Howe, Julia Ward

Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe (May 27, 1819-October 17, 1910), little known today except as author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was famous in her lifetime as poet, essayist, lecturer, reformer and biographer. She worked to end slavery, helped to initiate the women’s movement in many states, and organized for international peace—all at a time, she noted, “when to do so was a thankless office, involving public ridicule and private avoidance.”

Julia Ward was born in New York City, third of the six children of Julia Rush Cutler and Samuel Ward, a wealthy banker. Julia was tutored at home and at private schools in literature, languages, science and mathematics. She knew French from early childhood, began Italian at 14, later added German, and read Latin and Greek with ease. She had music lessons and voice training with the finest teachers available. The family home on Bond Street included an extensive library and art gallery. At 16 she left school and, in her words, “began thereafter to study in good earnest,” continuing throughout her life to read literature, history and philosophy. By the time she was 20, she had written literary criticism published anonymously in the Literary and Theological Review and the New York Review.

Her mother died when Julia was five. Afterwards their father’s influence dominated the children’s lives. Samuel Ward, an Episcopalian and a strict Calvinist, was fiercely protective of them. Even so they enjoyed the fashionable social scene, especially after Samuel Ward Jr. married into the Astor family. High-spirited Julia, with her auburn hair, blue eyes and beautiful voice, was extremely popular.

Mourning the death of her father in 1839, and soon afterwards that of a brother and a sister-in-law, she turned to the religion of her upbringing, though her reading had exposed her to more liberal ideas. Later she wrote, “I studied my way out of all the mental agonies which Calvinism can engender and became a Unitarian.” Mary Ward of Boston sent her a sermon by William Ellery Channing, which she found helpful. While visiting Mary in 1841, Julia heard Channing preach and attended a Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture and a Margaret Fuller conversation.

Also during that visit Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Sumner took her to visit the New England Institute for the Blind (later the Perkins Institute) and meet Laura Bridgman, the phenomenal blind, deaf-mute student of Samuel Gridley Howe. While they were there Howe rode up on his black horse, “a noble rider on a noble steed,” Julia remembered. Eighteen years her senior, this pioneer educator of children with multiple handicaps was indeed “noble”; a hero of the Greek war for independence, he bore the title “Chevalier of the Order of St. Savior.”

A courtship began, and a wedding followed in April, 1843. Though strongly attracted to one another, both expressed misgivings before their marriage. Reformer Samuel Howe wanted a wife to support him in his work and doubted whether a talented socialite was equal to the task. Julia Ward admired Howe extravagantly but recognized their differences. He was serious and wholly focused on his work; she was brilliant and witty, loved literature, music, and the social scene. “The thought of what I have undertaken weighs upon me,” she wrote to her sisters, “but the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, and the Chevalier is an angel of light—so all will be well.”

A week after their wedding the Howes sailed for Europe with Horace and Mary Mann, also recently married. Any expectations of a romantic wedding trip were quickly doused. Six weeks into an intensive tour of educational institutions, Julia found herself in second place to Howe’s work and close male friends, particularly Charles Sumner. The following year Howe wrote to Sumner, “Julia says—Sumner ought to have been a woman and you to have married her: but . . . Julia is my love as a wife.”

Their first child, born in 1844 in Rome, was christened by Theodore Parker, also on a European trip and a frequent visitor to the Howes. The couple had five children in twelve years. A sixth, born later, died in early childhood.

Their return home to Boston meant a radical change for Julia “from my life of easy circumstances and brilliant surroundings to that of the mistress of a suite of rooms in the Insitution for the Blind at South Boston . . . two miles distant from the city proper, the only public conveyance being an omnibus which ran but once in two hours.” On Sundays she escaped her isolation to attend Theodore Parker’s services and informal receptions, where an interesting group of Bostonians regularly gathered. The family’s living conditions improved with a move to a house near the Institution. Named “Green Peace” by Julia, this was their principal home between 1846 and 1864.

In 1848 Julia had poems published in two anthologies, much to her husband’s displeasure and her own despair at his refusal to accept her writing. In 1850 the Howes went to Europe with the two younger children. Samuel returned to Boston while Julia and the children wintered in Rome with her sisters. Free of her usual duties and restrictions, she enjoyed the society of the American colony and found “an exhilarating companion” in Horace Binney Wallace. They toured the city and discussed writing and philosophy. His suicide two years later affected her deeply.

When Julia returned home Samuel purchased a summer house in Newport, Rhode Island. Summers there provided the stimulating cultural and social life she missed in South Boston. She also enjoyed a rare and brief opportunity to work with her husband in 1853 when he edited The Commonwealth, a free-soil journal, and she contributed social and literary criticism.

A collection of Julia’s poems, Passion Flowers, was published anonymously in 1854, and the author’s identity quickly became an open secret. In the New York Tribune George Ripley called the poems “a product wrung with tears and prayer from the deepest soul of the writer. . . . They form an entirely unique class in the whole range of female literature.” Ednah Dow Cheney wrote that “it really is a grave thing, and, in this country, a rare thing, to publish such a book as this.” Hawthorne wrote to publisher George Ticknor that the book seemed “to let out a whole history of domestic unhappiness. . . . What does her husband think of it?”

“Chev was very angry about the book,” Julia wrote to her sister, “and I really thought at one time that he would have driven me to insanity, so horribly did he behave.” In her journal she wrote: “I have been married twenty years today. In the course of that time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued. Books—poems—essays—everything has been contemptible in his eyes because not his way of doing things. . . . I am much grieved and disconcerted.”

They considered divorce, but Samuel’s demand to keep two of the children ended the matter for Julia. She wrote to her sister that “his dream was to marry again—some young girl who would love him supremely. . . . I thought it my real duty to give up every thing that was dear and sacred to me, rather than be forced to leave two of my children. . . . I made the greatest sacrifice I can ever be called upon to make.”

Adjustments were gradually made on both sides of the troubled marriage, though a lingering problem was Howe’s management of Julia’s Ward inheritance. “His tyrannical instincts,” she wrote, “more than any direct purpose, have made him illiberal with me in money matters, and if he can possibly place this so I cannot easily use it, he will, only because money is power, and a man never wishes a woman to have any which she does not derive from him.”

In 1857 another book of Julia’s poems, Words for the Hour, came out, and in the same year her play, The World’s Own was performed in New York and Boston. In 1860 her report of a trip to Cuba was published in the New York Tribune. The Howes had accompanied Theodore Parker to Cuba in 1859 on the first leg of his last journey to Italy, where he died. Seeing Parker off in Havana, Julia wrote, they saw “between the slouched hat and the silver beard, the eyes that we can never forget, that seemed to drop back in the darkness with the solemnity of a last farewell.”

Though friends and admirers of Parker, the Howes had moved to James Freeman Clarke’s Church of the Disciples. The informallity of Parker’s Music Hall services lacked the reverent attitude Samuel wanted for his children. Julia thought Clarke “had not the philosophic and militant genius of Parker, but he had a genius of his own, poetical, harmonizing. In after years I esteemed myself fortunate in having passed from the drastic discipline of the one to the tender and reconciling ministry of the other.”

During the 1850s Parker and Howe had drawn Julia into William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery group. She came to admire him and other abolitionist leaders including Wendell Phillips and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. When war broke out both Howes worked with the Sanitary Commission. On a trip to Washington in 1861, they went to watch a Union army review which was suddenly dispersed by a Confederate attack. On the way back to the city in their carriage surrounded by retreating troops, the Howe party began to sing patriotic songs, including the popular “John Brown’s Body.” James Freeman Clarke, one of the party, suggested to Julia that she write new and better lyrics for the tune. At the hotel late that night, the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” began forming in her mind. Careful not to wake the children, she groped in the dark for pencil and paper and wrote the poem. In the morning she made only one or two changes. In February, 1862, The Atlantic published “The Battle Hymn,” paying its author $5. Gradually the song caught on until it swept the North.

During and after the war, Howe appeared publicly many times. In 1864 she read a poem at a gala New York event honoring William Cullen Bryant’s 70th birthday. She also read her essays and lectures to private gatherings. In 1867 she was invited to join the Radical Club, which met monthly at the home of Cyrus Bartol or John T. Sargent. Other members were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke.

“It was a glad surprise to me,” she wrote, “when I was first invited to read a paper before this august assemblage. . . . I did indeed hear at these meetings much that pained and even irritated me.” Howe had studied Comte, Hegel, Spinoza, Kant and Swedenborg and noted that “nothing of what I had heard or read had shaken my faith in the leadership of Christ in the religion which makes each man the brother of all, and God the beneficent father of each and all,—the religion of humanity. Neither did this my conviction suffer any disturbance through the views presented by speakers at the Radical Club.”

In 1868 Julia Ward Howe joined Caroline Severance in founding the New England Woman’s Club. She also signed the call to the meeting that formed the New England Woman Suffrage Association and served as its president, 1868-77 and 1893-1910. In 1869 she and Lucy Stone led the formation of the American Woman Suffrage Association when its members separated from the National Association of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Howe presided over the Massachusetts Suffrage Association, 1870-78 and 1891-93. From its first issue in 1870 she edited and contributed to the Woman’s Journal founded by Lucy Stone.

