Julia Ward Howe Biography

Beyond the Battle Hymn of the Republic

A Younger Julia Ward Howe (About 1855)
A Younger Julia Ward Howe (About 1855). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Known for: Julia Ward Howe is today best known as the writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She was married to Samuel Gridley Howe, educator of the blind, who was also active in abolitionism and other reforms. She published poetry, plays and travel books, as well as many articles. A Unitarian, she was part of the larger circle of Transcendentalists, though not a core member. Howe became active in the women's rights movement later in life, playing a prominent role in several suffrage organizations and in women's clubs.

Dates: May 27, 1819 - October 17, 1910

Childhood

Julia Ward was born in 1819, in New York City, into a strict Episcopalian Calvinist family. Her mother died when she was young, and Julia was raised by an aunt. When her father, a banker of comfortable but not immense wealth, died, her guardianship became the responsibility of a more liberal-minded uncle. She herself grew more and more liberal—on religion and on social issues.

Marriage

At 21 years old, Julia married the reformer Samuel Gridley Howe. When they married, Howe was already making his mark on the world. He had fought in the Greek War of Independence and had written of his experiences there. He had become the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, where Helen Keller would be among the most famous students. He was a radical Unitarian who had moved far from the Calvinism of New England, and Howe was part of the circle known as the Transcendentalists.

He carried religious conviction in the value of the development of every individual into work with the blind, with the mentally ill, and with those in prison. He was also, out of that religious conviction, an opponent of slavery.

Julia became a Unitarian Christian. She retained until death her belief in a personal, loving God who cared about the affairs of humanity, and she believed in a Christ who had taught a way of acting, a pattern of behavior, that humans should follow.

She was a religious radical who did not see her own belief as the only route to salvation; she, like many others of her generation, had come to believe that religion was a matter of "deed, not creed."

Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe attended the church where Theodore Parker was minister. Parker, a radical on women's rights and slavery, often wrote his sermons with a handgun on his desk, ready if necessary to defend the lives of the runaway slaves who were staying that night in his cellar on their way to Canada and freedom.

Samuel had married Julia, admiring her ideas, her quick mind, her wit, her active commitment to causes he also shared. But Samuel believed that married women should not have a life outside the home, that they should support their husbands and that they should not speak publicly or be active themselves in the causes of the day.

As director at Perkins Institute for the Blind, Samuel Howe lived with his family on campus in a small house. Julia and Samuel had their six children there. (Four survived to adulthood, all four becoming professionals well known in their fields.) Julia, respecting her husband's attitude, lived in isolation in that home, with little contact with the wider community of Perkins Institute or Boston.

Julia attended church, she wrote poetry, and it became harder for her to maintain her isolation. The marriage was increasingly stifling to her. Her personality was not one which adjusted to being subsumed in the campus and professional life of her husband, nor was she the most patient person. Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote much later of her in this period: "Bright things always came readily to her lips, and a second thought sometimes came too late to withhold a bit of a sting."

Her diary indicates that the marriage was violent, Samuel controlled, resented and at times mismanaged the financial inheritance her father left her, and much later she discovered that he was unfaithful to her during this time. They considered divorce several times. She stayed, in part because she admired and loved him, and in part because he threatened to keep her from her children if she divorced him - both the legal standard and common practice at that time.

Instead of divorce, she studied philosophy on her own, learned several languages - at that time a bit of a scandal for a woman - and devoted herself to her own self-education as well as the education and care of their children. She also worked with her husband on a brief venture at publishing an abolitionist paper, and supported his causes. She began, despite his opposition, to get more involved in writing and in public life. She took two of their children to Rome, leaving Samuel behind in Boston.

Julia Ward Howe and the Civil War

Julia Ward Howe's emergence as a published writer corresponded with her husband's increasing involvement in the abolitionist cause. In 1856, as Samuel Gridley Howe led anti-slavery settlers to Kansas ("Bloody Kansas," a battlefield between pro- and anti-slavery emigrants), Julia published poems and plays.

The plays and poems further angered Samuel. References in her writings to love turned to alienation and even violence were too clearly allusions to their own poor relationship.

When the American Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act—and Millard Fillmore as President signed the Act—it made even those in Northern states complicit in the institution of slavery. All U.S. citizens, even in states that banned slavery, were legally responsible to return fugitive slaves to their owners in the South. The anger over the Fugitive Slave Act pushed many who had opposed slavery into more radical abolitionism.

In a nation even more divided over slavery, John Brown led his abortive effort at Harper's Ferry to capture arms stored there and give them to Virginia slaves.

Brown and his supporters hoped that the slaves would rise in armed rebellion, and slavery would end. Events did not, however, unfold as planned, and John Brown was defeated and killed.

Many in the circle around the Howes were involved in the radical abolitionism that gave rise to John Brown's raid. There is evidence that Theodore Parker, their minister, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, another leading Transcendentalist and associate of Samuel Howe's, were part of the so-called Secret Six, six men who were convinced by John Brown to bankroll his efforts which ended at Harper's Ferry. Another of the Secret Six, apparently, was Samuel Gridley Howe.

