Against Custom

The first peace advocates imagined a new story for the United States.

"Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

In 1845 and into 1846, Americans wondered if the United States was on the brink of another war with its sometime friend, sometime rival, Great Britain. At the root of the conflict was the future of the Oregon territory, an enormous swathe of land covering what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and much of British Columbia. Under the terms of an agreement signed in 1818, the United States and Britain shared power (often uneasily) over this vast and distant territory, which was home to few British subjects and even fewer American citizens. But as growing numbers of American settlers moved into the Willamette Valley in the 1840s, enthusiasm mounted for incorporating all of Oregon into the United States and ending British sovereignty in the region altogether. Some Americans were willing to go to war with Britain over Oregon. Others, very adamantly, were not.

Some of the most vociferous opponents of American annexation of Oregon were the partisans of a peace movement inaugurated in the 1810s. Peace supporters in New York bluntly insisted that “it would be infinitely better that ‘the whole of Oregon' should sink to the bottom of the ocean, than that two such nations as Great Britain and the United States should go to war about it, to the disgrace of civilization, Christianity, and rational freedom.” In a sermon called “Peace—Not War,” delivered while the Oregon crisis was at its peak, the prominent Unitarian minister Ezra Stiles Gannett argued that the entire Pacific coast of North America was not worth even “a single month's fighting.” These peace advocates did not think American sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest was worth the sacrifice of American and British lives. But more than that, they questioned not only whether Oregon was worth fighting for, but whether the use of force was ever worthwhile at all.

When negotiations resolved the northwestern border dispute without fighting in 1846, peace advocates rejoiced, wondering if the accord between the United States and Britain was a harbinger of worldwide peace. Their celebrations were short-lived. The United States soon sent forces into disputed territory on the Texas-Mexico border, setting off a bloody war that drew eager volunteers from some quarters and deep dissent from others. Less than fifteen years after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the United States was rent by war from within, with the outbreak of the Civil War. The violence of the mid-nineteenth century made the peaceful resolution of the Oregon crisis seem like an aberration rather than a new departure.

The first American peace movement might itself be seen as a kind of historical aberration: it reached the peak of its influence in the 1840s, declined precipitously thereafter, and has largely been forgotten today. But American peace advocates in the nineteenth century were very much of their moment in their conviction that their young nation had a distinctive role to play in creating a new narrative for world history. On New Year's Day in 1845, Elihu Burritt, nineteenth-century America's most indefatigable peace advocate, wrote in his diary, “I am persuaded that it is reserved to crown the destiny of America, that she shall be the great peace maker in the brotherhood of nations.” If Europe was racked by centuries of violence, fueled by the squabbles of monarchs and aristocrats, the democratic United States offered an alternative model, a place where conflicts could be resolved via open communication and rational negotiation, rather than fighting. Burritt and other peace advocates proudly pointed to the thirteen colonies banding together in the American Revolution as an example for the nations of the world to follow. Burritt dreamed of disparate countries confederating into a Congress of Nations—essentially, a precursor to the United Nations—that would resolve international disputes by peaceful means.

There were some problems with this vision of the United States leading the world to peace. One was that the American nation traced its very origins to war. Given that the young country had come to being through the Revolutionary War, fighting seemed inextricably linked to American identity. Another problem was that, even for people inside the peace movement, the impulse to fight often appeared to be human nature. Speaking to the Pennsylvania Peace Society in 1823, one orator asked, “What is the history of mankind, but one long, long narrative of war and bloodshed?” Nearly two centuries later, I can hardly fault my students for thinking that history is just one war after another. War continues to structure how we think about the past, from the battle memorials we encounter across the national landscape, to the soldiers and military leaders we celebrate as heroes, down to the ways we divide up historical time (think “postwar” architecture or the “antebellum” South).

Peace advocates, however, questioned that fighting was an ineradicable part of human nature. While they conceded that war and bloodshed had been the narrative of the past, they insisted that it was within the power of ordinary men and women to make peace in their own time. The earliest nonsectarian peace societies formed in both the United States and Britain around 1815 in response to the end of the War of 1812, a conflict that emerged out of unresolved tensions between Great Britain and the United States in the wake of the American Revolution. When the two countries settled their disputes with the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, those with pacifist sympathies on both sides of the Atlantic decided that never again should the world's two great English-speaking nations take up arms against each other. Peace advocates went to work encouraging governments to dismantle their militias and armies and to slash military funding. They organized letter-writing networks and conferences among people of different countries in order to build a sense of international good will. And, most devotedly, they campaigned for the hearts and minds of the people, on the grounds that if the public opposed war, the government could not lure its citizens into a fight.

