Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory
When Julia Ward Howe penned her Mother’s Day proclamation for peace in 1870, the Franco-Prussian war had just ended. Rapid fire machine guns had turned battlefields into mechanized slaughterhouses. She described in her Reminiscences how the question came into her mind: “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to present the waste of human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?” In her proclamation, she called for an international congress of women to be convened, in her words “to promote the alliance of different nationalities” and the amicable settlement of differences. The Mother’s Day Peace Festival she proposed became the forerunner of the holiday we celebrate today.
Julia would have been disappointed to learn that the festival she inaugurated lost its original purpose. It may have been fortunate that she never lived to see the First World War, for until the very end of her life, in 1910, she maintained a hope that a “new era of human understanding” might dawn upon the earth. Yet she would have rejoiced that we still set aside at least one day each year to honor motherhood and recognize women’s contributions to the world. It’s appropriate that we honor Julia Ward Howe herself, for she was a pioneer of the modern feminist movement, who in her struggles to break free from the restraints that burdened Victorian women helped liberate half the human race which had been confined to the roles of wife and mother.
The groundwork for Howe’s later accomplishments as a writer, reformer and organizer was laid down early. She was the daughter of Samuel Ward, a man who never had the advantages of a college education but who became one of the richest private bankers in New York. He was determined to give his children the education he never had. Julia remembered speaking French before she could read or write. Literature, music and the Bible were also part of her curriculum in the nursery, and as she grew tutors would introduce her to German and Italian, and to training in piano and voice, where she excelled. When she was growing up, she sometimes prevailed upon her sister to physically tie her to her desk; she steeled herself to a regimen of rigid self-discipline and hard work.
Yet the purpose of educational establishments like Miss Catherine Roberts’ School for Young Ladies, where Julia learned to memorize long passages of ponderous moral philosophy, was not truly to light the fires of the mind or to prepare their pupils for independent thinking. The goal was above all to prepare them for their destined domestic roles. When Julia published her first serious work, a translation of a now forgotten poem, her Uncle John expressed the mixture of pride and misgiving in her family with the comment, “This is my little girl who knows about books and writes an article and has it printed, but I wish she knew more about housekeeping!”
Religion was an important part of Julia’s upbringing. Her mother was of stern Scotch Presbyterian background, and it was her strict piety rather than Mr. Ward’s more easy-going Low Church Episcopalianism which colored Julia’s imagination. The woman who later wrote the stanzas to the “Battle Hymn” never entirely abandoned her faith in the righteous Old Testament God of her younger years. The Bible remained a touchstone, and good and evil remained locked in earnest contest on earth’s battlefields and in the human heart.
In a chance encounter, a youthful Julia Ward Howe one day found herself seated with Ralph Waldo Emerson aboard a train to Boston. “I do not wish to meet the wicked man!” she told her traveling companion. Attempting to impress Emerson with the correctness of her own religious views, Julia spoke at length on the power of Satan in the world and the depth of sin in the human soul. Listening patiently, Emerson finally responded, “Surely the angel must be stronger than the demon.” Julia found a “gentle, ethereal quality” in the great man which “belied her reputed wickedness.” The two became good friends and Julia eventually joined the Unitarian church.
What remained of her childhood religion was a passionate determination to be of service to humanity. Like her father, a founder of New York University, and like her “Grandmama” Isabella Graham who founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children, one of the earliest charitable associations in the United States, Julia always believed that religion should uplift and minister to those in need.
It may have been those charitable instincts that first attracted Julia to the figure of Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe made a name for himself when he went to Greece to join the revolutionaries who were rising up to throw off Turkish rule, fighting and using his medical training in the field and winning the title of Chevalier of the Greek Legion of Honor for his valor. Henceforth, the “Chevalier” would be nicknamed Chev. When he returned to the United States, Chev found a new outlet for his vigor and idealism. He became director of the New England Asylum for the Blind. The Perkins Institute, as it was later called, was the perfect place for a man like Howe, who throughout his life liked to be at the forefront of activities for social betterment.
