It’s the oldest continuous weekly magazine in the USA. It was founded to ‘wage war upon the vices of violence, exaggeration and misrepresentation by which so much of the political writing of the day is marred’. So not that much has changed since the Irish journalist Edwin Lawrence Godkin became the first editor of The Nationin July 1865, just a few months after the end of the most destructive and divisive war in American history.
Godkin was from Moyne, Co.Wicklow, the son of a Presbyterian clergyman who lost his position when he publicly supported the Young Ireland movement. He then went on to become editor of the Dublin Daily Express newspaper. Had he not done so his son might well have ended up as a clergyman, rather than a ground-breaking journalist.
Godkin junior studied law at Queens University Belfast, and then headed for London in his early twenties. Like another celebrated Irish journalist, William Howard Russell of the Times, Godkin first made a name for himself as a Crimean War correspondent, in his case, for the, now defunct, London Daily News. He got the job—at the tender age of twenty-two— by writing to the editor and asking for it! The experience of Crimea imbued in the young Godkin a lifelong loathing of warfare.
After his stint as a war correspondent he emigrated to the USA, where one of his first assignments was touring the southern states, and writing about slavery for the Daily News. When the Civil War broke out he supported the Union, and wrote for the New York Times,while also editing the rather esoteric Sanitary Commission Bulletin. So, based in New York, he spent the Civil War alternating between writing about political and actual sewers.
The Nation, Godkin’s enduring achievement, emerged during the era of ‘reconstruction’, when the Disunited States of America began to put itself back together again. Godkin was prevailed upon to set up the magazine by a number of political progressives and former abolitionists, who were anxious to ensure that the South was not enabled to slide back towardsad hocslavery. They also wanted to expose the rank corruption that characterised big city American politics, and that of the post-Civil War administrations of Andrew Johnson and Ulysees Grant.
One of the entrenched organisations that Godkin took on with a vengeance was the Tammany Hall / Democratic party ‘machine’ that dominated the politics of New York. Although it was populated at grass roots level by many of his own fellow countrymen, Godkin and the Nation regularly lacerated the shady leadership of the organisation. His journal was inundated over the years with libel actions threatened by his opponents, none of which ever came to court.
Godkin, who had called the Nation after the famous Young Ireland publication of the same name, was a committed and enthusiastic Irish nationalist who, in the 1880s, actively supported and wrote about the Home Rule movement. As a liberal progressive his only blind spot was his consistent opposition to female suffrage, at a time when individual American states, like Wyoming, were giving women the vote.
In 1881 Godkin sold out his interest in his weekly journal to the New York Evening Post, but remained on as editor of the Nation until 1899. He died three years later.
The job he began in 1865 continues to this day with the Nation, a rare enough left of centre mass circulation newspaper, still selling around one hundred and fifty thousand copies a week. It has consistently supported unpopular causes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Nation advocated US entry into World War Two long before Pearl Harbour forced America into the fight against Fascism. It was one of the earliest and most vociferous opponents of the anti-Communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In January 2016 the magazine supported the campaign of Bernie Sanders for the American Presidency, declaring his candidacy to be ‘an insurgency, a possibility, and a dream that we proudly endorse’. Edwin Godkin probably purred in his grave.
Recent regular contributors have included Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Christopher Hitchens. The paper today relies for a third of its revenue on supporters who subscribe over and above the cost of their weekly read. Only ten per cent of its revenue comes from advertising.
Edwin Godkin, Wicklow-born son of an Irish newspaper editor, established the campaigning Nation magazine one hundred and fifty-three years ago, on this day.