The arguments put forth in this PR campaign against war were rich and varied, ranging from careful accountings of the economic cost of war to direct quotations from the New Testament (most early peace advocates were devoted Christians, though their particular institutional and theological commitments varied widely). But one especially powerful argument turned on the significance of “custom”—a key word in one of the most widely circulated peace pamphlets of this period, Noah Worcester's A Solemn Review of the Custom of War. First published in 1815, and frequently reprinted for decades thereafter, A Solemn Review turned war from a familiar and accepted part of American life—even a fact of the human condition—into a fungible and foreign custom, as strange, repugnant, and unnecessary as widow-burning or child sacrifice. Worcester opened by referring to foreign or past customs that his readers would no doubt find horrifying and barbaric: child slaughter among “ancient heathens”; widow-burning in India; sacrifices made as part of Muslim pilgrimages. But then he turned the tables on his readers, showing them that war was far worse than any practice even the most backward tribe could dream up. “What other savage custom,” he asked, “has occasioned half the desolation and misery to the human race [as war]? And what but the grossest infatuation, could render such a custom popular among rational beings?” For Worcester and his fellow “friends of peace,” war was unchristian, uncivilized, and irrational.

When we use the word “custom” today, its connotation is often positive. It might refer to a beloved family tradition, or to a foreign cultural or religious practice that, while perhaps not fully comprehensible to us, we nonetheless consider worthy of respect. Worcester's understanding of “custom,” by contrast, was distinctly negative. As the antithesis of reason, a custom was a practice in which people engaged unreflectingly, even contrary to their own best interests. The tyranny of custom reduced its adherents to slavish obedience, just as King George had tried to do to American colonists a generation before. Early nineteenth-century Americans had recently liberated themselves from what they saw as the insidious and deep-seated British tradition of monarchy. They mocked the British aristocracy, with its litany of arcane customs, governing everything from dress to formal titles. Americans had proudly said goodbye to all that. (Or at least, they professed to have done so—much like today's American devotees of Downton Abbey, nineteenth-century Americans simultaneously reviled and reveled in the excruciating propriety of British aristocratic culture.) Advocates of peace applied this disgust for mere custom, and this glee that Americans took in defying it, to war.

Not only was war itself a reprehensible custom, but associated with it were all kinds of practices unfit for a rational, freedom-loving people. Peace advocates loved to hate the elaborate uniforms, medals, and ribbons that military men wore. What much of the public saw as symbols of patriotism and honor were, in their view, really just emblems of a hierarchical and conformist institution. They similarly despised military bands for giving an upbeat tempo to the march toward war—a funeral dirge would have been more fitting. One newspaper was startlingly succinct about this: “War is murder set to music.” An antiwar pamphlet in 1847 advised the viewers of military parades to look beyond the bright pageantry and close their ears to the bands' stirring rhythms. Once parade-goers lifted the “gorgeous but flimsy covering” that made war seem glorious and romantic, they would see nothing but wounded men writhing in pain and hear nothing but widows and orphans crying out for their lost husbands and fathers.

The custom argument linked opposition to war with hatred of tyranny and American contempt (however conflicted) for old-world tradition. For the peace advocates, it was a brilliant rhetorical move, one that indirectly responded to one of the loudest arguments against them, the charge that antiwar sentiment was unpatriotic. The most bombastic opponents of the peace activists insisted that peace advocacy was tantamount to anarchism: A government which could not claim the use of force was no government at all. There was at least some foundation to this charge, as a small but vocal cluster of radical peace advocates did indeed question the legitimacy of any government that was not what they saw as the government of God. Even for more moderate advocates of peace, the question of national loyalty posed a conundrum. Most were committed to the ideals of American freedom. But as every bust of George Washington, every July Fourth oration, every monument to a town's soldiers, and every tattered Continental Army uniform in a grandfather's trunk reminded nineteenth-century Americans showed, their country's liberty had been won by the musket and the bayonet. The very idea of citizenship in the young republic was closely tied to military service. Did opposing war mean rejecting the liberty and independence that Americans had fought for in the Revolutionary War?

