A 160th birthday is an odd occasion to commemorate, I’ll confess. There are no longer any traditional gifts for the 160th. Unlike a sesquicentennial—the 150th—this milestone bears no well-worn Latin name. But they say after a certain age, every birthday is a triumph. So it is with The Atlantic, which officially turns 160 years old today.
Careful readers might notice that we’ve been celebrating this anniversary by degrees throughout the year. In February, we launched the Life Timeline, a tool that lets you view your lifetime as The Atlantic might see it, weighted against the backdrop of history. Jeffrey Goldberg, our editor in chief, noted the date of the magazine’s conception back in May, and marked its first publication in this month’s issue. We embarked on a search for our longest-running subscriber, and found William Allan Plummer, who began taking the magazine upon his return from World War II. Instead of revisiting the future of the American idea, as we did a decade ago, we asked our politics editor and resident historian Yoni Appelbaum to investigate whether that idea has run its course.
Today, however, is the anniversary itself. One hundred and sixty years ago tomorrow, our very first issue was given a middling review by The New York Times. “Though the talent of the writers in the Atlantic is indisputable,” the anonymous reviewer concluded, “there is a lack of freshness in the topics discussed.” Yet readers were encouraged to reserve judgment: “A periodical, like a horse or a steamer, must have sufficient time allowed it to show its strength.”
Now that the steamer itself has faded into antiquity, one must allow that sufficient time has passed to judge The Atlantic’s strength. But the Times’ reviewer, sniffing through our pages for freshness, would perhaps have been unable to discern the quality that marked the best of those pages: They would grow ever richer with age. This is why we revisit the archive, because the secrets it whispers to us year after year only improve.
Starting today, and stretching well into 2018, we’ll be highlighting a story from each successive year of our existence—one every weekday, 160 stories in all. Our first story, from the December 1857 issue, is a broadside against slavery by the ardent abolitionist Edmund Quincy, entitled “Where Will It End?”
Quincy understood slavery as its victims did, not merely as a grotesque evil visited by one set of human beings upon another, but as a rot in the very foundation of America, and a sabotage of its founding ideals. “The entire history of the United States is but the record of the evidence of this fact,” Quincy wrote. “What event in our annals is there that Slavery has not set her brand upon it to mark it as her own? In the very moment of the nation’s birth, like the evil fairy of the nursery tale, she was present to curse it with her fatal words.” As with all our best pieces, Quincy’s thoughts resound as loudly in our time as in his: “Oligarchies are nothing new in the history of the world,” he observed. “The government of the many by the few is the rule, and not the exception, in the politics of the times that have been and of those that now are.”
You’ll find new (old) stories like this from our 160 years posted here each weekday. You can also follow the project on our social channels with the hashtag #TheAtlantic160, and subscribe to The Atlantic Daily for twice-weekly updates. We’ll also be marking the anniversary in a few other ways this month. And if you tire of the never-ending birthday party, look around. We’ve only gotten fresher since 1857, and the world grows more interesting with every passing day.