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The American Idea

The Best of the Atlantic Monthly

by Robert Vare(ed.)
The American Idea by Robert Vare
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“What is ‘the American idea’? It is the fractious, maddening approach to the conduct of human affairs that values equality despite its elusiveness, that values democracy despite its debasement, that values pluralism despite its messiness, that values the institutions of civic culture despite their flaws, and that values public life as something higher and greater than the sum of all our private lives. The founders of the magazine valued these things—and they valued the immense amount of effort it takes to preserve them from generation to generation.”
--The Editors of The Atlantic Monthly, 2006

This landmark collection of writings by the illustrious contributors of The Atlantic Monthly is a one-of-a-kind education in the history of American ideas.

The Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857 by a remarkable group that included some of the towering figures of nineteenth-century intellectual life: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell.For 150 years, the magazine has continued to honor its distinguished pedigree by publishing many of America’s most prominent political commentators, journalists, historians, humorists, storytellers, and poets.

Throughout the magazine’s history, Atlantic contributors have unflinchingly confronted the fundamental subjects of the American experience: war and peace, science and religion, the conundrum of race, the role of women, the plight of the cities, the struggle to preserve the environment, the strengths and failings of our politics, and, especially, America’s proper place in the world.

This extraordinary anthology brings together many of the magazine’s most acclaimed and influential articles. “Broken Windows,” by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, took on the problem of inner-city crime and gave birth to a new way of thinking about law enforcement. “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” by Bernard Lewis, prophetically warned of the dangers posed to the West by rising Islamic extremism. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., became one of the twentieth century’s most famous reflections upon—and calls for—racial equality. And “The Fifty-first State,” by James Fallows, previewed in astonishing detailthe mess in which America would find itself in Iraqa full six months before the invasion.The collection also highlights some of The Atlantic’s finest moments in fiction and poetry—from the likes of Twain, Whitman, Frost, Hemingway, Nabokov, and Bellow—affirming the central role of literature in defining and challenging American society.

Rarely has an anthology so vividly captured America. Serious and comic, touching and tough, The American Idea paints a fascinating portrait of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.
Crown/Archetype; December 2008
688 pages; ISBN 9780307481405
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Title: The American Idea
Author: Robert Vare
The Election in November


The editorial principles set forth in The Atlantic's inaugural issue pledged that the magazine would be “the organ of no party or clique,” and for almost all of its 150 years that promise has been kept. The grand exception was over the issue of slavery. Among The Atlantic’s staunch abolitionist founders, none was more dedicated to the antislavery cause and none more persuasive in articulating the case for manumission than the magazine’s first editor, James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). Writing on the eve of the 1860 presidential election, Lowell, a respected poet, essayist and Harvard professor (and a future ambassador to England and Spain), viewed the political moment as a titanic struggle for the soul of the nation. The upcoming election, he wrote, more prophetically than he could have known, “is a turning–point in our history,” in which only the Republican Party could pull the country out of the deepening moral morass that slavery had created. Lowell’s words—confident, stirring, and biblical in force—helped to propel Abraham Lincoln into the White House, shoring up support for the obscure, untried congressman from Illinois among key northern abolitionists. A month into Lincoln’s presidency, America was at war.

It is a proverb, that to turn a radical into a conservative there needs only to put him into office, because then the license of speculation or sentiment is limited by a sense of responsibility,—then for the first time he becomes capable of that comparative view which sees principles and measures, not in the narrow abstract, but in the full breadth of their relations to each other and to political consequences. The theory of democracy presupposes something of these results of official position in the individual voter, since in exercising his right he becomes for the moment an integral part of the governing power.

How very far practice is from any likeness to theory a week’s experience of our politics suffices to convince us. The very government itself seems an organized scramble, and Congress a boys’ debating–club, with the disadvantage of being reported. As our party–creeds are commonly represented less by ideas than by persons (who are assumed, without too close a scrutiny, to be the exponents of certain ideas), our politics become personal and narrow to a degree never paralleled, unless in ancient Athens or mediaeval Florence. Our Congress debates and our newspapers discuss, sometimes for day after day, not questions of national interest, not what is wise and right, but what the Honorable Lafayette Skreemer said on the stump, or bad whiskey said for him, half a dozen years ago. The next Presidential Election looms always in advance, so that we seem never to have an actual Chief Magistrate, but a prospective one, looking to the chances of reelection, and mingling in all the dirty intrigues of provincial politics with an unhappy talent for making them dirtier. We are kept normally in that most unprofitable of predicaments, a state of transition, and politicians measure their words and deeds by a standard of immediate and temporary expediency,—an expediency not as concerning the nation, but which, if more than merely personal, is no wider than the interests of party.

