Howe, Julia Ward (1819–1910)

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Howe, Julia Ward (1819–1910)

American poet, author, social reformer and women's suffrage leader, best known for writing the Civil War anthem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Born Julia Ward on May 27, 1819, in New York City; died on October 17, 1910, in Newport, Rhode Island; buried inMt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts; daughter of Samuel Ward (a Wall Street banker) and Julia Rush (Cutler) Ward (a published amateur poet); married Samuel Gridley Howe (Boston educator and reformer who pioneered with the blind, beginning with Laura Bridgman ), in 1843; children: Julia Rowana Anagnos (1844–1886); Florence Howe (namesake and god-daughter of Florence Nightingale ); Henry Marion Howe; Laura E. Richards (1850–1943); Maud Howe Elliott (1854–1948); Samuel Howe (who died of diphtheria in childhood, 1861).

Published her first book of poems, Passion Flowers, anonymously (1854); was active as an abolitionist (1850s); founded one of the nation's first woman's clubs (1868); was first president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association; helped create the Woman's International Peace Association (1870s); for 50 years, wrote and lectured on women's suffrage, social reform, literature and liberal Christianity.

Selected writings:

(poetry) Passion Flowers (1854); Words for the Hour (1857); At Sunset (1910); (travel literature) From the Oak to the Olive: A Plain Record of a Pleasant Journey (1868); Trip to Cuba (1860); (social commentary) Modern Society (1881); Is Polite Society Polite? (1895); (biography) Memoir of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe (1876); Margaret Fuller (1883); (autobiography) Reminiscences (1899).

In the fall of 1861, the nation's capital had been turned into an army camp, as Lincoln and his generals prepared to fight the Civil War. Around Washington, D.C., thousands of Union volunteers pitched their tents. Concerned about sanitary conditions in these makeshift military camps, the federal government asked Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a well-known educator and reformer from Boston, to investigate health hazards among the new recruits. In November, he arrived, accompanied by his wife Julia Ward Howe.

Julia Ward Howe, after writing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"">

I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, I like this better than most things I have written.

—Julia Ward Howe, after writing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Both of the Howes were outspoken opponents of slavery. Samuel was one of the conspirators who had funded John Brown's failed attempt to incite a slave rebellion in Virginia. Julia never knew the full extent of her husband's involvement with Brown and considered the raid to be a "wild and chimerical" scheme. But in the early 1850s, she had helped her husband publish a newspaper supporting the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, and she was friends with Boston's leading abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody , Charles Sumner and Theodore Parker. Touring the camps of the Grand Army of the Republic, Julia Howe was sure that theirs was a righteous cause.

At the same time, she also felt a sense of regret and helplessness. She was a poet, not a soldier; a middle-aged woman, not a young man. A voice within told her, "You cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do." Yet, in the middle of the night, she was awakened by another voice, her poetic one. "Because of my sincere desire," Howe later recalled, "a word was given me to say, which did strengthen the hearts of those who fought in the field and of those who languished in the prison."

Rising from her bed, she set down the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the song that would soon become the Union's war anthem. Borrowing the tune from a popular song about John Brown's martyrdom, her hymn gave voice to the spirit of militant righteousness which many Northerners felt about the war. Using Biblical imagery, she transformed a political and military conflict into an apocalyptic struggle with the Southern "serpent," one which heralded the glorious "coming of the Lord."

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

For the next half century, Northern audiences honored Howe for her timely contribution to the war effort. Rarely did she appear in public without hearing a rousing rendition of her "Battle Hymn." To this day, Howe is most often remembered as the author of those six stanzas, written in a flash of inspiration. Yet the very brilliance of that accomplishment has tended to obscure her many other achievements, particularly as a champion of women's rights in the late 19th century.

As the daughter of one of New York's wealthiest men, Julia Ward was born in 1819 into a life of privilege. Lacking an education himself, Sam Ward spared no expense for his children. Julia, along with her two sisters and three brothers, enjoyed the best tutors available in the young nation's fastest growing city. Much of her education was standard fare for young ladies being groomed for positions in the upper class; she became fluent in several European languages, began a lifelong interest in verse, and developed her talents as a vocalist, training that would serve her well years later when she turned to public speaking.

Howe also showed, from an early age, an appetite for philosophy and theology, studies which were generally thought too difficult for delicate female minds. On her own, she worked through many volumes of the latest European philosophers and found herself particularly drawn to the moral idealism of Immanuel Kant. To her father's dismay, she showed no interest in the domestic arts of housekeeping, announcing instead that she planned to become a writer.

