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A Biography of ‘The Nation’: The First Fifty Years

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tags: The Nation



D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

On June 25, 1863, as Confederate forces fought their way north toward Gettysburg, a group of wealthy New Yorkers gathered at the Union League Club on 17th Street to hear a pitch. The speaker, journalist and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, laid out a “dream of an honest weekly paper.” The idea was to aim not for a large circulation, but for a select, influential readership. By the end of the evening, Olmsted had his first thousand dollars. By the end of the week, he had trustees, a fundraising committee and an editor: his friend E.L. Godkin, an Anglo-Irish journalist who had covered the Crimean War and toured the American South (inspired by Olmsted’s own writings). “The thing starts so favorably,” Olmsted wrote to his wife, “I shall go into it strong, meaning to succeed.”

But Olmsted was impulsive, and when an offer came that August to manage an enormous gold mine in California, he turned “The Paper,” as they still called it, over to Godkin, along with a letter of introduction to Charles Eliot Norton, editor of The North American Review. Godkin met with Norton and received encouragement, but not investment, so he gave up.

In April 1865, Godkin wrote to Olmsted to congratulate him on “the great events of the last fortnight.” Lee’s surrender at Appomattox had left him “dumfoundered,” and though he was thrilled by the Union victory, “I confess I should be very anxious about the terms of reconstruction, if Lincoln were not to be president for the next four years.” The letter was dated April 12, and long before it reached California, Lincoln was dead. Yet even as the nation was binding up its wounds and mourning the slain emancipator, the prospect of victory was tearing the abolitionist movement apart.

The question was whether the Thirteenth Amendment, in decreeing the end of slavery, also meant the abolitionists’ work was done. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, thought it was. Declaring “my vocation as an Abolitionist, thank God, is ended,” and wishing to devote himself to women’s suffrage and other causes, Garrison proposed that the American Anti-Slavery Society, which he had founded, should be dissolved. But Wendell Phillips, who had joined the movement after rescuing Garrison from a Boston lynch mob thirty years earlier, disagreed, and a bitter power struggle ensued.

It was in the midst of this battle for the future, and legacy, of the abolitionist movement that James Miller McKim, a Philadelphia activist with friends in both camps, determined to start a national weekly to continue the work of The Liberator “on a broader ground.” McKim soon had his funding, as well as a name for the new magazine: The Nation. Now he needed a staff. Norton, of course, knew about Godkin’s interest in starting his own weekly, and after getting him to recant his skepticism about black male suffrage—his suggestion that freedmen should have to earn a living for ten years before voting was hardly a position that would appeal to The Nation’s backers—Norton recommended Godkin to his friend McKim.

* * *

“No. 1 is afloat,” Godkin wrote to Norton on July 5, 1865, “and the tranquility which still reigns in this city, under the circumstances, I confess amazes me.”

“The political complexion of The Nation is not at all doubtful,” sniffed The New York Times in a review of the first issue. Radical on all questions regarding the freed slaves, the magazine viewed the Civil War’s end as a triumph not just for the Union, but for “democratic principles everywhere.” Nor did The Nation have a great deal of sympathy for the defeated slaveholders. “However much opposed we may be to political vengeance,” the editors wrote, “there is nobody who will deny that men who have made themselves conspicuous in instigating an appeal from the ballot to the sword ought to be compelled, after defeat in the field, to hold their tongues for the remainder of their days.”

But The Nation’s darts weren’t always so well aimed. When Wendell Phillips took exception to the magazine’s treatment of Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, an editorial dismissed the great abolitionist as one who, “from a great height in the air, [behaves] as a kind of vulture to scare the more mindless, cowardly, and laggard Radicals into a show of eagerness and activity.” The Nation’s young literary editor, Wendell Phillips Garrison—William Lloyd Garrison’s son and James Miller McKim’s son-in-law—joined the attack, sneering at the man whose name he bore.

Godkin’s evident contempt for Phillips, and his only partly concealed wobbling on the question of black suffrage—ideally, he suggested in the second issue, the government should “exclude everybody from the polls who can neither read nor write”—upset the magazine’s Radical backers. Godkin told a friend in 1866 that he was “afraid to visit Boston this winter, lest the stockholders of The Nation should lynch me.” ...

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