The New York Tribune and the 1844 Election: Horace Greeley, Gangs and the Wise Men of Gotham

Article excerpt

This article analyzes the New York Tribune's coverage of the 1844 elections, interpreting James K. Polk's narrow victory over Whig candidate Henry Clay from the perspective of the firm of William H. Seward, Thurlow Weed, and Horace Greeley, an influential press and political organization. It examines newspaper content that reflected voter response to salient issues, profiling particularly the role of Greeley, editor of the Tribune, who failed to anticipate the effect of certain variables-including gang activities, a third-party movement, and press leaks-on the election results. The study revisits events in Manhattan's infamous Five Points area to suggest that cultural issues beyond the scope of both editors and politicians contributed to the outcome of the elections and to subsequent debates over westward expansion and the role of slavery in newly acquired territories.

Few elections in American history influenced both the press and politics more than the 1844 presidential race. Although Henry clay, a respected statesman running for office a third and final time, had a sophisticated network of media support in New York City, which was a strategically important Whig base (which led many editors to predict a Whig landslide), the press failed to anticipate the effects of a decisive third-party movement, unruly voter behavior, and gang violence on election results. Democrat James K. Folk's narrow margin of victory ended the Whig campaign of "delirious hope," an observer wrote, with "deep despair,"'marking the first time that the issue of slavery played a substantial role in the decisions of voters and provoking intense debate over the role of the "peculiar institution" in newly acquired lands.

This article analyzes the Democratic victory-and the Whig defeat-from the perspective of the media-based firm of William H. Seward, Thurlow Weed, and Horace Greeley, providing a case study of a newspaper as a medium that reflected voter response to salient issues and illustrating how the electorate responded to news in ways unexpected by editors and politicians. It profiles Greeley's New York Tribune as an important source of partisanship during the campaign and revisits events in New York's Sixth Ward, the site of the infamous Five Points, to provide an account of an election in which a candidate with considerable popular support was no match for groups interested in expanding the nation's territorial reach.

Scholars of journalism, mass communications, and politics have delved deeply into the role of the press and partisanship during the antebellum era, defining each differently, but Elizabeth Varon, in an astute analysis of Whig campaign tactics, observed that the function of newspapers was to make partisanship "seem essential to men's identities."2 Historians generally have portrayed the Jacksonian era as a heyday for political organization with parties assuming their classic form and flourishing after the Missouri Compromise, which in 1820 began polarizing regions into pro-slavery and freelabor interest.3

Although nineteenth-century biographies contributed a wealth of personal information about the personalities featured in this study, the authors tended to glorify the achievements of influential figures. James Parton's Life of Horace Greeley in 1855 was exceptional because it not only portrayed him as a "Great Man" but drew attention to the socio-economics of New York City. In a particularly compelling passage, he described a crisis faced by city-dwellers during the 1838 winter in which some died of starvation or were frozen to death, an event that profoundly influenced Greeley's sympathy for progressive causes.4 The Tribune was his agent of reform, and by 1844, he helped finish one era of politics and begin another, said Parton.'

Andrew Jackson once bluntly attributed the success of Whig campaigns to "Logg [sic] cabins, hard cider, and coon humbuggery,"6 and historians have since agreed that at least part of the Whigs' success depended upon the skills of penny press editors who published catchy, sometimes sensational, political columns, along with the circus-like rallies replete with hard cider and songs that accompanied campaigns. …