Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley, 1811–72, American newspaper editor, founder of the New York Tribune, b. Amherst, N.H.

Early Life

His irregular schooling, ending at 15, was followed by a four-year apprenticeship (1826–30) on a country weekly at East Poultney, Vt. When the paper failed, he went briefly to Erie co., Pa., where his impoverished farming family had moved. In Aug., 1831, he went to New York City, worked as a newspaper compositor, and in Jan., 1833, opened a job printing office in partnership with another printer. Greeley's interest in public questions led him to found (1834), with a new partner, the New Yorker, a weekly journal "devoted to literature, the arts and sciences," which he edited ably but unprofitably for seven years. He supplemented his income by writing regularly for the Daily Whig and by editing Whig campaign sheets.

The Founding of the Tribune

His success in political journalism cemented Greeley's friendship with Whig leaders in New York state, and with their encouragement he issued the first number of the New York Tribune on Apr. 10, 1841. He edited this paper for over 30 years; during much of that time it was the greatest single journalistic influence in the country. From the first, Greeley's object was to provide for the poor a paper that was as cheap as those of his rivals but less sensational and more probing than the "penny press." Therefore, sensational police news and objectionable medical advertising were eliminated from the Tribune.

Greeley's chief editorial assistant for 15 years after 1846 was Charles A. Dana. Beginning in 1849, George Ripley conducted for 30 years the first regular literary and book review department in a U.S. newspaper. Other talented men joined Greeley's staff (he was the first editor to allow by-lines), but his own clear, timely, vigorous editorials were the feature that made the Tribune known throughout the nation.

Social Reformer

Although Greeley styled both himself and his paper Whig, they were conservative only in so far as they thundered for a protective tariff. Other causes that Greeley promoted were hardly Whig-inspired. He advocated the organization of labor and led the way by organizing Tribune printers; New York printers elected (1850) him the first president of their chapel, the first in the nation. He also believed that a successful business should share its profits and ownership with its employees; this practice was observed at the Tribune.

Among other social reforms advocated by Greeley were temperance, a homestead law, and women's rights. He opposed monopoly and disapproved of land grants to railroads, which he felt would lead to monopoly. He gave space in his paper to Fourierism when that movement was at its height and sponsored several experiments in cooperative living, including, later, the colony named for him at Greeley, Colo. Even Karl Marx contributed to the Tribune from London. "Greeley's isms," as scoffers contemptuously called his plans for social reform, annoyed many Tribune readers, but he never apologized for them, and the paper continued to grow.

After 1850 slavery overshadowed all other questions, and Greeley's antislavery views became more intense as the Civil War approached. Some of his best editorials were directed against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In this period the circulation (which reached 200,000 by 1860) of the weekly edition of the Tribune became so extensive in the rural districts of the West that Bayard Taylor could declare that it "comes next to the Bible." Everyone had heard and thousands had acted on his advice, "Go West, young man, go West."

Republican Leader

One of the first members of the new Republican party, he was a delegate to the national organizing convention in Feb., 1856. Barred as a New York delegate to the 1860 Republican convention, because of strained relations with the state leaders, he attended as a representative of Oregon. He was a leader in the successful fight to prevent Seward's nomination; and although at first favoring Edward Bates, he eventually threw his support to Abraham Lincoln. Seward had his revenge later by helping to block Greeley's election to the U.S. Senate (Greeley had served in the House of Representatives from Dec., 1848, to Mar., 1849).

Greeley's course in the Civil War lost him many admirers. At first disposed to let the "erring sisters go in peace," he soon came around to vigorous support of the war. However, he persistently denounced Lincoln's policy of conciliating the border slave states. On Aug. 19, 1862, he published over his signature in the Tribune an open letter to the President, which he titled "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," demanding that Lincoln commit himself definitely to emancipation. Lincoln's reply (Aug. 22) "to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right" was masterly (see Emancipation Proclamation). Only reluctantly and belatedly did Greeley support Lincoln for reelection in 1864.

The editor's humanitarian hatred of war led him to advocate peace negotiations of any sort, often to the embarrassment of the administration. In 1864, Lincoln sent him on what turned out to be a futile mission to Canada to meet with Confederate emissaries. After the war Greeley favored black suffrage and advocated amnesty for all Southerners. He was one of those who signed the bail bond to release Jefferson Davis from prison, and this magnanimous act cost him half the subscriptions to the Weekly Tribune.

Presidential Candidate

Greeley supported Ulysses S. Grant during the first years of his administration but came to resent what he considered Grant's subservience to that wing of the Republican party in New York state dominated by Roscoe Conkling. In 1871 he began to encourage the movement that grew into the Liberal Republican party and avidly sought the nomination for President in 1872. Although the Democrats also endorsed him, many of them refused to support a man who had spent his life opposing the principles for which they had stood, especially that of a tariff for revenue only. During the campaign all Greeley's shortcomings were caricatured, and he was denounced as a traitor and a crank. Despite his strenuous campaign he was overwhelmingly defeated by Grant. His disappointment at the result and his sorrow at the death of his wife a few days before the election unbalanced his mind, and he died insane on Nov. 29, 1872.

Bibliography

Greeley wrote The American Conflict (1866), a history of the Civil War, and the autobiographic Recollections of a Busy Life (1868, repr. 1968). His other books were journalistic in character.

See also biographies by W. H. Hale (1950) and G. G. Van Deusen (1953, repr. 1964); D. C. Seitz, Horace Greeley, Founder of the New York Tribune (1926, repr. 1970); R. R. Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War (1936, repr. 1970); J. A. Isley, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 1853–1861: A Study of the New York Tribune (1947, repr. 1965).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Horace Greeley: Selected full-text books and articles

Horace Greeley, Nineteenth-Century Crusader By Glyndon G. Van Deusen University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953
Horace Greeley: Printer, Editor, Crusader By Henry Luther Stoddard G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1946
The Golden Age of the Newspaper By George H. Douglas Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Giants of a New Age: James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley"
Nationalism and Internationalism: Essays Inscribed to Carlton J. H. Hayes By Edward Mead Earle Columbia University Press, 1950
Librarian’s tip: "The Nationalism of Horace Greeley" begins on p. 431
The Peacemakers of 1864 By Edward Chase Kirkland The Macmillan Company, 1927
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "The Peace Missions of Two Northern Journalists"
Froth & Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium By Andie Tucher University of North Carolina Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 14 "Greeley Expounds on a Murder"
The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878 By Mark Wahlgren Summers University of North Carolina Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "The Worst Thing Yet! 1872"
The Popular Press, 1833-1865 By William E. Huntzicker; James D. Startt; William David Sloan Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Horace Greeley begins on p. 118
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