Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Horace Greeley

In the history of journalism, Horace Greeley must, for all time, hold a position in the front rank. As it is well-known he is a self-made man, being born of poor parents at Amherst, New Hampshire, on the 3rd day of February, 1811. His father was a farmer. The Greeley ancestors enjoyed a reputation for ‘tenacity,’ which was clearly shown in the pale-faced, flaxen-haired but precocious lad of fifteen, who presented himself and was employed at the office of the Northern Spectator, at Poultney, Vermont, in 1826; having walked from West Haven, his home, eleven miles distant. He was to remain an apprentice until twenty, and received in money the princely sum of forty dollars a year ‘with which to buy clothes and what was left he might use for spending money.’ Why he lived to found a great paper the reader can easily guess, when it is learned thatGreeley used the greater part of said forty dollars each year for buying books.

He joined a local debating club where he became the ‘giant’ member, a tribute paid to his intellect. Most of the members were older than Greeley, but knowledge proved a power in that society and he was invariably listened to with marked attention despite his shabby appearance. Especially was he fond of political data; he followed the exchanges in the Spectator office with increasing interest. His parents removed to Pennsylvania, where he visited them during his apprenticeship as “printers’ devil,” and general assistant at Poultney, walking the most of the way, a distance of about 600 miles. The Spectator having collapsed, young Greeley, with his entire wardrobe done up in a handkerchief, once more visits Pennsylvania, but not to remain idle; he soon obtained a place in a printing office near his home, at eleven dollars per month, and later still he obtains employment at Erie where he receives fifteen dollars per month. Soon after this, not yet content, he is enroute for New York, where he arrived August 17, 1831.

His appearance in the metropolis was ludicrous in the extreme. One can imagine from accounts given of him how prepossessing he must have looked; flaxen locks, blue eyes, his hat on the back of his head as if accustomed to star gazing, must have given him the appearance of one decidedly ‘green,’ to say the least. As is a noted fact he was, to his death, exceedingly indifferent as to his dress and what are known as the social demands of society. Indeed he could be seen on the street almost any day with his pockets stuffed full of papers, his hat pushed back on his head like a sailor about to ascend the rigging, his spectacles seemingly about to slip off his nose, his boot heels running over, and we doubt not that he was as likely to have one leg of his pantaloons tucked into his boot top while the other was condescendingly allowed to retain its proper place. In fact it is hardly probable that he would have impressed any one with the idea that he was indeed a great editor of that city. But we return to his first visit; office after office was visited without avail but that hereditary ‘tenacity’ did not forsake him, and at last he met an old friend, a Mr. Jones whom he had first met in Poultney. This friend, although not a ‘boss,’ printer fashion set him at work on his own case. When the proprietor came in he was dumbfounded at the specimen of a printer he beheld, and declared to the foreman that he could not keep him. Fortunately, however, for young Greeley, the job that he was on was setting small type,—a most undesirable one. The foreman shrewdly suggested that as Jones, who was a good workman, knew him it would be a good policy to wait and see the result. As it was a very difficult job no wonder that Greeley’s proof looked as though it had the measles, but as he was retained he must have done as well if not better than was expected. When the job was finished he was thrown out of employment, and he shifted about for some time doing odd jobs; in fact it must have been very discouraging, but finally he obtained employment on the Spirit of the Times, and afterward formed a business partnership with Mr. Story who, with Mr. Greeley, invested about $240. They established a penny paper, and were moderately successful, but Mr. Story was drowned and his place was filled by another. His connection with the New Yorker was his next business venture. While on this paper he was also editor of a paper in Albany, and a regular contributor to the Daily Whig. When we think that he gave himself only four hours sleep out of the twenty-four, we can realize how he could find time to edit two papers and write for the third, but despite this assiduousness his enterprise failed and he thereby lost $10,000.

Greeley’s opinion on economy was clearly defined when he said: “For my own part, and I speak from sad experience, I would rather be a convict in States Prison or a slave in a rice swamp, than to pass through life under the harrow of debt. If you have but fifty cents and can get no more for the week, buy a peck of corn, parch it, and live on it rather than owe any man a dollar.” He next started the Log Cabin. It was started in the beginning of 1840, designed to be run six months and then discontinued. Into this undertaking Horace Greeley threw all his energy and ability, guided by his experience. In those days a journal with a circulation of ten thousand was a big concern. When an edition of nearly fifty thousand of its first issue was called for, the publishers were beside themselves, and later when the Log Cabin ran up a circulation of eighty and even ninety thousand, the proprietors were frantic as to how they should get them printed. It is needless to say that the Log Cabin outlived its original expectations.

Ultimately the Log Cabin and the New Yorker were merged into the New York Tribune. As is a recognized fact, Greeley was stronger in a fight than in peace, and the attacks which this new enterprise received soon run its circulation from the hundreds into the thousands. Of course new presses had to be bought and Greeley, who by the way preferred to discuss the financial policy of a great nation than that of his own office, soon found himself obliged to get a business man as a partner. He was exceedingly fortunate in securing Mr. Thomas McElrath, who soon brought order from chaos, and the Tribune became not only an ably conducted paper but a paying one as well.

Mr. Greeley next became a lecturer, and in this field he was also fairly successful. He traveled in Europe and wrote such books as “Hints About Reform,” “Glances at Europe,” “History of the Slavery Extension,” “Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco,” “The American Conflict,” “Recollections of a Busy Life,” “Essays on Political Economy,” and just before his death, “What I Know About Farming.”

