Horace Greeley

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Horace Greeley

Post by Haydnseek » Fri May 26, 2006 9:34 am

Doubt on Deadline
A treasonous newspaperman gets covered with pigeon waste. How fitting.

Thursday, May 25, 2006 12:01 a.m.

Every once in a while, I like to take a break from my labors at editing the New York Sun and swing by the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street in Manhattan and the little square named for Horace Greeley. A larger-than-life statue of the Civil War-era owner and editor of the New York Tribune sits there. It cheers me to watch the pigeons alight on the rascal's head and leave their droppings on his capacious nose. Few newspapermen have more roundly deserved such a memorial.
Precisely why Greeley merits the birds' indignity is illuminated in Robert C. Williams's "Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom," a splendid telling of a story that couldn't be more timely now that we are in another difficult and controversial war. Greeley is best remembered as the editor who said "Go west, young man." He also wrote soaring rhetoric against slavery--hence the book's celebratory subtitle. But Mr. Williams also reminds us that, had Greeley been left to his own devices, the Confederacy might still be in existence.

It was in 1841 that Greeley founded, in the Tribune, the newspaper that would make him what Mr. Williams calls the "most famous editor in America before the Civil War." He brought in as managing editor Charles Dana, who ran the Tribune in New York while Greeley traveled and played politics in Washington.

The way journalism was conducted in those days would not pass muster at J-schools today, as Mr. Williams's account makes clear. During the ordeals of bleeding Kansas in the mid-1850s, for instance, Greeley, Dana and the Tribune helped organize an emigrant-aid society to underwrite the settling of anti-slavery voters into that tortured territory. The paper sent rifles to the settlers, and Greeley even helped purchase and send a howitzer.

Despite the Tribune's militancy on the Kansas question, Greeley, often away from the office, displayed a tendency toward appeasement. He was constantly complaining about Dana's "radicalism," fearing that a strong anti-slavery position toward Kansas risked losing the Southerners among the Tribune's national readership. Mr. Williams quotes Greeley writing from Washington in 1856 to warn Dana against "plotting treason and inciting insurrection." There was a maddening inconsistency about Greeley, who had sided with Stephen Douglas in the late 1850s but sat approvingly with Lincoln on the platform at Cooper Union in New York when Lincoln gave his famous 1860 speech against slavery and dividing the nation.

Before Fort Sumter, Greeley's newspaper was prepared to accept the secession of Southern states, on the grounds that it was disinclined to war. Once war was declared, though, Greeley became an "instant supporter," as Mr. Williams puts it. "When President Lincoln called up seventy-five thousand state militiamen, Greeley called for five hundred thousand." Yet when the fighting proved rough, Greeley began wringing his hands like a veritable John Kerry. Mr. Williams thinks it "fairly likely" that, after the rout of Union forces at the first battle of Bull Run, Greeley suffered a nervous breakdown.

Eventually Greeley fired Charles Dana. Dana believed that he was fired, according to Mr. Williams, "because he was too much in favor of the Union war effort, whereas Greeley continued to seek peace at virtually any price and to focus on emancipation." Lincoln turned around and made Dana assistant secretary of war and sent him to ride with Ulysses Grant. Dana was in the field as the war ground on and the country came down with what Mr. Williams calls a "war weariness" on both sides.
By the summer of 1864, Mr. Williams writes, "the time was right for a peace settlement to become a national political issue, to divide the Republican Party, and perhaps to overturn the Lincoln administration." When a political schemer named George Sanders beckoned the hapless editor of the Tribune to help arrange safe passage for Confederate agents to Washington, Greeley "took the bait." It was Greeley at his most despicable. At one point Lincoln likened Greeley to "an old shoe--good for nothing new, whatever he has been."

Greeley's reputation never really recovered from what some saw as a flirtation with treason. In mid-April 1865, with the war all but over, Greeley nonetheless wrote an anti-Lincoln editorial and was preparing to run it, Mr. Williams writes, "on the very night that Lincoln was shot." The editorial was never printed.

In the war's aftermath, Greeley, acting out of what Mr. Williams labels a "sense of Christian charity and fairness," spent a good bit of his dwindling political capital trying to raise bail for Jefferson Davis. Mr. Williams quotes President Johnson, Lincoln's successor, as calling Greeley "a sublime child . . . heart and no head . . . like a whale ashore."

Dana came out of the war covered with glory, eventually purchasing the New York Sun and going into the postwar years urging honest government and supply-side measures for national recovery. Dana--apparently the possessor of a long memory and a sense of humor--got what amounted to backhanded revenge on his former boss by putting Greeley's name forth for all sorts of public offices and eventually even for president.

Though Dana might have proposed a President Greeley as a joke, Greeley himself took the idea quite seriously, as did others. Indeed, he became the first candidate to be nominated by two major parties--the Liberal Republicans and the Democrats--in the same election. Even so, he went down to ignominious defeat in 1872 in the landslide that gained Grant a second term. Greeley died shortly thereafter.

To those who say Vietnam is the war Iraq resembles, I say study the chapters in this volume in which Greeley loses his nerve in the middle of the fight. They remind us that ours is not the first time that the press has become a venue for a clash of cultures and values in the midst of war. When it comes to even the most famous and eloquent of editors, the last laugh may belong to the pigeons.

Mr. Lipsky is the editor of the New York Sun. You can buy "Horace Greeley" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.

Copyright © 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

"The law isn't justice. It's a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be." - Raymond Chandler

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Post by RebLem » Sun May 28, 2006 10:35 pm

Interesting story.

As one of my high school history teachers used to say, "Horace Greeley was the man who said, 'Go west, young man, go west.' but he stayed back east and got rich."

Of course, the men who settled the west seldom got rich. The people who really got rich were the mostly German immigrant outfitters in Missouri who sold them the supplies they needed for the journey west.
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Post by Ralph » Sun May 28, 2006 10:47 pm

Greeley's treatment of his daughter was brutal and by today's standards would warrant removal of the child.

New York City was rife with Copperheads during the Civil War, including the mayor.

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Post by Auntie Lynn » Sun May 28, 2006 10:57 pm

And if you go west, young man, make sure you bring lots of money and take public transportation...otherwise, welcome...

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Post by jbuck919 » Mon May 29, 2006 12:54 am

RebLem wrote:Interesting story.

As one of my high school history teachers used to say, "Horace Greeley was the man who said, 'Go west, young man, go west.' but he stayed back east and got rich."

Of course, the men who settled the west seldom got rich. The people who really got rich were the mostly German immigrant outfitters in Missouri who sold them the supplies they needed for the journey west.
Especially the beer.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach


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