Courtlandt Palmer

On this date in 1843, writer Courtlandt Palmer was born in New York. An 1869 graduate of Columbia Law School and heir to family wealth, Palmer used both assets to promote rationalism. He had rejected the Dutch Reformed church of his family at an early age. He founded the Nineteenth Century Club to promote freethought, serving as its first president. He also wrote for The Truth Seeker and other freethought publications.

The New York Sun, in its obituary, lauded Palmer for “a surpassing feat in making fashionable in New York a sort of discussion which before had been frowned upon as in the last degree pernicious, and especially unbefitting polite and conservative society. He set people to thinking and talking over moral and religious questions, which they had not dared to consider, and made familiar to them views from which they had turned in alarm as morally poisonous and soul-destroying.

The Sun obituary continued: “The Nineteenth Century Club was established as a Freethinking debating society, and not many years ago it would have been avoided and denounced as an institution for the propagation of Infidelity and odious Radicalisms. Yet under Mr. Palmer’s lead the club received the stamp of fashionable approval, and its discussions have been carried on before crowded assemblages of ladies and gentlemen in full evening dress. … Where they had been sure there was only one possible side, they saw other people found many sides.”

The obituary also noted that Palmer’s death at age 45 of peritonitis defied the stereotype “that the deathbed of the unbeliever is an agonizing one.” It noted his final words to family were “I want you one and all to tell the whole world that you have seen a Freethinker die without the last fear of what the hereafter may be.” (D. 1888)

Freedom From Religion Foundation