What Would Our Founder, Frederick Law Olmsted, Think of TheNation.com?

What Would Our Founder, Frederick Law Olmsted, Think of TheNation.com?

What Would Our Founder, Frederick Law Olmsted, Think of TheNation.com?

Olmsted’s original mission statement for The Nation ridiculed daily newspapers in language that applies to much Internet journalism today.


The Nation published its first issue 150 years ago today. Yet the idea for the magazine began two years before that. On the night of June 25, 1863, a week before the battle of Gettysburg, a group of elite New York gentlemen met at the Union League Club on 17th Street to hear a presentation from one of its founding members. Frederick Law Olmsted had traveled as a journalist through the antebellum South, designed Central Park and led the United States Sanitary Commission, the Civil War–era forerunner to the Red Cross—and he was only 44 years old. Now Olmsted had a new idea: a weekly magazine of politics and culture.

He raised some money from the group, but the venture stalled. The typically restless Olmsted soon gave up and moved to California to pursue an ill-fated gold-mining scheme near Yosemite Valley, leaving what little money he had raised to his friend, the journalist E.L. Godkin. In April of 1865, as the war drew to a close, a few radical abolitionists sought to start a publication to carry the cause of equality into the era of emancipation. They hired Godkin as editor and began publishing on this day in 1865.

The following winter, Olmsted returned to New York and joined the staff of the new magazine as an associate editor. After a struggle between Godkin and the financial backers—they deemed Godkin insufficiently radical on the question of racial equality—Olmsted took a one-sixth ownership of The Nation, which he held for a few years even after leaving the staff.

Olmsted’s “Prospectus for a Weekly Journal,” which he circulated among the attendees at the Union League Club in 1863, is the founding document not only of The Nation, but of an entire school of American journalism—“careful, candid and conscientious,” as Olmsted writes—that seems to be very much on the decline today. As The Nation reboots itself with a new website, it seems worth publishing excerpts from Olmsted’s original vision for the magazine. How does the magazine continue to pursue the mission he outlined? How, too, has it changed with the times? I’ve included a few scribbled notes on these questions and others posed by the “Prospectus”; subscribers can offer their own thoughts in the comments section below.

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It is proposed to establish a weekly journal, the main object of which would be to secure a more careful, accurate and elaborate discussion of political, economical and commercial topics, than is possible in the columns of the daily press, and a more candid and honest discussion of them than the constitution of the daily press admits of. The way in which the latter treats the questions of the day, is necessarily imperfect, slip-shod and inaccurate, if for no other reason, for the mere want of time of its writers to do better. Each topic has to be handled on the very day on which it comes up, and, let the writer who takes hold of it be ever so conscientious or pains-taking, he is compelled to dispose of it by the aid of such knowledge as he happens to command at the moment, and in most cases with the aid of scarcely any reflection. The result is, in appearance, an essay, but in reality an extemporaneous speech, containing simply a first impression, delivered as hastily as the pen can be made to move over the paper.

Olmsted’s criticism of the daily press of the 1860s serves as a fine description of the “hot take” journalism so ubiquitous today. More closely resembling herbal prognostication than anything traditionally recognized as informed analysis, the “first impression” that Olmsted derided has returned—and with a vengeance.

It wasn’t always thus. The quality of daily newspapers improved immensely in the first half of the 20th century before corporate mergers and demands for higher profits, combined with the blow from loss of classified-ads revenue, caused the cataclysmic decline of the past twenty or so years. While the rise of Internet journalism has vastly expanded the commentariat—providing megaphones to those who had long been silenced, often to the great benefit of writers and readers alike—the gaping hole in reporting left by the decline of the dailies remains largely unfilled. The ubiquitous, pseudo-contrarian hot take, successor to the “extemporaneous speech” Olmsted described, is now composed as swiftly as hands can be made to move over a keyboard, impoverishing political debate at least as much, and as damagingly, in 2015 as in 1863.

