23rd March: 5.00pm
The Struggle to Reform the Sodomy Law in the Early Nineteenth Century
In the early 1800s Age of Reform, when slavery was abolished, voting rights extended, and the death penalty was removed for hundreds of crimes, a disparate group of artists, legal theorists, MPs, and others nearly brought about the end to the death penalty for sodomy in a process that played out over decades, culminating in an 1840-41 Parliamentary debate where the majority in the Commons voted for the reform. Those contributing to this effort included the Abolitionist Steven Lushington, future Prime Minister Lord John Russell, philosopher and legal theorist Jeremy Bentham, and novelist and playwright Matthew Lewis. Come and learn more about this remarkable history.
This talk is based on Prof. Upchurch’s newest book, Beyond the Law: The Politics Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain (Temple University Press, 2021), which documents the early nineteenth century debate in Britain over the ethics of punishing sex between men, culminating in votes in Parliament in 1835 and 1840-41. On each of these occasions, majorities in the House of Commons approved ending the death penalty for sodomy, even as the reform was blocked in the House of Lords. While the reform itself failed, the opinions preserved by the attempts provide a remarkable and previously unknown way to analyse cultural attitudes towards sex between men in the early nineteenth century. Rather than focus on what was not present in these debates (the modern homosexual identity category as defined in the late nineteenth century) this analysis focuses on the multiple ways various groups of individuals understood what sodomy was, and what constituted an ethical response to it.
Arguments were made, in a variety of settings, as to why execution for private consensual sexual conduct was immoral. A leader in the movement to abolish slavery was prominent in these efforts, as were individuals who had family members who were subject to arrest under the laws against sodomy and attempted sodomy. Arguments stemming from utilitarian reform were a part of these debates, but so too were arguments for marital privacy, and the negative impact of the sodomy law on married couples. Playing out over decades, this story involves some of the most prominent individuals of the age, including philosopher legal theorist Jeremy Bentham, novelists William Beckford, Isabella Kelly, and Matthew Gregory Lewis, Lord and Lady Byron, Abolitionist Steven Lushington, future Prime Ministers Lord John Russell and Robert Peel, future Attorney General Fitzroy Kelly, explorer and MP William Bankes, radical politician and publisher William Cobbett, and many others.
Jeffrey Weeks, author of the first landmark works of LGBTQ history for nineteenth century Britain, has called the book “Convincing and stimulating, Upchurch’s book is grounded in a rich and complex archive and is a triumph of historical detective work. His patient piecing together of quite disparate materials to develop a case strengthens the sense that he is genuinely breaking new ground. ‘Beyond the Law’ is a very important book that will change our understanding of what happened before 1861 when the death penalty for sodomy in England was abolished.”
Ann Clark, author of numerous books on British gender and sexuality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and former President of the North American Conference on British Studies, writes that “‘Beyond the Law’ reveals hitherto almost unknown efforts to repeal the death penalty for sodomy in the early nineteenth century in England and provides a new interpretation of the 1885 Labouchere Amendment on that topic. Upchurch offers amazing research, new discoveries, and fascinating stories of the people behind these legislative efforts, as well as rich discussions of the tragic persecutions of many men who had sex with men. His book is a very interesting and compelling read.”
Charles Upchurch is an Associate Professor of British history at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 2003, and his research focuses on nineteenth-century British gender history, social and cultural history, and the history of sexuality. His latest book, Beyond the Law”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain, published in 2021 by Temple University Press, investigates men who worked to reduce the penalties for sex between men in the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in a previously unknown series of Parliamentary debates in 1840 and 1841.
The book tells the story of political actions, and the familial and social networks that made those actions possible. His previous book, Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform, explores the ways in which class influenced the interpretation of same-sex desire between 1820 and 1870, placing family reactions at the centre of the narrative, in order to better understand how these acts were thought of within the broader culture. Since 2014 he has served as a Distinguished Academic Patrons of LGBT History Month in the United Kingdom, and he also currently serves as the President of the Southern Conference on British Studies in the United States.
The event will be introduced and chaired by Dr. Jeff Evans, Research Fellow, John Moores University, Liverpool & Joint-Coordinator for Outing the Past. Jeff has been an active campaigner for LGBT+ and human rights for the past 40 years. He founded Outing the Past in 2015 and remains one of its driving forces travelling extensively. He has just completed Project Management of the first retrospective touring exhibition of LGBT+ Activism in Northern Ireland “Queering the North” with the Museum of Free Derry. He is currently working with the University of Manchester presenting a unit to History Teacher Trainees on How to Teach LGBT+ History