The Atlantic

Is the American Idea Doomed?

Not yet—but it has precious few supporters on either the left or the right.
Source: Edmon de Haro

On May 5, 1857, eight men sat down to dinner at Boston’s Parker House hotel. They had gathered to plan a magazine, but by the time they stood up five hours later, they had laid the intellectual groundwork for a second American revolution.

These men were among the leading literary lights of their day, but they had more in mind that night than literary pursuits. The magazine they envisioned would, its prospectus later promised, “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.”

That prospectus bore the unmistakable stamp of The Atlantic’s founding editor, James Russell Lowell, but “the American idea” had been popularized by Theodore Parker, the radical preacher and abolitionist. The American idea, Parker declared in an 1850 speech, comprised three elements: that all people are created equal, that all possess unalienable rights, and that all should have the opportunity to develop and enjoy those rights. Securing them required “a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people,” Parker said.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, another founder, put the matter more concisely. There was, he observed, a

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic7 min readTech
It’s a Winner-Take-All World, Whether You Like It or Not
Not long ago, I reached out to a writer I respect, and posed the uncomfortable question authors find themselves forced to ask: Would she write a blurb—the endorsement you see on the back cover—for my new book about how a person can navigate a career
The Atlantic6 min read
Tip Your Hotel Maid
My grandmother worked in housekeeping for 10 years—and it’s a job where you could use a gratuity.
The Atlantic10 min read
This Isn’t Going According to Plan for Kirsten Gillibrand
The senator from New York is a battle-tested campaigner who thrives as the underdog. But 2020 is proving to be a much tougher challenge than she thought.