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  • "Things by Their Right Name":Peace Education in Evenings at Home
  • Penny Mahon (bio)

Learning to understand war and peace should be a necessary facet of children's education. . . . They need an education that affirms life and encourages new thinking about conflict, progress, and peacemaking. . . . Peace education has become a legitimate concern.

—Ruth Meyers

Peace education has a long history; commitment to "an education that affirms life and encourages new thinking about conflict, progress, and peacemaking" can be traced back as far as the end of the eighteenth century. In the Romantic period, peace education was shared by both men and women, although in Victorian and Edwardian society it tended to become gender-specific. The roots of peace education can be found in the collaborative text Evenings at Home, the work of two late eighteenth-century dissenters, siblings Anna Barbauld and John Aikin.

A concern for peace is one of several social and moral themes evident in children's literature in the late 1700s and early 1800s. One of the most sensitive was slavery, which Anna Barbauld, Amelia Opie, and the Taylor sisters all treated in their children's poetry.1 Others, according to Margaret Cutt, included the relation between landlord and tenant, the treatment of animals, and the social divide between rich and poor.2

The moral issue of war, however, does not appear to have received modern critical attention. This is a surprising gap in current scholarship. Although recent critical texts have addressed the complex effects of competing ideologies on the literature of the Romantic period, no one has yet explored to any significant extent the way in which the dominant militarist ideology was challenged.3

I would argue that if militarism is the "process whereby military values, ideology and patterns of behaviour achieve a dominating influence over the political, social, economic and foreign affairs of the [End Page 164] state,"4 then it was a subject of recurrent concern for several writers of the Romantic period, and their work was a radical critique of militarist systems in general and of Pitt's Tory government in particular. Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh argue that "writers now neglected were at one time thought close to the 'center,' and that their engagement with questions of empire made no small part of their contemporary claim to cultural centrality" (8). Issues of war and peace were embedded in the rhetoric of several Romantic writers whose work elicited positive critical response in their day. One such work was Anna Barbauld's antimilitarist and remarkably subversive essay Sins of Government, Sins of the People (1793). Her later poem "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven" (1812), on the other hand, provoked an abusively critical reaction.5 The breadth of response from such prestigious journals as the Analytical, the Monthly, the Quarterly, and Critical Reviews highlights the extent of her reputation over a period of nearly twenty years and the duration of her engagement with the war-and-peace debate.

The prevalence and vigor of such a debate was hardly surprising. Although the eighteenth century had been by no means pacific, "the wars of the French Revolution and of Napoleon were qualitatively and quantitatively different from their immediate predecessors."6 The differences involved the unique ideological basis of England's war with France, which continued with brief intervals from 1793 to 1815, the broad geographical scale of the conflict and the aggressive nationalism with which England pursued that conflict, the use of people's armies rather than mercenaries, and the suffering of huge numbers of French civilians. These factors placed enormous strains on Britain's economy, manpower, finances, and government (Emsley 4).

The details of the war-and-peace debate during the years of war with France have been ably documented by J. E. Cookson, who maintains that antiwar activity from 1793 to 1815 was directed almost exclusively by the rational dissenters, specifically the Unitarians. Their rational Christianity involved a firm belief in human perfectibility and their conviction that war was "an eradicable evil" (a belief not shared by the evangelicals).7 These Friends of Peace, among whom were the Aikin siblings, were not an organization as such but a linked fellowship of people with similarly liberal religious...


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