As much as 2017 has been a year of engrossing current events, it has also been a year for resurrecting history. In February, President Trump briefly brought Frederick Douglass back to life at an event marking Black History Month. For some, his abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey evoked memories of Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre. Nazi imagery and rhetoric resurged in the alt-right movement. And over the course of the summer and fall, the Civil War was repeatedly relitigated. So amid all the reflections on this unusual, eventful year and how it was covered by the press, it doesn’t feel out of place to look back a little—or even a lot—farther than January 1.
Revisiting Atlantic articles from 150, 100, or even 50 years ago provides glimpses into places and events that now feel remote: the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, the German trenches of World War I, a Civil War outpost in South Carolina. But it also offers up discussions and ideas that wouldn’t feel unfamiliar in 2017, from an examination of presidential impeachment to a criticism of city public schools.
“On the Writing of Contemporary History” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Fifty years ago, as the 1960s began to wane, Schlesinger, a historian and former special assistant to John F. Kennedy, described the growing need for historians to document events not of a distant past but of their own times. In the preceding decades, he wrote, technology had intensified both the “volume of communication” and the “urgency of events.” And as a result, he asserted, “It is now a necessity—a psychic necessity to counter the pressures of life in a high velocity age and a technical necessity to rescue and preserve evidence for future historians.”
“The Flowering of the Hippies” by Mark Harris
During the summer of 1967, tens of thousands of hippies descended on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco to drop acid, clash with the police, and gather with like-minded people, as Harris described just weeks after the infamous summer came to a close. “When hippies first came to San Francisco they were an isolated minority, mistrustful, turned inward by drugs, lacking acquaintance beyond themselves,” Harris wrote. “In part a hoax of American journalism, known even to themselves only as they saw themselves in the media,” he continued, “they began at last, and especially with the approach of the ‘summer of love,’ to assess their community, their quest, and themselves.”
“Death at an Early Age” by Jonathan Kozol
Recalling his first year teaching in a public school in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Kozol described the deep-rooted segregation and inequality within the education system. “Consider what it is like to go into a new classroom and to see before you suddenly, and in a way you cannot avoid recognizing, the dreadful consequences of a year’s wastage of so many lives,” he wrote, confronting “curious, cautious, and untrusting children” who had become accustomed to chaos and failure. His efforts to offer the students “something new and lively” were, he remembered, met with enthusiasm from the children and resistance from the other teachers. His “mistake, in fact, is to have impinged upon the standardized condescension upon which the entire administration of the school is based,” he said—a condescension that held back the students and deprived them of the education they deserved.
“A Prisoner in Wittenberg” by Private Hutchinson
Two months before the United States formally entered World War I, British Private Hutchinson detailed his capture and captivity under the Germans in the war’s earlier years. While he was held as a prisoner of war, in a barracks where comfort was scarce and “every minute was like an hour and an hour like a day,” a devastating wave of typhus broke out. “I have stood against the wires and seen as many as 15 being carried to their last resting place, and the sentries laugh and jeer as the coffins went by,” Hutchinson wrote. “It made me wonder if I should get it, for it is no joke standing there against the wires, with your eyes sunk right in your head and the skin of your stomach that loose that you could almost wipe your nose with it, from starvation, watching the sick going one way and the dead the other.”
“A Father to his Graduate Girl” by Edward S. Martin
Martin’s missive to his daughter, who recently secured a bachelor of arts degree, is by turns sweetly optimistic and revealing of an attitude toward women’s education that persisted as the women’s suffrage movement made waves, and gains, in the 1910s. “I know that you have partaken faithfully of the repast that was set before you, and that, if there is anything good for girls in a college education, you must have got it,” Martin tells his daughter. But, he adds, “women are women, and will be to the end; and the work they do, in the long run and with due exceptions, will be women’s work.”
“The Threatened Eclipse of Free Speech” by James Harvey Robinson
As the United States began committing troops to World War I, Robinson expressed his apprehension about the potential consequences for the nation’s citizens—not on the European battlefield, but on the American home front. “Many intelligent persons, as well as the great mass of the unthinking, would, now that war is on, have us surrender some of the normal constitutional safeguards of free speech,” he wrote, because they felt that protests were “essentially disloyal, if not downright treasonable” and promoted “disunion at home.” “When we start out to kill enemies abroad on a gigantic scale,” Robinson contended, “we are not likely to hesitate to gag those at home who seem directly or indirectly to sympathize with the foe.” In this way, freedom could be lost at home even as soldiers fought to preserve it abroad.
“Out on Picket” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson
During the Civil War, Higginson served as colonel of the first federally authorized black regiment—an experience he revisited often in his writing for The Atlantic in the 1860s. In one such article, he recalled the time he and his regiment spent in Port Royal, South Carolina, in 1863, positioned so that they could warn other Union forces of a Confederate approach. “The picket station was … always a coveted post among the regiments,” he wrote, “combining some undeniable importance with a kind of relaxation.” His description is rife with peaceful summer days and magical, “haunted nights,” always waiting for the enemy to appear.
“An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage” by Frederick Douglass
In the early days of Reconstruction that followed the end of the war—and, with it, slavery in the United States—Douglass expressed his fear of the prejudice and oppression that still lay ahead for African Americans and called on the national legislature to grant them the equal rights of citizenship. “What, then, is the work before Congress?” he wrote. “In a word, it must enfranchise the negro … and in time bridge the chasm between North and South, so that our country may have a common liberty and a common civilization.” The following year, Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, granting full citizenship to people born or naturalized in the United States regardless of race.
“Mr. Hardhack on the Derivation of Man from the Monkey” by E. P. Whipple
A decade after Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species, Whipple mocked the skeptics who argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution by penning a satirical rant from the perspective of Mr. Solomon Hardhack, a reactionary who was offended by the notion that humans had descended from primates. “My proposition is, that nobody who reasons himself into a development from the monkey has the right to take mankind with him in his induction,” he wrote. “As for the Hardhacks, they at least beg to be excused from joining him in that logical excursion, and insist on striking the monkey altogether out from their genealogical tree.”
“The Causes for Which a President Can Be Impeached” by C. M. Ellis
“The Constitution provides, in express terms, that the President … may be impeached for ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,’” Ellis wrote. He felt that treason and bribery were clearly defined, but that “the meaning of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ for which a President may be removed” was less clear. He investigated the understanding of impeachment both in America and under the common law in England in an attempt to clarify the term, concluding that “it may almost be said, that for a President to have done anything which he ought not to have done, or to have left undone anything which he ought to have done, is just cause for his impeachment”—as long as the houses of Congress judged it as such. A year later, the House of Representatives adopted articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson for 11 “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
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