In 1861, while the country was in the midst of the Civil War, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe traveled to Washington, D.C., to watch troops parade through the capital. The procession inspired her to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It would become one of the most popular tunes of the war in the North — an anthem of sorts for Union troops — and raise Howe to fame in the United States.
Nearly a decade later, Howe penned another work on a very different subject. Her 1870 “Mother’s Day Proclamation” called for a day in which mothers would gather to discuss peace and ways to achieve it.
Her appeal to create such a national holiday on June 2 was unsuccessful, and it would be nearly five decades before Mother’s Day was officially recognized through the work of West Virginia native Anna Jarvis. Jarvis would later decry the commercialism that arose from the holiday she’d envisioned. She reportedly found printed greeting cards a particularly vile and lazy sentiment. (One can easily imagine how she’d feel about a Mother’s Day e-card or text message.)
The months leading up to this Mother’s Day have been unsettling to many in this country, to be sure. A lengthy, divisive election cycle concluded with cries of a stolen election from the loser, despite no evidence backing his claim, and leading to a historic invasion of the Capitol and a second impeachment. Since his inauguration, President Biden has called for unity while pushing an ambitious agenda that has received no GOP support. Add to this the racial tension over the deaths of Blacks at the hands of police — which continues unabated since last year’s Black Lives Matter protests — uncertainly and fear felt by many who wonder if our country may be drawn into a new war at any time, and a pandemic that ought to have brought us together but which has become just another thing over which to wage battle.
Extremism and discord at times seem to dominate our culture today. Every public misstep brings calls for someone’s head on a platter, or at the very least, his or her job. There is no agreement, no middle. Everything must be either celebrated or vilified. And all of this is evident on — perhaps even driven by — social media and website comment sections, where our worst selves rule and bullying is too often encouraged.
But if there’s one thing most Americans can get behind, still, and find agreement on, it’s the value of a mother’s place in our lives.
Of course there have been other times in history when we’ve faced strife and sadness. In the aftermath of a bloody civil war that reached into every American household, Howe sowed the seeds of Mother’s Day. And maybe she had it right. What better way to honor our mothers than to pause to think about peace?
Here we share Howe’s proposal, in her own words:
“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.’ We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says ‘Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’ Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace ...”