Is all this a result of the failure of democratic institutions? Rather of the fact that those institutions have never yet had a fair trial, and that for the last thirty years an abnormal element has been acting adversely with continually increasing strength. Whatever be the effect of slavery upon the States where it exists, there can be no doubt that its moral influence upon the North has been most disastrous. It has compelled our politicians into that first fatal compromise with their moral instincts and hereditary principles which makes all consequent ones easy; it has accustomed us to makeshifts instead of statesmanship, to subterfuge instead of policy, to party–platforms for opinions, and to a defiance of the public sentiment of the civilized world for patriotism. We have been asked to admit, first, that it was a necessary evil; then that it was a good both to master and slave; then that it was the corner-stone of free institutions; then that it was a system divinely instituted under the Old Law and sanctioned under the New. With a representation, three–fifths of it based on the assumption that negroes are men, the South turns upon us and insists on our acknowledging that they are things. After compelling her Northern allies to pronounce the “free and equal” clause of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence (because it stood in the way of enslaving men) a manifest absurdity, she has declared, through the Supreme Court of the United States, that negroes are not men in the ordinary meaning of the word. To eat dirt is bad enough, but to find that we have eaten more than was necessary may chance to give us an indigestion. The slaveholding interest has gone on step by step, forcing concession after concession, till it needs but little to secure it forever in the political supremacy of the country. Yield to its latest demand,--let it mould the evil destiny of the Territories,—and the thing is done past recall. The next Presidential Election is to say Yes or No.

We believe that this election is a turning–point in our history; for, although there are four candidates, there are really, as everyone knows, but two parties, and a single question divides them. To be told that we ought not to agitate the question of Slavery, when it is that which is forever agitating us, is like telling a man with the fever and ague on him to stop shaking and he will be cured. [The] Slave–System is one of those fearful blunders in political economy which are sure, sooner or later, to work their own retribution. The inevitable tendency of slavery is to concentrate in a few hands the soil, the capital, and the power of the countries where it exists, to reduce the non-slaveholding class to a continually lower and lower level of property, intelligence, and enterprise,—their increase in number adding much to the economical hardship of their position and nothing to their political weight in the communities where education induces refinement, where facility of communication stimulates invention and variety of enterprise, where newspapers make every man’s improvement in tools, machinery, or culture of the soil an incitement to all, and bring all the thinkers of the world to teach in the cheap university of the people. We do not, of course, mean to say that slaveholding states may not and do not produce fine men; but they fail, by the inherent vice of their constitution and its attendant consequences, to create enlightened, powerful, and advancing communities of men, which is the true object of all political organizations, and which is essential to the prolonged existence of all those whose life and spirit are derived directly from the people.

The election in November turns on the single and simple question, Whether we shall consent to the indefinite multiplication of [slave communities]; and the only party which stands plainly and unequivocally pledged against such a policy, nay, which is not either openly or impliedly in favor of it, is the Republican party. It is in a moral aversion to slavery as a great wrong that the chief strength of the Republican party lies. No man pretends that under the Constitution there is any possibility of interference with the domestic relations of the individual States; no party has ever remotely hinted at any such interference; but what the Republicans affirm is, that in every contingency where the Constitution can be construed in favor of freedom, it ought to be and shall be so construed. The object of the Republican party is not the abolition of African slavery, but the utter extirpation of dogmas which are the logical sequence of the attempts to establish its righteousness and wisdom, and which would serve equally well to justify the enslavement of every white man unable to protect himself. They believe that slavery is a wrong morally, a mistake politically, and a misfortune practically, wherever it exists; that it has nullified our influence abroad and forced us to compromise with our better instincts at home; that it has perverted our government from its legitimate objects, weakened the respect for the laws by making them the tools of its purposes, and sapped the faith of men in any higher political morality than interest or any better statesmanship than chicane. They mean in every lawful way to hem it within its present limits.

We are persuaded that the election of Mr. Lincoln will do more than anything else to appease the excitement of the country. He has proved both his ability and his integrity; he has had experience enough in public affairs to make him a statesman, and not enough to make him a politician. That he has not had more will be no objection to him in the eyes of those who have seen the administration of the experienced public functionary whose term of office is just drawing to a close. He represents a party who know that true policy is gradual in its advances, that it is conditional and not absolute, that it must deal with fact and not with sentiments, but who know also that it is wiser to stamp out evil in the spark than to wait till there is no help but in fighting fire with fire. They are the only conservative party, because they are the only one based on an enduring principle, the only one that is not willing to pawn tomorrow for the means to gamble with today. They have no hostility to the South, but a determined one to doctrines of whose ruinous tendency every day more and more convinces them.

