Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Horace Greeley,
the Premier of American Editors

The United States has been a nest of able editors, who have lifted the art of the journalist to so high a level that the American newspaper has no equal in the world in enterprise and picturesque presentation of news. There are many who have helped to make it what it is, America's greatest lever of progress. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin, editors of genius have been numerous. Lack of space prevents us from mentioning many who became famous in this field, and we must confine ourselves to Horace Greeley, the ablest and the most widely known of them all.

No one who saw Horace Greeley as a boy could have dreamed that this awkward and backward lad, with his tow-colored hair, his shabby and ill-fitting clothes, his piping and whining voice, could ever become a man of note. But his face bore the marks of intellect, and no one could talk with him long without discovering that he had an alert and intelligent mind, amply supplied with facts, for he had read every book upon which be could lay his hands and had a memory which retained all of value that came into it. He was a thinker, too, that was evident; not alone a man of facts, but of original opinions as well. Such was the boy who was destined to make himself the most famous figure in American journalism.

Horace Greeley was born at Amherst, New Hampshire, February 3, 1811. His father was a poor farmer, who moved to Vermont in 1821, and in 1830 to a farm of wild, new-cleared land in western Pennsylvania, building a log-cabin there, but finding it so hard to make a living that Horace felt obliged to set out and shift for himself.

He had learned the art of printing at East Poultney, Vermont, and worked there from 1826 to 1830, picking up during this time some valuable knowledge of party politics. His opportunities for education had been poor. Some of the leading men of the town, seeing his quickness of mind and thirst for knowledge, offered to pay his expenses through college, but his parents refused. They either were not willing to accept what might look like charity or could not spare his help as a bread-winner. But in spite of this the boy managed to learn a good deal at home, which he added to by such chances as presented themselves in a little country printing office. Certainly, while there was little in his pocket, when he set out late in 1830 to seek his fortune in the world, there was much in his mind.

Let us follow the boy in his wanderings. A tall and awkward youth, ill fitted with homespun clothes, lacking attractiveness of appearance and grace of address, his chances seemed poor. Luckily for him, one of the men on the Erie Gazette had been laid off for some reason, and young Greeley found there an opening awaiting him. He soon proved that he knew well how to set type, and showed excellent qualities of character that brought everybody in the office to look on him with respect. But in seven months the absent hand came back and there was no longer room for his substitute, so Greely had to set out on his travels again.

He had worked hard and lived cheaply, but not for his own benefit, for he kept only fifteen dollars of his wages, and sent all that was left—about one hundred and twenty dollars—to help his father in his needs. From Erie he made his way to New York, several hundred miles distant, travelling now on foot and now by canal, and spending so little on the way that when, one summer day in 1831, he walked into the great city, ten of his fifteen dollars were left.

He knew nobody in New York, and his shabby, awkward, and retiring aspect was not calculated to help him to a place. Getting a very cheap boarding house, he set out to look for work. Nobody would have him. All printing offices were full, or doubt was felt of the ability of this tow-haired country lad, who knew nothing of the art of pushing himself.

A week passed and he began to despair. Then his landlord, who liked the youth, spoke to a friend about him and of his fruitless search for work. The friend replied: "Tell him to try No. 85 Chatham Street; they want printers there." The next morning Horace was on hand before the doors were opened, and fell into conversation with one of the first men who came. This man afterwards said, "I saw that he was an honest, good young man, and, being a Vermonter myself, I determined to help him if I could."

Horace's new acquaintance spoke in his favor to the foreman; the latter looked him over doubtfully, not believing that a country-trained typesetter could be fit for the difficult work they were engaged on, a polyglot Testament; finally he agreed to give him a chance. The new hand worked steadily all day, and at night showed the foreman a printer's proof of his work. It proved to be the best day's work—in quantity and correctness—done in the office that day, and Horace was definitely engaged.

