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How Did Anthony Comstock Influence the Congress to Ban the Sale of Obscene Books in the United States?

Comstockery is the overzealous moral censorship of fine arts and literature based on perceived immorality or obscenity. An uber-moral activist brought this about at the end of the 1800s. But how did this particular fellow convince Congress to act according to his will?

Anthony Comstock, a religious activist, sought to censor obscene literature during his time. He destroyed thousands of alleged obscene books and barred the sales of others. He was so successful an Act was named after him.

Who was Anthony Comstock?

Anthony Comstock was born on March 7, 1844, in New Canaan, Connecticut. He was one of the ten children of farmers Thomas Anthony Comstock and Polly Ann Lockwood. Their farm grew to expand some 160-acres and had two sawmills. As Comstock grew up, his mother strongly influenced his upbringing in the absence of his hardworking father.

Comstock had a strong religious upbringing. His parents regularly attended the New Canaan Congregational Church. His father led daily prayer services, and his mother attended all-day church services. The family always attended church every Sunday, and their mother always read them Bible stories. Comstock also attended the New Canaan district school, a religious school where they were taught to recite bible verses. His mother also emphasized the value of purity and resisting temptation, following God’s word.

As a young boy, Comstock dropped out of school and worked as a clerk in a general store where he persuaded the town sheriff to close down a local saloon for selling alcohol to women and children and operating on Sundays. The sheriff ignored his plea, so Comstock took care of the matter himself. He destroyed the alcohol barrels and threatened the owner that the saloon would be destroyed if he continued his practice. The saloon owner closed down his business and left town.

Comstock enlisted in the Union Army in 1863, where he continued to show his resolve to complete God’s work. He opposed the gambling, drinking, and smoking of his fellow soldiers, which led him to be despised when he poured his ration of whiskey on the ground instead of giving it to another soldier.

After being discharged in 1865, Comstock moved to New York and became a dry goods merchant. Consequently, he was exposed to an environment that had much access to liquor and sexual literature. Comstock despised his surroundings and later joined the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), with members sharing Comstock’s views on gambling, alcohol consumption, and reading sexual literature.

Comstock dedicated his life to suppressing and removing all things he considered sexually immoral, including medical books, while taking a post as a special agent of the United States Post Office. Comstock traveled far and wide to arrest publishers and writers until his death due to pneumonia on September 21, 1915. (Source: The Embryo Project)

The Formation of the Comstock Act

Comstock achieved his goal of becoming a merchant but his passion was suppressing vices and leading others to follow God’s word. This led to him vigorously supporting the YMCA and vice-versa. In 1872, the YMCA helped the zealot pass federal anti-obscenity legislation to strengthen previous laws that weren’t effective.

Seeing that it wasn’t effective, Comstock traveled to Washington to lobby and gain more robust support for his law. The YMCA referred him to New York Republican Clinton L. Merriam, who supported previous bills regarding the distribution and sales of the alleged illicit literature. Comstock also lobbied various representatives to support his bill.

Comstock’s bill was passed, marking Comstock’s success in his attempt to suppress vices on a national scale. This allowed him to make arrests and continue his acts towards his vision of God’s work. (Source: The Embryo Project)

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