Hughan, Jessie Wallace


A major figure in the war resistance movement in the United States between the two world wars and the founder and driving force behind the War Resisters League during its formative years.

Jessie Wallace Hughan was born in Brooklyn in 1875. She was educated at the Unitarian North-field Seminary in Massachusetts and graduated from Barnard College in 1898. Influenced by Henry George’s single tax theory, Hughan studied economics at Columbia University, receiving her master’s in 1899 and her doctorate in 1910. Her growing interest in socialism led her doctoral adviser to suggest that she attend socialist meetings to deepen her understanding of the topic. In 1907, she joined the Socialist Party, serving in several party offices. Between 1915 and 1924, she was the party’s candidate for a number of city, state, and national offices. Although unsuccessful in each political campaign, Hughan consistently insisted that the roots of modern war and economic oppression were located within the capitalist system.

While completing her doctorate, Hughan began her teaching career at schools in Nau-gatuck, Connecticut, and White Plains, New York. In the early 1900s, she returned to New York City where she began her long career in the employ of the city’s public school system. She taught in a number of high schools throughout the city, primarily in Brooklyn. In the 1920s, she was in charge of the English Department at Textile High School. She retired in 1945.

A learned and respected teacher, her politics prevented her employment as a college professor. Still, she managed to publish a number of books and articles related to socialist ideas and war. In 1911, her dissertation was published as The Present Status of Socialism in America. In 1916, she published The Socialism of Today, along with William English Walling and J. G. Phelps Stokes. These works were followed by A Study of International Government (1923), What Is Socialism (1928), If We Should Be Invaded: Facing a Fantastic Hypothesis (1940), and Three Decades of War Resistance (1942). In her writings, she offered compelling arguments in favor of socialist opposition to war as well as a strong defense of pacifism.

It was during World War I that Hughan began her lifelong dedication to pacifism. She initiated her personal struggle against war by establishing an organization for war opponents who had no traditional religious basis for their pacifist beliefs. Hughan joined Frances Witherspoon and Tracy Mygatt in forming a number of peace groups linking pacifism, Christianity, and socialist politics. Unlike other opponents of war, Hughan intellectually developed a sophisticated socialist-pacifist position. Prior to U.S. military intervention in World War I, she challenged prowar socialists, such as Graham Stokes. In 1915, she organized the Anti-Enlistment League. Operating out of her apartment, the league managed to enroll 3,500 men who signed a declaration against military enlistment. The league had hoped to gain enough signatures to prove the war’s unpopularity and convince the Wilson administration not to become involved. Government pressure, along with seizure of the organization’s files, quickly led to its demise, however. Because her antiwar activity preceded the nation’s 1917 declaration of war, Hughan was not fired like other antiwar New York schoolteachers. Yet she was the victim of numerous attacks for her antiwar stance. In 1919, during the Red Scare, the Lusk Committee of the New York Legislature called on her to testify regarding her loyalty. The committee denied her the Certificate of Character and Loyalty because she had deliberately added the following words to the state’s teacher’s loyalty oath: "This obedience being qualified always by dictates of conscience" (Kennedy 1999, 39). That same year, the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Lee Overman, received a list of some sixty-two eminent citizens who were labeled as dangerous radicals. Among the names submitted were Jane Addams, Lillian D. Wald, Oswald Garrision Vil-lard, and Hughan.

After the war, Hughan led a campaign to organize an active war resistance movement in the United States. In 1923, she successfully managed to secure approval from the peace groups Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s Peace Society, and Women’s Peace Union to endorse the creation of the War Resisters League (WRL). For years, she spearheaded the organization from her apartment in Brooklyn.

During the 1920s, she signed up numerous war resisters, delivered many speeches, and wrote pamphlets and tracts on the use of active nonviolence. She also organized various public protests against war and militarism, including some New York "NO More War" parades. In 1938, she helped found the United Pacifist Committee, a group created for the purpose of coordinating peace education and conscientious objectors. In 1940, after World War II began in Europe, she worked to defeat the conscription bill and established the Pacifist Teachers League when New York teachers were requested to register young men for the draft. She was one of the first war protestors to criticize the government’s establishment of the Civilian Public Service Camps in which conscientious objectors who accepted civilian conscript labor worked without wages. During World War II, she persuaded the WRL to support all objectors to war, regardless of their feelings about conscription. She continued heading the league as secretary until 1945, when she became its honorary secretary. She continued serving on the WRL’s executive committee until her death in her Manhattan apartment in 1955.

Next post:

Previous post: