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.