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Julia Ward Howe: The Development of the Peace Ideal


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

Women writers on peace and war

Julia Ward Howe: Mother’s Day Proclamation 1870


Julia Ward Howe
The Development of the Peace Ideal

The theme allotted me for my ten minutes speech to day was the Development of the Peace Ideal. To treat this ever so briefly I must revert to matters in the past which make evident the progress already made in this direction. I might go back to that Latin author, Tacitus, if I mistake not, who tells of an Advocate of Peace who, when once the legions of Rome were drawn up in battle array, confronted the ranks, and endeavored to dissuade the soldiers from the shedding of human blood. The historian avers that this apostle met with a rough response and would have been roughly handled if he had not ceased his untimely exhortation (nisi intempestivam sapientiam relinquisset).

I remember in my early youth to have seen at a friend’s house in New York a modest elderly man who was point ed out to me as being all that was left of the American Peace Society. Into the history of this Society I did not then inquire. If I had done so, I should have found that Judge William Jay, son of John Jay, had given it the assistance of his name. I was in Boston in 1845 when Charles Sumner delivered his celebrated oration on “The True Grandeur of Nations.” This plea for peace principles was at the time regarded as a Quixotic and mal-apropos utterance and although admired by some was derided by many. I, myself, first thought seriously of these matters in the year 1870, when my sympathies turned strongly towards France betrayed by her government into an insensate war, from which she came forth mutilated and humbled. The cruel waste of human life thus brought on by the ambition of rulers affected me as even our own Civil War had not. Seeking in my mind a counteracting force which might avail to protect society from such wanton acts of devastation, I bethought me of the sacred right vested in the women of civilized communities to keep the bond of Peace and to protect the lives bought by their bitter pain, and fashioned by their endless labor. Impelled by this thought, I made a sudden and considerable effort to arouse my sex all the world over to some sense of their responsibilities in this regard. I endeavored to institute a combined action among the mothers of men to promote in every possible way the just and peaceable settlement of all questions which are likely to arise between nations. Alas! the time for this has not yet come. Organized action among women scarcely existed.

Even so sincere a philanthropist as my husband would quote to me this saying: “Slaughter is God’s daughter.”

My cry came back to me with but the faintest echo. Nearly thirty years have passed since then, and during that time some of the prophecies foreboding the termination of war have approached fulfillment. One of these was that the methods and implements of warfare would become so deadly that men would no longer encounter them. Not quite in this wise, but on economic grounds, the burthens of war have ceased to commend themselves either to rulers or to nations. The unproductive legions, eating up the earnings of the community perpetually mustered and drilled in view of a result from which every government shrinks are now felt to be superfluous. They must be maintained at high cost, in the enjoyment of every condition essential to bodily well-being while their wages and cost of keep are wrung from the peas ants’ wage, the widows’ pittance, the merchants’ gain. When they are not in active service they bring with them the threat of bankruptcy. When they take the field, all the powers of destruction are let loose, to prey upon commerce, civil government and the sacred immunities of family life.

The shadow moves forward on the dial of history, and now one, foremost among the rulers of the civilized world, cries out that the burthen of armed Peace is becoming in tolerable. To the sovereigns, his fellows, he says ; “Let us, with one accord, lift it from our shoulders.” These brave words, from a crowned autocrat, have astonished the world. We women who meet here to-day are gathered together to utter our response: “Yes,” we answer, “the burthen of these huge armaments is intolerable – we have long felt it to be such.”

We women do not stand to-day as we did thirty years ago. A new revelation has come to us, the gospel, not of our weakness, but of our strength. We have found each other out. We have learned the power that lies in union, and we feel ourselves able to confront the Angels of Desolation, and to turn them back from their direful work. The more excellent way has appeared to us trodden by martyrs of old, by missionaries of our own time, illuminated by the torch-light of ancient prophecies, glorified by the star-light of Christian hope. In one hand we grasp the roll of Isaiah – in the other, the silver shield of Paul. The one has foretold the days in which nations shall cease to learn the art of warfare and shall convert their weapons into tools of agriculture. The other sets before us the figure of that most excellent spirit of Charity, and bids us overcome evil with good, and violence with justice.

As the political horizon widens before us, revealing features unknown before, how fortunate is it that human intelligence widens also, and that the agencies which promote the well being of society constantly display new resources and unfold new benefactions.

A great word spoken among men is a great gift from God. Even if, like my feeble cry of thirty years since, it should remain without an answer, I hold the Czar’s Peace Manifesto to be one of the foremost gifts of the present century, fit to rank with the feats of Garibaldi and the sacrifice of John Brown.

The greater accord of human intelligence, of which I spoke just now, points the way to an agreement hitherto unknown between the different domains of Christendom. Here, philosophy and religion stand side by side. Kant, the greatest modern philosopher, arrived before his death at the conclusion that universal peace was as possible as it must ever be desirable. And in the various sects which constitute the great world-church the cruel hatred of barbaric times has given place to a recognition of brother hood which will grow clearer with every coming year.

Ours be it, as women, lovers of peace and guardians of the home, to cherish the sacred flame of goodwill which should consume the thorns that afflict society. The moment of these beautiful enthusiasms passes, but each one is bound to leave its record in the consciousness of mankind. Each one carries our race a step forward in its true progress.

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