While Howe was an earnest student, she also relished social life, mingling with other wealthy New York families. She was an attractive young woman, her red hair framing a face that was enlivened by keen intelligence and a ready laugh. She loved to attend the opera and the theater and to be seen at balls and parties where she was courted by many admirers. But Howe's love of fashion and frivolity during her teenage years was checked by her father. Her mother Julia Rush Ward had died in childbirth when Julia was only five, leaving Sam Ward as her sole guardian. Sobered by his wife's early

death, he became a pious orthodox Christian. To Howe, he was a loving father but a stern moral judge. Though he gladly provided his children with anything for their "moral improvement," he disapproved of the excess of the city's social life and tried his best to shield Howe from its corrupting influence.

Sam Ward died in 1839, his health broken by his successful efforts to save his bank during the great national depression of 1837. Not long after, Howe's beloved brother Henry also died. As a young socialite, she had been carefree and always resentful of her father's strict control. But now she adopted his evangelical faith and his serious view of life. As the oldest daughter, she ruled over her sisters much as her father had, earning the nickname "Old Bird."

Julia's enthusiasm for social life and the arts soon recovered, but the intense commitment to moral principle which she adopted after the death of her father lasted for the rest of her life, motivating her to battle evil through a wide range of reform crusades. Perhaps it was this new spirit of moral earnestness which attracted her to Samuel Gridley Howe. On a sightseeing tour of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Julia met the philanthropist who ran that institution. Though he was 18 years her senior, the two began an intense but stormy courtship, a premonition of the kind of marriage that would follow.

When Julia agreed to marry Samuel, she determined that she would sacrifice her own ambitions, her desire to be a writer and her love of the social life of New York. Instead, she would submerge her identity within her husband's, supporting him as he embarked on crusades against slavery and for a variety of educational reforms. This was precisely the kind of self-sacrifice which Samuel expected of his bride. While he was often supportive of single women who dedicated their life to public service, he held fast to the traditional view that married women should stick to domestic duties and play no part in public life.

For Julia, those domestic responsibilities grew heavier each year. Her first child was born a year after her marriage, followed in regular succession by five more. Samuel, embroiled in his causes, was rarely at home, leaving Julia to raise the Howe children on her own. This was particularly difficult because Howe found herself to be "lamentably deficient in household skill and knowledge." She had traded her philosophy books for nursery tales, her lively social life among New York's elite for the colder climate and sterner society of Boston. She had even sacrificed the comforts of the Ward family's wealth. Her father had left her a large inheritance, but Samuel had insisted that, as the head of the household, he should control his wife's assets. Through unwise investments, he squandered the money.

Feeling isolated and overburdened, Julia found solace by returning to her first love, the writing of poetry. The result was Passion Flowers, a slender book of verse which she published in 1854. Samuel strongly disapproved of his wife's literary ambitions, particularly since her verse contained veiled references to their troubled relationship and her own unhappiness; perhaps for this reason she published the book anonymously.

Though Howe's poems have not held the interest of literary critics over time, her first book of verse did enjoy the approval of some of Boston's leading writers in her own day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who told Julia that he found the book "warm with life." Encouraged by this reception, Howe ignored her husband's complaints and continued to write, producing new volumes of verse and branching out to write plays, magazine articles, and travel books. Again in defiance of her husband's wishes, she began to put her name on her work. Balancing a writing career with her responsibilities as the mother of six, she published steadily through the 1850s. However, she did not enjoy much critical or commercial success and remained little known until 1862, when Atlantic Monthly published her "Battle Hymn," a piece which transformed her overnight into a celebrated literary figure.

In that beloved poem, Howe drew on the Biblical imagery which was central to the orthodox faith of her father, invoking the "fiery gospel" of a stern God of righteous wrath. Yet her own religious beliefs had changed over the years. As a young woman, she had accepted her father's view that "all mankind were by nature low, vile, and wicked," but she now concluded that people were essentially good. God, she decided, was not a stern judge who expected blind obedience to his commandments, but a loving Creator who spoke to His creatures through their reason. Howe became what was then known as a "liberal" Christian. In the mid-1860s, again ignoring her husband's objections, she delivered a series of lectures on religious and philosophical topics; in the late 1860s, she felt called to preach that faith in public.

Howe's theological views were quite conventional among liberal Bostonians, but her decision, as a woman, to promote them through public speaking before a mixed crowd of men and women was more radical. And in these lectures she found a new outlet for her ambitions. Aided by a strong and distinctive voice and a commanding presence on stage, she discovered that she was an effective public speaker. Guided by her deep streak of moral idealism, she also concluded that, as a proponent of religious and moral reform, she could make a greater contribution to society than she ever could hope to as a poet. Though she never gave up her literary interests, in the late 1860s she took up a new career as a lecturer, championing a variety of social causes.

The first cause which attracted the author of America's great battle hymn was peace. Watching men destroy each other, first in the American Civil War and then in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, she became convinced that women around the world should unite to end war. She issued a manifesto for a women's peace movement, organized a Woman's Peace Congress in England in 1872, and helped to found the American Peace Society.

