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.
From The Nation’s very inception, the idea of freedom has been fundamental to its political outlook. Of course, freedom (along with its twin, liberty) has long occupied a central place in Americans’ political vocabulary. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its ubiquity, freedom is an idea whose meaning is always contested, always in flux. The Nation’s 150-year history exemplifies how successive generations of reformers and radicals (themselves ever-changing categories) have thought about freedom and how the concept has expanded over time to include more and more Americans and more and more realms of life. Ideas central to The Nation’s understanding of freedom today—economic justice, civil liberties, anti-imperialism, political democracy, racial equality and personal autonomy—are deeply rooted in one or another era of the magazine’s past.
The Nation was born in July 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War, a conflict that transformed the meaning of American freedom. The journal’s founders included prominent Northern abolitionists. In a country rhetorically dedicated to freedom but substantially grounded in slavery, the abolitionist movement pioneered the notion of freedom as a universal birthright, a truly human ideal. Principles such as birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law without regard to race, which would later become cornerstones of American freedom, were products of the antislavery crusade. Soon after The Nation came into existence, they were written into the Constitution. The magazine’s very name reflected a new identification, spawned by the war, of the American nation-state with the progress of freedom. Thanks to the abolition of slavery, a powerful federal government, once widely feared as a danger to individual liberty, now appeared, in the words of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, as the “custodian of freedom.”