With jet black hair, piercing blue eyes and a commanding, soldierly bearing, the hero of the Greek Revolution proved fatefully attractive to Julia, and the two were engaged in the spring of 1843. It was a stormy courtship. While his politics were progressive, Chev’s views of marriage were conservative in the extreme. From the outset, he made it clear to Julia that he would expect her to set aside her literary ambitions and become a full time mother and wife. Although he admired such independent women as Dorothea Dix, with whom he worked side by side for prison reform and more humane treatment of the mentally ill, Chev was adamant that married women had no place in public life.
He was also ambivalent about Julia’s wealth, which would make her financially independent of her husband. He demanded first that Julia relinquish her fortune in order to marry him, and when her family refused to allow it, Chev demanded that control of her inheritance be turned over to him. The family again refused and at last a compromise was negotiated. The poet Longfellow, a friend of the young couple, sensed trouble ahead, describing Julia as “a fine, young, buxom damsel of force and beauty, who is full of talent, indeed carrying almost too many guns for any man who does not to be firing salutes all the time.”
After some hesitation about becoming the submissive spouse of Samuel Howe, Julia finally set aside her doubts and wrote to her brother that “His true devotion has won me from the world and from myself. I am the captive of his bow and spear.” But as one, final gesture of independence, the bride did choose to retain her maiden name. She was never “Mrs. Samuel Gridley” but always Mrs. Julia Ward Howe.
The marriage was not a happy one. At the request of Horace Mann, Chev launched himself into work with the Boston School Committee, with a round of constant meetings that left him little time for his new wife. Julia, whose family was in New York, found herself in a strange new city and homesick for familiar faces. She was soon pregnant, and perhaps because her own mother had died of childbirth fever after delivering her eighth infant, or perhaps simply because she was a woman soon to give birth, Julia was anxious and upset, a condition her husband found hard to fathom. In typical male fashion, Chev idealized and romanticized the mother-child relationship. Comparing his
wife to one of Raphael’s madonnas, he enthused at the birth of their first child: “To see her watching with eager, anxious eyes every movement of her offspring, to witness her entire self-forgetfulness and the total absorption of her nature in this new object of love, is to have a fresh revelation of the strength and beauty of woman’s character, and new proof of their superiority even in what most ennobles humanity love for others.”
Meanwhile, in those first years of marriage, Julia would confide to a notebook, “I live in a place in which I have few social relations, and all too recent to be intimate. I have no family around me, my children are babies and my husband has scarcely half an hour in twenty-four to give me. So, as I think much in my way, and nobody takes the least interest in what I think, I am forced to make myself an imaginary public, and to tell it the secrets of my poor ridiculous little brain.” In her private poetry, Julia poured out her misery, blaming herself for her inability to be content with her womanly lot:
Hope died as I was led
Unto my marriage bed;
Nay, do not weep, ’twas I
Not thou, that slew my happiest destiny.
When once I know my sphere
Life shall no more be drear
I will be all thou wilt
To cross thy least desire shall be guilt …
One person who encouraged Julia to rise above wifely resignation was Rev. Theodore Parker, the radical Unitarian minister whose views on sexual equality shocked many of his contemporaries. “To make one half the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made,” said Parker, and he urged Julia to use her gift for language by publishing her work. Later, he also encouraged her to begin public speaking and to preach in church. Julia was a dedicated worshiper at the Old Melodeon Theater, where Parker held forth each Sunday, until Chev, who was not particularly interested in attending church himself, insisted that their children needed a more respectable church home. Reluctantly, Julia obeyed her husband and transferred her membership to James Freeman Clarke’s Church of the Disciples, another Unitarian Parish, but not before a seed of rebellion had been planted.