He worked for more than a year in this office. The wages were not high, and the bulk of it went to his father to help him in paying for his farm. But the young printer saved a little for himself. He was ambitious. He had no idea of keeping at the bottom of affairs. Those were the days in which the old style of newspaper was passing away and the modern news-paper coming into being, and Greeley, feeling that he had the ability to edit and conduct a paper, grew anxious to branch out into that broad field of enterprise.

He began his editorial career by joining Francis Storey in issuing the Morning Post, the first daily penny paper ever published. It was very ably handled, but the innovation did not take and the paper lived only a few weeks. Its ambitious editor saved some more money and was soon in the saddle again. The next year, 1834, he founded, as head of the firm of Greeley & Co., the New Yorker, a weekly literary paper, and at that time the best of its kind in the country. And Horace Greeley had most to do with making it such.

The next year another of the aspiring New York newspaper men, James Gordon Bennett, recognizing the ability that lay behind the New Yorker, came to its editor and asked him to join in a new enterprise, a one-cent paper to be called the Herald. Greeley knew Bennett to be a clever and progressive journalist, but his experience with the Morning Post had made him cautious. "How much money have you?" he asked. "Five hundred dollars," was the answer. "It isn't enough. I won't go in with you, for I don't think you cm succeed."

Everybody knows that the Herald did succeed, despite the handful of money with which it was started, but Greeley did well in keeping out of it, for it is not likely that his views and those of Bennett would have agreed. He. was a man born to be at the head of a great journal, not to drive in an ill-matched team.

Greeley kept on with the New Yorker. It was not profitable, but it kept afloat for seven years. During one year, 1838-39, he also edited the Jeffersonian, a weekly Whig paper, and in 1840 started the Log Cabin, a spirited little weekly which supported Harrison for President, was ably handled, and became so popular as to gain a circulation of over 80,000. It was an ephemeral sheet, issued for the campaign in the interest of Thurlow Weed, but it gave Greeley a great reputation in all parts of the country as an able writer and a zealous politician.

Politically, Greeley had cast his lot with the Whigs, and was a strenuous advocate of their views and those of the succeeding Republicans throughout his life. So far his business ambition had led him into several journalistic enterprises which had brought him into notice but not made him money. The Herald, which he had refused to take part in, was becoming a notable success. The Sun was also in the field and making its way. Greeley felt that it was time he was launching out with the paper he had long held in mind. He had married in 1836 a Miss Cheney, of North Carolina. Years and family cares were creeping upon him. Delay was dangerous, and in the last number of the Log Cabin he announced that a new daily paper, Whig in politics, was about to appear. On April 10, 1841, the Daily Tribune was launched, as a one-cent newspaper, with Horace Greeley as its editor and proprietor, Henry J. Raymond, afterwards editor of the New York Times, as its sub-editor. It was fortunate in obtaining for business manager Thomas McElrath, an able and experienced financier. Greeley himself lacked financial judgment, and much of the success of the Tribune was due to Mr. McElrath.

It was Greeley's fixed purpose, while working for the success of his party, to make his paper one that should be an intellectual and moral aid to its readers. It was to sail in a channel of its own on the sea of public opinion, with his hand steadily at the helm. The first edition of five thousand copies could hardly be given away, but there was a new tone in the paper that quickly attracted attention, readers came to it rapidly, and before two months an edition of eleven thou-sand was called for, while its four columns of advertisements had increased to thirteen. It was a quick and big success, and began from the very start that career of journalistic good fortune which it has since maintained.

Its purpose was not like that of the Herald. The latter set out to mirror in its columns the world's daily events. The Tribune had a different aim. It was to be a storehouse of opinions, a molder of thought; a leader of the public mind, and in this field Horace Greeley proved himself unsurpassed. His views on political subjects came to be looked for and read with avidity, and its scope spread out to cover science, literature, the drama, and all the fields of thought. Himself possessed of excellent literary taste, he drew to the Tribune many of the best editors, reporters, and critics to be had, and thousands came to look for it daily as their exponent of opinion on all subjects of interest.

