Activist Authors

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness.

Julia Ward Howe and husband Samuel Gridley Howe were staunch advocates of John Brown, militant abolitionist and a polarizing figure in the anti-slavery movement. Samuel Gridley Howe was a member of the “Secret Six,” a group of prominent Bostonians (including Thomas Wentworth Higginson) who financially supported Brown’s radical activities, including his ill-fated 1859 raid on the military arsenal at Harpers Ferry, now West Virginia.

Julia Ward Howe became best-known for her Civil War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” based upon a popular marching tune of the period, “John Brown’s Body.”


Julia Ward Howe
Battle Hymn of the Republic author and women’s rights activist.


Featured Items from the BPL Special Collections


JOHN BROWN, “Memoranum [sic] book of John Brown, Franklin, Portage Co. Ohio,” 1855-1859. Volume 1, Volume 2.
In this volume of John Brown’s personal notebook, Brown documents that he “met friends at Dr Howes office at 3 oclock on Tuesday the 10” in Boston in May 1859. Two months later, he led the attack on Harpers Ferry.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
JOHN BROWN, Pattern Pike. ca. 1856.
Boston’s “Secret Six” helped fund the production of 1,000 copies of a two-edged pike for John Brown. Brown planned to use these weapons first in Kansas to outfit anti-slavery settlers and—when the order was delayed—to arm slaves in an insurrection at Harpers Ferry in July 1859. Manufactured by Connecticut blacksmith James Blair for $1 each, the weapons were based on the ‘pattern pike’ displayed here, which was originally mounted on a six-foot pole.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
JOHN BROWN, Lock of hair. 1859.
James Miller McKim—abolitionist and father of Charles Follen McKim, architect of the library’s beautiful building on Copley Square—was an ardent support of John Brown. After Brown’s arrest and execution for treason on December 2, 1859, McKim escorted Brown’s wife Mary back to the Brown farm in North Elba, New York, and kept this lock of hair as a memento.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
[FRANKLIN BENJAMIN SANBORN], Hymn to be sung at the Music Hall, Boston, December 4. 1859.
This hymn was written for the Boston memorial service for Brown held two days after his execution. Accompanying the hymn is a receipt for a $5 contribution from Maria Weston Chapman to the fund for the relief of John Brown’s family.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
John Brown and the Union Right or Wrong Songster. San Francisco: 1863.
“John Brown’s Body” was a popular Union Army marching song believed to have been first sung publicly at Fort Warren in Boston in 1861. Numerous variations of the lyrics, which begin “John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,” exist; many were considered vulgar by listeners.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
JULIA WARD HOWE, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Atlantic Monthly, February, 1862.
Howe was inspired to write her famous “Battle Hymn” after she visited a Union camp outside of Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1861. She heard soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body,” the popular marching tune, and a clergyman at the camp suggested that she pen new verses more appropriate to the war effort. Later that night, she wrote the poem in the dark so she wouldn’t wake her sleeping family. The Atlantic Monthly published “Battle Hymn” in February 1862, paying Howe just four dollars.
BPL Research Library

Maria Weston Chapman (1806-1885)

We may draw good out of evil; we must not do evil, that good may come.

Maria Weston Chapman formed the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) in 1832, “believing slavery to be the direct violation of the laws of God, and productive of a vast amount of misery and crime.” Any woman could become a member, provided that she contributed 50 cents annually to the cause. Chapman and her five sisters labored tirelessly to circulate petitions, write and edit numerous anti-slavery publications, and raise funds.

The “Weston sisters” (as they were collectively known) also generated a remarkable, rich correspondence of over 2,700 letters which are held by the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Department.


Maria Weston Chapman
Abolitionist and Editor of The Liberty Bell.


Featured Items from the BPL Special Collections


MARIA WESTON CHAPMAN, Portrait medallion in plaster. 1855.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
BOSTON FEMALE ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETY, “The Captive [A Poem],” Linen handkerchief. Boston:
ca. 1830s.

Although she avoided public speaking, Chapman was a driving force behind the scenes, serving on numerous committees and other fund-raising events for the cause of abolition. Between 1835-1858, Chapman assumed the leadership of the Boston Anti-Slavery Bazaar, a popular annual event to raise money through the sale of gift items, such as this handkerchief, for abolitionist causes. By the 1850s, fairs were raising upwards of $4,000 in profits annually.
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
MARIA WESTON CHAPMAN, Right and Wrong in Massachusetts. Boston: 1839.
Known for her forceful personality and talent for organization, Chapman was one of editor William Lloyd Garrison’s top “lieutenants” in the anti-slavery crusade and she published Right and Wrong to advocate for the critical importance of women’s contributions to the efforts.
MARIA WESTON CHAPMAN, “Letter to Elizabeth Pease Nichol,” December 10, 1860.
In this letter to a friend, Chapman writes about the mounting tensions in Boston following the anniversary memorial for John Brown in 1860 and her confidence that their labors on behalf of abolition for the past thirty years were finally getting widespread attention: “The storm seems to howl more fearfully than ever; but it is a comfort to have it raging where the world can see & understand.”
BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department