The encroachments of Slavery upon our national policy have been like those of a glacier in a Swiss valley. 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 swarmed. But it has its limit, the kindlier forces of Nature work against it, and the silent arrows of the sun are still, as of old, fatal to the frosty Python. Geology tells us that such enormous devastators once covered the face of the earth, but the benignant sunlight of heaven touched them, and they faded silently, leaving no trace but here and there the scratches of their talons, and the gnawed boulders scattered where they made their lair. We have entire faith in the benignant influence of Truth, the sunlight of the moral world, and believe that slavery, like other worn-out systems, will melt gradually before it.

The Stereoscope and the Stereograph


Physician, poet, novelist, father of a Supreme Court justice (and cofounder of The Atlantic), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) is still widely celebrated as the classic nineteenthcentury man of many parts. Less well known, perhaps, is Holmess crucial role in championing a new technology called stereoscopy and ushering in the age of photography. Although in the late 1850s the technology was still in its early stagesLouis Daguerre had invented the daguerreotype twenty years beforeHolmes had the foresight and aesthetic vision to understand the new medium's vast potential to alter our perceptions of the physical universe. In a series of essays for The Atlantic, Holmes described the powerful impact of a visual art in which form is divorced from matter and which produces a dreamlike exaltation. With extraordinary prescience, he proclaimed the camera to be an invention comparable to the printing pressa democratizing force that would enable the reproduction of documents, advance our understanding of war, and even influence our personal relationships. Somewhat less presciently, Holmes also predicted great things for the 3-D stereoscopic viewer, a handheld version of which he himself had invented. The Holmes Stereoscope had a brief burst of popularity and swiftly faded into oblivion.

Theoretically, a perfect photograph is absolutely inexhaustible. In a picture you can find nothing which the artist has not seen before you; but in a perfect photograph there will be as many beauties lurking, unobserved, as there are flowers that blush unseen in forests and meadows. It is a mistake to suppose one knows a stereoscopic picture when he has studied it a hundred times by the aid of the best of our common instruments. Do we know all that there is in a landscape by looking out at it from our parlor–windows? In one of the glass stereoscopic views of Table Rock, two figures, so minute as to be mere objects of comparison with the surrounding vastness, may be seen standing side by side. Look at the two faces with a strong magnifier, and you could identify their owners, if you met them in a court of law.

Many persons suppose that they are looking on miniatures of the objects represented, when they see them in the stereoscope. They will be surprised to be told that they see most objects as large as they appear in Nature. A few simple experiments will show how what we see in ordinary vision is modified in our perceptions by what we think we see. We made a sham stereoscope, the other day, with no glasses, and an opening in the place where the pictures belong, about the size of one of the common stereoscopic pictures. Through this we got a very ample view of the town of Cambridge, including Mount Auburn and the Colleges, in a single field of vision. We do not recognize how minute distant objects really look to us, without something to bring the fact home to our conceptions. A man does not deceive us as to his real size when we see him at the distance of the length of Cambridge Bridge. But hold a common black pin before the eyes at the distance of distinct vision, and one-twentieth of its length, nearest the point, is enough to cover him so that he cannot be seen. The head of the same pin will cover one of the Cambridge horse-cars at the same distance, and conceal the tower of Mount Auburn, as seen from Boston.

We are near enough to an edifice to see it well, when we can easily read an inscription upon it. The stereoscopic views of the arches of Constantine and of Titus give not only every letter of the old inscriptions, but render the grain of the stone itself. On the pediment of the Pantheon may be read, not only the words traced by Agrippa, but a rough inscription above it, scratched or hacked into the stone by some wanton hand during an insurrectionary tumult.

This distinctness of the lesser details of a building or a landscape often gives us incidental truths which interest us more than the central object of the picture. Here is Alloway Kirk, in the churchyard of which you may read a real story by the side of the ruin that tells of more romantic fiction. There stands the stone “Erected by James Russell, seedsman, Ayr, in memory of his children,”—three little boys, James, and Thomas, and John, all snatched away from him in the space of three successive summer–days, and lying under the matted grass in the shadow of the old witch–haunted walls. It was Burns's Alloway Kirk we paid for, and we find we have bought a share in the griefs of James Russell, seedsman; for is not the stone that tells this blinding sorrow of real life the true center of the picture, and not the roofless pile which reminds us of an idle legend?

From the Hardcover edition.
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