Social Origins and Political Agendas of Early Peace Societies

  July 21, 2021   Read time 4 min
Social Origins and Political Agendas of Early Peace Societies
The founders and members of the first European and American peace societies were middle-class liberals, persons of wealth and influence who sought through public education to put an end to war.

They were generally not interested in creating mass membership organizations, and with the exception of the Massachusetts Peace Society and a few other groups, did not welcome women as members. Peace society members in the USA were mostly “well educated members of the urban northeastern middle class,” according to DeBenedetti, predominantly merchants, educators, and clergy. They were personally conservative, mostly Congregationalist and Unitarian, with the active participation of Quakers. They were humanitarians and reformers who combined Christian millennialism with faith in human progress. In Europe as well peace advocates tended to be reformminded members of the aristocracy and representatives or advocates of the rising bourgeoisie.

The early peace societies sought to avoid the controversial political issues of the day. The London Peace Society described peace as solely a humanitarian and religious concern, declaring in 1819, “with party politics, the friends of peace have nothing to do. The cause is a religious, not a political one.” Fearful of the revolutionary violence and social upheaval that had recently convulsed Europe, many peace advocates sought to preserve an emerging social and economic order from which they hoped to benefit. An official report of the APS proclaimed, “we aim at conservative reform.” In France peace leader Frédéric Passy echoed this plea for moderation. “We do not wish to . . . overthrow anything,” he wrote in 1868. 25 Passy and Bertha von Suttner urged their contemporaries to eschew political controversies and to concentrate instead on building long-term support for peace. This conservative approach continued into the years before World War I. It helps to explain the peace passion of industrial barons like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, who recognized that war is bad for business (except weapons makers) and that peace facilitates the preservation and accumulation of wealth. The conservative impulse helped to attract financial support and political acceptance among elites, but it clashed with the reformist zeal of many religiously motivated activists. It also impeded efforts to connect the cause of peace with broader social justice issues.

Throughout the nineteenth century peace reformers differed on two fundamental issues: whether to oppose war absolutely or conditionally; and whether to link peace with other social justice issues. The first discussion centered on what was called “defensive war.” Many early peace advocates accepted that the use of force might be necessary at times to defend the nation or counter social evil. William Allen, president of Bowdoin College and an APS leader, thought that defensive war or armed police action could be consistent with the Christian gospel. Noah Worcester and his Massachusetts colleagues were also in the pragmatist camp and were open to the possibility of defensive war as a last resort. They had practical political considerations in mind as well. To rally the required level of popular support for peace a more inclusive approach was necessary. The constitution of the APS condemned war among nation states as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, but said nothing about and thus by silence condoned the use of force for defensive purposes.

On the other side of the debate were absolute pacifists such as David Low Dodge of the New York Peace Society, who opposed war in any form. Dodge rejected the concept of defensive war and was concerned that the pragmatist position would shift the debate from a discussion of religious principles to matters of mere political expediency. Many religiously oriented pacifists in the United States and Britain clung to a position of Christian nonresistance. They opposed all forms of military violence as contrary to the teachings of Jesus and a scourge upon humanity. Peace activism on the European continent tended to favor the pragmatic approach. European pacifists rejected the absolutist position prevalent among British and US Quakers and were more supportive of defensive war and the use of force for just cause. Self-described peace advocates in Italy, France, and other European countries considered war for national liberation a justifiable and sometimes necessary step toward global peace. The continental groups viewed peace more as a pragmatic requirement than as a moral imperative. They tended to believe that international law and political harmony would evolve from the progress of industry and technology. Some perceived a natural process of social evolution toward cooperation and ever larger spheres of political and economic interdependence. They were also more likely than their Anglo-American counterparts to link peace and justice concerns.