The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea
Readers are invited to submit their own essays on the American idea and the challenges it faces. We will publish the best of these essays in a future issue of the magazine.
Scandals, intriguing facts, greatest hits, and more.
On learning of plans for a new American magazine, the scholar Charles Eliot Norton wrote in June 1857 to its first editor, his friend James Russell Lowell. He wanted to offer help but also to supply an inoculating dose of reality, to caution that “such things are never permanent in our country. They burn brightly for a little while, and then burn out.” He continued, referring to the 18th-century British editor Edward Cave by his pen name, Sylvanus Urban:
It would be a great thing for us if any undertaking of this kind could live long enough to get affections and associations connected with it, whose steady glow should take the place of, and more than supply, the shine of novelty, and the dazzle of a first go-off. I wish we had a Sylvanus Urban a hundred and fifty years old. I wish, indeed, we had anything so old in America; would give a thousand of our new lamps for the one old, battered, but true magical light.
We may be able to spot a clue in the arguments. Unlike other publications, The Atlantic wasn’t created to track a particular identity found on a map—Hollywood’s glamour, New York’s sophistication, Washington’s power, Silicon Valley’s imagination. It wasn’t yoked from birth to a particular industry or technology, like the automobile or the computer. The Atlantic was created in Boston by writers who saw themselves as the country’s intellectual leaders, and so its scope from the start was national, if rather theoretical. It was founded on an encompassing abstraction, expressed in the words that appeared in the first issue and that appear again on the cover of this one: In politics, it would “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” That sounds pretty good. But those first conductors—among them Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—did not explain what they meant, not exactly. What or which “American idea”? The answer must have seemed obvious to them: In literature, they wanted to provide a platform for an emerging American voice; in politics, they had a cause—abolition—that gave granite definition to the American idea as equality, at least among men. One can easily imagine that beyond abolition, agreement would quickly break down. Only reluctantly did Lowell finally agree, in 1859, to publish an essay called “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?”
Today, our national facts would seem radically strange to Lowell—machines that can listen in on millions of telephone conversations, city-killing weapons that can fit inside satchels, tools that can pluck cells from embryos and hone them to fight disease—but the reference points for debate would seem quite familiar. What American faction, what American, doesn’t embrace both the revolutionary message of the Declaration of Independence and the restraining message of the Constitution? Our endless quarrels are over what these messages mean, over how the ideal should be made real. It is the endlessness of the quarrels—the elusiveness of the American idea, the tantalizing possibility of its full realization—that has sustained The Atlantic. Through the decades, The Atlantic has argued; over time, its writers have been found on both sides of some questions, as, without regard for party or clique or convention, the magazine has struggled with the great perplexities of the day. (This by turns fractious, forceful, and witty history is anthologized in a new collection of Atlantic pieces—called, as it happens, The American Idea—that Doubleday has just published.) Only a magazine devoted to understanding change could have thrived through so much of it. Only a magazine that constantly questions its own assumptions about the American idea could remain true to that idea’s potential. That, surely, was the founders’ original intent. (The image they selected for The Atlantic’s first cover, pictured on the preceding page, is of John Winthrop, he of the “City upon a hill.”) While we celebrate the magazine this month with glances back at the archive, we honor it more by continuing to turn our gaze ahead, with pieces like Walter Kirn’s romp through the multitaskers’ labyrinth, Robert D. Kaplan’s report on the decline of American might, and Caitlin Flanagan’s essay on Hillary Clinton.
To mark this anniversary, we also invited an eclectic group of thinkers who have had cause to consider the American idea to describe its future and the greatest challenges to it. We provided little more charge than that, beyond asking that they accomplish this feat in 300 words or so. (It should be noted that Judith Martin—Miss Manners—delivered precisely 300, one of them whoops. Her old colleague Tom Wolfe, who happens to differ with Martin on one point of historical interpretation, returned again and again to the library, revising his piece until it reached 2,100 words.) We asked artists to perform the same feat with a drawing or a photograph.
In the pages that follow, George F. Will rings an alarm over the danger inherent in embracing a singular American idea, but many of the contributors agree on a rough definition of the idea itself—the easy part, as John Hope Franklin suggests. Yet has this idea been put into practice or not? Is it more threatened by Americans’ faith in God or by their secularism? By Islamic fundamentalism or by our response to it? By poverty, racism, celebrity, the gobbling up of natural resources? Will science and the entrepreneurial spirit carry us through? Should we rejoice on this anniversary, or should we be angry? What follows is a wise, amused, pained, and impassioned cacophony, and, in sum, a statement of the sustaining value of The Atlantic, its commitment to the open mind in pursuit of an idea whose realization was partial and fragile 150 years ago, and still is.
Proceed to the collection of essays.