Edwin Lawrence Godkin

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Edwin Lawrence Godkin

The British-born American journalist Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831-1902) edited the Nation, a politically influential weekly magazine.

Edwin Lawrence Godkin was born in Ireland, the son of English parents. He studied in an English public school and at Queen's College in Belfast before moving to London to study law. He soon began work in publishing and later became a correspondent for the London Daily News. From 1853 to 1855 he covered the Crimean War and then toured the United States, traveling through the South and West writing articles on slavery. He moved to New York City, completed his law studies, and was admitted to the New York bar in 1858.

Godkin continued writing for the London Daily News and also penned editorials for the New York Times. He soon conceived of founding a political and intellectual journal patterned after England's famous Spectator. By 1865 he had raised the money and the first issue of the Nation appeared.

The circulation of the Nation was never large, rarely rising above 10,000, but it rapidly became influential. It was read by a select company of American opinion makers: editors, politicians, professors, and writers. Godkin used it to advocate low tariffs, civil service reform, and reduced government expenditures and to attack political corruption. His ideas had force and influence, but his doctrinaire mind tended to isolate him from the mass of Americans, especially politicians. The philosopher William James, who acknowledged an intellectual debt to Godkin, wrote that Godkin "couldn't imagine a different kind of creature from himself in politics," and an opponent once said that Godkin approved of nothing since the birth of Christ.

In the early 1880s Godkin's sphere of influence expanded when the Nation merged with a daily newspaper, the New York Evening Post, and he became editor of both. The Evening Post and the Nation led the bolt of the so-called Mugwumps, who refused to support the Republican party's somewhat-tarnished 1884 candidate for president, James G. Blaine. Godkin continued his battles until failing health forced his retirement in 1899. He died in May 1902.

Further Reading

Rollo Ogden edited the Life and Letters of Edwin Lawrence Godkin (2 vols., 1907). An anthology of the Nation, with an introductory history favorable toward Godkin, is Fifty Years of American Idealism: The New York Nation, 1865-1915, edited by Gustav Pollak (1915). Allan Nevins, The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism (1922), concentrates on the career of William Cullen Bryant, a previous editor, but deals with Godkin as well. See also W. M. Armstrong, E. L. Godkin and American Foreign Policy, 1865-1900 (1957).

Additional Sources

Armstrong, William M., E. L. Godkin: a biography, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978. □

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Edwin Lawrence Godkin (gŏd´kĬn), 1831–1902, American editor, b. Moyne, Ireland, of English parentage. His idealism found expression in his History of Hungary and the Magyars (1853) and won him the job of correspondent (1853–55) to the London Daily News during the Crimean War. In 1856 he came to the United States and studied law. During the Civil War he traveled in the South, sending letters to the Daily News. In 1865, Godkin established the Nation on stockholders' money but shortly after was compelled to buy the paper to maintain it. In 1881 he became an editor of the New York Evening Post and in 1883 editor in chief, carrying the Nation, by then an influential critical weekly, with him as a weekly in connection with the Post. He was independent politically and attacked the carpetbag regime, corruption under President Grant, free silver, organized labor, and high tariffs. His self-assurance and integrity gave his opinion weight. He was an important spokesman of laissez-faire in economic policy. He wrote Problems of Modern Democracy (1896) and Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy (1898).

See R. Ogden, Life and Letters of Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1907); studies by W. M. Armstrong (1957) and L. H. Rifkin (1959).