The story of the Secret Six is, for many reasons, not well known, and probably not completely knowable given the deliberate secrecy. Many of those involved seem to have regretted, later, their involvement in the plan. It's not clear how honestly Brown portrayed his plans to his supporters.

Theodore Parker died in Europe, just before the Civil War began. T. W. Higginson, also the minister who married Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell in their ceremony asserting women's equality and who was later a discoverer of Emily Dickinson, took his commitment into the Civil War, leading a regiment of black troops. He was convinced that if black men fought alongside white men in the battles of war, they would be accepted as full citizens after the war.

Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe became involved in the U.S. Sanitary Commission, an important institution of social service.

More men died in the Civil War from disease caused by poor sanitary conditions in prisoner of war camps and their own army camps than died in battle. The Sanitary Commission was the chief institution of reform for that condition, leading to far fewer deaths later in the war than earlier.

Writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic

As a result of their volunteer work with the Sanitary Commission, in November of 1861 Samuel and Julia Howe were invited to Washington by President Lincoln. The Howes visited a Union Army camp in Virginia across the Potomac. There, they heard the men singing the song which had been sung by both North and South, one in admiration of John Brown, one in celebration of his death: "John Brown's body lies a'mouldering in his grave."

A clergyman in the party, James Freeman Clarke, who knew of Julia's published poems, urged her to write a new song for the war effort to replace "John Brown's Body." She described the events later:

"I replied that I had often wished to do so.... In spite of the excitement of the day I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately. I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stub of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me."

The result was a poem, published first in February 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly, and called "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The poem was quickly put to the tune that had been used for "John Brown's Body" —the original tune was written by a Southerner for religious revivals—and became the best known Civil War song of the North.

Julia Ward Howe's religious conviction shows in the way that Old and New Testament Biblical images are used to urge that people implement, in this life and this world, the principles that they adhere to. "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." Turning from the idea that the war was revenge for the death of a martyr, Howe hoped that the song would keep the war focused on the principle of the ending of slavery.

Today, that's what Howe is most remembered for: as the author of the song, still loved by many Americans. Her early poems are forgotten—her other social commitments forgotten. She became a much-loved American institution after that song was published -- but even in her own lifetime, all her other pursuits paled besides her accomplishment of one piece of poetry for which she was paid $5 by the editor of Atlantic Monthly.

Mother's Day and Peace

Julia Ward Howe's accomplishments did not end with the writing of her famous poem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." As Julia became more famous, she was asked to speak publicly more often. Her husband became less adamant that she remain a private person, and while he never actively supported her further efforts, his resistance eased.

She saw some of the worst effects of the war—not only the death and disease which killed and maimed the soldiers. She worked with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both sides of the war, and realized that the effects of the war go beyond the killing of soldiers in battle. She also saw the economic devastation of the Civil War, the economic crises that followed the war, the restructuring of the economies of both North and South.

In 1870, Julia Ward Howe took on a new issue and a new cause. Distressed by her experience of the realities of war, determined that peace was one of the two most important causes of the world (the other being equality in its many forms) and seeing war arise again in the world in the Franco-Prussian War, she called in 1870 for women to rise up and oppose war in all its forms.

She wanted women to come together across national lines, to recognize what we hold in common above what divides us, and commit to finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts. She issued a Declaration, hoping to gather together women in a congress of action.

She failed in her attempt to get formal recognition of a Mother's Day for Peace. Her idea was influenced by Ann Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who had attempted starting in 1858 to improve sanitation through what she called Mothers' Work Days. She organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides, and in 1868 she began work to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors.

Ann Jarvis' daughter, named Anna Jarvis, would of course have known of her mother's work, and the work of Julia Ward Howe. Much later, when her mother died, this second Anna Jarvis started her own crusade to found a memorial day for women. The first such Mother's Day was celebrated in West Virginia in 1907 in the church where the elder Ann Jarvis had taught Sunday School. And from there the custom caught on—spreading eventually to 45 states. Finally the holiday was declared officially by states beginning in 1912, and in 1914 the President, Woodrow Wilson, declared the first national Mother's Day.

Woman Suffrage

But working for peace was also not the accomplishment which eventually meant the most to Julia Ward Howe. In the aftermath of the Civil War, she, like many before her, began to see parallels between struggles for legal rights for blacks and the need for legal equality for women. She became active in the woman suffrage movement to gain the vote for women.

T. W. Higginson wrote of her changed attitude as she finally discovered that she was not so alone in her ideas that women should be able to speak their minds and influence the direction of society: "From the moment when she came forward in the Woman Suffrage Movement ... there was a visible change; it gave a new brightness to her face, a new cordiality in her manner, made her calmer, firmer; she found herself among new friends and could disregard old critics."

