On May 5, 1857, a group of Boston Brahmins gathered for dinner at the Parker House Hotel and decided to create a new magazine, one that would make politics, literature, and the arts its chief concerns. These men, united in their opposition to slavery, their love of American writing, and their tripartite names, included such eminences as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Russell Lowell. They did not set out to exclude women from the gathering; Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was invited, but she boycotted the dinner when she learned that alcohol would be served.
A plan for this new magazine was set. The question of a name soon arose. Oliver Wendell Holmes, another of the founders, proposed “The Atlantic,” to convey the notion that an immense ocean would separate this New World journal from its cousins in the Old. A manifesto was written, one that made ambitious promises: In politics, The Atlantic would 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,” and it would bring to the attention of the reading public the newest and most interesting American writers. The manifesto was signed by, among others, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and yes, “Mrs. H. Beecher Stowe.”
In November of 1857, the first issue of this magazine was published, and we have never stopped publishing. And since its founding, this magazine has published everyone from the aforementioned Hawthorne (who served as the magazine’s Civil War correspondent) to Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman; from Robert Frost and Helen Keller to W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington; from Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath, to a raft of future presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and JFK—and on to the great writers of today, too many to even begin mentioning.
We know that the America of today would be unrecognizable to the founders of this magazine, but my hope is that they would take quickly to today’s Atlantic. They would recognize in our journalism the stringent application of intelligence and analytic rigor to the great problems of the day; the devotion to the explication of not only the American idea, but also the nature of an unsettled world; and a great love of literature and culture in all of its manifestations—“the whole domain of aesthetics,” in the words of the founding manifesto. I believe that the founders would be able to locate these values in our print magazine, on our website, at our events, and in our documentaries. (I also believe that they would be confused by our Instagram account.)
Today, on the 160th anniversary of the conception of The Atlantic, I write to thank our readers and subscribers for their support. To those of you who are not yet subscribers, I ask you to join our great adventure.