Department of English/098
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno NV 89557-0031
June 12, 1996
"This Daniel Boone Business is Played Out":
Horace Greeley and the Shiftless State of Kansas
ABSTRACTNew York Tribune editor Horace Greeley was outraged when he crossed the continent in 1859 and discovered that land speculation and improvident, isolated settlers dominated the West, as did a landscape unfit for the kind of New England farm he idealized. Accustomed to New York City, he was also put off by the lack of civilized comforts. Greeley's early interest in "Association," a social theory perhaps influenced by Marx, had led him to advocate cooperative agricultural colonies at odds with myths of the hardy, self-reliant pioneer. What he saw further disillusioned him, but he correctly foresaw many problems and opportunities presented by western settlement, and in some ways An Overland Journey provides a more enlightened perspective on the "New West" than one might expect.
The Essay CommencesHorace Greeley wanted his epitaph to read "founder of the New York Tribune," yet most people, if they remember this most public of nineteenth-century personalities at all, know only his advice to "Go West, young man." In 1859, at the height of his influence over hundreds of thousands of loyal readers, Greeley had been editorializing for nearly two decades in support of land grants for farmers and a government-financed railroad to the Pacific, arguing that the agrarian West, especially California, held the key to economic and social renewal of a country torn by regional and class differences.
In the late spring of that year, he headed overland to California, and on the way he was characteristically outraged to find isolated, improvident settlers more interested in drinking whiskey and buying and selling land than in the moral benefits of hard work and temperance. "It was enough," he writes in his Overland Journey, "to give a cheerful man the horrors" (52)
Unlike many of his fellow nineteenth-century Americans, Greeley's agrarianism was rooted in no idea of manifest destiny, no God-given mission to blaze a trail to the Pacific. He vigorously criticized the Mexican War as wasteful and imperialistic, and spoke out against the annexation of California and later, against his old friend Seward's purchase of Alaska. When he founded his Tribune in 1841, Greeley's "West" was still just west of the Appalachians, not west of the Mississippi, and certainly not the Great Basin or the arid Southwest. He cautioned his readers not to "wander into the unbroken wilderness, far from Schools and Churches," perhaps as a result of seeing his mother's cheerful spirit broken by a move to the wilds of western Pennsylvania. His version of homesteading replaced the individual pioneer with a cooperative organization of farmers and light manufacturers, modeled to some degree after the theories of the French socialist Charles Fourier. Greeley had to come to terms with his country's expansion, but at first hand, despite his eventual enthusiasm for California, he found the Great Plains increasingly unsuitable for the kind of society with which he was familiar; like Jefferson a generation earlier, he persisted in valuing land based on its resemblance to his well-watered Eastern Seaboard, and in assuming enlightened inhabitants to match.
In his journal of the voyage, Greeley is cheered by trees and good topsoil, and depressed by treelessness, thin soil and especially by the increasing scarcity of water. He consoles himself by repeating the standard fiction that "wood becomes more abundant with the progress of settlement and cultivation" (17). But in what is now eastern Colorado, he writes that "We seem to have reached the acme of barrenness and desolation" (80)--but, of course, he has not yet crossed the Great American Desert, where, as he says, "famine sits enthroned" (231).
Another nineteenth-century reformer with a bullier pulpit than most, Greeley saw small-scale agriculture as a way to escape the degrading factory work and immoral influences of eastern cities. Yet he liked crowds and working at close quarters, writing that "as iron sharpeneth iron, so are man's intellectual and inventive faculties stimulated by contact with his fellow man" . He distrusted the excessively independent pioneers who were often a day's ride or more from the nearest neighbor, newspaper or polling place. He warned that he would "deem it impossible that beings born in the huts and hovels of isolated society . . . delving and grubbing through life on the few acres surrounding them, shall there attain the stature of perfect manhood." (Rourke 254)
So the overland voyage would be, in a sense, the acid test for Greeley's agrarianism. He wrote thirty-two dispatches over four months, scribbled on whatever paper came to hand and sent back to New York by coach and rail to a compositor specially trained to read his nearly indecipherable handwriting.. Often impulsive and unsystematic in his thinking, he was nevertheless an energetic professional in his work habits, as the articles testify. Rattled and bruised by the shocks of stagecoach travel, suffering from bad water, sleepless nights, and a painful case of boils, Greeley still managed to report in extensive detail on the sparsely populated country he was passing through. He asked questions and collected information pertinent to would-be settlers: crop prices, prevailing wages, modes of transportation, soil composition, elevation and climate. Week after week, the trusted "Try-bune" transmitted the results of his research to the general public--one of the first widely read, pragmatic descriptions of the territory west of the Mississippi and its potential as Greeley estimated it. "I have come here to lay my hand on the naked indisputable facts, and I mean to do it" (Overland 97).
