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February 2015

Free Love: Moses Harman

Moses Harman, publisher of Lucifer, the Light Bearer, was an important figure in the ninteenth century free love, anarchist, and feminist movements.

The controversial, freethinking anarchist Moses Harman became one of his period’s most important proponents of free love and free speech, his paper Lucifer propagandizing the message of the free love movement audaciously as one of the foremost radical journals of its day, along, of course, with Angela and Ezra Heywood’s The Word. Ever the iconoclast, Harman used the pages of Lucifer to challenge all orthodoxies, social, political, and religious. He framed his positions in terms of science and reason, hailing “Freedom, Love, [and] Wisdom” and writing, “In these three…we have a creed much better adapted to working out the problems of life than is the trinity of our childhood—‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.’”

Harman began his editorial career in 1880, when he became editor of Valley Falls Liberal, a publication of the Valley Falls Liberal League. Following a brief stretch as the Kansas Liberal, Harman at last settled on a more permanent title for the periodical in August of 1883, christening it with the rather provocative title “Lucifer, the Light Bearer,” a title it retained for over two decades. Harman’s anarchism, like Benjamin Tucker’s, was based on the law of equal freedom, the “Spencerian formula” that each individual ought to be free to do anything she chooses insofar as she leaves all others equally free. Harman believed that invasions of individual sovereignty and privacy in all matters—from sex to economics—were degenerative to moral edification and to genuine personal development. Harman’s famed free love convictions stemmed from this commitment to individual autonomy; he believed that the full development and maturation of love was impossible without full freedom: the absence of coercive impediments and government meddling, as well as suffocating religious and societal institutions such as marriage. Harman correspondingly asserted that freedom was a prerequisite to realizing the latent potential of the human capacities of both love and reason. Declaring, “Marriage kills love and incarnates hate,” he explained that “[t]he attempt to bind love kills it, or changes it to jealousy and hate.”

Devoted to a particular idea of progress, ostensibly scientific but incorporating the time’s characteristic hubris, Harman’s Lucifer changed its name once more in 1906, becoming The American Journal of Eugenics. In spite of this unfortunate title, as Shawn Wilbur observes, the “eugenics” of the Harmans “was, in most respects, consistent with their libertarianism.” As a kind of across-the-board fixation of the era, eugenics did not necessarily mean the sort of noxious racism that it often connotes today. While in hindsight the Harmans’ eugenics of course appears pseudoscientific and even derisible, it was just one component of a broad approach to hygiene, health, social and cultural advancement, and biology. In his answer to the question “What is Eugenics?” in an early issue of the Journal in 1908, Harman called it the “great modern movement” which aims “to secure justice to the unborn” and to “secure to mothers the right of self-ownership.” On their own, such aims are relatively innocuous, even to a twenty first century reader.

It is perhaps important to note here that anarchists of Harman’s period very explicitly regarded anarchism as fitting a rather linear conception of progress, as the ultimate end in the progressive drive of advancing human civilization, the forward march of which was considered almost beyond question. Benjamin Tucker, for example, termed his libertarianism “scientific anarchism.” Albert R. Parsons, who was judicially murdered following the Haymarket affair,1 likewise proclaimed anarchism “the usher of science—the master of ceremonies to all forms of truth.” Similarly fixated on the connections between the supposed “hard” sciences and social and political forms, Harman preoccupied himself with the proper health and breeding of the human race, comparing the inquiry favorably “to the work of improving the breeds of the ‘lower animals.’” Harman’s interest in such objects of study evinces his comprehensive approach to the questions of his day. Again resembling the Heywoods, Moses and his daughter, Lillian Harman, considered all social issues together, understanding the logical relationships between questions in seemingly very different disciplines. And the similarities between the Heywoods and the Harmans do not end there. The consistent testimony of Harman’s contemporaries attests that his character and personal life were quite above reproach, his mild mannered, gentle way being well known among all who knew him. Notwithstanding his bold, recusant writings, Harman was not personally combative, but gracious, naturally disinclined to argument or anger. He was a loving husband, twice widowed, and a doting father to Lillian, who enthusiastically followed in her father’s radical, freethinking footsteps.

Like Angela Heywood, another free thinking woman possessed of the most radical ideas on sex, Lillian Harman “was actually one of the purest of women in her personal affairs,” opposing promiscuity rather than advocating it.2 At just sixteen years old, Lillian married (for lack of a better word) Lucifer’s assistant editor, Edwin C. Walker, the ceremony befitting the Harman family’s unconventional ideas on love and marriage. Calling it a “common-sense arrangement,” she indicated to her new husband that although she loved him, she would “not be tied to [him],” the result of which arrangement was a month and a half jail sentence from the State of Kansas. Matters were still worse for the older Walker, still legally married to his first wife and therefore guilty of adultery, a crime that earned him 75 days in jail.3 In addition to his role as Harman’s right hand man, Walker was a frequent contributor to Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty and went on to found his own journal, Fair Play. A deft and fiery advocate of free love, Walker frequently struck against both religious and political institutions, maintaining “that the law inverts the precepts of right and wrong” and substitutes “an artificial standard of morality” for the standards ordained by nature. In the pages of Lucifer, Walker called Anthony Comstock’s Vice Society “a moral smelling club composed partly of hypocrites and partly of ignoramuses,” an immoral attempt to encroach on the rights of the individual citizen. Libertarians to the last, Harman and Walker thought that people ought to mind their own business, that decisions of sex and romance were no one’s business but that of those consenting participants.