TheNation.com is as an experiment into whether it is possible to keep the faith with some of Olmsted’s concerns while compromising on others. How do you handle a topic on the very day on which it comes up in a way that is neither slipshod nor inaccurate? Can one be a conscientious and “pains-taking” writer, to use Olmsted’s spelling, and fast? There is a place for long and thoughtful essays, but I am not convinced that if given the chance Olmsted would decline to read the extemporaneous speeches, the hot takes, of his most beloved writers, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. Read Greg Grandin on the shooting in Charleston and tell me you don’t agree.

Before the present convulsion in our affairs, these defects of the press, though by no means unnoticed, were not seriously felt. It did not much matter to many educated men, how things were publicly discussed, about which their own minds were not deeply occupied. Since the commencement of the rebellion there has been a wide change in this respect. Questions of the most momentous importance come up daily, and exact grave consideration from all. The experience of most persons will confirm the assertion that the manner in which the daily newspapers deal with these questions is most defective and unsatisfactory. Their false prophecies, their abandonment of all attempt to sift evidence…their constant sacrifice of the truth to the demand for startling effects, the factious, flippant and reckless way in which many of them deal with the most serious topics, constantly remind their more intelligent readers that they are prepared to suit the requirements of the greatest number, but not by any means the best qualified, of those whose judgment goes to make up that force in human affairs called public opinion.

Olmsted couldn’t have known at the time of his writing these lines how relevant they still would be—despite The Nation’s best efforts—more than a century and a half later. Yet whereas Olmsted criticized what he saw as a press marred by its pandering to “the greatest number,” as opposed serving to “the best qualified,” as he hoped his new magazine would, today much of the press has abandoned the attempt to sift evidence because of excessive servility to state and corporate power. As we have seen in recent decades—for example, in its cheering for adventure after blundering imperial adventure—the mainstream media continues to handle “the most serious topics” in a “flippant and reckless way.” Only now it does so to please the bosses, not the masses. As convulsion rolls after convulsion, these defects are and will become more and more seriously felt.

A weekly journal, of the kind contemplated, would not be open to these objections. There would be time for the deliberate preparation of its articles. The public would look to it for careful rather than early comments on subjects of interest. The editor could, therefore, exact from his contributors all the accuracy, completeness and finish which his space would admit of, and the readers would find in it the matured views of competent authorities, instead of the first impression of writers not always possessing special qualifications for their task. It would be its place to lead public opinion rather than follow it.

If this purpose should, at first thought, be considered quixotic, it must be remembered that while, four years ago, intelligent men could avoid giving much consideration to questions of government and legislation, this is no longer the case; henceforward they must give consideration to these questions or prepare themselves to accept the destruction of their country. There is nothing clearer than that the time in which anybody was competent to administer our affairs is forever gone by. Whatever may happen, we have before us a future of standing armies, of large navies, and of complicated foreign relations, and we shall have to add to these, the grave task of reducing a disaffected population of four millions into order and submission, and of raising the same number of degraded slaves into the ranks of industrious citizens. A government which has problems of such magnitude to work out must be aided and supported by men more thoughtful, more far-seeing, more attentive to remote consequences than those whose demand establishes the character of our present daily press.

The massive growth in the federal government during the war led even the radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips to despair over the loss of what he called “the old farming and reading republic.” For the first time, the government abandoned the gold standard in favor of print money, or “greenbacks,” and introduced the first national income tax; land-grant colleges and other incentives for “settling” the frontier, with a major expansion of the civil service, ballooned the federal debt. The result was a vastly expanded sphere of national politics and the beginning, in earnest, of the American empire.

If the Civil War brought about a huge increase in the federal government’s power and scope, World War II compounded that many times over. We have since lived in what Gore Vidal, in a 1988 Nation essay, called “the National Security State,” which, post-9/11, has expanded in massive and frightening ways, as Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers and dissidents have revealed. Our “complicated foreign relations,” in Olmsted’s quaint phrase, now include the management of a global commercial and military empire that is as persistently violative of international laws and norms as it is indisputably on the wane, though any politician who admitted as much would be promptly exiled to a remote island in the South Pacific. Under such conditions, with “problems of such magnitude” as Olmsted could never have imagined, it is all the more crucial that we have independent, critical journals that stand up for democracy against an immensely powerful, wealthy and secretive “cybersecurity elite,” as Tim Shorrock recently phrased it, and that stick around long after the twitterers and the aggregators have been distracted by some shiny object and moved on.

