In our second issue, Edmund Quincy contended that the South’s efforts to preserve slavery had long ago degraded the country’s democratic institutions. He condemned the outsized influence exerted by the small minority of the country’s population that comprised “the entire sum of all who have any direct connection with Slavery” over nearly a century of American politics, and called for the end of the “tyranny” of the “slaveholding aristocracy.”
“Are we forever to submit to be cheated of our national rights by an oligarchy as despicable as it is detestable,” he asked, “because it clothes itself in the forms of democracy, and allows us the ceremonies of choice, the name of power, and the permission to register the edicts of the sovereign?”
Lowell adopted a more optimistic but similarly urgent tone in an 1860 presidential endorsement of Abraham Lincoln. “The encroachment of Slavery upon our national policy have been like those of a glacier in a Swiss valley,” he wrote. “Inch by inch, the huge dragon with his glittering scales and crests of ice coils itself onward, an anachronism of summer, the relic of a bygone world where such monsters swarm.” He urged readers to cast their votes for Lincoln as a bulwark against the further expansion of slavery and a steadying force for the fragile Union.
Following the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, Frederick Douglass anticipated a new threat to democracy: “a denial of political rights to four million loyal colored people.” In a December 1866 article, he warned, “No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.” He entreated Congress to protect the equal citizenship and suffrage of African Americans. A decade later, Reconstruction would end and the Jim Crow era begin, bringing to life the very fears Douglass had outlined in The Atlantic.
Meanwhile, as the 19th century neared its close, national politics became mired in cronyism, corruption, and inefficiency. Future president Theodore Roosevelt argued in favor of both campaign finance reform and civil service reform in our pages, worrying that the influence of money was corrupting political office and public service. “The minute that we make men’s bread and butter depend upon their political action, that action ceases to be influenced by considerations of the public weal, and is taken from considerations of private benefit,” he wrote in February 1895.
Another future president, Woodrow Wilson, focused his critique on the inefficiency and lack of clear leadership in Congress. In an 1886 article, he warned:
The grave social and economic problems now putting themselves forward, as the result of the tremendous growth and concentration of our population, and the consequent sharp competition for the means of livelihood indicate that our system is already aging, and that any clumsiness, looseness, or irresponsibility in governmental action must prove a source of grave and increasing peril.
In the face of such peril, he advocated for legislative reform that would increase congressional transparency and productivity. He expanded on this line of thinking 15 years later in “Democracy and Efficiency,” criticizing America’s overconfidence in its model of self-governance and calling for the country to open itself to learning from the rest of the world. Out of such a process, he hoped the U.S. might develop “responsible leadership instead of government by mass meeting; a trained and thoroughly organized administrative service instead of administration by men privately nominated and blindly elected; a new notion of terms of office and of standards of policy.”