The American Idea
On the 165th anniversary of The Atlantic’s founding
In the winter of 1861, the second editor in chief of The Atlantic, James T. Fields, received a letter from Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist and suffragist. Attached to her letter was a poem she hoped to see published in this magazine. The letter is worth reading in full:
Do you want this, and do you like it, and have you any room for it in January number? I recd. your invitation to meet the Trollopes just five minutes before my departure for Washington, so could only leave a verbal answer, hope you got it.
I am sad and spleeny, and begin to have fears that I may not be, after all, the greatest woman alive. Isn’t this a melancholy view of things? but it is a vale, you know. When will the world come to end?
Sad and spleeny! We should all be so afflicted by Howe’s melancholy-inducing imperfections. Howe had just written her poem in a fever burst at the Willard Hotel. “I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight,” she later said, “and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind.” Fields, in possession of that most crucial editing skill—knowing when to leave copy alone—gave it a title and published “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the first page of the February 1862 edition. (Howe received, in return, a $5 freelance fee and immortality.)
One challenging aspect of employment here at The Atlantic—which enters its 166th year of continuous publication with this issue—is that we have published not only “Battle Hymn of the Republic” but also Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and the first chapters of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk,” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and Rachel Carson’s meditations on the oceans, and Einstein’s denunciation of atomic weapons, and so on, ad infinitum. I sometimes ask my colleagues to look to Edward Weeks, the ninth editor of The Atlantic, as a model; in 1927, while still a junior editor, he brought in Ernest Hemingway. This, I tell my colleagues, should be the ambition of every editor at The Atlantic : to discover the next world-changing writer. We owe this to our readers, and we owe this to our predecessors, who tried very hard to make The Atlantic the great American magazine.
The high bar set by past editors is lowered just a bit in our minds by knowledge that not every article, short story, and poem published since 1857 has been imperishably wise. We have just recently posted our full archive online, and easy perusal has brought us to a number of unfortunate if unsurprising discoveries—for instance, far too much enthusiasm, at certain moments, for “eugenical sterilization”; an article from 1934 titled “My Friend the Jew,” which is roughly what you would expect; and a poem by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the magazine’s fourth editor, titled “Unguarded Gates,” written in response to Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” which to our chagrin was not first published in The Atlantic but is cast in bronze at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Aldrich’s poem, published in 1892, refers to liberty as a “white goddess” and warns of “accents of menace alien to our air.” A predisposition against censorship keeps us from hiding the poet laureate of family separation in some dusty digital subbasement. The history of a great magazine, after all, is as messy as the history of a great nation.
On balance, I should say, the historical record is exemplary. I believe this has to do mainly with the preposterously talented journalists who have been drawn here over the centuries, but The Atlantic’s excellent record of aesthetic and moral success is due as well to a founding mission statement, crystalline in clarity, that guides us to this day. The authorship of this manifesto, which was published in the first issue, is unclear, though it was most likely drafted by Francis Underwood, the largely unheralded deputy editor who dreamed up the idea for this magazine, and James Russell Lowell, who was placed in charge by the owners at The Atlantic’s birth. The manifesto has as signatories many, if not most, of the literary worthies of the day: Ralph Waldo Emerson, who appeared in the first issue; Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came up with The Atlantic’s name; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would become the magazine’s Civil War correspondent; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, America’s most popular author, and The Atlantic’s, too, until she launched an intemperate attack on Lord Byron and cost the magazine thousands of subscribers. (We have since recovered, as has Lord Byron.) To my sadness, Moby-Dick being my favorite American novel, Herman Melville never found a way to contribute, though I like to imagine that both Lowell and Fields tried hard to induce him. I can hear their plea: Anything more on whales would be fine, Herman, really. Try again with the whales.
The Atlantic was founded as an abolitionist magazine, and as a conveyor of “the American idea,” to quote the founders in their manifesto, although, you will notice upon careful reading, they did not actually define this idea. The manifesto makes very clear that only by concentrating intently on literature, the arts, and politics in equal measure would the editors fulfill the founders’ mandate to make this a truly American magazine: “The healthy appetite of the mind for entertainment in its various forms of Narrative, Wit, and Humor, will not go uncared for.”
On culture, The Atlantic’s founders set out “to include the whole domain of aesthetics, and hope gradually to make this critical department a true and fearless representative of Art, in all its various branches.”
On politics, their declaration of purpose stated that The Atlantic
will be the organ of no party or clique, but will honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea. It will deal frankly with persons and with parties, endeavoring always to keep in view that moral element which transcends all persons and parties, and which alone makes the basis of a true and lasting prosperity. It will not rank itself with any sect of anties, but with that body of men which is in favor of Freedom, National Progress, and Honor, whether public or private.
The challenges of making this magazine have been, and continue to be, many. In the late 19th century, it was the introduction of photography and graphics into lushly funded New York magazines that threatened The Atlantic. In this century, it was the rise of the internet, and of a battalion of frenetic, clickbaity, hot-take websites, that caused some to believe that magazines like The Atlantic were the albatross of media. (Many of these illustrated weeklies and online ventures have long since proved to be … ephemeral.)
But the hardest challenge, especially in a period of national fracturing, cynicism, and populism, is to keep our promise to be above party or clique. You will forgive us if we sometimes fail; the Republican Party of the moment is more or less authoritarian and therefore unconservative in approach, and it is difficult for us to treat Trumpism as a legitimate ideology. Conservatism as traditionally understood is worthy of deep discussion and exploration, and its proponents find a hospitable home for their writing here. We could not be The Atlantic without these writers and thinkers. Our mission is to be big, not small; independent, not partisan; and, above all, rigorous.
We also try very hard to be interesting. This is a prerequisite. If we can’t entice you to read our articles, there’s no point in publishing our collective findings about America and the world. I believe our team is doing an excellent job of being interesting, and I hope you’ll agree. I’m very glad that you, our readers, are on this ride with us. The Atlantic has been arguing the cause of “Freedom, National Progress, and Honor” for 165 years now, and, thanks to you, we’ll be doing this for a long time to come.
This editor’s note appears in the November 2022 print edition with the headline “The American Idea.”