The Truth Gets a Hearing: The Correspondence between Sarah James Eddy and Albert Leffingwell

Small boy reaches out to shake hands with a dog.

Small boy reaches out to shake hands with a dog.

This guest blog was written by Dr. Rachel Robison-Greene, the first awardee of the Tom Regan Visiting Research Fellowship at the Special Collections Research Center. Robison-Greene is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Utah State University researching the in vitro meat revolution. Read more about the research she conducted at NC State University Libraries here.

From 1895 to 1906, social reformers Sarah James Eddy and Albert Leffingwell engaged in correspondence on the topic of animal welfare, with an emphasis specifically on the issue of vivisection, understood broadly in this context as the use of animals in scientific and medical experiments.  The original correspondence is now a part of the Animal Rights Archive in the Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries. The correspondence is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, it is a series of interactions between two people who were reflective about values.  At a time when a full steam ahead approach to scientific progress struck many as the obvious way forward, Eddy and Leffingwell were cautious about the costs. They challenged the anthropocentric worldview of their contemporaries. They thought carefully about the proper role of empathy and compassion toward other beings.  Second, the collection provides a preview of the challenges that advocates for animal welfare would face in the centuries to come. Powerful interest groups stifled the animal welfare message and ridiculed empathy for animals as emotional, irrational, and even insane. The experiences described in the letters are evidence of a familiar theme in the history of human behavior—often greed and the lust for power are more important to people than truth and justice.  Leffingwell bemoans this fact often in his letters. Finally, the correspondence suggests that human beings are at their best when they care about the suffering of fellow beings.

This undated pamphlet lists Eddy and Leffingwell as members of the Executive Committee of the American Humane Association.

In an 1895 letter to Eddy, Leffingwell expresses what he takes to be the heart of the issue when it comes to the use of animals.  He says that the question concerns, “the extent to which human beings have a right to demand the lives and suffering of creatures beneath them.”  This isn’t a pragmatic question; it’s a philosophical question, an ethical question.  The resolution has implications for all sentient beings.  It has ramifications for social institutions that govern human behavior, and it will also be instructive on the issue of how we ought to engage with the natural world.  Leffingwell does not appear to be an abolitionist when it comes to the practice of vivisection. He seems, at least early in the correspondence, to think the appropriate course of action should be a balancing act.  He provides a noteworthy example,

Take one instance. There are certain poisons used by educated criminals, which elude detection by chemical analysis. Proof of their use can only be reached by administering what is found in the victim's body to a very small animal,-a frog or a mouse and noting its effects. Capital crimes of the most atrocious character can only be detected by such experimentation. It is a far less painful death than being torn alive by a cat or a dog, against which there is no thought of legal prohibition at present: it is an experiment of the utmost utility in the detection of murder.

This passage demonstrates that animal welfare advocates were not, as their critics contended, overly emotional, hysterical, or insane. They were thinking carefully about the moral dimensions of human behavior and the question of how we should balance the things that matter. Knowledge is valuable, and so is the medicine and technology that comes about as a result.  It was worth asking then, and it remains worth asking now, whether such advances are valuable at any cost. We navigate the world in a way that suggests that more technology, more ease and comfort, is always ideal. It may be the case that there are limits to what should be done in the name of “progress.” This is a question that emerges with a vengeance in our current technology driven society.  We must grapple with it as we chart our way forward with an eye toward sustainability and compassion, as Eddy and Leffingwell did.

The first page of a manuscript letter written by Albert Leffingwell to Sarah James Eddy in 1895.
The first page of a letter written by Albert Leffingwell to Sarah James Eddy in 1895. Sarah J. Eddy and Albert Leffingwell Correspondence Collection, MC 666.

The importance of empathy and compassion is emphasized by a series of anecdotes that appear in the correspondence.  In a letter marked October 27th, 1900, Leffingwell reports to Eddy that he can’t come to see her as planned because he is dealing with a local matter.  He describes the case of an 83-year-old blind woman who was swindled out of her life savings when she was offered the chance to participate in what turned out to be a bad investment. Leffingwell expresses that he needs to stay in town in order to facilitate the passing of a measure that would allow the woman to be supported by the town at the cost of three dollars per week.  He anticipated some resistance from groups who felt that people, no matter their circumstances, should suffer the consequences of their own poor decisions. He says, “I believe I can carry the motion by my personal influence, yet I am sorry to say that a strong influence is in favor of letting her take the chances of the country poor, “she should not have lost her money.””  Leffingwell’s response here encourages reflection on whether a retributivist principle—that a person should get what they deserve—is really an ethical principle at all, disconnected as it is from empathy and compassion.

