Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.
She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.
Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’
Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:
Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: Biography – Poetry Foundation
Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum
‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times
Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915
*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy
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