by Frederick Edwords
Corliss Lamont, athletic all his life, was a member of the Phillips Exeter Hockey Team during his teens.
During the 1940s, Lamont was an outspoken civil libertarian and humanist.
On Wednesday, April 26, 1995, the humanist movement lost its most prominent philosopher and social activist. Dr. Corliss Lamont, age 93, died peacefully at his home in Ossining, New York. A humanist funeral was held for close family and friends in New York City on April 29. Then on May 19, humanists celebrated his life at a special memorial service held during the fifty-fourth annual conference of the American Humanist Association. To Lamont's assembled friends and admirers, his wife Beth read a letter she had received a few days prior from Bill Clinton, who had met Corliss in 1992 and was familiar with his accomplishments. The letter read in part:
Corliss gave a great deal to our country during his long, rich life. As a tireless advocate for America's civil liberties, he challenged our nation to honor its most basic covenant with its citizens. The many struggles he fought throughout his career have helped to preserve our precious freedoms for the generations to come.
Corliss Lamont was born March 28, 1902, in Englewood, New Jersey. The day happened to be Good Friday — a coincidence his mother hoped would prove an omen of future religious devotion. However, despite his regular attendance during his youth at the Presbyterian Church of Englewood, his study of the New Testament, and his tenure as a Boy Scout, Lamont gradually came to reject his family faith.
What he considered "the first big civics battle" of his life took place in 1919, when he was a student of 17 at Phillips Exeter Academy. He had learned that, on each night before a game, the coach of the academy's baseball team was cooking the balls that would be pitched by the opposing side. Because these oven-baked projectiles were harder, they flew further when struck by Exeter batters, accounting for his team's rising number of victories. Lamont reported the unethical practice to the principal, resulting in the immediate dismissal of the coach and Lamont almost being thrown into the river by some of his disgruntled fellow students.
Corliss Lamont's father, Thomas, was a business partner of J. P. Morgan in what was then the leading banking firm in the United States. But, as Corliss declares in Yes to Life, his father's positions and actions on social issues "effectively contradicted the widely accepted stereotype of rich people and Republicans as conservative or reactionary plutocrats opposed to all forms of progress and liberalism." In November 1917, after the United States had entered World War I, Thomas Lamont became an unofficial adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, proposing that limited cooperation with the Soviets could help defeat Germany. Wilson, however, would hear none of it and, a few months later, sent troops into the new Soviet Union in an ill-fated attempt to topple Lenin's government. After the war, both of Lamont's parents were active in the peace process and the League of Nations.
It was therefore not surprising that, while Corliss was at Harvard during the early 1920s, he also supported the League of Nations, debating in print his classmate Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., son of the U.S. senator most responsible for maintaining America's isolationist policies. But Corliss stirred additional controversy when, as student vice-chair of the Harvard Union, he proposed that Socialist Party President Eugene V. Debs, communist labor organizer William Z. Foster, and radical economist Scott Nearing be invited to address the student body. His aim was simply to get an equal hearing for the viewpoints of the left. But when the governing board of Harvard Union bitterly fought his proposal, Lamont decided there might be some merit to socialism after all and launched into a serious study of the subject. Meanwhile, the speaker program at Harvard Union liberalized to a degree.
After graduating magna cum laude, Corliss Lamont studied for a year at New College in Oxford, England, living during that time in the home of Juliette and Julian Huxley. In the fall of 1925, Lamont began his doctoral studies at Columbia University and took a course under John Dewey. Then in 1928, Lamont became an instructor in philosophy at Columbia. One of the courses he taught used John H. Randall's The Making of the Modern Mind as a text. It was the reading of this book and the teaching of this course that turned Lamont from liberalism to democratic socialism. Later that same year, he married Margaret Hayes Irish, a writer and researcher who held convictions similar to his own.
In 1929, Lamont took up the cause of 20 scrubwomen who had been fired by Harvard when the Massachusetts authorities caught the university paying them only 35 cents an hour — two cents under the minimum wage. As secretary of the Harvard Alumni Association, Lamont raised $3,000 from his fellow alumni, which was paid to the women in lieu of back wages. A few years later, Harvard adopted a more enlightened labor policy.
Lamont completed his doctoral dissertation, Issues of Immortality, in 1932 and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia. This dissertation led to his 1935 book, The Illusion of Immortality, a work which, over time, became accepted as a prime reference on the nonexistence of a hereafter.
When Humanist Manifesto I was issued in 1933, Lamont felt that the document was too vague and incomplete to adequately express his own emerging humanist outlook, and he recoiled at its references to religious humanism. Nonetheless, he concluded that the manifesto's formulation was the best expression of his own beliefs he had seen so far. It enabled him to clarify his personal conclusions, which became thoroughly humanist and agnostic shortly thereafter. When many of the manifesto's signers founded the American Humanist Association in 1941, Lamont immediately joined.
After receiving his doctorate, Lamont was elected to the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (a position he held for the next 20 years) and traveled with his wife on his first trip to the Soviet Union. Upon their return, he became chair of the Friends of the Soviet Union, an organization dedicated to Soviet-American cooperation.
