October 1860 The Civil War

The Election in November

In 1860, The Atlantic endorsed Abraham Lincoln for president.
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James Russell Lowell, the first editor of The Atlantic (National Portrait Gallery)


In principle, The Atlantic’s first editor, James Russell Lowell, was committed to the idea that the magazine would be open to all points of view, and—as pledged in the first issue—“the organ of no party or clique.” But when it came to slavery, abolitionism was the only acceptable stance. Lowell, after all, was a supporter of the American Anti-Slavery League, and in the 1840s had become consumed with writing for and editing the abolitionist journal National Anti-Slavery Standard. A heavy-handed editor, he was known to have inserted his abolitionist views into another writer’s work, with fraught consequences: Parke Godwin, The Atlantic’s first political reporter, quit when a report on the Buchanan administration he submitted for the April 1858 issue ended up in the magazine mysteriously containing four pages of strongly worded anti-slavery rhetoric.

In 1860, as the presidential election approached, Lowell threw the weight of The Atlantic behind the anti-slavery Republican candidate, commending Abraham Lincoln as a “statesman” and a powerful voice against the spread of slavery, and predicting that the election would be “a turning-point in our history.”

—Sage Stossel

We are approaching … a crisis in our domestic policy more momentous than any that has arisen since we became a nation …

In a society like ours, where every man may transmute his private thought into history and destiny by dropping it into the ballot-box, a peculiar responsibility rests upon the individual … Every fourth year the people are called upon to pronounce upon the conduct of their affairs … In exercising his right [the individual voter] becomes for the moment an integral part of the governing power …

Whatever be the effect of slavery upon the States where it exists, there can be no doubt that its moral influence upon the North has been most disastrous. It has compelled our politicians into that first fatal compromise with their moral instincts and hereditary principles which makes all consequent ones easy … We have been asked to admit, first, that it was a necessary evil; then that it was a good both to master and slave; then that it was the corner-stone of free institutions; then that it was a system divinely instituted under the Old Law and sanctioned under the New. With a representation, three-fifths of it based on the assumption that negroes are men, the South turns upon us and insists on our acknowledging that they are things. After compelling her Northern allies to pronounce the “free and equal” clause of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence (because it stood in the way of enslaving men) a manifest absurdity, she has declared, through the Supreme Court of the United States, that negroes are not men in the ordinary meaning of the word. To eat dirt is bad enough, but to find that we have eaten more than was necessary may chance to give us an indigestion. The slaveholding interest has gone on step by step, forcing concession after concession, till it needs but little to secure it forever in the political supremacy of the country. Yield to its latest demand,—let it mould the evil destiny of the Territories,—and the thing is done past recall. The next Presidential Election is to say Yes or No

We believe that this election is a turning-point in our history; for, although there are four candidates, there are really, as everybody knows, but two parties, and a single question that divides them …

No question of the abstract right of property has ever entered directly into our politics, or ever will,—the point at issue being, whether a certain exceptional kind of property, already privileged beyond all others, shall be entitled to still further privileges at the expense of every other kind. The extension of slavery over new territory means just this,—that this one kind of property, not recognized as such by the Constitution, or it would never have been allowed to enter into the basis of representation, shall control the foreign and domestic policy of the Republic.

A great deal is said, to be sure, about the rights of the South; but has any such right been infringed? When a man invests money in any species of property, he assumes the risks to which it is liable. If he buy a house, it may be burned; if a ship, it may be wrecked; if a horse or an ox, it may die. Now the disadvantage of the Southern kind of property is,—how shall we say it so as not to violate our Constitutional obligations?—that it is exceptional. When it leaves Virginia, it is a thing; when it arrives in Boston, it becomes a man, speaks human language, appeals to the justice of the same God whom we all acknowledge, weeps at the memory of wife and children left behind,—in short, hath the same organs and dimension that a Christian hath, and is not distinguishable from ordinary Christians …

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