Swans Commentary » swans.com November 17, 2008  



The Early Days Of The Nation Magazine


by Louis Proyect





(Swans - November 17, 2008)   For people trying to understand the bankruptcy of American liberalism, there is probably no better place to start than The Nation magazine. I first began subscribing to The Nation in the 1980s when Reagan was in the White House. As a general rule of thumb, the magazine is more readable when a Reagan or a Bush is president. During the Clinton presidency, The Nation directed most of its fire at "threats" to his presidency from the likes of Newt Gingrich rather than seeing the war on the poor as a joint Democrat-Republican project.

In 2003, after seeing one too many attack on the radical wing of the antiwar movement in the pages of The Nation, I decided to write a rebuttal to what I described as its "tainted liberalism." My research revealed that from the very beginning, the magazine was hostile to the kinds of grassroots radical movements celebrated in Howard Zinn's history -- especially under the stewardship of the founding publisher and editor E.L. Godkin. In 1978, an unstinting biography of Godkin written by William M. Armstrong appeared but The Nation understandably decided not to review it. After having read Armstrong's book, I have a much better handle on where the magazine came from.

Like the demented uncle or aunt kept secluded in a Victorian attic, The Nation has kept mum about E.L. Godkin. The last time an article about the founder appeared in its pages was back on July 22, 1950. Written by Columbia University historian Allan Nevins, "E.L. Godkin: Victorian Liberal" is a mixture of fact and fancy. It is notable for its patronizing attitude toward black Americans, a trait strongly identified with The Nation's tepid brand of abolitionism in the 1860s.

For Nevins, among the tasks confronting Godkin in 1865 was how to deal with "four million ignorant, destitute Negroes." Along with fellow founding board members including Frederick Law Olmstead (the architect of Central Park), they gathered money to launch a new magazine with the "bewildered black man at heart." While Nevins was critical of Godkin's "denunciation" of trade unions seeking an eight-hour day, he was still considered more "truly liberal" than other followers of John Stuart Mill and the Manchester school. Specifically he "desired Washington to do more for the education, economic betterment, and political training of the Negro." Reading Nevins, one cannot suppress the feeling that he is talking about convicts in need of training programs to help prepare them for life outside of prison.

One has to wonder how Nevins's brand of bloviation found itself into a magazine that ostensibly upheld progressive traditions. While the subject of this article is Godkin rather than Nevins, it is of some interest that his book on John D. Rockefeller was described thusly by Matthew Josephson, author of the muckraking classic "The Robber Barons":

It was in the course of doing work for the five Rockefeller books that Nevins developed the interesting thesis that the American corporate adventurers to whom Matthew Josephson gave the enduring name of "The Robber Barons" were in fact American heroes, builders of the American civilization and democracy. He invited other historians to follow in his footsteps in this thesis, but so far nobody has conspicuously accepted. And if anyone does, one will be able to see the American intellectual horizon further muddled. I have given writers like Nevins the sobriquet of "counter-savants." A savant, or man of learning, is devoted to increasing knowledge. And knowledge has the function of deepening understanding. A counter-savant, however, is a man of knowledge who uses his knowledge, for reasons known only to himself, to obfuscate understanding, to confuse readers. The fact is that Nevins' corrective portrait of Rockefeller is not only false with respect to the central character, but frustrates understanding with the unsophisticated reader.

After filling in some background on E.L. Godkin in the first four chapters (he was born and raised in Ireland, a follower of John Stuart Mill, and aspired to the lifestyle of a country gentleman, and even owned a horse in New York City), Armstrong gets down to brass tacks in chapter five titled "Founding the Nation."

The men (as was expected to be the case in the Victorian era) who provided start-up capital for The Nation in 1865 were abolitionists who expected it to promote "the removal of all artificial distinctions between [the black] and the rest of the population." Godkin, whose opposition to slavery was based more on a liberal preference for markets than anything else, was simply not that interested in empowering former slaves.

After lining up the necessary funding from prominent members of the Radical wing of the Republican Party, The Nation magazine began publishing in 1865. However, the magazine took people by surprise since it criticized some of the most respected Radicals including Benjamin Butler as it equivocated on black rights. Radical leader Charles Sumner wrote a letter to other investors complaining that the magazine "does more hurt than good... An argument to show that Equality is not essential to the Republican ideas is in the worst vein of copper-headism." (The copperheads were Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War.)

Two of the abolitionist founders of the magazine, Wendell Phillips and George L. Stearns, called for Godkin's dismissal, but the majority reluctantly decided to go along with him. Eventually Godkin lined up the necessary funds to buy out the more radical-minded investors and The Nation was now free to pursue an approach that Armstrong describes as follows:

In his hard-hitting political and social articles, Godkin directed his fire impartially at anyone who violated the "laws of trade" as well as his elevated notions of culture. He deplored Irish-American politicians, labor reformers, the "Western type of man," evangelical clergymen, the growing "servant problem," the eight-hour day, the failure of Americans to dress for dinner, "sentiment," untutored immigrants, universal manhood suffrage, popular journalists, noisy patriots, reactionaries, and reformers of all hue.

