James Russell Lowell and the Election of 1860: A Turning Point in American History

After John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, James Russell Lowell, the poet behind the anti-slavery anthem The Present Crisis (it would become one of Martin Luther King’s favorite poems) and an ardent abolitionist, was asked by his fellow editors at The Atlantic Monthly to write an essay justifying the ill-fated raid. He declined. “I am a little afraid of John Brown,” he explained. But he did not hesitate to write what would become the first of only three presidential candidate endorsements given by The Atlantic Monthly in its one hundred fifty-nine years of publication. In October of 1860, Lowell endorsed Abraham Lincoln for president, upon consideration of “the vital consequences for good or evil that will follow from the popular decision in November…”. One hundred and four years later, the publication made its second presidential endorsement (Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater) and this week The Atlantic Monthly endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

In writing the editorial supporting Abraham Lincoln for president, James Russell Lowell correctly predicted that the 1860 presidential election would prove to be “a turning-point in our history.” He urged all eligible citizens to cast their vote — “In a society like ours, where every man may transmute his private thought into history and destiny by dropping it into the ballot-box, a peculiar responsibility rests upon the individual …” — and wrote that there was one paramount issue at stake, slavery, and there was just one candidate willing to end it without compromise: Lincoln. “The slaveholding interest has gone on step by step, forcing concession after concession, till it needs but little to secure it forever in the political supremacy of the country. Yield to its latest demand, — let it mould the evil destiny of the Territories, — and the thing is done past recall. The next Presidential Election is to say Yes or No.”

The full text of James Russell Lowell’s editorial can be found here, in the archives of The Atlantic Monthly. And more about James Russell Lowell the fascinating Lowells of Massachusetts can be found here.