Of course, his prognostications were occasionally off the mark, as when he wondered whether the three great cities of America would be New York, St. Louis and Leavenworth or New York, St. Louis and Atchison, and predicted that southern California would soon secede from the northern part of the state. But his hits far outnumber his misses. He foresaw a thriving tourist industry (he called them "idlers") for the Rockies, then occupied only by a few desperate miners in muddy tents, and envisioned the wine country of northern California and the bountiful orchards and vegetable fields of the Central Valley. He saw the potential of irrigation, preached conservation, and lamented the effects of mining on the landscape, and the degradation of tribal peoples by soldiers and traders. He conducted the first interview with Brigham Young, sending back a critical yet respectful portrait of the controversial leader. And he wrote in his trademark trenchant style, perhaps the reason that the growing disillusionment isn't always obvious.
For starters, the living conditions grow progressively more distasteful as he enumerates in his well-known descent of the "ladder of artificial life":
May 12th--Chicago--Chocolate and morning newspapers last seen on the breakfast table.The ironic, almost sarcastic tone periodically reappears as he encounters rougher and rougher customers and conditions. Further on he finds whiskey easier to purchase than food, and is kept awake at night by gambling and gunshots in his Denver "hotel," where he sleeps wrapped in blankets on a dirt floor. It makes lively reading. But if his body was taking a beating, so were many of Greeley's most cherished notions.
23rd--Leavenworth--Room bells and baths make their final appearance.
24th--Topeka--Beefsteak and washbowls (other than tin) last visible. Barber ditto.
26th--Manhattan--Potatoes and eggs last recognized among the blessings that "brighten as they take their flight." Chairs ditto.
27th--Junction City--Last visitation of a bootblack, with dissolving views of a board bedroom. Beds bid us good-bye. (Overland 65)
The trip was intended in part to make a case for a transcontinental railroad, which would in his view supply the West with much-needed books, beds, china bowls, bathtubs, and that one indispensible commodity for the domestication of a new land: "intelligent, capable, virtuous women" (319). The railroad also dovetailed with another cause Greeley had championed for ten years--a Homestead Bill, granting a quarter-section to any sober, industrious citizen willing to farm it. The bill was finally passed during the Civil War, along with the railroad and the Morrill Land Grant Act he had strongly supported, establishing state-supported colleges to teach westerners "agriculture and mechanic arts."
This last is one of the reforms suggested by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, along with a national bank, improvements of roads, a national railroad, and "industrial armies" for agriculture. Greeley was recommending these measures well before 1848, and regularly bemoaning the plight of the laboring classes, exploitation of factory workers, and the shirking of social responsibility by the wealthy. Marx worked for Greeley as European correspondent during most of the 1850s, and Greeley once called him "an instructive source of information" (AmHer 10/67). Compared to the Manifesto's orderly and magisterial exposition, though, there was something impulsive and bizarrely romantic about Greeley's socialism. He prophesied, for instance, "an edifice that shall lodge 2000 persons, while giving each privacy and independence . . . and the prosecution of agriculture and other labor by large bands, rendered picturesque by uniforms and inspired by music."(Recollections )
Such a regimented, collective effort, firmly tied to institutions and traditions, is what Greeley imagined for the huddled masses of the Eastern cities, not scattered homesteads for individual families. The Central Valley of California, he thought, was far too thinly settled, and on the wrong basis, to reproduce the New England society he admired:
I fear this cattle-ranching, with long intervals between the ranches, is destined to half-barbarize many thousands of the next generation, whom schools can scarcely reach, and to whom "the sound of the church-going bell" will be a stranger. Most of the agriculturalists of this region, however, came here from Missouri, Arkansas or Texas--many of them from Missouri or Arkansas by way of Texas--and do not seem to regard common schools as essential to civilized life. (Overland 253)"[T]hese great slovenly ranches," he continues in the following dispatch from Marysville, must be "broken up into neat, modest farms" for the Golden State to realize its full potential (283).
