160 Years of the American Idea

A collection of articles from every year of The Atlantic’s history traces the evolution of the magazine, and of America.

Rosa Inocencio Smith / The Atlantic

In May 1857, a coterie of literary New Englanders met for the first time to lay out the foundational vision for The Atlantic: a magazine adamantly opposed to slavery, belonging to “no party or clique,” which would work to publish literary articles “of an abstract and permanent value.” Six months later, in November 1857, the first issue of the magazine was printed. The Atlantic has spent the last year celebrating 160 years of the “American idea,” a principle to which it has been committed since its founding.

To reflect on more than a century and a half of continuous publication, we began sharing one article every weekday that represented a year from The Atlantic’s history, beginning on November 1, 2017, with Edmund Quincy’s “Where Will It End?,” a searing indictment of slavery in the U.S., and ending on June 26, 2018, with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” an examination of the impact of the nation’s first African American president.

In these 160 stories, patterns emerge and ideas echo. Decades-old pieces about American isolationism, campaign finance, the prison system, news media, workplace discrimination, and gun violence resonate profoundly, and uncomfortably, with present-day events and articles. Threads across time become evident, binding together the temporally distant eras of The Atlantic’s founding editor, James Russell Lowell, and its current editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. Of Frederick Douglass and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump.

The articles demonstrate the sometimes complementary, sometimes oppositional relationship between the magazine’s founding ideals: the literary and the political; the morally imperative and the nonpartisan; a multitude of different visions of the American idea.

These tensions arose almost as soon as publication began, as the magazine confronted the leviathan of American slavery. In the Civil War era the magazine frequently inveighed against the nation’s peculiar institution and all those who supported it, including the national representatives of the Democratic Party and, later, the Confederates. In The Atlantic’s second issue, Edmund Quincy denounced slavery as “the evil fairy of the nursery tale” and a “blighting shadow.” He spoke out against disproportionate representation of “the slave interest” in a government that had been, “since this century began, at least, the creature and the tool of the slaveholders.”

And less than three years after pledging to be the organ of no party or clique, James Russell Lowell published an impassioned and unequivocal presidential endorsement for the Republican Party’s candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860’s “The Election in November.”

“We are gravely requested to have no opinion, or, having one, to suppress it, on the one topic that has occupied caucuses, newspapers, Presidents’ messages, and congress, for the last dozen years, lest we endanger the safety of the Union,” he wrote. But, he contended, “In a democracy it is the duty of every citizen to think; but unless the thinking result in a definite opinion, and the opinion lead to considerate action, they are nothing.”

In this way the magazine’s abolitionist founders reconciled a vision of nonpartisanship with a belief that moral truth transcended journalistic neutrality. It was a middle ground the magazine returned to often in times of political turmoil, including the 1964 presidential election that pitted Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater.

“In the election this fall, which will go far to determine the conduct of the United States in the next twenty-five years, we stand for the election of President Lyndon B. Johnson,” wrote then–editor in chief Edward Weeks. He expanded on this endorsement with praise for President Johnson and, more powerfully, with a warning about Goldwater’s character:

A President is trusted to make decisions, the most momentous decisions in our lives. In making up his mind he must reckon with those who disagree with him. We think it unfortunate that Barry Goldwater takes criticism as a personal affront; we think it poisonous when his anger betrays him into denouncing what he calls the “radical” press by bracketing the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Izvestia. There speaks not the reason of the Southwest but the voice of Joseph McCarthy. We do not impugn Senator Goldwater’s honesty. We sincerely distrust his factionalism and his capacity for judgment.

All the while, these articles have appeared alongside pieces seemingly removed from the fray of politics and the battle to define the American idea entirely. The Atlantic was, after all, also founded as a magazine that “in literature, [would] leave no province unrepresented,” and its issues have historically been replete with poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and literary critiques. At times, the connection of these works to a larger context are unclear, as with Amy Lowell’s first published poem or one of Charles Dickens’s final published stories, with the sordid secrets of Lord Byron or the private correspondence of Emily Dickinson.

But these seemingly disparate literary and journalistic strands are also occasionally reconciled. Some literary works speak directly to national conversations and stories: Julia Ward Howe’s abolitionist anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” for instance, or Robert Lowell’s poetic reflection on civil rights and urban development in “For the Union Dead.”

The American idea—that final and most nebulous plank in The Atlantic’s mission statement—has been defined countless times, both implicitly and explicitly, in the magazine’s pages. Different visions run through these 160 articles, from Julia Ward Howe’s to Walt Whitman’s, Edmund Quincy’s to James Fallows’s. But perhaps the briefest and most direct definition came in the form of a single-word appositive from Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1892. “The American idea, Emancipation, appears in our freedom of intellection, in our reforms, and in our bad politics,” he wrote.

That vision of the American idea—emancipation, the process of becoming free of chains, of discrimination, of suffering—runs through these works individually and collectively. The 160-year collection begins with an appeal to free African Americans from bondage; it follows the struggle to overcome the shortcomings of Reconstruction and the cruel prejudices of Jim Crow; it advocates for universal suffrage and against aspects of authoritarianism; it clamors for fair labor practices and rails against the inequities and inadequacies of prisons; it condemns political corruption; and, finally, it celebrates and mourns the legacy of the first African American president, who straddled the nation’s racial divide for eight years only to leave office amid a resurgence of white nationalist sentiment. These articles are a chronicle of the progress made toward emancipation in its various forms, but also of the setbacks in that progress; the hope and fear for the progress yet to come.

“[The American idea] has, of course, its sinister side,” Emerson reflected. “But if followed it leads to heavenly places.”

Both aspects can be found in these articles, and in the thousands of others The Atlantic has published over the last 160 years—now going on 161.