Elihu Burritt was born on December 10, 1810, in New Britain, Connecticut, into a working class family of deep religious faith and compassion for those less fortunate. He attended school briefly, but was largely self-educated. Burritt became a blacksmith to support himself, but he continued to study languages at night. Word of his erudition spread; he became known as the "Learned Blacksmith", and was offered opportunities to speak in public. While writing a lecture on "The Anatomy of the Earth", he was so impressed by the interdependency of its parts that he ended with a plea for international peace. This became his lifelong passion. He became acquainted with other social reformers and began his career as a prophet for peace.
Burritt joined the American Peace Society in 1843, but quickly took issue with its direction and approach. He aligned himself with the "radical" element, which rejected all war, including defensive war. By the mid 1840s, he had gained recognition as one of the leading peace advocates in the United States. In 1846 he edited the Advocate of Peace, the journal of the American Peace Society, but he became increasingly disenchanted with the APS, and resigned from the executive committee when it tried to justify the Mexican War as a defensive action.
Burritt wished to reach the widest possible audience; in order to disseminate his peace principles he published several periodicals, which were aimed at families, children, and people of the middle and working classes. He made eloquent appeals especially to members of the working class, reminding them that it was they who bore the financial and physical burden of war. He hoped that laboring men would form a vast union system, and make a universal strike against the war system. From 1844 to 1851 he edited the Christian Citizen. In 1845 he proposed that brief statements written by peace reformers be sent to newspapers in Europe and America. Known as "Olive Leaves", hundreds of newspapers carried the articles, which were read by an estimated two million people. In 1846 he expanded his idea of international cooperation by organizing the "Friendly Address" program, which paired cities in England and America to exchange greetings and expressions of good will. (The Peace Collection holds a surviving example of a Friendly Address, written by the women of Exeter, England, to the women of Philadelphia in 1846).
In 1846, Burritt went to England to found the League of Universal Brotherhood. Eventually, 50,000 people (male and female, over the age of 12), pledged to renounce all war and to refrain from military service.
Burritt also attempted to foster international goodwill by promoting "Ocean Penny Postage," a form of inexpensive transatlantic mail, and by organizing several international peace conferences in Europe, notably the first Peace Congress in Brussels in 1848. (It originally was to have been held in Paris, but unrest in that city prompted the move to Brussels. The second Peace Congress was held in Paris in 1849, and the third in Frankfort in 1850).
The international peace movement was shattered by the American Civil War and by the Crimean War in Europe. Burritt was in an especially difficult position because, although he had been an early and passionate advocate of the abolition of slavery and of complete equality among the races, he was branded a traitor by those who thought that the Civil War must be fought to eliminate the absolute evil of slavery. He had formulated a plan of "compensated emancipation", which would have paid slave owners to free their slaves with proceeds from the sale of public lands in the western United States. Appalled by the war and convinced that the North had erred in not recognizing the independence of the Southern Confederacy, Burritt at first retired to his farm, then returned to England to lecture and write. He served as the American consular agent there from 1865 to 1869. He returned to New Britain, Connecticut in 1870.
The years after the Civil War found Burritt's reform labors decreasing substantially, yet he continued to reaffirm the moral principles upon which he had based his life.
Burritt died in New Britain on March 6, 1879.
*Parts of this introduction were adapted from the Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1985, entry for Elihu Burritt, and from Elihu Burritt: Crusader for Brotherhood by Peter Tolis, Hamden, Conn. : Archon Books, 1968.