A Pen of Fire

By Bridges, Peter | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

A Pen of Fire


Bridges, Peter, The Virginia Quarterly Review


John Moncure Daniel was ever quick to attack what he saw as wrong. He minced no words during the seven years he spent as a top American diplomat, including a moment which may have deeply affected the history of Italy. Subsequently, Daniel spoke bluntly as the Confederacy's leading editor. When he died in Richmond just before the Confederacy's final defeat in 1865, Daniel's newspaper was the most influential publication in the South. He had long been one of Jefferson Davis's harshest critics; there were those in the South who wished him hanged; he had recently fought, and lost, a duel with the treasurer of the Confederacy. If loss of morale was a reason, or even, as has been argued, the chief reason that the South lost the war, it might be argued that the piercing attacks of that Southern arch-patriot John Daniel actually helped move the South toward that final defeat. Yet historian-editor Virginius Dabney has argued that notwithstanding Daniel's sharp attacks on Davis-a president who certainly had grave faults-Daniel helped to maintain Southern morale when days turned dark.

The future editor first came to Richmond as a youth from Stafford County, Virginia, where he was born in 1825. His family was not rich, but they were respectable; his mother's father Thomas Stone was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In Richmond the young man first lived with his great-uncle Peter Vivian Daniel, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Daniel has been called the last Jeffersonian to hold public office; he has also been called a brooding proslavery fanatic. Clearly the justice had some effect on his great-nephew's thinking. The younger Daniel became a strong supporter of slavery-although it may be that the main effects on his thinking were not Justice Daniel but Thomas Carlyle's essay on "the nigger question" and the theory of Louis Agassiz, European scientist and Harvard professor, that blacks and whites came from different ancestry.

As a young man John Moncure Daniel had a passion for reading, and soon developed a hard-hitting prose style. By his early 20's he was the editor-in-chief, and soon he became the owner, of The Richmond Examiner. The paper and its editor supported the Democratic party and fiercely attacked the Whigs, using sharp sarcasm and ridicule. Daniel's personal attacks on many of Richmond's rich and famous made him lifelong enemies. They also increased his paper's circulation. As a critic, Daniel was not only sharp but perspicacious. He soon saw the worth of a drunken Richmond poet named Edgar A. Poe and published his work in the Examiner. For some reason a quarrel rose between the two. Poe challenged Daniel to a duel, and in an inebriated state went to the Examiner office in search of Daniel. He found Daniel, sitting in a chair waiting with a brace of pistols; the poet sobered and backed down. After Poe died at 40, Daniel wrote in the Southern Literary Messenger (with which Poe had been closely associated) that no other American writer was so likely to be remembered in history-despite the criticism of Poe by well-known writers like James Russell Lowell who, Daniel wrote, was himself a base imitator and "a minute species of literary insect ... plentifully produced by the soil and climate of Boston." Lowell's name, said Daniel, was known less from literature than ". . . from its frequent appearance in the proceedings of abolitionist meetings in Boston, cheek by jowl with the signatures of free negroes and runaway slaves."

John Daniel fought as many as nine duels in two decades. His first duel to gain attention took place early in 1852, when he fought Edward C. Johnston of the rival Richmond Whig on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The quarrel arose not from politics but from an argument over the merits of Hiram Powers' neoclassic statue of a Greek slave. The New York Times, reporting the duel, said that Daniel was ". . . the same amiable individual who denounced, in his paper, all northern men, coming south of a given line, as scoundrels, cheats, and robbers . …

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