Horace Greeley (1811-1872), Editor of the New York
Copyright 1996 by David
Fenimore, University of Nevada, Reno
Born on a hardscrabble New Hampshire farm and apprenticed to a
Vermont printer at age 15, Horace Greeley worked his way to prominence as
founding editor of the New York Tribune, one of the first
"penny daily" newspapers. In addition to the daily Tribune,
Greeley published a weekly edition that reached at its height nearly a
million readers throughout the United States and western territories, and
which gave the celebrated and eccentric editor an enormous influence on
American popular opinion.
Daguerreotype by Matthew Brady, c.1850 (Library of
REFORMER AND GADFLY
As a youth the precocious Greeley devoured all the books
and newspapers he could find, and his passion for detail was reflected in
Tribune's closely packed mass of facts, statistics, correspondence,
fiction, poetry, lectures, and reviews. His fierce New England-style sense
morality was displayed in trenchant editorials advocating a
mixture of his own social reformist causes, such as workers' rights and
temperance, with more conservative Whig positions on
protective tariffs, internal improvements, and recharter of the Bank of
the United States.
Greeley also argued in favor of guaranteed employment, and grants
of public land to
industrious settlers. The exact words often attributed to him--"go West, young man"--were
actually first written by an Indiana editor, John Soule, but Greeley
himself, while not an expansionist, was a staunch proponent of organized
western settlement and
expressed many similarly phrased versions of this sentiment. In 1859
he traveled overland to California, sending dispatches back to the
Tribune in support of a railroad to the Pacific. His
articles, collected in An Overland
Journey, evaluate the agricultural and industrial
potential of the territories he passed through, and criticize the
rough-and-tumble, disorganized and inefficient process of settlement.
During the 1840s Greeley had written numerous articles promoting a
voluntary system of
agricultural collectives he called "association," based on the writings of
French socialist Charles Fourier. But although he employed Karl Marx as a
European correspondent in the 1850s, Greeley exchanged most of his
high-minded utopian schemes for down-and-dirty party politics in the
contentious decade leading up to the Civil War.
When he first came to New York City in 1831, Greeley was a
journeyman printer, an experienced writer and debater, and already
a staunch supporter of the Whig party. Within a few years he was
able to open his own print shop and with the help of party bosses
in Albany began publishing partisan journals in support of Whig
candidates and their pro-business platform of internal
improvements, tariffs on foreign manufactures, recharter of the
National Bank, and opposition to pro-slavery Jacksonian Democrats.
At the same time he published editorials arguing the rights of
factory workers and unemployed New Yorkers.
Although in 1841 he announced that his new Tribune would shun
"servile partisanship," he continued to editorialize for the Whig
cause and violently against what he called the "Loco-Foco"
Democratic Party, until the Whig coalition began to fracture over
the issue of legalizing slavery in the territories. He then played
a leading role in founding the Republican party, and although not
initially a Lincoln supporter, engineered the Illinois senator's
last-minute nomination at the 1860 convention.
He sought various appointments from men he had helped to win
office, but the only time Greeley served in the government was for
90 days in 1848, as a replacement for an indicted U.S. congressman
from New York City. He quickly lost favor with his colleagues for
publicizing day-to-day Capitol shenanigans and printing exposes of
legislative fraud and corruption. Covering Congress in 1855 as a
reporter, he suffered a mild concussion from a caning by Speaker
Albert Rust (D-AR) in reprisal for his criticism of Rust's pro-slavery maneuvering.
HIS FINAL DECADE
Greeley embroiled himself and his newspaper in enough Civil War
controversy to antagonize both North and South. Always prone to sudden
shifts of opinion, he vacillated unpredictably between pacifism and
saber-rattling, even as his newspaper used every conceivable stratagem to
scoop its competitors with the latest war news. Lincoln
often acknowledged Greeley's influence on public opinion, and wrote him
several times in response to critical and cajoling editorials in the
After the South's surrender, Greeley contributed to the
bail of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and was subsequently
attacked in an editorial cartoon that pictured him shaking hands
with John Wilkes Booth over Lincoln's grave.
