In 1864, a journalist named James Gilmore told President Abraham Lincoln about his quixotic attempt to negotiate the South’s surrender. Gilmore had crossed Union lines to visit the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, in Richmond. But Davis had rebuffed the Northern emissary. Lincoln told Gilmore he saw an opportunity to draw attention to Davis’s recalcitrance, and Gilmore proposed publishing an account of his adventure in the New York Tribune.
“Can’t you get it into The Atlantic Monthly?” Lincoln asked. The president was a loyal subscriber to the magazine. “It would have less of a partisan look there.” Such an article in The Atlantic, Lincoln told Gilmore, “could be worth as much to us as a half a dozen battles.”
The Atlantic, just seven years old at the time, had already become America’s indispensable magazine of ideas, argument, and great narrative. Over the next 155 years, our stories would shape the nation, and the world: from Frederick Douglass’s appeal for suffrage, to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s case for the United States as a global power, to John Muir’s essays that helped establish the National Park Service, to Helen Keller’s treatise on industrialization and women’s empowerment. Our writers, including the greats of three centuries—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe; Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and W. E. B. Du Bois; Virginia Woolf, Albert Einstein, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace; and on and on—have helped America understand itself, and understand the world, like no other magazine has ever done.