Some peace advocates skirted this question by strenuously avoiding talking about the War for Independence at all. But those who braved the issue often decoupled the American Revolution as a political event from the Revolutionary War as a military struggle. They pointed out that the outcome (political independence) might have been desirable, but the means used to get there (armed rebellion) were not. The key to any principled and robust stance against war is to argue that the desired end, however noble, does not justify the violent means. Such was the position of the most forthright defenders of peace, prominent among them the Maine minister Sylvester Judd. In a polemic called A Moral Review of the Revolutionary War, or Some of the Evils of that Event Considered, Judd acknowledged that “our fathers had a right to resist British oppression, but they were not justified … in bringing upon themselves the untold evils of war.” Independence would have happened in due time, he argued, and didn't require a war. While Judd was somewhat sketchy on the details, another peace advocate anticipated the strategies of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in suggesting that the United States might eventually have separated from Great Britain without the loss of tens of thousands of lives had Americans hewn more patiently to passive resistance. Regardless of how realistic such assessments of Anglo-American politics were, Judd and other nineteenth-century reformers and radicals who looked back to the Revolutionary War were asking their readers to think about what kind of nation they wanted the United States to be. Did they want American history to be just another chapter in the “long, long narrative of war and bloodshed?”

Gesturing toward a pacific version of what we now call American exceptionalism, peace advocates of varied political and religious stripes argued that it was up to the United States to create a new narrative, to show the world how history could be made without the rifle and the sword. This perspective is evident in minister Ezra Stiles Gannett's sermon, delivered when an imminent and lamentable war with Britain over the Oregon country loomed in the minds of many peace activists. Though Gannett was not especially radical in his antiwar views, he spoke for many advocates of peace when he described the “mission” of the United States as “setting the example of a people who can exercise self-government without injustice to others or injury to themselves.” Gannett argued that Americans went to war not out of any real moral purpose but merely because it was customary to do so: “the false glare which surrounds the exploits of the warrior blinds us … so we become silent or careless—falling in with the general habit, for no better, and no other reason, than that it is the habit of the land.”

As a group, the peace advocates had enormous faith in human progress through reason, moral improvement, and the spread of Christianity, but their vision of hope and promise wasn't especially effective at comprehending human evil. Their movement faltered in large part because it struggled to articulate a clear alternative to physical force when it came to eradicating the greatest evil then afflicting the nation: the influence and tenacity of the “Slave Power” in American political life. By the 1860s, most peace advocates (the vast majority of whom lived in the North) came to accept the use of violence and the coercive power of the state as justified either to preserve the union or to end slavery. In a few notable cases, those who had advocated peace especially vigorously in the 1830s and '40s were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the war for emancipation, on the grounds that slavery was so great an evil that it ought to be resisted by any means possible. A few holdouts insisted that however despicable slavery was, war offered no desirable alternative. On the eve of war, the Massachusetts pacifist and communitarian Adin Ballou begged for a nonviolent abolition of slavery: “Can't we wait [for] the operations of a more peaceful process? Can't we content ourselves with holy efforts to bring about a change of public sentiment?” By the time war broke out in 1861, abolitionists had been working to change public sentiment for thirty years, but slavery was more entrenched than ever in the South, and it threatened to expand across North America. The belief of stalwart pacifists such as Ballou that slavery could be defeated through moral appeals alone proved untenable.

And yet it is hard to condemn the peace advocates too strongly for wanting human beings to be better than we often are. Doubtless Worcester in one generation and Ballou in the next overestimated how easy it would be to liberate humankind from the tyranny of custom. It is the tyrannical tenacity of the custom of war, however, that makes the nineteenth-century peace advocates' message resonate even now. I find it hard to pick up a newspaper without reading about some event—perhaps in Afghanistan, perhaps in Sanford, Florida—that evokes their representation of violence as self-perpetuating and pernicious. By subjecting the custom of war to rational inquiry, the friends of peace invited their fellow citizens to face up to the place of violence in American life. They challenged the orthodoxy that a citizen's integrity was a measure of his or her willingness to fight for a cause or a country. They insisted that the history of the future need not be bound by the practices of the past. They pointed out that there could be great courage and resolve in simply giving up the fight.


Civic Life, Ethics, History, Justice, Religion, Spirituality


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Also in this Issue

Warp and Weft

Soldiers' Stories

A Century of War

Against Custom

The Good Fight

The Messy Middle

Water Wars