars; / No incompleteness its perfection mars" (24). De Cleyre argues here for a law-abiding, Newtonian nature and a corresponding system of natural justice that accounts, in purely natural and logical terms, for the truth of the biblical decree that we will sow what we reap ("Think not, O man, that thou cans't e'er escape / One jot of Justices' law"). But the rationalist argument is fused with a passionately Romantic view, strongly inflected by transcendentalism, which comes close to replacing a deity with a deified Nature. Transfigured by this romanticism, Paine's moral imperative of contributing to others' happiness expands into a more sweeping, ecstatic version of his creed of human equality:

Then let your life-work swell the great flood-tide Of love towards all the world; the world is wide, The sea of life is broad; its waves stretch far; No range, no barrier, its sweep may bar.... Go down into the felon's gloomy cell; Send there the ray of love: as tree-buds swell When spring's warm breath bids the cold winter cease, So will his heart swell with the hope of peace. Be filled with love, for love is Nature's God; The God which trembles in the tender sod, The God which tints the sunset, lights the dew, Sprinkles with stars the firmament's broad blue, And draws all hearts together in a free Wide sweep of love, broad as the ether-sea. No other law or guidance do we need; The world's our church, to do good is our creed. (24, 26)

This fusion of Enlightenment rationalism and high romanticism was to characterize all of de Cleyre's work; it provided a logical and activist vision of her place in the world, but also a substitute for the affective dimensions of the religion she was renouncing. In the first poem of the diptych, "The Christian's Faith," these dimensions are present in the wrenching emotion of Jesus' desperately longing plea for all sinners, significantly including "prisoners in cells"-a phrase to which "the felon in his cell" corresponds in "The Freethinker's Plea"-to accept the "gifts of penitence, / Forgiveness and charity and hope!" Jesus stretches "hands of mercy through the bars," offering his crucifixion to expiate the prisoner's "deep guilt" and promising seductive "peace" for all: martyrs, sinners, mourners, those who suffer, those who "live for others' good" (22). The blank verse, contrasting with the optimistic heroic couplets of the second poem, accentuates the tragedy of this first, Christian plea of the diptych-not only Jesus' urgency as the lines end with his call unanswered, but also, in the light of the next poem, the implicitly tragic consequences of offering a mere symbol, the cross, as a response to the literal fact of human suffering. In "The Christian's Faith" the prisoner is presumed guilty, in need of expiation; and those who live for others are somehow subtly summoned away from that commitment, called toward a "peace" that will transcend their engagement with the problems of their fellow humans. "The Freethinker's Plea," in what is clearly a specific rebuttal, ends with the prisoner's hope of "peace" deriving from human action-a real person's descent into the felon's cell. Interestingly, Jesus' call for his disciples to visit those in prison is imputed in these poems not to him but to the freethinker; the internal debate represented by the diptych centers not on the historical Jesus, whose teachings some freethinkers admired, but rather on the idea of a Savior whose divine sacrifice, as opposed to earthly and human expressions of love, is erroneously viewed by the Christian as a solution to the world's problems.

While Paine's influence is strong in "The Freethinker's Plea," the poem also reveals de Cleyre's early rejection of his deism; the ending seems to eschew even his tentative hope for an afterlife, and the poem's emphasis on a universe ruled by inexorable natural law, without intervention by a higher power, seems carefully to exclude the deist idea of a creator who set those laws in motion. The "God" of this poem is love, "Nature's God," not the deist watchmaker. As Sidney Warren points out in his history of freethought, "Although the more radical freethinkers worshipped at the shrine of Thomas Paine," the "true inheritors of his philosophy" were the Free Religionists, the most conservative wing of the freethought movement (110). Free Religionists organized the National Liberal League to work for separation of church and state, and later, in response to some members' desire to expand its agenda (to include, for example, such "liberal" goals as women's suffrage), succeeded in sustaining that focus under the new, less ambiguous rubric of the American Secular Union. It was under the auspices of this organization that de Cleyre delivered her lecture "The Economic Tendency of Freethought" to the Boston Secular Society. The deist legacy of the American Secular Union, as well as its almost exclusive dedication at this time to the question of separation of church and state, sheds some interesting light on de Cleyre's tributes to, and departures from, Paine in this speech, which undoubtedly traces, in its structure, the logic of her early move from freethought to anarchism.

Ironically appropriating a traditional sermon structure for her infidel purposes, she opens her lecture with a reference to a text from Paine, cited as a preacher might cite an opening verse from the Bible: "On page 286, Belford-Clarke edition, of the 'Rights of Man' ..." Later she underscores the analogy to a sermon by referring to another quotation as "a sort of supplementary text," which she presents, however, with calculated disregard for accuracy: "taken, I think, from a recent letter of Cardinal Manning, but if not Cardinal Manning, then some other of the various dunce-capped gentlemen." The pairing of faithfulness to chapter and verse in Paine with an airy refusal even to verify the name of her clerical source is a comment on the relative sanctity of her sacred and secular points of reference. The cardinal is just any one of many interchangeably dunce-capped religious fools who recently objected to a monument to the freethinkers' martyr Giordano Bruno; Paine was an individual who thought for himself, an author with a name (like Bruno's) that we can be sure of. Appropriately for a blasphemous sermon against "the fiend, Authority" in any form, however, de Cleyre immediately undercuts even Paine's authority with her attack on deism, and proceeds to accord Manning a perverse, or inverse, authority by proving that his frightened predictions about the atheist and anarchist tendencies of freethought are exactly right.

In this, as in her deconstruction of deism, de Cleyre's (relatively) conservative audience would not for the most part have wished to follow, but her procedure in this lecture, presumably with exactly this audience in mind, is to push freethinking methods to their furthest logical limit, applying them even to freethought itself. Having dismantled any rational basis for deism, she disproves in short order the existence of God, demonstrates that the logic of atheism is the logic of anarchism since both refuse homage to Authority, and urges that freethinkers pursue their syllogisms to their logical conclusions. She argues that the true tendency of freethought is, first, beyond deism and toward atheism, and then beyond a preoccupation with religious questions toward an antigovernment stance: a recognition that vesting supreme authority in government repeats the mistake of conceptualizing supreme authority as God. In both cases a concept of privileges granted by an authority (God, government) is substituted for the concept of rights: "Once more the hypothesis is that the Government, or Authority, or God in his other form, owns all the rights, and grants privileges according to its sweet will."

At issue, implicitly, is the American Secular Union's myopic focus on separation of church and state. Freethinkers who continue unquestioningly to support the state despite their opposition to the church fail to see that they have merely chosen a new God: "Do you know what you do?-Craven, you worship the fiend, Authority, again!" ("Economic Tendency" 3). Stop "digging, mole-like, through the substratum of dead issues" centered on religion, she urged; there is no point in wasting time hugging oneself in the camps of dead enemies-those who burned Bruno at the stake in 1600, for example. Freethinkers should stop "gathering the ashes of fires burnt out two centuries ago"-an image that, by implication, places freethinkers in the intellectual camp of their already-dead enemies the cardinal and his fellow dunces. The great questions now are not religious or political but economic: "the crying-out demand of today is for a circle of principles that shall forever make it impossible for one man to control another by controlling the means of his existence" ("Economic Tendency" 3)

Does freethinking, as Cardinal Manning (or some such person) insists, lead to the subversion of social and civil order? De Cleyre answers triumphantly in the affirmative, if "social and civil order" means the travesty of "order" that constitutes the status quo. Her proof reveals the influence of another enlightenment freethinker, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose impact on de Cleyre it would be hard to exaggerate. De Cleyre admired her as much as she did Paine, deploring the absence of equal recognition for Wollstonecraft among freethinkers: "It shows that their pretended equality belief is largely on their lips alone" ("Past" 43). The integration of gender and class issues in de Cleyre's demonstration that the current "order" is a farce reveals that women's issues, which modern critics have sometimes sorted into a separate category in analyzing her works, were central to her social criticism from the very beginning.

Social Order! Not long ago I saw a letter from a young girl to a friend; a young girl whose health had been broken behind a counter, where she stood eleven and twelve hours a day, six days in the week, for the magnificent sum of $5. The letter said: "Can't you help me to a position? My friends want me to marry a man I do not like, because he has money...." Social Order! When the choice for a young girl lies between living by inches and dying by yards at manual labor, or becoming the legal property of a man she does not like because he has money!

Walk up Fifth Avenue in New York some hot summer day ... Look at palaces going to waste, space, furniture, draperies, elegance.... Then take a car down town; go among the homes of the producers of that idle splendor; find six families living in a five-room house.... Space is not wasted here.... This is social order!

Next winter, when the "annual output" of coal has been mined, when the workmen are clenching their hard fists with impotent anger ... while the syndicate's pockets are filling.... Moralize on the preservation of social order! ... watch a policeman arrest a shoeless tramp for stealing a pair of boots. Say to your self, this is civil order and must be preserved....

Subvert the social and civil order! Aye, I would destroy, to the last vestige, this mockery of order, this travesty upon justice!

Break up the home? Yes, every home that rests on slavery! Every marriage that represents the sale and transfer of the individuality of one of its parties to the other! Every institution, social or civil, that stands between man and his right; every tie that renders one a master, another a serf; every law, every statute, every be-it-enacted that represents tyranny; everything you call American privilege that can only exist at the expense of international right. ("Economic Tendency" 7)

As the progress of this argument makes abundantly clear, the antiauthoritarian principles of freethought, including enlightenment feminism, had laid the groundwork for de Cleyre's move toward a position beyond them; and it seems reasonable to suppose that the steps in this argument, published only two years after de Cleyre began her career as an anarchist, reproduced the progress of her own ideas as she moved out of an Enlightenment-based version of freethought toward anarchism. The relation, and tension, between the two positions is implicit in the fact that while she presented this lecture to the freethinking Boston Secular Society, she published it in the anarchist journal Liberty, one of many periodicals whose names-the Rebel, the Alarm, the Firebrand, Fraye Arbeter Shtime (Free voice of labor), Free Society, Freedom, Freiheit (Freedom), the Herald of Revolt-reveal both their ties with, and their distance from, the freethought to which journals such as the Investigator or the Truth Seeker were dedicated. Freethought and anarchism were close in some respects; if not all freethinkers were anarchists by any means, on the other hand most anarchists were freethinkers (Avrich, AA 39). But there was in fact a greater distance than this might imply between de Cleyre's association with the Progressive Age and with Liberty, a distance measured by the long year and a half of the Haymarket affair of 1886-87. Soon after the end of it-her progress mediated by Darrow's socialist interpretation of labor issues and her readings in anarchist theory-the broad outline of the anarchist views de Cleyre would elaborate over the course of her career was in place.


Excerpted from GATES OF FREEDOM by Eugenia C. DeLamotte
Copyright © 2004 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Part 1Revolution of the Mind1
1Freeing Thought14
2Fated Fruit42
3Sex Slavery80
4Refashioning the Mind124
Part 2Selected Writings of Voltairine de Cleyre153
Section 1De Cleyre's Lifework: Hope, Despair, Solidarity155
The Burial of My Past Self163
New and Strange Ideas165
Civilizing the World168
To Print the Force of My Will174
Do You Remember...?178
Possessed by Barren Doubts181
Impractical! Hell!186
Report of the Work of the Chicago Mexican Defense League189
Section 2Freedom, Justice, Anarchism192
The Hurricane195
A Rocket of Iron197
Appeal for Herman Helcher200
The Chain Gang201
The Commune Is Risen205
Section 3On Women, Sexuality, and the Body210
Selling Their Bodies219
Sex Slavery222
The Gates of Freedom235
The White Room251
Mary Wollstonecraft254
If I Had Married Him256
The Past and Future of the Ladies' Liberal League260
The Case of Woman vs. Orthodoxy271
The Woman Question284
The Heart of Angiolillo286
The Death of Love295
The Hopelessly Fallen299
They Who Marry Do Ill302
Notes to Part I314
Works Cited322
Selected Index of Names332

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