In 1853, Julia took a collection of her poems to the Boston publishers Ticknor, Reed and Fields, who agreed to release them under the title Passion Flowers. The poems appeared anonymously, for Chev knew nothing of Julia’s scheme and her hope was to keep her authorship a secret. The book was an unmitigated success, however, and soon all of Boston knew not only that “anonymous” was a woman, but the wife of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. Chev was irate, though slightly mollified by the profitable sales. He was especially angered, however, by one particular verse entitled “Mind Versus Mill-Stream.” The poem portrayed a miller trying to tame a rushing brook. Twice he builds a dam, but each time the swift current is too powerful and destroyed his efforts. The poem ends with a moral:
If you would marry happily
On the shady side of life,
Choose out some quietly-disposed
And placid tempered wife,
To share the length of sober days,
And dimly slumberous nights,
But well beware those fitful souls
Fate wings for wilder flights,
For men will woo the tempest
And wed it to their cost,
Then swear they took it for summer dew
And ah! Their peace is lost!
It was a taunt to Chev’s masculine pride to suggest that he could not control his spouse, and the next few months were the worst in Julia’s life as her marriage threatened to come apart in separation. “Chev is as cold and indifferent to me as a man can well be,” she wrote her sister Annie. “I sometimes suspect him of having relations with another woman.” That suspicion would be borne out when Chev at last confessed his infidelity at the end of his life. Yet Chev and Julia’s relationship, however flawed, was never without its tender and warm moments. When he died, Julia would be grieved to think that ‘in place of my dear husband I have now my foolish papers. Yet I have often left him for them.”
The great crusade of that generation was abolition. Chev was one of Boston’s “Secret Six,” a group of conspirators who provided money and support to John Brown, leader of the ill-fated uprising at Harper’s Ferry. Julia was also active in the anti-slavery movement, and it was not long before advocates of freedom for the black man asked why women should not also enjoy equal rights. “When it was declared that all men are born free and equal,” Julia reasoned, “it was certainly implied that all women were so born. For the right postulated in this assertion is the universal right of the human being.” In 1869, Julia was elected president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association, and for the remainder of her life continued to lecture and agitate on behalf of women’s rights. She was not a radical. Unlike Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leader of the rival National Woman Suffrage Association, Julia envisioned no fundamental reordering of the relation between the sexes. Nor did she share Stanton’s advocacy of abortion rights and birth control. For Julia and other “moderates” like Lucy Stone and Mary Livermore, the right to vote was primary, and they felt it would hold back suffrage to entangle it with other issues. The enfranchisement of women, so they hoped, would be enough to usher in a whole new age of human advancement, in which peace and cooperation would finally begin to assert their reign.
Fortunately, Julia was in high demand as a speaker. Her husband, who after many years did manage to gain proprietorship over her inheritance, promptly lost the whole fortune, and after his death Julia was forced to worry about earning money as never before. She’d been paid just $4 for the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn,” but the song had made her a household name, and her voice and stage presence guaranteed her popularity on the rostrum, where she spoke not only on women’s rights, but on manners, morals, literature and religion.
“What is the ideal aim of life?” Julia asked in one of her speeches. She responded, “To learn, to teach, to serve, to enjoy!” Her own life epitomized those ideals. Her dream of world peace seems now as far away as ever, but many in her time felt that abolition was a lost cause, and similarly that votes for women would never come to pass. Julia refused to live within the limits of what others declared to possible or impossible. And by believing in a
more just and hopeful world than the one in which she found herself, she helped bring such a world into being.
In her old age, Julia Ward Howe became something of a national institution. She became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Some compared her to Victoria, for she elicited from the American people a spontaneous goodwill like that Britons felt toward their queen. Yet the course of early morning trains and cross country travel did take their toll on the aging matriarch. Her last years were spent quietly at home, writing, reading philosophy, surrounded by her family and the friends of a long lifetime. In 1907, she wrote,
Yes, I’ve had a lot of birthdays and I’m growing very old,
That’s why they make so much of me, if once the truth were told.
And I love the shade in summer, and in winter love the sun,
And I’m just learning how to live, my wisdom’s just begun.