In Kansas, though, he had already found dystopia: slovenly farms, poorly tended and lacking the tidiness and picturesque appeal of a Vermont dairy or New York apple orchard.
There are too many idle, shiftless people in Kansas. I speak not here of lawyers, gentleman speculators, and other non-producers, who are in excess here as elsewhere; I allude directly to those who call themselves settlers, and who would be farmers if they were anything. To see a man squatted on a quarter-section in a cabin which would make a fair hog-pen, but is unfit for human habitation, and there living from hand to mouth by a little of this and a little of that, with hardly an acre of prairie broken (sometimes without a fence up), with no garden, no fruit trees, "no nothing"--waiting for someone to come along and buy out his "claim" and let him move on to repeat the operation somewhere else . . . how a man located in a little squalid cabin on one of these rich "claims" can sleep moonlit nights under the average circumstances of his class, passes my comprehension. (Overland 52-53)With Marx, he might have deprecated the "idiocy of rural life," which could be corrected by a higher density of population. Greeley always said that his aim was to educate the common man and woman to work together for their common interests, a process that would begin by attentively perusing the pages of the Tribune and continue in the lecture halls, reading rooms and public libraries he advocated in place of grogshops and theaters. Only closely packed and orderly settlements would support such amenities.
Greeley appears to be going against the American grain here, revising the traditional myth of individualism. "Independence," he wrote in one editorial, is often an excuse for "sloth, selfishness, and cupidity." True, he never embraced radicalism, never questioned the long-term viability of the capitalist system. He wished only for enlightened reform of that system, that employers would eliminate inefficiency and waste and willingly share profits with employees, who would in turn work industriously and shun intoxication and vice.
Such delusions, however moderate, mix uneasily with the more pragmatic, conservative side of Greeley. The Whig Party, whose support launched the Tribune, had been a coalition of businessmen and merchants, looking for the federal government to subsidize trade and manufacturing. A self-made man as well as a Whig, as biographer Glyndon Van Deusen notes, "Greeley's natural orientation was toward the capitalist." In response to the 1842 Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, Greeley editorialized that voting was no inalienable right, but a boon granted to those the government deemed qualified. He would modify this position numerous times over the succeeding decades with respect to blacks and women, though he is willing to trade black suffrage for a Republican Kansas, but the impression remains of a man who wants it both ways, who is torn between two extremes, with one foot in Hamilton's bank and the other in Monticello.
Jeffersonian populism sold more newspapers, but Greeley reveals much ambivalence about the people whom the Tribune was dedicated to improving. He often laments that the "ignorant, stolid many" are easy prey for rum, brothels and lotteries. Even as he proposes public education and temperance laws, he seldom disguises his scorn for a population driven by their appetites and easily swayed by demagogues. When he writes about "that enormous ass, the public" to a fellow editor, you can sense his frustration at his readers' preference for sensational news. In an 1849 editorial he tartly criticizes a "Laboring Class" that "in drinking, smoking, gaming . . . squanders all they ought to lay up in riot and dissipation." And, probably, spends the pennies they should have given the Tribune to gawk at the crime reports in the Sun or the Herald.
He was further disillusioned by the failure of so many utopian experiments such as Brook Farm, Sylvania and the North American Phalanx. Despite the "many noble and lofty souls" involved, the main problem, according to him, was not the principles of Association but "the kind of people who are naturally attracted . . . the conceited, the crotchety, the selfish, the headstrong, the pugnacious, the unappreciated, the played-out, the idle, and the good-for-nothing generally." Here, roughly ten years before his cross-country journey, his most cherished schemes for social improvement had already failed their practical test.