From the start, his activism, writing, and teaching regarding the U.S.S.R. was misinterpreted. Red-baiting reporters and politicians accused him of being a "silk-shirt communist" — a falsehood he would find it necessary to deny repeatedly throughout the rest of his life. But many of his critics later admitted he was right when, in 1941, contrary to conventional wisdom, he correctly predicted that the Soviet Union would never fall to the Nazis but would, instead, thoroughly defeat them. In November 1942, Lamont and his father shared the podium with U.S. Vice-President Henry Wallace at a major Madison Square Garden rally in support of the U.S.S.R.'s war effort against Germany.
But Corliss Lamont erred in some of his sympathetic views of the Soviet system. During the late 1930s, for example, he defended the Moscow Trials, a judicial frameup of certain Soviet leaders who Joseph Stalin wanted out of the way. Years later, Lamont corrected his mistakes.
His first civil-liberties case began upon his arrival home from his 1932 Soviet tour. Lamont had brought back what he described as "a number of lively posters, which illustrated public health work, reproduced works of art and ridiculed the capitalist system." U.S. Customs seized the posters as seditious material. After two months of legal protest, all but three were returned, these latter being retained because they included tiny photographs of U.S. currency.
Lamont's most significant civil-liberties battles, however, commenced after the end of World War II. Anti-communist hysteria was rife in the United States, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered in January 1944 that Lamont be fully investigated. So in December 1945, the House Un-American Activities Committee served Lamont, as chair of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, with a subpoena demanding that he hand over "all books, records, papers, and documents showing all receipts and disbursements of money" by the council and its affiliated organizations, as well as "all letters, memoranda or communications from, or with, any person or persons outside and within the United States of America." In response, Lamont called a meeting of the organization's board, which voted that the subpoena should be opposed as a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments and because the organization's members and contributors might be harassed.
On February 6, 1946, Lamont testified before the committee; a month later, Richard Morford, executive director of the council, also testified. Both refused to turn over any documents. Their cases went to the U.S. District Attorney in Washington, D.C., but only Morford (as custodian of the records) was indicted and subsequently found guilty. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Morford's appeal, and he ended up serving a three-month jail term in the fall of 1950.
Nearly identical contempt cases during this time period put leaders of the joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties in jail. And the infamous "Hollywood Ten," citing the First Amendment in 1947, ended up serving one-year jail sentences. As Lamont later wrote in Freedom Is As Freedom Does:
[They] all deserve the gratitude of civil libertarians for their principled action in challenging the "Un-American Committee" on constitutional grounds. Although they did not achieve their ends, they set a splendid example and helped to educate the American public and the courts as to the true meaning of the Bill of Rights.
Though the government and press took notice at this time of Lamont's political views, his philosophical conclusions went largely ignored. From 1946 to 1959, he taught a lecture course at Columbia called the Philosophy of Naturalistic Humanism. This developed in 1949 into his book, Humanism As a Philosophy, later retitled The Philosophy of Humanism, which became and remains the definitive study of humanism.
With the deaths of his father in 1948 and his mother in 1952, Lamont came into control of a vast fortune. Over the years that followed, he contributed huge sums to Columbia and Harvard universities, as well as to the numerous causes he valued. Because of his commitment to civil-libertarian principles, and because the ACLU had too often given in to the government's efforts to hunt down leftists, Lamont left the ACLU board and, in 1951, founded the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, becoming its chair.
Corliss Lamont's next great civil-liberties battle began in 1953 when he was subpoenaed by Joseph McCarthy's Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations. As Lamont later explained in Freedom Is As Freedom Does:
[McCarthy] had uncovered the remarkable fact that the United States Army had included my book, The Peoples of the Soviet Union, in a bibliography. The listing had appeared, without my knowing about it, in an Army manual entitled Psychological and Cultural Traits of Soviet Siberia, published in 1953 by the Intelligence Section of the U.S. General Staff.
The subcommittee sought to prove that the U.S. Army had been infiltrated at its highest levels by communists and cited this reference to Lamont's work as evidence (this despite Lamont's publication earlier that year of a pamphlet, Why I Am Not a Communist).
Understanding that taking the Fifth Amendment in similar hearings had not fared well in the courts, Lamont took a different tack: after affirming to tell the truth (but refusing to be sworn in and to state his reasons for such refusal), he began his testimony by making an objection to jurisdiction; this allowed him to read into the record a statement prepared by his attorney challenging the legal and constitutional power of the subcommittee to inquire into the political and religious beliefs and associational, personal, and private activities of private citizens. He also stated that he was "not now and never had been a member of the Communist Party." He then refused to answer most of the questions put to him, referring back each time to his prepared statement.
The hearing netted McCarthy no new information, so he demanded that Lamont be cited for contempt of Congress. The Senate voted in August 1954 and a federal grand jury handed down an indictment. Lamont was arrested, pleaded not guilty, and was released on $2,000 bail. In the two years that followed, United States of America v. Corliss Lamont went as far as the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals before a unanimous decision came down in Lamont's favor. The precedent set by this case was successfully utilized by others.