Its moral tone was kept as high as its intellectual. It warmly supported all projects of reform and philanthropy. One of its great aims was to promote the good and prevent the bad. Every movement designed to aid the struggling poor was earnestly seconded. The various "isms "of the day were supported in its columns, despite the ridicule which its rivals cast upon it. Temperance, women's rights, abolition of capital punishment, the uplifting of the poor, were among Greeley's "isms," and he supported every movement which seemed to him to tend towards right and justice.

But, first and foremost, the Tribune was a political paper. While the Whig party lasted it fought its battles strongly and shrewdly, Greeley himself claiming to be the junior partner of the great Whig firm of politicians, "Seward, Weed, and Greeley." The Republican party owed its existence largely to the powerful influence of the Tribune. It fought slavery with all its strength until slavery ended, and from its origin remained one of the ablest advocates of a protective tariff.

Mr. Greeley was elected to Congress in 1848, and during his life filled various political offices. But it was not in these fields he shone. His best field of effort was in the editorial columns of his paper, in which for many years he continued to mould and direct the opinions of his readers. In 1850 he published "Hints towards Reforms," made up of lectures delivered at various times and places, a work which led Parton to say: "His subject is ever the same; the object of his public life is single. It is the Emancipation of Labor, its emancipation from ignorance, vice, servitude, and poverty."

At the end of the Civil War he was in favor of universal amnesty and universal suffrage, and in 1867 he offered himself as bail for Jefferson Davis, then in prison, an act for which many of his own party severely condemned him. But Greeley deprecated revenge on the defeated; he was always governed by his conceptions of right, and never hesitated, for fear of adverse criticism, in adopting the course which appealed to him as the just one.

Aside from the immense labors of his editorial pen, he was the author of two works, "The American Conflict," a history, from his point of view, of the Civil War, and "Recollections of a Busy Life," a work of much biographical interest.

The Tribune, begun as a small, one-cent sheet, grew in size and price as time went on. Important as it was, the Weekly Tribune was perhaps still more important, from its able summing up of events and its fine literary merit. The circulation of these papers was by no means local. They made their way into all parts of the land, and to-day their great influence persists. Though Greeley has gone, his spirit prevails in their pages.

That Greeley was always wise or correct, not even his strongest partisan would maintain, No man ever is. But he had the courage to sustain any view which he thought right, and to support an unpopular cause which appealed to him, no matter what his political friends might say. No doubt he made many mistakes; no doubt haste or strong feeling often led him astray. But he meant right through all; he was not working from the point of view of the office-seekers, but to secure the best good of his fellow-men; whether right or wrong, he discussed all the questions of the day with a vigor and intelligence that made his opinions always of value, and the high moral purpose that always moved him won him the respect and esteem of many of his political opponents.

The close of Greeley's career was a sad one. He, the champion of Republicanism, permitted his name to be used as the Democratic candidate for President in 1872, in a hopeless contest against General Grant. That he would be defeated was almost a foregone conclusion. But what hurt him more than defeat was the accusation, by friends and enemies alike, that he was disloyal to his party and unprincipled in his act, and that, moved by his ambition to be President, he had committed dishonorable offences. To the depression caused by this came that due to the severe illness and death of his wife. The two combined seem to have sapped his vitality, and shortly after the announcement of his defeat he died, on November 29, 1872.

"It was not the Presidential defeat, but the cruel impeachment of his integrity by old friends, that wounded his spirit past all healing." His death changed the current of opinion. Many who had blamed him now mourned him, and it became apparent how deep a hold he had taken upon the admiration and esteem of the American people. He had made a great mark as a journalist—few have reached his level in this—and he had also made as great a mark as a moralist. To quote again, he was "one whose name will live long after many writers and statesmen of greater pretensions are forgotten."