In Who is the Enemy; Anthony Comstock, or You?, Walker argued cogently along individual anarchist lines, contending that the “permanent evil” of the government’s monopoly on mail “carrying or distribution” enabled the kinds of censorship pursued by Comstock and his henchmen. In Walker, then, the historical and theoretical connection linking the free love movement to the politics and economics of individualist anarchism is once again apparent. Among Walker’s most memorable compositions is his “Communism and Conscience,” in which he argues that “protests against exploitation” are necessarily vindications of, and not attacks on, private property, that “the best possible utilization of [an individual’s] liberty and his life is contingent upon the retention and undisturbed enjoyment of the results of his labor,” that is, his property. American anarchists of this period frequently and eloquently argued that the socialist movement was essentially correct in its indictments of existing pauperism and economic inequities, while concurrently holding that free market competition and private property—consistently applied and heeded—would solve the problem, returning to the worker the full product of her labor.4 While these economic ideas were not the focus of Lucifer, as they were Liberty, they nevertheless feature prominently in its pages.

In their roles at Lucifer, Walker and Harman took care to print that which was thought to be unprintable—to test the outer limits of free speech and defy the obscenity standards promulgated by Comstock. One reader’s submission, a letter from a Tennessee physician, Dr. W.G. Markland, would forever alter the trajectory of Harman’s life. The letter, published in June 1886 without edits or omissions, relayed a story of marital rape in explicit detail, the crime occurring while the wife was bedridden, recovering from a difficult childbirth. Though it employed clinical language and made no appeal to prurience, the letter drew the attention of Comstock, obsessive in his misguided, moralistic crusade against materials considered obscene. As a result, Harman was arrested and tried on 270 counts related to the distribution of obscene works through the mail. Harman maintained a position on criminal law that has come to be identified specifically with libertarianism, contending that in his case there was no victim, and that therefore there could be no crime. Against his argument that Lucifer was simply a voice for free expression and the emancipation of women, the court sentenced him to five years in prison and a fine of three hundred dollars. After serving just a few months of that sentence, Harman was released, federal Judge Henry Caldwell citing technical deficiencies in Harman’s trial. This was not the last encounter with the legal system which would result from the same facts—the publication of Dr. Markland’s letter and others like it. In the years that followed, leading up to his death on January 30, 1910, Harman would stand trial and find himself imprisoned again and again for the words he chose to print.

Moses Harman was a dauntless and pioneering early voice for feminism, sexual and reproductive freedoms, and free expression. His periodical Lucifer was arguably the most important publication of the free love movement, so important a part of latter nineteenth century American radicalism. Harman’s work anticipates much of a lexicon we now take for granted in the public conversation on women’s rights and family planning. Fighting censorship and the oppression of women, Harman finds victory today through the strength of his ideas and their legacy, even if he often lost to the forces of reaction and authority in his own time. Harman thus offers a glimmer of hope to libertarians, to a group that looks forward to a freer and more tolerant society, yet realizes that it likely waits far off, beyond the horizon. For while Harman was widely considered an insane old crank in his lifetime, he is vindicated in the present.


1.) As historian George Woodcock notes in his Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, the prosecution “made no attempt to prove that any of the men [on trial] had thrown the bomb.” The government instead focused on drawing attention to anarchists’ “revolutionary beliefs and their violent statements.” When a few years later an independent inquiry commissioned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld “found no evidence that showed any of the accused men to have been involved in the bombing,” Altgeld pardoned the surviving prisoners.

2.) William O. Reichert, Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism (Bowling Green University Popular Press 1976), 309.

3.) Ibid.

4.) In his Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward, historian David Goodway offers a serviceable explanation of anarchism in historical and ideological context, writing, “A fruitful approach to understanding anarchism is to recognize its thoroughly socialist critique of capitalism, while emphasizing that this has been combined with a liberal critique of socialism, anarchists being united with liberals in their advocacy of autonomous associations and the freedom of the individual and even exceeding them in their opposition to statism.” For decades, the term “libertarian” simply and straightforwardly denoted this approach; that is, it was treated as synonymous with “anarchist,” with all of the politically and economically left-wing elements necessarily contained therein.

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