Horace Greeley: The National Newsman

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1831, young Horace Greeley, devoid of money but bubbling with ambition, arrived in New York as a journeyman printer. Ten years later he established the New-York Tribune as a mass circulation penny paper with a distinctive tone of civic rectitude and moral exhortation. The enterprise succeeded spectacularly, and Greeley became the most influential newspaperman of his time, with legions of followers who loved his rough-hewn eloquence and political fervor. In denigrating President Martin Van Buren as he sought re-election, Greeley wrote: “Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous Atheist and an enemy of Marriage, Morality, and Social Order, there you may be certain of one vote for Van Buren.”

But at the dusk of his career, after a failed bid for the U.S. presidency and decades of high-dudgeon commentary, Greeley became almost a figure of fun for his many critics and adversaries, who shook their heads at the wild fluctuations of his pronouncements, which were usually suffused with sanctimony.

Abraham Lincoln, after sparring with Greeley for years, likened him in 1864 to “an old shoe—good for nothing now, whatever he has been.” Less than a decade later, Greeley himself, near life’s end, perceived his own ultimate failure. “I stand naked before my God,” he declared with poignant hyperbole, “the most utterly, hopelessly wretched and undone of all who ever lived.”

In “Horace Greeley: Print, Politics, and the Failure of American Nationhood,” James M. Lundberg, a history professor at Notre Dame, traces Greeley’s struggles with the vicissitudes of U.S. history during his lifetime, from the anguish induced by James Polk’s Mexican War to the tensions of Reconstruction.

. . . .

He was born in 1811, the son of a failed New Hampshire farmer. At 15, he left home to begin his printing career with a Vermont apprenticeship. When he got to New York five years later, he found plenty of work: The city boasted some 47 newspapers, 11 of them dailies. And a revolution was in the works. The advent of steam-powered printing presses made possible the distribution of more newspapers to more readers than ever before. Benjamin Day reached a broad readership by selling his Sun newspaper for a mere penny, compared with the normal six cents. Ordinary folks snapped them up.

But Day trafficked in trivia, mere news tidbits designed to titillate and amuse. James Gordon Bennett, in 1835, went a step further with his New-York Herald, featuring serious reporting from city hall, the docks, the financial sector and the city’s teeming streets. The modern newspaper was born.

Greeley watched these developments as editor of a low-circulation weekly called New-Yorker and during stints in political journalism promoting the statewide career of William Seward and the 1840 presidential candidacy of William Henry Harrison. Then he plunged into the high-circulation game with his own singular concept. He would avoid sensationalism and cheap entertainment and craft his new Tribune for the lofty purpose of uplifting the citizenry.

It was a quixotic notion, but Greeley, a lifelong captive of gauzy thinking, felt convinced that he could transform society and harmonize America through the idealism of Henry Clay’s Whig Party, devoted to fostering American greatness through federal projects and programs such as high tariffs and public works. “I see no reason,” he once said, “why the wildest dreams of the fanatical believer in Human Progress and Perfectibility may not ultimately be realized.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)