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To track the meaning of American democracy through The Atlantic's archives is to be reminded how slippery, but strong, it has always been. No one, of course, rejects the principle trumpeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson at the outset of these selections that “Emancipation is the demand of civilization.” (What American would go on record trashing freedom?) But succeeding thinkers voice unease about just how to put it into action.

Woodrow Wilson wonders if democratic government, as established, can cope with entropic times, when “voters of every blood and environment and social derivation mix and stare at one another at the same voting places.” Walter Lippmann sniffs at “the prevailing public opinion,” worrying over how to strengthen “the judgments of informed and responsible officials.” But both men were writing when, from our standpoint, civilization’s demand for emancipation had not remotely been met. Wilson wrote when women had not yet gotten the right to vote, and Lippmann when blacks were still blocked from exercising that right, ninety years after the liberation that Emerson dreamed of. Indeed, Jack Kennedy had yet to demonstrate that a white and male—but Catholic—candidate could overcome the prejudice that the Happy Warrior, Alfred E. Smith, so powerfully inveighed against in 1927.

Looking backward, Isaiah Berlin sees in Roosevelt’s New Deal the right balance between state power and personal freedom, the reconciliation of “individual liberty and a loose texture of society with the indispensable minimum of organization and authority.” But less than twenty years later, another friend of the New Deal, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., fears that executive power under a Republican administration has run amok, resulting in “the imperial presidency.” A thread running through all these selections is the view—still a commonplace of American politics—that those charged with implementing the noblest American ideals are not quite up to the job. Wilson worries that democracy anoints “petty men of no ambition,” while P. J. O’Rourke contends that politicians are mostly “just ridiculous people—and therefore justly representative of their constituents.

Our present representative in chief, George W. Bush, declared in his second inaugural address, “Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind.” We may well hear a meaningful echo there of Emerson’s declaration of 144 years ago. Still, as the archives suggest, and as Mr. Bush’s efforts abroad have demonstrated, summoning the lofty sentiment—while important—is the easy part.

James Bennet

Archival excerpts:

American Civilization (April 1862)
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
As the Civil War ground on, and the fate of the young nation hung in the balance, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued vehemently for a federal emancipation of the slaves. “Morality,” above all else, he asserted, “is the object of government.” He lauded President Lincoln for his principled moves in that direction.

Democracy and Efficiency (March 1901)
by Woodrow Wilson
At the turn of the twentieth century, future President Woodrow Wilson—then a political-science professor at Princeton—explained that America’s governing structures had served their purpose well throughout the nation’s early years, but that the time had come for them to become more sophisticated, in order to cope with a burgeoning population and the growing complexities of modern life.

Catholic and Patriot (May 1927)
by Alfred E. Smith
In 1927, Alfred E. Smith, New York’s governor and the first Roman Catholic to run for president, argued against the charge that a Catholic could not, in good conscience, fulfill his duties to his country. Though he lost the election the following year to Herbert Hoover, his candidacy helped pave the way for John F. Kennedy thirty-two years later.

The Decline of Western Democracy (February 1955)
by Walter Lippmann
In the wake of two devastating world wars, and with the specter of communism looming, Walter Lippmann fretted that Western democracies were becoming too beholden to an ill-informed and frequently “destructively wrong” mass of public opinion.

Roosevelt Through European Eyes (July 1955)
by Isaiah Berlin
In 1955, the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin paid tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal policies, Berlin contended, had forever “altered the fundamental concept of government and its obligations to the governed.”

The Runaway Presidency (November 1973)
by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
As a steady stream of disturbing revelations surfaced in the Watergate investigation, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.—a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and a former adviser to President Kennedy—argued that under Richard Nixon’s insidious influence, the power of the presidency had spiraled out of control.

No Apparent Motive (November 2002)
by P. J. O'Rourke
“It is no bad thing,” suggested the humorist and Atlantic correspondent P. J. O’Rourke in 2002, “that our politicians are fools.”