“During the first two thirds of my life,” Howe recalled, “I looked to the masculine idea of character as the only true one. I sought its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict. . . . The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood—woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances.”

Her friend Higginson noted the change in Julia as she discovered this new domain: “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.”

In the1870s, during the Franco-Prussian war, Julia felt “the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. . . . a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed.” She began a one-woman peace crusade that began with an impassioned “appeal to womanhood” to rise against war. She translated her proclamation into several languages and distributed it widely. In 1872 she went to London to promote an international Woman’s Peace Congress but was not able to bring it off. Back in Boston, she initiated a Mothers’ Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June and held the meeting for a number of years. Her idea spread but was later replaced by the Mothers’ Day holiday now celebrated in May.

During denominational meetings in May, 1875, Julia Ward Howe called together the first convention of women ministers. Among those attending the meeting at Church of the Disciples were Universalist Lorenza Haynes and Unitarians Mary Graves and Eliza Tupper Wilkes. Howe hosted such meetings in coming years, and other conveners succeeded her.

Howe traveled with her husband on trips to Santo Domingo in 1873 and 1875 and preached there several times in a small Protestant church. By this time Samuel’s resistance to his wife’s public appearances had softened into an amused admiration of her abilities. Before he died in 1876 he confessed his marital transgressions, and the tension between them dissolved. Julia’s biography of her husband, Memoir of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, 1876, is full of praise for his character and achievements.

After his death Julia went on an extensive lecture tour through the West to raise money for a two-year trip to Europe and the Middle East with her youngest daughter Maud. When they visited relatives in Italy, a niece described her Aunt Julia at 60 as “a small woman of no particular shape or carriage, clothes never quite taken care of, her bonnets never quite straight on her head; and yet there was about her presence an unforgettable distinction and importance. Her speaking voice was very beautiful, and her face had a sensitive gravity, a look of compassionate wisdom, until a twinkle of fun rippled over it and a naughty imp laughed in her eyes.”

In Boston her busy social and organizational life centered in a house at 241 Beacon St.. She continued writing and lecturing, organizing women’s clubs wherever she went. She preached frequently at her own Church of the Disciples and other Unitarian churches and, in 1893, gave an address at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, titled “What Is Religion?”

In 1908 Julia Ward Howe was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Not long before her death Smith College accorded her an honorary degree. The ceremony included “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” often performed to celebrate her appearances.

During Howe’s last years younger women sought her out and interviewed her. Her advice to one visitor was “Study Greek, my dear, it’s better than a diamond necklace.” On her 91st birthday a reporter asked her for a motto for the women of America. She recommended, “Up to date!”


Julia Ward Howe died on October 17, 1910. Services were held at Church of the Disciples and at Symphony Hall with crowds overflowing both buildings. Maud Howe Elliott wrote, “A long succession of meetings of commemoration were held by her church, her clubs, the many associations she had founded and worked for. So great was the outpouring of love and reverence that it seemed as if her beloved name were writ in fire across the firmament.”


Howe’s letters and journals are in the Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts has a scrapbook of clippings about her. In addition to the works mentioned above Howe’s writings include reviews of Lamartine’s Jocelyn in Literary and Theological Reviews (1836) and J. S. Dwight’s Selected Minor Poems of Goethe and Schiller in New York Review (1839); the books of poetry Later Lyrics (1866), From Sunset Ridge: Poems Old and New (1899) and At Sunset (1910); Sex and Education (1874); the lectures Modern Society (1880) and Is Polite Society Polite (1895); a biography, Margaret Fuller (1883); and an autobiography, Reminiscences (1899). Her plays, written in 1857 and 1861, were not published until long after her death: Leonora or The World’s Own (1917) and Hippolytus (1941).

Among the biographical works on Howe are Maud Howe Elliott, The Eleventh Hour in the Life of Julia Ward Howe (1911); Laura E. Richards and Maud Howe Elliott, Julia Ward Howe (2 vols., 1915); Maud Howe Elliott, Three Generations (1923); Louise Hall Tharp, Three Saints and a Sinner (1956); Deborah Pickman Clifford, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (1979); Mary Grant, Private Woman, Public Person: An Account of the Life of Julia Ward Howe from 1819 to 1868 (1994); and George Williams, Hungry Heart: The Literary Emergence of Julia Ward Howe (1999). There are short biographical articles in the Dictionary of American Biography, Notable American Women, and American National Biography.

Article by Joan Goodwin
Posted May 28, 2002