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John L. O’Sullivan

In 1837, John Lewis O’Sullivan and his brother established The United States Magazine and Democratic Review in Washington, D.C., and it soon became one of the most important periodicals in American history.  By late 1840, the brothers moved the magazine to New York City.  The move marked a significant shift in American life.  Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, New Yorkers gradually wrested cultural preeminence from Puritanical and relatively stagnant Boston, enshrining New York City as the de facto capital of American life.  In politics, economics, and now the arts, New York City and its radical cutting edge of locofoco Democrats and visionary artists led their fellow Americans into the brave new world of the mid-nineteenth century:  a period in which railroads connected continents and telegraphs converted ideas into electric signals allowing for instantaneous communication. 

John L. O’Sullivan and his Democratic Review gained fame, notoriety, and influence by spearheading the movement to produce an authentically American national culture distinct from European antecedents.  Publishing now-canonical authors like Whitman and Hawthorne as well as editorials written by O’Sullivan himself, the Democratic Review trumpeted the concept of “Manifest Destiny” cast in a decidedly radical liberal direction.  The wider New York cultural movement identified itself with the phrase “Young America,” sharply contrasting the United States, which O’Sullivan called “The Great Nation of Futurity,” with the monarchies, aristocracies, and corporate-plutocracies proliferating throughout the Old World.  O’Sullivan and his fellow Young Americans were far from perfect, and by no means were they equivalent to modern libertarians, but their visions and concepts of republicanism, democracy, and the United States constituted one of the most virulent and influential strains of liberal thinking in the entirety of nineteenth-century America.