While Mr. Greeley must ever be regarded among journalists as one of their brightest stars; he was one of the most peculiar writers it has ever been our pleasure to read. In fact he must be regarded as a kind of literary gymnast. While conducting a political paper he at one time devoted page after page to the theory of reorganizing society after the plan of Fourier; that is to divide society up into small communities to live in common. After wearying the readers on this and numerous other ‘isms,’ it was discontinued. He went into a political frenzy over Clay and protection; next his paper was full of the ‘Irish Repeal,’ ‘Advocacy of the Water Cure,’ ‘Phrenology,’ ‘Mesmerism,’ ‘Opposition to Capital Punishment,’ ‘Trinitarianism’ and the ‘Drama.’

He was finally elected to Congress to fill an unexpired term. While here he caused some amusement by his eccentricities. He refused to sit up at night sessions, abruptly leaving when his hour for retiring arrived. Possibly his letter addressed to the managers of his party in his State was one of the greatest surprises that he ever sprung upon the country. It was addressed to Mr. Seward personally, but upon mention being made of it by that gentlemen’s friends, it was made public by Greeley’s demand. It ran something as follows: “The election is over, and its results sufficiently ascertained. It seems to me a fitting time to announce to you the dissolution of the political firm of Seward, Weed and Greeley by the withdrawal of the junior partner, said withdrawal to take effect on the morning after the first Tuesday in February next. I was a poor young printer, and editor of a literary journal—a very active and bitter Whig in a small way, but not seeking to be known outside of my own ward committee. I was one day called to the City Hotel where two strangers introduced themselves as Thurlow Weed and Lewis Benedict, of Albany. They told me that a cheap campaign paper of peculiar stamp at Albany had been resolved on, and that I had been selected to edit it. I did the work required to the best of my ability. It was work that made no figure and created no sensation; but I loved it and I did it well.”

“When it was done you were Governor; dispensing offices worth three to twenty thousand to your friends and compatriots, and I returned to my garret and my crust and my desperate battle with pecuniary obligations heaped upon me by bad partners in business and the disastrous events of 1837. I believe it did not occur to me then that some one of these abundant places might have been offered to me without injustice. I now think it should have occurred to you. In the Harrison campaign of 1840 I was again designated to edit a campaign paper. I published it as well and hence ought to have made something out of it despite its low price. My extreme poverty was the main reason why I did not.”

“Now came the great scramble of the swell mob of coon minstrels and cider suckers at Washington, I not being counted in. I asked nothing, expected nothing, but you Governor Seward ought to have asked that I be Post Master at New York.”

When the Republicans met at Chicago he ‘paid’ Mr. Seward off by checkmating his chances of the nomination, and placing Lincoln at the head of the ticket. Mr. Greeley had always been an uncompromising opponent of slavery, and once had all but asked for the impeachment of Buchanan, hence the South expected little sympathy from him; yet, this great editor dismays his friends while his enemies are dumbfounded when they read, “Let the South go,” but no sooner do the ‘erring sisters’ act upon his suggestion than this political ranchman is out with his literary lasso vainly trying to keep them in. He next raises the war-whoop of “On to Richmond,” and thereby aids in precipitating the terrible disaster of Bull Run. Time goes on—the Union cause looks gloomy enough—all seems lost; yet, when once more the nation needs his powerful support he rushes off to Canada unauthorized, to negotiate a treaty with Southern Envoys which, to say the least, would have been disgraceful to the Union Government. When the cause is won he flees to Washington to sign the bail-bond of the arch traitor, and is thus instrumental in his release from justice. Yet, for all this the Tribune prospered.

He was regarded by many of his readers as a kind of moral law-giver, and if, per chance, one person journeyed to New York and returned to state that their beau ideal had used undue profanity in his common conversation, the indiscrete individual was ostracised.

If Mr. Greeley’s previous career had surprised the country and disappointed some of his friends, it remained for the last political act of his life to completely paralyze the country at large, and plunge some of his most ardent supporters into the deepest gloom. This was when they beheld him the nominee of Republicans, ‘who were anything to elect Greeley,’ and endorsed by Free Traders and Democrats whom he had so bitterly denounced all his life. Had he been nominated by the straight Republican party it might have been considered as a somewhat extravagant reward for party service for this position could not have been regarded otherwise than consistent; but the position he now assumed was inconsistent, not to say ludicrous. The result was he carried only six States against the successful Grant.

He was a Universalist in belief, but educated his daughters at a Catholic school. He refused to get his brother, who actually needed assistance, a position worth perhaps $1,000 a year; yet, he could lend Corneel. Vanderbilt about eight hundred thousand dollars without security. His early friend, Mr. Jones, once sent a friend to him bearing a note requesting Greeley’s aid to a subordinate position in the custom-house. No sooner had Greeley glanced it over than he astonished the gentleman, who was aware of Mr. Greeley’s early obligation to Mr. Jones, by the volley of oaths and vituperation which he heaped upon him because he did not go West instead of hanging around there seeking office. No wonder the gentleman, who was a reputable middle-aged man, fled from the presence of this famous expounder of ‘Moral Ideas.’ However, when all this has been said we cannot help but admit that a great and good man died on December 29th, 1872. Certain it is that Journalism lost one of its brightest and most successful stars.