But Howe made a more lasting contribution in the field of women's rights. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the advocates of women's rights were inspired by the political revolution which had produced the 14th and 15th amendments, transforming thousands of black men from slaves into citizens who were promised full legal and political rights by the Constitution. While many women's rights leaders had been in the forefront of the abolition movement, they found this great victory for civil equality incomplete, since it had done nothing to change the second-class status of women, both black and white, in America. In the late 1860s, they determined that their time had also come, and they organized new women's suffrage associations to win the right to vote.

Though Howe had long been a supporter of the principle of women's suffrage, she chose this moment to take an active role in the cause, joining Lucy Stone in the creation of the New England Woman Suffrage Association in 1868. The public had always considered the proponents of women's suffrage to be radical eccentrics. Howe did the cause a valuable service by lending her prestige and her voice. In turn, working side by side with other women, Howe gained a new sense of confidence about her own powers. Until that point, she later recalled, she had always judged herself against a "masculine ideal of character." Now, for the first time, she felt inspired by what she called "the power, the nobility, the intelligence which lie within the range of true womanhood."

In the late 1860s, when disputes over tactics and goals divided the suffrage movement into radical and moderate camps, Howe took a lead role among the moderates, helping to found the American Woman Suffrage Association. Unlike her more radical counterparts, she felt that the women's movement should work with its male allies within the Republican Party, and that victory could be won gradually, on a state-by-state basis, rather than through a single national amendment. Toward that end, she worked tirelessly for the next 40 years, organizing suffrage conventions, speaking at meetings, testifying before legislatures, editing a woman's journal, and writing a book in defense of higher education for women.

Howe also believed that the cause of women's rights could be advanced through the club movement. In the late 19th century, middle-class women began to organize clubs, meeting to discuss social and literary matters, to promote reforms and to provide their members with the chance to develop skills in public speaking and professional development which were unavailable in the male-dominated public sphere. Howe was an enthusiastic advocate of the idea, believing that such organizations could not only develop latent talents among women but could also be used to improve the moral life of all of society. As women became more cultured and more informed through club activities, she believed, they could use their influence as mothers, as wives, as teachers and caregivers, to purify the lives of those around them. Toward that end, she served for decades as president of the New England Women's Club and the Massachusetts Federation of Women's Clubs. As she traveled around the country on speaking engagements, she spread the gospel of the club movement and helped to found the first woman's clubs in several mid-Western and Western states.

Stirred by a keen sense of purpose and supported by a community of other women committed to the cause of women's rights, Howe continued to ignore her husband's disapproval. Samuel, who had long before realized that he could not keep his wife at home, never fully accepted her decision to pursue a public life. Their marital troubles continued until just before his death in 1876, when the two enjoyed a brief but loving reconciliation.

Samuel's death not only left Julia free to devote herself full-time to public life, but also made it a financial necessity. Always a poor manager of money, he left her in straitened economic circumstances. Julia, who lived for another 35 years, provided for herself by giving public readings and lectures. She was treated as an honored guest on podiums around the country. As the moral fervor of the Civil War years faded to distant memory, replaced by the hectic self-interest of the Gilded Age, the aging poet was transformed by her many admirers into a symbol of America's lost patriotism and idealism. One of the greatest tokens of the public's esteem came in 1908, when she became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, her membership sponsored by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

Anagnos, Julia (1844–1886)

American poet. Born Julia Rowana Howe in Rome, Italy, in 1844; died in 1886; daughter of Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910); married M. Anagnos (superintendent of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts), in 1870.

Julia Anagnos wrote Stray Chords (1883) and Philosophiæ Quæstor.

suggested reading:

Elliott, Maud Howe. Three Generations. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1923.

Julia Howe died of pneumonia in 1910, at the age of 92, a decade before her dream of full women's suffrage was finally realized. Struggling in an unsupportive marriage, she had achieved remarkable things, publishing numerous books, founding dozens of women's organizations, and winning prestigious honors. But perhaps the best example of her legacy to future generations of American women was more personal: all four of Julia's daughters followed in their mother's footsteps, pursuing public careers as writers and educators: Julia Rowana Anagnos (1844–1886); Florence Howe ; Maud Howe Elliott (1854–1948); and Laura E. Richards (1850–1943).


Boyer, Paul S. "Julia Ward Howe," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Clifford, Deborah Pickman. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Biography of Julia Ward Howe. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1978.

Howe, Julia Ward. Reminiscences 1819–1899. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899.

Richards, Laura E. and Maud Howe Elliott. Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910. 2 vols. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1916.

suggested reading:

Elliott, Maud Howe. Three Generations. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1923.

Ream, Debbie Williams. "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," in American History Illustrated. January–February 1993.

Tharp, Louise Hall. Three Saints and a Sinner: Julia Ward Howe, Louisa, Annie and Sam Ward. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1956.

Ernest Freeberg , Ph.D. in American History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia