The Story of How The New Republic Invented Modern Liberalism

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Franklin Foer in The New Republic (photo of Walter Lippman, Alfred Eisenstaedt/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images):

On a fall night in 1914, Theodore Roosevelt summoned the young editors of a yet-unpublished magazine to the seat of his ex-presidency, his estate on the north shore of Long Island. The old Bull Moose had caught wind of the new project and wanted to make sure that the editors had the full benefit of his extensive wisdom. In T.R.’s social set—Harvard and Yale men with an intellectual proclivity and a progressive bent—the impending debut of The Republic, as it was called in its nascent days, was much anticipated. It was grist for gossipy letters and dinnertime chatter.

The magazine’s proposed title would have appealed to Roosevelt because it conjured both Plato and Rome. And the classic reference was merited, since America was in the thick of a Renaissance of sorts. A new artistic fervor occupied the narrow streets of Greenwich Village, thanks to the early arrival of European modernism and bootleg editions of Freud. Even more importantly, there was a proliferation of political reform movements, budding seemingly everywhere and pushing a mélange of causes—temperance, suffrage, antitrust, trade unionism. The presidential campaign two years earlier, which Roosevelt lost, had amounted to a competition to capture the hearts and minds of these reformers.

All this energy needed a home and deeper thinking. That might have been the primary point that Roosevelt had hoped to impress upon his protégés over dinner. But he could never quite contain his conversational agendas, and he piled argument upon argument, so persistently and so deep into the night that the editor of the magazine, Herbert Croly, closed his eyes and drifted into an embarrassingly deep sleep.

The Republic, however, was doomed—or at least its name was. A partisan organ with the very same title already existed, owned by John F. Kennedy’s gregarious grandfather John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. When the genteel editors politely inquired about the possibility of sharing the moniker, the old Boston pol refused. In truth, he probably hadn’t intended to turn them away, only to get a little compensation for his troubles. But the editors missed the hint and renamed their magazine.

It would be The New Republic, which better represented the spirit of the enterprise anyway. The magazine was born wearing an idealistic face. It soon gathered all the enthusiasm for reform and gave it coherence and intellectual heft. The editors would help craft a new notion of American government, one that now goes by a very familiar name: liberalism.

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