By 1868, Julia Ward Howe was helping to found the New England Suffrage Association. In 1869 she led, with her colleague Lucy Stone, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) as the suffragists split into two camps over black versus woman suffrage and over state versus federal focus in legislating change. She began to lecture and write frequently on the subject of woman suffrage.

In 1870 she helped Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, found the Woman's Journal, remaining with the journal as an editor and writers for twenty years.

She pulled together a series of essays by writers of the time, disputing theories that held that women were inferior to men and required separate education. This defense of women's rights and education appeared in 1874 as Sex and Education.

Later Years

Julia Ward Howe's later years were marked by many involvements. From the 1870s Julia Ward lectured widely. Many came to see her because of her fame as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic; she needed the lecture income because her inheritance had finally, through a cousin's mismanagement, become depleted. Her themes were usually about service over fashion, and reform over frivolity.

She preached often in Unitarian and Universalist churches. She continued to attend the Church of the Disciples, led by her old friend James Freeman Clarke, and often spoke in its pulpit. Beginning in 1873, she hosted an annual gathering of women ministers, and in the 1870s helped to found the Free Religious Association.

She also became active in the woman's club movement, serving as president of the New England Women's Club from 1871. She helped found the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW) in 1873, serving as president from 1881.

In January 1876, Samuel Gridley Howe died. Just before he died, he confessed to Julia several affairs he'd had, and the two apparently reconciled their long antagonism. The new widow traveled for two years in Europe and the Middle East. When she returned to Boston, she renewed her work for women's rights.

In 1883 she published a biography of Margaret Fuller, and in 1889 helped bring about the merger of the AWSA with the rival suffrage organization, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

In 1890 she helped to found the General Federation of Women's Clubs, an organization which eventually displaced the AAW. She served as director and was active in many of its activities, including helping to found many clubs during her lecture tours.

Other causes in which she involved herself included support for Russian freedom and for the Armenians in the Turkish wars, taking once again a stand that was more militant than pacifist in its sentiments.

In 1893, Julia Ward Howe participated in events at the Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Fair), including chairing a session and presenting a report on "Moral and Social Reform" at the Congress of Representative Women. She spoke at the to the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions, held in Chicago in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. Her topic, "What is Religion?" outlined Howe's understanding of general religion and what religions have to teach each other, and her hopes for interfaith cooperation. She also gently called for religions to practice their own values and principles.

In her last years, she was often compared to Queen Victoria, whom she somewhat resembled and who was her senior by exactly three days.

When Julia Ward Howe died in 1910, four thousand people attended her memorial service. Samuel G. Eliot, head of the American Unitarian Association, gave the eulogy at her funeral at the Church of the Disciples.

Relevance to Women's History

Julia Ward Howe's story is a reminder that history remembers a person's life incompletely. "Women's history" can be an act of remembering—in the literal sense of re-membering, putting the parts of the body, the members, back together.

The whole story of Julia Ward Howe has not even now, I think, been told. Most versions ignore her troubled marriage, as she and her husband struggled with traditional understandings of the wife's role and her own personality and personal struggle to find herself and her voice in the shadow of her famous husband.

I'm left with questions to which I cannot find answers. Was Julia Ward Howe's aversion to the song about John Brown's body based on an anger that her husband had spent part of her inheritance secretly on that cause, without her consent or support? Or did she have a role in that decision? Or was Samuel, with or without Julia, part of the Secret Six? We don't know, and may never know.

Julia Ward Howe lived the last half of her life in the public eye primarily because of one poem written in the few hours of one gray morning. In those later years, she used her fame to promote her very different later ventures, even while she resented that she was already remembered primarily for that one small accomplishment.

What is most important to the writers of history may not be necessarily the most important to those who are the subject of that history. Whether it was her peace proposals and her proposed Mother's Day, or her work on winning the vote for women—none of which were accomplished during her lifetime—these fade in most histories beside her writing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

This is why women's history often has a commitment to biography—to recover, to re-member the lives of the women whose accomplishments may mean something quite different to the culture of their times than they did to the woman herself. And, in so remembering, to respect their efforts to change their own lives and even the world.

Further Reading

  • Hungry Heart: The Literary Emergence of Julia Ward Howe: Gary Williams. Hardcover, 1999.
  • Private Woman, Public Person: An Account of the Life of Julia Ward Howe from 1819-1868: Mary H. Grant. 1994.
  • Julia Ward Howe, 1819 to 1910: Laura E. Richards and Maud Howe Elliott. Reprint.
  • Julia Ward Howe and the Woman Suffrage Movement: Florence H. Hull. Hardcover, Reprint.
  • Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Biography of Julia Ward Howe: Deborah Clifford. Hardcover, 1979.
  • Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown: Edward J. Renehan, jr. Trade Paperback, 1997.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Julia Ward Howe Biography." ThoughtCo, Apr. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/julia-ward-howe-early-years-3529325. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, April 13). Julia Ward Howe Biography. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/julia-ward-howe-early-years-3529325 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Julia Ward Howe Biography." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/julia-ward-howe-early-years-3529325 (accessed December 13, 2017).