In another noteworthy exchange, Eddy and Leffingwell discuss the social practice of publicly whipping men who beat their wives.  The two are at odds over this matter. Eddy reaches out to Leffingwell to see if he can exert some influence in order to end the practice.  Leffingwell is concerned that if society ends the practice of public whipping, the deterrent effects on spousal abuse will also come to an end.  Again, their discussion is characterized by compassion. They simply disagree when it comes to the question of where that compassion ought to be directed.  An exchange between Eddy and fellow anti-vivisectionist Mary F. Lovell is also present in the collection, in which Lovell expresses her views on the issue in a powerful way,

Knowing your interest in humane matters I think I may add the following. What is our ideal--the ideal of thoughtful humane people concerning our fellow man? Is it our intent merely to punish him, to "give him what he deserves" when he does wrong, or is it to take some care, some thought about him, and find a way, if there be one, to develop the real man in him, to better his life, and by consequence, the lives of others in the same environment?

The approach here again challenges the common conception of justice as retributivism.  Perhaps our actions directed toward others, both human and non-human, should be characterized by empathy and by a genuine interest in what it would take for a being of the type in question to flourish.

The first page of a manuscript letter written by Sarah James Eddy to Albert Leffingwell in 1899.
The first page of a letter written by Sarah James Eddy to Albert Leffingwell in 1899, from the Sarah J. Eddy and Albert Leffingwell Correspondence Collection, MC 666.

The correspondence demonstrates that, when it comes to the challenges animal advocates face, not much has changed.  In a letter from June 4th, 1900, Leffingwell describes a series of interactions with members of the medical profession.

The men who were engaged in vivisection as a means of gaining their daily bread

realized their danger and united in a common defense. It is not merely that they control the medical newspaper press throughout the country, and that they have the confidence of a majority of those connected with the cause of learning, - with this they were not satisfied and have stooped to unworthy methods in defense of vivisection.  Five years ago I would not have believed that members of the Medical profession would have sunk so low as to employ falsehood as a method of argumentation.

Contemporary animal welfare advocates are painfully aware of the powerful interest groups that have the wealth and influence to stifle the message of those who look out for the interests of animals, and it is not lost on them that these powerful institutions are often entirely unconcerned with truth, if truth gets in the way of the bottom line. Many people believe that human beings have dominion over other living things.  They believe that the beings and resources on this planet exist for human use and for human consumption, and their behavior is consistent with their beliefs. There are compelling arguments for the position that it is time for a paradigm shift in the way we view our role in the universe. We do not preside over biotic communities; we are part of biotic communities.  Other beings experience their own suffering no less potently than we experience ours.  Whether one is inclined to agree with these contentions or not, they are contentions that are at least worth discussing, especially in light of the climate crisis we are facing.  In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill makes a powerful argument for the value of free speech.  He says,

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Open and honest conversations about our obligations to other-than human animals are long overdue.  Suffocating the message deprives citizens of the many benefits of having the conversation.

This pamphlet on humane education suggests Eddy's book Friends and Helpers as a useful book on animals.

It appears that animal welfare is having a moment right now.  Vegan celebrities are raising their influential voices and vegetable based forms of protein like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are even more popular than anticipated. Observant spectators will notice that the animal agricultural complex is responding in ways that Eddy and Leffingwell might recognize.  As new, competing vegetable based proteins become more and more popular, state legislators heavily influenced by animal agricultural interests are passing laws prohibiting such products from branding themselves as “meat” or “burger.”  They are willing to police language in order to protect their way of life. In response to moves like this in his own day, Leffingwell laments,

If I could feel that little by little, we are undermining the confidence so wrongly given, and that one day falsifiers will be utterly discredited, and (as Wendell Phillips used to say,)—“the Truth get a hearing,” and be accepted generally, I should feel greatly encouraged.  It does seem certain that, in the long run, falsehood cannot overcome truth. But how long must we wait?

Finally, the correspondence between Eddy and Leffingwell showcases the value compassion for other beings has for the person experiencing the compassion.  The recognition of oneself in others facilitates personal growth and provides a sense of connection with the external world.  The practice of treating other sentient creatures as mere objects or things is harmful. This recognition leads Eddy to ask, in a letter from November 29th, 1899, “What is the effect of vivisection on the character of those that practice it?” The answer is likely not a positive one.  If flourishing requires exercise of the moral faculties, one cannot fully flourish when compassion and empathy are stifled. 

For more information or to access the materials highlighted in this post, please contact the Special Collections Research Center. You can also find materials related to animal rights and welfare on our Rare and Unique Digital Collections platform.