Throughout Greeley's overland dispatches the notes of sarcasm sound a sour counterpoint to his many hopeful predictions. Some of his worries are political--when he crosses the Missouri into Kansas, Old Brown of Osawatomie is fresh in his mind, as are the border ruffians--and he writes contemptuously of "ground-tier Democrats" who are "manufactured by grog-shops" and stand a real chance of carrying the state in 1860. But what disturbs him more is "the infernal spirit of land speculation . . . the only business in which a man can embark with no other capital than an easy conscience" (55).
Clearly, although at this point in his life he was more interested in preaching Republicanism than socialism, Greeley would have preferred to find cooperative colonies along the lines of those he had earlier envisioned. Six weeks later, despite his distaste for polygamy and a history of calling Mormonism "the greatest imposture of our age," he would confess admiration for the organization, thrift and productivity he saw in Salt Lake City. In Kansas, the only time he explicitly mentions association is in a lighthearted piece on the prairie dog, which he decides from observation and hearsay shares its burrow with a species of owl:
I presume the owl pays for its lodgings like a gentleman, probably by turning in some provisions toward the supply of the common table. If so, this is the most successful example of industrial and household association yet furnished. (79)Further west, Greeley's indignation at seeing Indians sitting idle in the planting season next to fertile bottomland drives him to pitch the merits of cooperative agriculture. Greeley had championed Indian rights when writing from the East--as a teenager he had been enraged by Jackson's removal of the Cherokee from Georgia--but in An Overland Journey he begins to sympathize with the settlers' point of view toward people he calls "children": "I could not help saying, `These people must die out--there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will plant and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.'" (Overland 120) Nevertheless he does recognize that the tribes he came across had been mistreated by "rascals and ruffians" (278), and thought he saw their salvation in a good old-fashioned New England village green:. . . yesterday I tried my powers of persuasion on Left Hand [an English-speaking Arapahoe chief] in favor of an Arapahoe tribal farm, say of two hundred acres for a beginning, to be broken and fenced by the common efforts of the tribe, and a patch therein allotted to each head of a family who would agree to plant and till it--I apprehend to very little purpose. (Overland 120)Here only Greeley's humor holds his pessimism in check. He would never mention such cooperative schemes again in An Overland Journey except indirectly, when, for instance, he pleads with the citizens of Genoa, Nevada, to conserve their trees, or deplores that "it is nobody's business to preserve" the California oaks. Indeed, though he would continue to invest heavily in agricultural colonies such as the Colorado town that bears his name, his consuming interest in the next decade would be Civil War and Reconstruction, not social reform.
In San Francisco Greeley suffered so badly from boils that he had to return by steamship rather than the Butterfield Overland Mail as he had planned. Though he visited Greeley, Colorado, a few years before his death to plant fruit trees, he stayed east for the rest of his increasingly unhappy life. He died in 1872, a month after his wife and a few weeks after losing the Presidential race to Grant by a landslide.
The Tribune was then reaching over a million readers, many of whom thought they knew him personally from reading his editorials and sharing his reformist notions. Greeley in his white coat and chin whiskers was a familiar figure, and his funeral procession through the streets of New York attracted presidents, senators, ambassadors and justices as well as factory workers and farmers from the surrounding countryside in a demonstration of public affection that outdrew Lincoln's funeral seven years earlier.
The star of Greeley's celebrity dimmed quickly--after all, you could no longer find out what he thinks by picking up a newspaper. Yet most of us still recall his apocryphal advice to that archetypal young man, a tribute both to his way with a phrase and to our own continuing fascination with the legacy of conquest. Nowadays we westerners are looking for "a society to match the scenery," as the late Wallace Stegner wrote. Perhaps Horace Greeley's arguments on behalf of gentle revolution, his call to moderate our fiercely independent natures with voluntary cooperation toward shared goals, are worth a fresh look as we revise old myths and decide how the New West will look. "This Daniel Boone business," Greeley reminds us, "is played out."