The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Social activist Julia Ward wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861, the same year that Henry Timrod composed his “Ethnogenesis” (the poem which kicked off part 2 of this series). In it, she penned that God will use His “terrible swift sword” to bring judgment upon “condemners” and “crush the serpent with his heel.” The wicked this New Yorker wanted to vanquish was, of course, the Southern people.

Howe, the daughter of a Wall Street Banker and Calvinist-turned-Unitarian, saw the Northern cause as a holy war – the Yankees’ manifest destiny – and the Union as the army of God, whose cannons rained hellfire upon a peaceful people. Or God’s “fiery gospel writ in rows of burnished steel,” as Howe liked to call these weapons of conquest. “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” so goes the refrain.

Howe typifies the New England crusader mindset – a self-aggrandizing moral superiority that historian Clyde Wilson terms the Treasury of Counterfeit Virtue: “a kind of plenary indulgence that automatically pre-justifies the motives of American violence and the goodness inherent in America’s acts to force the world into conformity with its ideal version of itself.” You know, progress.

She also represents the consequence of what cultural historian Richard Webster called “secular monasticism,” in which “every Puritan could become his own abbot, regulate his own day, weigh his own sins inside the dark cell of his own conscience and there prescribe and inflict the penance which he deemed just.” Puritans were the predestined elect, so why not?

It was this “rational soul” of the Puritans and their secular descendants that was the absolute sovereign, not the Lord. It required a “spiritual police…

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