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Famous Women: An Interview with Professor Donald Elder-Julia Ward Howe

Sep 23, 2018 by

Julia Ward Howe

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Dr. Elder, we have all heard the very famous song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” many times, yet we know very little about the person who wrote it: Julia Ward Howe.  Briefly, what do we know about this famous female?

Julia Ward was born in New York City on May 27, 1819, the daughter of two distinguished parents. Her mother, the grand-niece of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, had poems published in contemporary journals, and her father served as the first president of the New York Temperance Society. Her parents’ affluence allowed them to hire private tutors for Julia, and she also benefited intellectually from the access that her older brother granted her to his private library.

At the age of 16, Julia began submitting poems to New York journals for publication. She soon turned to more scholarly subjects, writing essays on European authors. While in her early twenties, she met Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe had an impressive resume, ranging from his participation in the Greek Revolution of the 1820s to his helping found the Perkins School for the Blind. After briefly courting Julia’s sister, Howe turned his attention to Julia herself, and she agreed to marry him in 1843.

During the early part of her marriage, Julia devoted much of her time to raising her children, but she also continued to submit poems and articles for publication. In addition, she also had two volumes of her poems published under a pseudonym. Apparently, she used an alias because many of the poems expressed a pessimistic view of marriage, reflecting her growing unhappiness with her relationship with her husband.

Although they temporarily separated during the 1850s, the two had reunited by the start of the Civil War. In the fall of 1861, the two visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House, and observed Union troops as they trained in the camps surrounding the capital. Julia heard the soldiers sing “John Brown’s Body,” a song that had become popular after the execution of the abolitionist in 1859.

Although accounts differ slightly, most suggest that she appreciated the melody, but felt that the tune needed more inspired lyrics. She then sat down and wrote the words that became “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The song became instantly popular in the loyal states, and helped to inspire the Union to victory. While other popular Civil War songs (“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp the Boys Are Marching” serving as just one example) have declined in popularity since the conflict, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” remains among the most beloved patriotic songs of all time.

2. Apparently, in addition to being a composer, she was also a social activist for women’s suffrage. How did she get involved in this?

After the Civil War ended, Julia turned her attention to other worthy causes. Believing that women deserved the right to vote, she helped found the New England Suffrage Association in 1868. A year later, she became one of the leaders of the American Woman Suffrage Association. She remained active in this cause until her death in 1910.

While primarily remembered for her work in this regard, Julia also found the time to support other causes. She embraced the concept of pacifism, for example, and wrote a letter calling upon mothers around the world to endorse that principle.

In addition, she championed the cause of educational opportunities for women, helping found the American Association of Women to help achieve that goal. Because of her many accomplishments, she became the first female inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

3. What else should we know about this accomplished American?

In 1860, Julia Ward Howe wrote a book based on a trip that she had taken to Cuba the previous year. In her book, she spoke of the evils of the slave system that she had observed in the Spanish colony. While denouncing the institution of slavery, however, Howe seemed to suggest that freed blacks would never have an equal status with whites.

A number of famous abolitionists criticized her for this view, as they believed in the inherent equality of all people. Howe thus presents a conundrum for present-day Americans. On the one hand, she did offer a powerful indictment of slavery in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” a full year before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

 Indeed, the final stanza of the song contains the line “as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” words that called upon Americans to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to abolish slavery.

But she reminds us, on the other hand, that many Americans who fought in a war to eradicate slavery did not do so because they shared our twenty-first century notions of equality. We therefore need to judge individuals from the past by the standards of their time, not ours.

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