No new mistakes under the sun

I recently finished a great book, Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith.

The story contained herein is well worth your time. But I wanted to mention one particular aspect. Namely, that while technology may change the way people’s behavior manifests, people’s behavior largely does not. And that there is nothing my generation, or yours, can come up with that hasn’t already been done by your forebearers.

I’m thinking of the love-triangle between Henry Ward Beecher, Lib Tilton, and Lib’s husband Theodore Tilton. Beecher was Theodore’s mentor, almost like a father figure to him. He found a place for him in the abolitionist movement, helped Theodore get started in journalism. Somewhere along the way, Beecher and Lib developed a passionate relationship. Theodore had some inkling of this, but chose to turn a reasonably blind eye, and pursued relationship with other women. He told of his relationships to Lib, who didn’t seem to mind that much. Of course, she fostered things with Beecher.

Somewhere in this Tilton found out that Beecher was more involved with Lib than he’d thought. And this is where the drama starts. Both men start writing letters to each other, and to Lib, and Lib starts writing to both of them. They explain and accuse and justify and confess back and forth, around and around, and the lies and recriminations grow thick on the ground. Theodore threatens repeatedly to go public and destroy Beecher, but relents every time because he doesn’t want to ruin Lib. Throughout all of this letter-writing, Frank Moulton, a mutual friend to all parties, is sent back and forth between the households to convey requests, pressure Lib to say one thing or another, and to get letters back from people after they have been sent.

It’s that last part that makes me laugh. I mean, the hasty and ill-thought correspondence of the 1870s was more retrievable than email. More retrievable because you could send a close friend on horseback to ride from Boston to New York City to get your letter back. Don’t you wish you could do that for those emails you sent at 3:00 am that one time?

On the other hand, the letter, once written, couldn’t be deleted like that Facebook post or blog entry. Beecher’s notes to Moulton are constantly enjoining him to “burn that letter, and this one, when you get them.” Which Moulton clearly did not do. I have to wonder — with all this pleading with other parties to burn the letters you sent, how was it that you did not burn the letters they asked you to burn? They whole system seemed to have been based on the idea that no-one actually burned anything, yet everyone behaved as if they did. Much like people take screencaps of posts, or copy them to email and forward the evidence to all their friends.

It is a comfort to me, it really is, to know that people have been sending incredibly stupid letters to each other in the heat of emotion for hundreds of years. There is no mistake you can make, no asinine thing you can say, no gaff you can commit, that hasn’t been done thousands of times before. And we just keep going on.

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