In the summer of 1951, using his political views as justification, the U.S. State Department denied Lamont the renewal of his passport, thereby limiting his foreign travels to only Canada and Mexico. He battled the government on this issue, ultimately filing suit. Lamont's friend, artist Rockwell Kent, had previously sued on similar grounds; so when Kent won his case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958, Lamont automatically won his and was finally reissued his passport.
The 1960s saw Lamont's first marriage end in divorce. He then married author Helen Boyden Lamb. And there were new battles for civil liberties, as both husband and wife were put under surveillance and (years later) included on the Nixon administration's "enemies" list.
In 1963, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. Postmaster General to screen all non-first class mail coming in from foreign countries and to issue postcards to the intended recipients of communist propaganda, asking if the literature was actually wanted. When Lamont received such a postcard regarding an unsolicited copy of the Peking Review, he filed another lawsuit. He lost in federal court but appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided unanimously in his favor in 1965. Lamont v. Postmaster General was a landmark decision: it was the first time the Supreme Court had struck down a congressional law because it violated the First Amendment.
A decade later, Lamont learned that the FBI maintained a 2,788-page file on him and secured a copy under the Freedom of Information Act. He discovered that for 30 years agents had monitored his radio speeches, copied his articles and pamphlets, questioned his staff and friends — even his tennis partners — tapped his phones, inspected his tax returns, and reviewed his cancelled checks. These revelations resulted in yet another lawsuit, Lamont v. Department of Justice, which secured a federal ruling in 1979 that the government had failed to show how the FBI's surveillance was "related to the FBI's duties to enforce federal law." This case set a major precedent regarding adequate grounds for government surveillance of its citizens.
Next, Lamont sued the CIA in 1976 for damages in connection with its opening of 155 of his letters. The CIA admitted that its actions were illegal under the Fourth Amendment but contended that they were justified for "national security" reasons. In 1978, the federal district court in Brooklyn, New York, found in favor of Lamont and ordered the government to pay him $2,000 and send him a "suitable letter of regret." The court was particularly incensed over the opening of two love letters Lamont had written to his wife. It declared: "Illegal prying into the shared intimacies of husband and wife is despicable." (Helen had died in 1975 of liver cancer.)
Throughout its history, Lamont was active in the American Humanist Association and was named its president emeritus. His services were many, including representing the AHA in 1970 at the funeral of Bertrand Russell. In 1973, he was one of the original signers of Humanist Manifesto II. In recognition of his contributions to humanism and his commitment to civil liberties, the AHA bestowed upon him its highest honor in 1977: the Humanist of the Year Award.
In 1986, Lamont married Beth Keehner, a fellow humanist activist who shared and was devoted to advancing his ideas. And it was not long after this that Lamont's humanism and legal aggressiveness came together in one of the most important church-state battles of recent history.
In February 1988, at the end of the Reagan administration, Lamont sued the government over its federal tax aid to sectarian schools overseas. Lamont v. Woods was sponsored jointly by the ACLU and Americans for Religious Liberty and included such plaintiffs as AHA President Isaac Asimov, Reformed Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Unitarian-Universalist minister Bruce Southworth, and Florence Flast, president of the National Association for Public Education and Religious Liberty. Despite the Bush administration's argument that the $14 million in sectarian aid was part of foreign policy and, therefore, a political rather than religious issue, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September 1991 that such aid was unconstitutional.
In June 1993, under the auspices of the Center for Cuban Studies, Corliss and Beth Lamont traveled to Cuba. Fidel Castro, who was well aware of Lamont's campaign of many years to lift the U.S. embargo of his country, gave him a lengthy audience, during which the two discussed the legal possibilities of Castro suing the U.S. government over the well-documented CIA assassination attempts on his life.
Lamont's last two years were spent in active critique of U.S. government policies he opposed. In the closing paragraphs of his memoirs, Yes to Life, he summed up his neverending commitment to such activism:
My final word is that in the battles that confront us today for America's freedom and welfare, our chief aim as public-spirited citizens must be neither to avoid trouble, nor to stay out of jail, nor even to preserve our lives, but to keep on fighting for our fundamental principles and ideals.
With such an outlook, Corliss Lamont earned many famous friends and enemies. And because he truly lived his values, he was proud to have both.
Frederick Edwords is former Editor of The Humanist and former Executive Director of the American Humanist Association.
Johnnie Falk, Corliss Lamont, and James Baldwin at a 1967 National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee dinner.
Corliss Lamont remained activist throughout his life — as shown here at a rally in Washington, D.C., protesting U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War.
Pete Seeger was a frequent visitor to the Lamont home in Ossining, New York.
Bill Clinton, Edward M. (aka "Ned") Lamont, Jr., and Corliss Lamont in 1992 in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Beth and Corliss Lamont meeting Castro on their 1993 trip to Cuba.
The magazine article depicted above originally appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of The Humanist (ISSN 0018-7399), Volume 55, Number 4, and is Copyright © 1995 by the American Humanist Association, 1777 T Street NW, Washington, DC 20009-7125 USA. Used with permission.
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