On This Day – 6 July 1865 The founding of ‘The Nation’ magazine



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.


On This Day – 12 FEBRUARY 1848 – John Mitchel publishes first United Irishman newspaper




He was one of the great propagandists of his day, although the causes he espoused often placed him on the wrong side of the angels. He was loved and loathed in equal measure. He was one of the few Irishmen to have incurred the wrath of the British government and of the Federal administration of the USA.


John Mitchel was born near Dungiven in Derry in the year of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. He probably would have been on Napoleon’s side if only because the opposing Army was largely British. Son of a Presbyterian clergyman Mitchel created his own pulpit in a series of journalistic enterprises in Dublin, Tennessee, Virginia and New York.


Mostly raised in Newry in Co. Down Mitchel’s first political association was with the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s and the famous Nation newspaper, founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon in 1842. But long before the abortive Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 Mitchel had moved on, finding the editorial policies of the Nation rather too bland for his tastes. He founded his own rival nationalist weekly newspaper the United Irishman which, in its inaugural edition, claimed that ‘the world was weary of Old Ireland and also of Young Ireland’ thus attacking both Daniel O’Connell and his younger antagonists with the same broadsword. Mitchel aimed to be an equal opportunities offender and succeeded admirably.


The United Irishman however, was not responsible for the destruction of many trees as it was closed down by the British authorities after a mere sixteen issues. Mitchel was later tried before an elegantly and efficiently packed jury, found guilty of treason-felony, and deported to Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land. The result was one of the greatest works of Irish political history, The Jail Journal, in which Mitchel wrote about his own experience of deportation and advocated a far more militaristic approach to Ireland’s ‘English problem’ than would have been popular heretofore.


He followed this up, in 1861, with a white hot diatribe The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in which he accused the British government of operating genocidal policies in its Irish colony during the Great Famine. The latter work was written in the safety of the USA, as his escape from Tasmania had been engineered in 1853.


So far so good, at least if you are an Irish nationalist, especially one of more militant stripe. But it is from here on in that Mitchell’s career becomes problematic. Settling in New York he established the radical newspaper, The Citizen. He used this publication as a platform for continued attacks on British policy in Ireland but also employed its columns for flood-blooded assaults on advocates for the end of slavery. An abolitionist he was not.


When the American Civil War began he moved lock, stock and barrel to the South, settling first in Knoxville, Tennessee where he published the Southern Citizen. In its pages he attacked the Union, once describing Abraham Lincoln as ‘an ignoramus and a boor’. He also had a go at Irish-American political and military leaders, like his erstwhile Young Ireland ally Thomas Francis Meagher, who fought on the Union side. He compared the South to Ireland and suggested that black slaves experienced better economic and social conditions than Irish tenant farmers. He didn’t reserve all his vitriol for attacking the North either. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a frequent target, Davis was far too much of an old softy for Mitchell. One of the ironies in all of this was that his advocacy of the Confederacy put him on the same side in the conflict as the British government, which was officially neutral, but for the South.


After the war, however, Mitchel shared the fate of Jefferson Davis, spending a short time in jail for his anti-Union spleen. His imprisonment would have given him plenty of time to reflect on the deaths in the war of two of his sons. A third lost an arm. The latter years of his life were spent in the service of the Fenian movement for whom he worked in Paris, and in standing successfully, albeit in absentia, for election in Tipperary in 1875. His success at the polls was nullified by the authorities on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. In those days you could commit all the felonies you liked AFTER you were elected but not before. Mitchel died suddenly in 1875 at the age of 59. His grandson, John Purroy Mitchel, later became Mayor of New York.


John Mitchel published his political manifesto, in the shape of the first issue of the United Irishman newspaper, one hundred and sixty-eight years ago, on this day.