An anniversary issue is an odd beast, designed both to pay tribute to the past and to embody a magazine’s conception of its own identity in the present. Complicating the task, the primary resource that magazines can ordinarily draw on to bridge the divide between past and present—institutional memory—often isn’t much available when needed the most. When each anniversary rolls around, the crew on hand at the time has to more or less reinvent the wheel.
The pejorative connotation of that phrase drops away, however, when one peruses the anniversary issues that successive staffs of The Nation have produced in the last 150 years. Together they comprise a record of renewal and reinvention that is nothing less than the identity of the magazine itself, not at any one arbitrary moment but aggregated through time, presenting a compendium of vistas on the American scene.
Over the next two weeks, as The Nation’s almost comically massive and dense 150th anniversary issue rolls off the presses, Back Issues will take a peek into each anniversary issue The Nation has published. As always, subscribers can access the magazine’s full archives at www.thenation.com/archive.
Today, we cheat a little: the issue of June 25, 1885, was not entirely devoted to the twentieth anniversary of the magazine—more urgent, apparently, to report Henry Ward Beecher’s moderation of his previously strong position on “the tobacco question”—but the first editorial was devoted to an examination of what The Nation had gotten right and what it had gotten… really right since its founding twenty years earlier.
In “Twenty Years Later” (June 25, 1885), founding editor E.L. Godkin had to defend a difficult legacy: created by its abolitionists backers with the explicit mission of continuing the abolitionist cause in the age of emancipation and reconstruction, The Nation soon abandoned the effort and became the house organ of the Eastern political establishment, turning against any form of federal assistance to blacks in the South and against any political activity among the working classes more generally.
How would Godkin explain it?
The editorial begins:
With the present number the Nation completes the twentieth year of its existence. It was started in July, 1865, when the last shots of the civil war were still ringing in men’s ears, when the work of reconstruction at the South was only just beginning, and when the whole administration of the Government was still marked by the disorders and anomalies of military necessity.
With that last phrase, Godkin’s strategy comes into focus: the Radical Republican rah-rah of the early days after the Civil War was not the result of morality or even politics, but simply of what was required at the end of a war. That’s a far cry from the prediction in The Nation’s first issue that the end of the Civil War marked the beginning of the end of “the conflict of ages, the great strife between the few and the many, between privilege and equality, between law and power, between opinion and the sword.”