It must not be forgotten, too, that such a paper would have no rival. There is nothing in the field which, in the least, resembles what is now proposed. It would at once gather to itself all the materials for success which actually exist, and would have the best chance of appropriating those still to be created. It would, however, have to depend mainly for success on the power and accuracy of its writing rather than on advertising. It could not be puffed into circulation.

Though The Atlantic (1857) and Harper’s (1850) are both older than The Nation, as monthlies they have filled a very different role in the journalistic ecosystem. Other popular magazines of the 1850s and 1860s included Harper’s Weekly (1857–1916) and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (1852–1922), both directed at a more general audience than the magazine Olmsted proposed. For a few years in the 1850s Olmsted had partially owned and published Putnam’s Magazine, a less Europeanized rival to Harper’s, but it soon folded. The creation of the new weekly magazine would be an experiment, Olmsted knew; it is one that has been replicated, with varying degrees of success, many times since.

The Nation has long depended on “the power and accuracy of its writing” for the bulk of its revenues, largely through subscriptions and donations, recognizing what Olmsted knew: it is not possible to hold fast to those standards and at the same time be “puffed into circulation.”

It is…more necessary than it has been at any period of our history, that there should be some publication, largely devoted to the task of holding up to the eyes of those who should be the leaders of public sentiment, the now forgotten perils and inconveniences of petty sovereignties, the innumerable dangers to our prosperity, and even to our civilization itself, of such a state of things as we should certainly drift into, if the so-called rights of States became the paramount consideration in our politics. From whatever point of view we look at it, there is nothing so essential to the future peace and happiness of our country, as a general and clear perception of the relations which exist between events of constant occurrence and fundamental principles of our national as distinguished from our State and commercial existence.

Although Olmsted had not yet come up with a settled name for the magazine—he and Godkin considered such groaners as Comment, Reviser, Scrutiny, Maintainer, Holdfast, and Yeoman’s Weekly—this statement of principles indicates the ideas that would eventually be represented by the name The Nation: against small-minded “petty sovereignties,” for recognition and journalistic representation of the underlying principles that move politics and history. The new magazine, like so many since, was intended to call into being an imagined community devoted to those principles, and would ultimately be given a name (by the abolitionist backers in 1865) reflecting the scope of the ambition.

But to keep the attention of the people fixed upon the remote consequences of apparently insignificant occurrences, the daily press is too superficial, while the monthly and quarterly magazines necessarily lag behind the period of popular interest in the various events of which they treat.

For these reasons, it is believed that there is no way in which capital can be so well invested, regard being had to the overruling interests of all, as in the promotion through the instrumentality of such a publication as is proposed, of careful, candid and conscientious study of the deeper nature and remoter bearings of the leading events of each passing week.

This last intriguing phrase reveals the connection between Olmsted’s vision for The Nation and his more well-known career as a landscape architect. “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success & applause to that of the future,” Olmsted wrote in a letter to his son in 1890. In January 1866, the very same month Olmsted joined the staff of The Nation as an associate editor, he began working with architect Calvert Vaux, his Central Park partner, on the design of a park for the then-independent city of Brooklyn. In an earlier letter, Vaux had tried to convince Olmsted to return from California, explaining the park’s potentially “vital importance to the progress of the Republic.” The landscape architect Laurie Olin has called the result, Prospect Park, “a meditation on post–Civil War America.” That could as well describe Olmsted’s other lasting masterpiece, the one you are currently reading. It may be in a form that would have blown Olmsted’s mind, but is it less than a miracle that he would have recognized it all the same?

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