Godkin struck Progressive historians Charles and Mary Beard as a Brahmin "mainly pleading for good manners" while Armstrong describe his personal letters as revealing a "veritable snob" who complained incessantly about "the democratic plan of doing everything" in the United States.

Just one year after The Nation began publishing, Godkin admitted that he had veered so far from the original abolitionist intentions of the investors that he was "afraid to visit Boston this winter, lest the stockholders of The Nation should lynch me." Ironically, it was lynching in the South and other assaults against blacks that Godkin grew inured to. Just as President Andrew Johnson began to sabotage efforts at Reconstruction in the South against the objections of Radical Republicans and open the door to KKK lynch mobs, Godkin rushed to defend Johnson. When attempts to oust the racist President Johnson failed, Godkin pronounced this as a vindication of the law.

As the 1870s began, Godkin openly broke with the Radicals, assailed carpetbaggers, and called for the restoration of white power in the South. In an 1874 editorial he advised The Nation's readers that he found the average intelligence of blacks "so low that they are slightly above the level of animals." He longed for the return of southern conservatives to power in 1877 eagerly, writing Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton and fellow adversary of democratic rule that "I do not see . . . . the negro is ever to be worked into a system of government for which you and I would have much respect." Suffice it to say that people such as E.L. Godkin, Charles Eliot Norton, and Allan Nevins were virtual symbols of American liberalism for over 100 years. The only reason that their polite (and not so polite) racism has become antiquated is that black people themselves would not tolerate it.

A combination of Godkin's Manchester school liberalism and his innate crudeness as a human being allowed him to write an editorial in 1877 explaining why slavery would not come back. The whites would find no gains in it from the cold logic of the marketplace:

Their minds are really occupied with making money . . . and their designs on the negro are confined to getting him to work for low wages. His wages are low -- forty cents a day and rations, which cost ten cents -- but he is content with it. . . . On one [Virginia plantation] there were, before the war, about one hundred and fifty slaves of all ages. The owner, at emancipation, put them in wagons and deposited them in Ohio. His successor now works the plantation with twelve hired men. . . . He laughs when you ask him if he regrets slavery. Nothing would induce him to take care of one hundred fifty men, women, and children, furnishing perhaps thirty able bodied men, littering the house with a swarm of lazy servants, and making heavy drafts on the meat-house and corn-crib, and running up doctor's bills.

As I tried to explain in a Swans article on Jesse James, the racist attacks on Reconstruction first appeared in the state of Missouri under the auspices of the Liberal Republican Party. While the party only lasted for a brief time in the 1870s, it had a major impact on American history by coalescing racist opposition to black rights. Among the early supporters of the Liberal Republicans was E.L. Godkin of The Nation magazine, who agreed strongly with their desire for rapprochement with the South as well as their free trade policies that jibed with his Manchester school liberalism. Godkin subsequently broke with the liberals, but not over any principles. He simply preferred Charles Francis Adams as a presidential candidate to Horace Greeley.

After Godkin passed on, the job of running The Nation fell to Oliver Garrison Villard, who was something of an improvement. His father Henry Villard had bought the paper in 1881 and he decided to give his son Oliver a job. Oliver got his middle name from his mother's side of the family. She was the daughter of William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., the country's best known white abolitionist, who introduced her to Villard.

Henry Villard, born Heinrich Hilgard in Bavaria, came to the United States to launch a career as a journalist but eventually wound up as a railroad entrepreneur working alongside robber baron Jay Cooke, who sought his help in increasing German immigration to land owned by his Northern Pacific Railroad. Meanwhile Garrison, The Nation's literary editor, set up a meeting between Villard and an Englishman named William Lawson, who was seeking an agent for some very large stock transactions. With the Gilded Age in full swing, Villard's relationship with Lawson "brought him experience in stock brokerage, some tidy profits, and growing insight into the upper reaches of high finance." So writes his granddaughter Alexandra Villard Borchgrave, the wife of ultrarightist journalist Arnaud Borchgrave, in her biography of Henry Villard. She adds:

When other workers refused certain tasks or demanded rates that he considered exorbitant, Villard turned to cheap labor, particularly Chinese coolies, whom he imported by the boatload -- he boasted of having as many as fifteen thousand of them in the field when Northern Pacific construction was at its peak -- and who offered employers inestimable advantages: they worked harder and more efficiently than their Caucasian counterparts, often performing jobs that others found too hazardous, and they did so for less money.

Between Godkin's ideological support for slavery and Villard's super-exploitation of Chinese workers, there's not much to choose between.

While The Nation would never be as bad as it was under Godkin, it would never challenge the system that produced the kinds of ills that it has criticized for well over 100 years. It has always been funded by "enlightened" members of the capitalist class like Henry Villard or the current crop of investors who feel the need to point out its shortcomings but who can't conceive of alternatives to the system that has blessed them with riches beyond imagination.


Works cited in this article:

William A. Armstrong, E. L. Godkin: A Biography, State University of New York Press, 1978.

Alexandra Villard Borchgrave, Villard: The Life And Times Of An American Titan, Doubleday, 2001.


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Published November 17, 2008