Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 730

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 730


This is the grave of Samuel Gridley Howe.

Born in 1801 in Boston, Howe grew up initially wealthy, as his father was a successful rope manufacturer. But then he fulfilled a big contract with the government in the War of 1812 and never got paid. So that kind of ruined him. Howe went to Boston Latin School where he evidently was heavily physically abused. Howe wanted to go to Harvard. But his father was a Jeffersonian. And he thought Harvard was a snakepit of Federalists. So he sent his son to that hotbed of shedding blood at the tree of liberty: Brown. He did not do well, simply not taking his studies seriously, though he did graduate in 1821. He then went to Harvard Medical and became a doctor in 1824.

Howe was an adventurous sort. And so before he started practicing medicine in the U.S., he decided to go help out in the Greek Revolution after reading too much Byron and going through a breakup. He became a surgeon in the Greek Army and then actually showed some real military skill and effectively led troops in combat. He returned to the U.S. in 1827 to raise money for the cause and was pretty good at that too, sending $60,000 to the rebels. He also brought orphaned Greek children back with him. Howe then wrote Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution in 1828.

Howe then went to Paris for additional medical training. Still all-in on freedom movements, he joined the 1830 Revolution there before returning to the U.S. the next year. Almost immediately, he got involved in fundraising for the Polish Revolution. He went back to Paris to distribute money raised by people such as Samuel F.B. Morse and James Fenimore Cooper. Much of this was to help Polish officers flee rather than face the political consequences of their defeated revolution. But Howe was arrested in Berlin and thrown into prison. He managed to destroy the letters he held for Polish officers and was freed after five weeks in prison after the American ambassador to France intervened.

Howe returned to the U.S. for good in 1832. His life of adventure became a life of reform. This is a bit surprisingly. In the antebellum period, most of the big reformers were highly religious people who were ushering in the Victorian social norms. Adventurers? These had a tendency to be Democrats, not reformist Whigs. In fact, Howe came from a Democratic family. But he started using his education for reform in the U.S. He became particularly involved in educating the blind, building up his school, soliciting funds, and translating books into Braille. It was really an impressive enterprise. The school became one of Charles Dickens’ highest priorities to visit on his trip that led to his 1842 book American Notes. He also helped found additional schools for the blind in other states as far away as Kentucky and Tennessee. He especially became famous for his work with the deaf-blind girl Laura Bridgman, the Helen Keller of the 19th century.

In 1841, Howe married Julia Ward. His wife would eventually become the more famous of the two, a legend in reform circles. She will soon have her own post in this series. But it was not a good marriage. Howe was a reformer but he really struggled with his wife stepping out of traditional roles and being famous on her own. He could not deal with a woman doing something other than being a mother. Women working outside the home was anathema to him. They fought constantly. He tried to divorce her at one point, but she refused to consent to it. They did have 6 children, but basically operated as separate entities whenever possible. Three of their six children went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, in part because they lived to be very old except for one who died as a child and one who died in her 40s.

Howe was in the Massachusetts legislature in the early 1840s promoting reform causes, such as Dorothea Dix’s pioneering studies of the horrors of mental institutions and the need to reform them. He also united with Horace Mann to fight for an educational model that hired teachers to help students learn instead of hit them when they failed. This was pretty controversial at the time.

Whether inspired or infuriated by his abolitionist wife, Howe entered into abolitionist politics in 1846 as a Conscience Whig running a failed congressional campaign based upon fighting against the expansion of slavery and the unjust war against Mexico. He started an antislavery newspaper in Boston and was one of the Secret Six, the elite Boston reformers who funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers’ Ferry. He had first met Brown when traveling to Kansas in 1856 to investigate the horrors of the slave power trying to take it as their own. Like most of them, he distanced himself from Brown after it happened and fled to Canada to escape prosecution. The Howe’s house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Howe was one of the people attempting to rescue Anthony Burns from being taken back to the South due to the Fugitive Slave Act, a case that basically meant the law was effectively null and void in Boston after this. Howe helped raise the money to free Burns after this failed.

However, Howe was more of a gradualist than William Lloyd Garrison, whose extremism and pessimism ran up against Howe’s general optimism about improving society. He was also quite open to the colonization schemes of the time that envisioned an America where Black people would be sent somewhere else after slavery. But to be fair, so was Abraham Lincoln even after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was hard for even reformist whites to envision an actual racial democracy. It’s pretty hard for most whites to envision that today for that matter given their support for the Republican Party.

During the Civil War, Howe was one of the directors of the Sanitary Commission, trying to figure out how to keep the soldiers alive in the camps where death was everywhere from horrific sanitation practices. He also investigated the lives of freed slaves, traveling to Canada to interview some of the people he knew there. His discovery was that life was definitely not paradise north of the border, but it sure beat slavery. His work, published in 1864 as The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West, was helpful in the starting of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which Howe then worked in.

After the Civil War, Howe was heavily involved in charitable works, establishing schools for the mentally disabled. He also went back to Greece in 1866 as part of a relief effort in support of the Cretan Revolution. He was an early proponent of the graduated income tax, first presenting this as an idea in 1865 and promoting it the rest of his life. He also managed to be named as part of Ulysses S. Grant’s exploratory commission to acquire Santo Domingo (today, the Dominican Republic). As this was clearly a racist act, Charles Sumner opposed it. The final report supported Sumner, not Grant, though at least published sources seem to dither on whether Howe supported that or not. Grant was so angry that he had Sumner removed as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But thanks to them, the U.S. would avoid conquests of independent nations for some time to come.

Samuel Gridley Howe died in 1876, at the age of 74. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other antebellum reformers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dorothea Dix is also in Cambridge (not sure why I didn’t know this) and Horace Mann is, well, down the hill from my house in Providence, although I have never visited that cemetery for this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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