Horace Greeley, Nineteenth-Century Crusader

By Glyndon G. Van Deusen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Not So Brave and Not So New

THE ODOR OF IDEALISM, THE REPUTATION FOR high-mindedness that Greeley acquired through his efforts for reform made him a national figure of increasing importance. Here was a successful businessman who had risen from the ranks, but who remained a champion of the masses. The combination, real or imaginary, of material success and righteousness has always been singularly attractive to the American people, and Greeley was no exception to the rule. Thousands flocked to hear him lecture, regardless of the fact that he had none of the arts or graces of the platform orator, and his listeners drank in his words almost as though they came from the gospel fount. Emerson, on the lecture circuit in the West during 1854, reported that Greeley had preceded him and had done the people's thinking for them. The Tribune, especially the Weekly Tribune (which contained all the rarest gems of the great editor's philosophy) came to be regarded as a purveyor of the pure milk of the word. Many a doughty son of the soil was convinced that Horace wrote every word of it, and was apt to come up after a lecture at Oshkosh or Kalamazoo to inquire as to when his subscription ran out. "Did you ever see Horace?" was an inevitable question at any western camp fire. Horace knew everything. He was an apostle of truth, a guide, a Daniel come to judgment—that is, he was these things for all save Democrats, ultra-conservative Whigs, practical politicians, and the wicked.

This reputation was largely undeserved, for the Tribune's editor was not half the reformer that he was supposed to be. There was a Greeley who yearned to build the New Jerusalem and whose sword leaped lightly to his hand, but there was also another Greeley who was calculating, conservative, and full of shifts and evasions, not to mention a third Greeley who could seek refuge from reality in Utopia. The brave new world of reformer Greeley was not half so brave or new after the other Greeleys had finished tinkering with it.

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