In a great irony of American political history, Greeley was
nominated as the 1872 Democratic candidate for President. He lost
by a landslide to the incumbent Ulysses S. Grant, and died one
month later in a sanitarium. His funeral, better-attended than
Lincoln's, filled the streets of New York for three days with
processions of high government officials and ordinary working
Greeley was survived by his two daughters, Ida and Gabrielle. Five
other children died in infancy or childhood, including his beloved son
Arthur ("Pickie"). His wife Mary Young Cheney Greeley, a schoolteacher
Connecticut whom Greeley met at a New York City boarding
house, was a
confidante of Margaret Fuller, who worked briefly as a literary
correspondent for the Tribune. To her husband's dismay, "Molly"
Greeley also supported the women's rights movement led by Susan
B. Anthony and Elizabeth
Greeley's mother, Mary
Woodburn Greeley (b. 1788)--- In later life Molly
was frequently ill and spent long periods
abroad with her daughters while her husband toiled 18 hours a day
at his newspaper. Regarding his wife's irritability and
unwillingness to entertain his friends and associates at their
Chappaqua, NY home, Greeley once wrote to a friend that "Mother's
is not of the highest order." She died a few weeks before the 1872
election, leaving her husband prostrate with grief.
In his early days as an apprentice printer in East Poultney,
Vermont, Greeley had confided to an acquaintance that he was unable
to reconcile the hell-and-damnation Congregationalist faith of his
New England neighbors with the merciful New Testament God, so, he
wrote in his autobiography, "I exchanged the severe creed of my
orthodox neighbors for a kinder one of my own devising." He was
thereupon told he was "little better than a Universalist."
Greeley arrived in New York City a year after a young and
inexperienced preacher from New England, T.J. Sawyer. He joined
Sawyer's congregation on Orchard Street and stayed with it until
Sawyer left the city in 1845, moving with his friend P.T. Barnum to
Chapin's Church of the Divine Paternity on Fifth Avenue. He had
heard Chapin lecture on social reform and personal morality as
early as 1843. Greeley was active in church affairs as late as
1870, when he unsuccessfully argued for the establishment of a
Universalist publishing house.
- On the Free Press
- I founded the New York Tribune as a journal removed alike from
servile partisanship on the one hand and from gagged and mincing
neutrality on the other. (From his autobiography
Recollections of a Busy Life,1869)
- We rather like the idea of being (for our means) so generous a
patron of American literature. (on paying a $200 libel judgment to
James Fenimore Cooper; Tribune, 1842)
- On Social Reforms
- Morality and religion are but words to those who crouch behind
barrels in the street to cut the icy blasts, or fish in the gutters
for the means to sustain life. (Ibid)
- Where Labor stands idle . . . there is a demonstrated
deficiency, not of Capital, but of brains. (Ibid)
- Isolation is at war with efficiency and progress. As iron
sharpeneth iron, so are man's intellectual and inventive faculties
stimulated by contact with his fellow men. (Ibid)
- On Going West
- Do not lounge in the cities! There is room and health in the
country, away from the crowds of idlers and imbeciles. Go west,
before you are fitted for no life but that of the factory. (New
York Tribune, 1841)
- If you have no family or friends to aid you . . . turn your
face to The Great West and there build up your home and fortune.
- This desolation seems irredeemable. (on first seeing the Great
Salt Desert; An Overland Journey, 1859)
- This Daniel Boone business is about played out.
- On the Disenfranchised
- . . . while the Right of Suffrage is conceded to thousands
notoriously ignorant, vicious and drunken. . . a Constitutional
denial to Black men, as such, of Political Rights freely secured to
White men, is monstrously unjust and irrational.
- The best women I know do not wish to vote. . . .but when a
sincere Republican is asked in sober earnest why we deny women
suffrage, he must answer "for no reason." It must be acceded for
it is the assertion of a natural right.
- On American Conflicts
- Sign anything, ratify anything, pay anything . . . There never
was a good war or a bad peace. (editorial on the Mexican War;
- Our country right or wrong is an evil motto--what if your
country be in the wrong? It will only compound her injury. I wish
to serve the republic with an honest and fearless criticism.
- Having him behind me will be as helpful as an army of one
hundred thousand men. (Abraham Lincoln on editor Greeley)
- . . . a man whose hair is white, whose skin is white, whose
eyes are white, whose clothes are white, and whose liver is in my
opinion of the same color. (Sam Houston on the anti-slavery
- On to Richmond! Crush the rebels in blood and fire! (headline
on the eve of the Battle of Bull Run; Tribune, 1861)
- Greeley, Horace. Recollections of a Busy Life. New
York: J.B. Ford, 1868.
- --. An Overland Journey: From New York to San Francisco
in the Summer of 1859. Charles T. Duncan, ed. New York:
Knopf, 1963. 
- New York Daily Tribune. Various editions 1841-72.
- Rourke, Constance. Trumpets of Jubilee. New York:
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927.
- Van Duesen, Glyndon. Horace Greeley: Nineteenth-Century
Crusader. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
Copyright 1996 by David H.
Fenimore / University of Nevada, Reno