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Julia Ward Howe Early Years: Julia Ward and Samuel Gridley Howe

Beyond the Battle Hymn of the Republic


Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe - about 1860

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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.

At 21 years old, Julia married the reformer Samuel Gridley Howe. He was already making his mark on the world at that time. 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. 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.

Next: Abolition and the Civil War

Julia Ward Howe Biography

Julia Ward Howe Writings

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